Profitable OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHY, using different tools for different Times!

Outdoor photography has always been a popular choice, but now with many photographers not having a studio to work from, outdoor is the mainstay for many.  This makes outdoor photography a hot topic and presents a good opportunity for those that can provide high quality Studio Portraiture.  I get many emails and messages on my blog and Facebook concerning the type of lighting I use outdoors.  Photographers teach about outdoor lighting tend to teach only one method, giving the illusion that this is the best way to take outdoor portraits.  The truth is the tools you use change as the light throughout the day changes.

Using flash outdoors is the only tool I rarely use, so rarely, you can say almost never.  If I did weddings, I would use flash just because you have to work quickly, but I don’t do weddings so there you go!  When I have a large families outdoors with small children that are very active, I bring out studio lighting and balance that with the natural light, I NEVER USE AN ON-CAMERA FLASH-EVER!  An on camera flash is not a professional quality light source for the size of outdoor portraits I want to sell.  If you disagree, what would you tell me if I gave you an on-camera flash to light a studio portrait?  You would say it isn’t a professional quality light source for a professional STUDIO portrait and you would insist on using studio lighting.  If it isn’t good enough for the studio, it’s not good enough for outdoor portraiture either.  Ease and laziness don’t make it a good choice!

When I first learned about outdoor lighting many years ago, I was taught you had to go out just before sunrise or at sunset.  With the sun at the horizon it filters through the atmosphere and provides a beautiful main light source.  The use of this “sweet light” is what I call an “educated idea”.  Because people who think they are educated, sitting and thinking rather than owning a business and working with paying clients come up with such boneheaded suggestion that young photographer like I was think they must do.  While the paid model at the class, conference or seminar might wake up at 4am to get ready for a session not too many paying clients will!  Good in theory, but the idea has no legs in business!

Not to mention, this “sweet light” only lasts long enough for one session to be done.  The cost of Travel to and from the location must be covered by one sale!  This is why professional studio photographers in today’s economy are getting literally killed by the untrained masses of new photographers like Newfus (WATCH THE NEWFUS VIDEO ON FACEBOOK IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHO HE IS click here)!  Professional photographers have always taken portraits at ideal times, (with one client and very high sitting fees to offset the travel costs) while newer photographers only work at these outdoor locations and often don’t charge a sitting fee at all!  While most clients can understand the difference between professional quality portraits and the snapshot that Newfus and his friends create, they stop and think twice when the studio they want to go to charges $300 for an outdoor session and another guy doesn’t charge anything at all!  Even the best clients will think long and hard about that kind of difference.

Now, moving later into the day, after the sweet light is over you have the early morning or very late afternoon light, which is softer than mid-day light and easier to work with because of the long shadows created by trees, buildings an any obstructions.  At this time of day the light isn’t perfect, but with the long shadows, using the open sky as a main-light source works quite well.  This is the ideal time for natural-modified light.  Natural light is hardly ever perfect light at this time of day.  The light from overhead is the same intensity the light you are using as the main light, so the light from overhead must be block by a tree limb or gobo (when blocking light from overhead I don’t typically use black, because it will darken the hair if placed close to the top of the head).  At this time of day the open sky often will provide a main light source that is too large and lacks directions, so a black panel will be needed  to create a shadow.

The two major obstacles to overcome is learning to see this delicate natural light and it’s direction, as well as the need to color balance your camera often.  If you use the open sky as your main light source and a grove of green trees is reflecting light back into the shadow side of the face, don’t you have blue light on the face and green light in the shadow?  How can a camera compensate for both blue and green?  It can’t!  You white balance for the main light source and clean up any color in the shadows when retouching.

Now we have the mid-day lighting, this is my Domain.  I wrote my first book on Outdoor Portraiture and working  with outdoor lighting throughout the day 15 years ago, I guess I was ahead of my time!  This time of day is brutal, it hot, hard to find beautiful backgrounds and you must add light as a main light source to balance the intensity of light on the subject with the brighter backgrounds during this time of day.  With all that said, it works the best for paying clients and since they are the client,  I learned how to make it work.

During this time of day you have to bring in light for a main-light source to use the mid-day backgrounds to have any variety in the scene or area you can work.  While there are many options for this main light source the two most used are flash and reflector.  Flash is crap.  I am very good at balancing flash with the natural light, but I can always tell any portrait that flash was used in.  Again using it for weddings and families with children is a good choice, for quality outdoor portraits it is not a natural looking choices, especially when the facial size is larger and you can see the effects of the lighting you used on the face.  Have you ever wondered why photographers/speakers that use flash outdoor, (especially on-camera flash )show full length, scenic images, with a very small facial size?  It’s so you can’t see how bad the lighting on the face really is!

Reflectors make the most sense, provided you learn to feather the main beam of light off you subject and use the softer edge of the light beam.  Simple process, pose the subject with their back to the sun.  Have an assistant stand where the main-light would be placed in the studio, with the reflector at the approx. height as the main light would be.  Have them direct the main beam of light over the top of the head of your subject, then slowly start to lower it.  When you start to see two distinct catch-lights in the eyes at the 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position, stop, you are done, you have achieved a main light source!

The best part about learning to work with the light as it changes throughout the day is that you can set up an entire day, morning or afternoon at one location with one client showing up after another just like working in the studio.  Since you have multiple clients you can lower your sitting fee to be more competitive.  We basically charge the same for an outdoor session as we do a studio session and this is why we do so many outdoor sessions.  Outdoor portraits typically have a higher sales average than those in the studio, so you can’t lose.  With a lower sitting fee you give more clients a reason to choose you, a professional over Newfus and his friends that don’t charge a sitting fee!

When times were good we could listen to the speakers that kept telling us to raise our prices and work with the boutique clients.  Those days are gone and aren’t coming back for a while, so you had better focus on the business of photography and realize how much today’s client is willing to spend, especially on the session.  I would much rather have a lower sitting fee and sell them once they see the images I have created, than trying to sell the a $300 session while they are looking at a mailer!  This is a very long post today, but it is Saturday, I have had too much coffee and I have a lot to say!

Every time I do a post about price I receive the question about qualification of client as to how much they will spend.  Qualification is an important part of the process of doing business. You don’t want to work for people who can not afford what you charge, it is a waste of time for you and not fair to them.  However, when most of the clients that used to throw money (I mean plastic) around like they had a money tree in the backyard, are now living in an apartment, driving a used car, you have to go back to the basics of business.  While you want people to know what your minimum package or portrait order is, you can’t sell $1,500 worth of portraits over the phone.  There are still people who will spend that kind of money, but selling in this economy is a step by step process and having clients to photograph and sell portraits to is a little more important that trying to qualify each client as a $1000 customer!


~ by jeffsmithbooks on July 24, 2010.

One Response to “Profitable OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHY, using different tools for different Times!”

  1. Jeff, Great post! So very true about light in outdoor portraits. I like the reflector technique. Have some more coffee and write another post 😉

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