Let me start off by saying one simple thing about working outdoors or on location, either learn to do it correctly or stay in the studio.  I am not arrogant enough to think I am the final authority on portraits taken on location (but after writing 3 books on the subject does put me in the top Fifty!) but I see so many photographers wandering around parks without a clue of want they are doing.  Rule 1, never, ever, use an ‘on camera’ flash for outdoor portraiture.  I have said it years, if you wouldn’t use a light source in the studio, why would you use it outdoors?  I see local photographers that are quite proficient in the studio completely clueless going from spot to spot paying no attention to the natural light and thinking that their little TTL on camera flash will make everything OK!  Don’t be an idiot!

 A professional flash and modifier doesn’t change when going from the studio to location.  If you use flash, which I don’t suggest, but on occasion use, you should use the same flash you use in the studio.  To use an ‘on-camera’ flash outdoors would be the same as a professional photographer leaving his Professional Camera in the studio and taking a point and shoot consumer camera outdoors, with his only defense being, “it’s easier!”  “Talk about convenience the flash is built-in and it meters for you!”

 Rule 2, you either work with natural light, being able to see it’s quality and direction or you use a light source to overpower the natural light, becoming the main light source, using the natural light as fill.  The idea of ‘fill flash’ is a bone-head concept from wedding photographers that think they can use their ‘on camera’ flash to fill the shadows of the natural light.  No one and I repeat no one is good enough at metering (no camera metering system is either) to fill in the delicate light that exists outdoors.  Professional flash is a tool to be used to overpower the existing light to have a better control over the light on your background.  I use flash often for photographing families during the middle of the day, which brings up rule number 3.

 Rule 3, 99% of paying clients won’t want to be photographed when the ideal outdoor light exists, right after sunrise and just before sunset.  This is another bone-head teaching of most photographers about working outdoors.  The thought of clients in our stressed out, over-worked, used to receiving excellent costumer service at the point of being pampered clients are going to get up before the sun rises or stay out after dark because you say the light is perfect at these times is unreasonable.  This is the reason that so many studios don’t photograph many clients outdoors,  the photographer only knows how to photograph at the times of ideal lighting, which in today’s world don’t work for the client.

 The second reason outdoor doesn’t work for most studios is they take a senior at dawn to a distant location and either they charge a small fortune for travel or they expect the order size will make up for the time in travel.  Neither idea works, if you charge a high sitting fee to cover travel, no one goes outdoor and realistically orders that include outdoor are higher, but not high enough to cover an hour of travel, which is most cases would be a minimum to and from the studio to a place worth using for photographs.

 We have always set up entire days at selected outdoor locations, which means I have had to learn to photograph at all times of day and just not the ideal times.  Seniors get the great outdoors for the same cost as a session inside the studio which means you have clients willing to go outside of the studio and you actually get to keep the additional profit from the higher sales of the outdoor session because there is no cost of travel.

 Rule number 4 you don’t need nor is it better to have an outdoor garden area.  So many photographers dream of the day when they are in a position to have an outdoor garden at their studio.  First of all, it is expensive to put in an outdoor garden of any size, a price that you will probably never recouped in your use of the outdoor area.  Second, unless you have a few acres in your background garden studio, it is hard to get the feeling of depth that is possible in a larger public park or natural outdoor area.  Most back yard gardens have limited depth and typically are only usable a certain time of day because they lack the size of trees necessary to provide shade at all time of day.  Some the crappiest outdoor portraits I have ever seen have come from good photographers that have tried to make their outdoor garden work for their sessions throughout the day.  It cost me $24 for a year pass to our local park which is 5 minutes from the studio, covers 160 acres of land with lakes, creeks and wooded areas that you can’t find in anyone’s backyard.

 I could easily fill many books on the subject of outdoor photography and the coordination of all the elements in the average scene to creating a certain look or style of portrait.  I feel the most important single factor in outdoor photography is learning how to photograph “Properly” at any time of day.  The two most important factors of dealing with outdoor photography during the mid-day hours that we all must work in is to learn how to modify the existing natural light to either be a main light source or a fill for the main light source.  The second element is finding usable backgrounds and learning to modify the mid-day backgrounds to make them usable for portrait sessions throughout the day.

 The concepts of lighting and background selection are going to be condensed for to fit into this chapter, for more information working outdoor look for my books Outdoor and Location Portrait Photography,  Jeff Smith’s Guide to Outdoor Lighting and Jeff Smith’s Guide to Outdoor Posing available from Amherst Media.  Working outdoors in the middle of the day, I look first look for pockets of shade to place the subject within.  Large tree and patio type structures being the most common.  Once I find the shaded area, my first concern is the light direction, which I have to be honest most of the time is completely wrong.  Working in the middle of the day, I always have the sun behind the subject, this illuminates the leaves of the trees and if the light does filter down to the subject it creates a hair/separation lighting on the subject.

 With light coming in from behind the client, I don’t need a natural main light source, I can create it, which is good because very seldom do you have the perfect lighting conditions where you must photograph during the middle of the day.   I use white/silver reflectors to create a main light source.  If you don’t use reflectors, you don’t know what you are missing.  Using flash outdoors is like shooting a gun blind-folded.  You can’t see the effects of the light from the flash unit on the subject and if you think the little preview on the back on the camera will help, forget it! 

 With a reflector, what you see is what you get.  Typically, I have my assistant stand in the same place I would position my main-light source in the studio.  Since the sun is at the subject’s back, he will simply find a sunny spot filtering through the trees.  We use the reflector at the same height as the main light would be placed, however outdoors the overviews can look deceiving.  You will often see the reflector resting on the ground, looking to reflect light upward, creating some kind of freakish, horror lighting.  The light is placed in relationship to the elevation of the client and the angle of the subject’s face.  When you see the reflector resting on the ground, the subject is either standing on higher ground than I am with the camera or she is lowering her face at a downward angle, so respectively the catch-lights will end up in the proper position in the eye.

 Working with reflectors requires some getting used to.  After a few days of working on the reflectors, most of my assistants get the hang of it and can easy control the light, while easily increasing or decreasing the amount of light on the subject.  You accomplish this control by learning to ‘feather’ the light.  Feathering is on of the “photographer words” that students have no idea what they are talking about.  Feathering is simply taking the main beam of light and directing it slight away from the subject and just using the softer light that is on the edge of the main beam. 

 To effectively use a reflector you simply find the main beam of light and aim it directly over the head or to the side of the subject.  The beam should start several feet away from the subject.   Then start bringing the beam of light closer to the subject until you have the quality and quantity of light you are looking for.  To know when the lighting is right, I use a simple technique, I have the beam of light move closer to the subject until I can first see bright catch-lights in the eyes of the subject from the camera position. At this point I have a usable main light source.

 Most of the images created in my books have used only one reflector and natural light to create the lighting.  Using reflectors is really isn’t that difficult.  Now being photographers, we like to complicate and “crap-up” most simple processes to make ourselves feel worthy, but really there is no need.  I and many other photographer have found it necessary to add additional reflectors to accent the hair or add to a highlight to the shadow side of darker skin and that is always an option, but in most cases if you can see the direction of light and the effects of the natural light on the subject it isn’t necessary.


~ by jeffsmithbooks on July 3, 2011.


  1. This post really tied up some loose ends for me on shooting outdoors. After reading this and watching your Outdoor DVD, I feel much more confident now shooting in mid-day sun… a real concern for me. I’m very fortunate to live in a secluded area right in the middle of the city county with huge trees, park benches, gardens, lakes, gazebo, trails, etc….just wish I had a beach :-). Using your techniques, I should be able to take full advantage of it all; even using a parent to sometimes hold the reflector. You haven’t talked about this, but I currently use a 6ft Westcott for full body and their smaller silver Illuminator for head and shoulders. I may also use the sunlight side for a little extra warmth… curious if you ever do that. Both are collapsible. Those two reflectors and a small stepladder usually does it. Thanks again for another awesome post.

  2. Curious on how to light with reflectors when you dont have an assistant. I have used a parent to hold a reflector when shooting a child but there are times when I want to illuminate the whole family.
    A couple of questions: Do you have any suggestions on how to do this with a group of 4-5 people? Would you ever use a reflector that stands on its own? I really don’t like the idea of using stands with how quickly the sun moves!

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