Enviromental Portrait Lighting Techniques

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Using locations and available lighting to light subjects has become quite popular as of late. In fact more people actually use this type of photography than use a real portrait studio largely because of the cost factor that is involved in setting up a full fledged studio. The biggest problem that you will typically run in to here is to get enough light that you can adequately illuminate your subject and still manage to expose the shot in a manner that allows the environment to be captured as well.

You might ask why a portrait photographer might go out on location to do a portrait when he or she could use a studio. The answer is that if you want to tell a complete story in the way that it will capture the viewer with a complete story, sometimes adding in the element of the location or the environment is needed to be able to tell the whole store in one photograph. Remember that we don’t have the luxury of using a video to tell the story. It all has to happen in one frame. One single image will simply not be enough to do justice unless all is planned out precisely.

The biggest problem that you will run in to when you are doing a location shoot and are attempting to incorporate the place or environment that you are shooting into the final shot is that the lighting quite literally will be problematic at best and often can even totally suck. But with a little planning and foresight you can turn a poor situation into one that you can fairly easily manage and come out with some useable shots at the end of the day.

The environmental portion of the shot should tell an entire story by its self. It should also solidify the main person in the portrait and let you know all about them without the viewer ever having to do more than just look at the photo. It should work in concert with the person to tell a whole story.

The first mistake people do when they attempt an environmental portrait is to look for the perfect lighting in the location to make the shot. When in actuality they need to be looking at composing the shot and then figuring out how to make that lighting work. That is because the best lit portion of the environment might not be the one that best tells the story and makes is sellable, believable and viewable. You need to find the area that enhances what you are saying and then look at ways to make that lighting work to help you tell that story through the image. In short, you need to make the overall composition of the shot be the main priority. You certainly can’t simply ignore the lighting but once the composition and framing is I place we can address the lighting issues.

Let’s assume that you have found a place that actually tells the story and will make the shot phenomenal. You have set up the shot and the cropping is good and there are no distracting odds and ends in the background that would detract from the person’s attention on the main subject but then you notice that the light is annoyingly bright in one particular area.

There are times when you are doing this type of an environmental portrait when the lighting overhead may be way too overbearing or where this portion or that portion might be too dark to be of any use. You could use bounce flash but then you will likely kill the mood and there is a strong chance that the place where you are shooting may not let the photographer use flash of any kind.

The last option I will give you first. If there is no way to fix the bad lighting you might simply have to live with it in order to let the environment tell a good story. I am hoping that once we go over all the options that it will not be the option that you use, but sometimes it does happen that way. In that case you simply have to set your ISO high and go for the best shot you can get.

The first thing that you should do when faced with this situation is to stand up, breathe deeply and look around from the perspective of the camera  You might actually notice something by looking around the room and not using the lens, that you missed in the lens. There may be a slight angle change or some such scenario that you can get the same meaning from the environment and not have to settle for the bad lighting. Time is usually the deciding factor here in an environmental shoot. You can likely change any lighting problem and make a good shot if you have enough time.

The truth of the matter is that as you look over the scene there is likely one place where the shot is going to be pristine and exactly what you envision. However if the lighting doesn’t cut it then making an eve so slight change in the setup angle can be a good solution to the problem and give you a decent shot in the meantime.

If you are looking at this from an aesthetic standpoint, you will want to get the perfect shot from the perfect angel even if it means extra work to get the lighting correct. If you are looking at it from a commercial standpoint where money and a sellable photo is the end result, then it is important for you to be as fast as you can and a little change may not hurt the photo enough to make a difference. But keep in mind that every couple of inches that you move can drastically change the perspective of the shot so if you choose to move the camera, make sure that you fully re-evaluate the new setting for composition and content.

If time and budget permit and you have to have the shot from the exact location that you found initially, then the only real option is going to be to light up the entire area – if they will allow it – so that everything has ample and even illumination and that will tend to make things look more natural even if they are, in reality, far from natural. And this method will require a lot of expensive lighting that will need to be rented if the photographer doesn’t have it and that can really inflate the cost of the shoot.

There is the option of having every light that is available in the place where the shooting is going to take place turned on in some manner. This will occasionally work but the problem that you may run into here is that every one of those lights will likely be a different color temperature and when they are all on new shadows will appear and it doesn’t look very natural. In short, this is another one of those options that needs to remain near the last resort pile. In cases like this you can opt to put just a little lighting on the background and light the main subject or you can expose for the main subject and then leave the shutter open a bit longer to let more available light in to illuminate the background areas.

Remember too that when you are in situations like this where you are using natural environmental lighting; you can correct a multitude of sins by starting the whole process by adjusting your white balance to the color temperature of the room. You can turn a dank and darker looking scene that is rather plain into a lot more airy and brighter scene simply by adjusting the white balance and giving just a little slower shutter speed.

A lot of times when the overhead lighting is so strong it may tend to make the main subject shadowy and dark because you will usually adjust exposure for the points in the back ground. In situations like this you can have your assistant or assistants hold up one of your reflectors or some other material to manually block off the light that might be causing the problem coming in from above. This may correct the problem enough that the regular exposure may give you the shot that you are after with the ambient lighting or at the worst by using the shutter and having it stay open long enough to do what you are looking for.

This technique is something that you have more than likely seen if you have watched any documentary shows about the movie industry. They constantly block off overhead lighting and then use their own controlled fill lighting to get a natural look and still maintaining the environmentally true lighting of the scene in front of the camera. And while some photographers use a specially designed and rather heavy shield to cover the scene it can make moving them a problem and they are large and hard to handle for the folks helping you out. That is why I prefer to use my silver or gold reflector umbrella. I can stand mount it if I have to, if I should decide to use a bounce flash then I have a surface that I can bounce the light off to even out the illumination and give me more control over the light on the main subject without affecting the natural ambient lighting ion the rest of the scene.

Remember that blocking the affecting light from your subject is only about fifty percent of the battle. If you want the resulting shot to be as natural looking as it can be, you will need to add some light back into the shot so that the main subject is well lit and exposed properly.

If you choose to use a bounce or some other form of strobe to handle the lighting of your main subject here, it would be advantageous for you to get familiar with how to use the color filter kits that are available for most of these heads. This is important to you because you will want to get the color from the bounce or the strobe head to be as close as you can to the color temperature of the rest of the scene so that it looks normal and natural. There are times when having totally different color temperatures for the environment and the main subject can be a cool effect to use. But it is simply that, an effect and you don’t want to go there every time or your shots start to make you look as if you have not got a clue how to take a good photograph.

That pretty well covers it. You can invest in a color temperature meter if you are going to do a lot of these types of shoots. This is a lot like a light meter except that instead of telling you the exposure settings for your camera, it tells you the color temperature of the light and the flash or strobe as it is used so that you can make the appropriate adjustments in the filters that you are going to use on those heads to completely match the temperature in the room. After you do it a few time you will or at least you should be getting good enough to come pretty close to the right filter simply by a visual and maybe a test shot or two. If you have the spare cash, a color temperature meter is never a bad thing to have.

By now you should be fairly well versed in what you need to do in order to go out and take great environmental natural light photos without a lot of trouble. So stop reading this and get you camera and go give some of these theories a try while all of this information is still freshly instilled in your mind.

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