How To Create Dramatic Daylight Portraits In The Great Outdoors
I don’t often get a chance to shoot editorial-style, commercial portrait images. Instead, most of my time behind the camera is dedicated to photographing weddings. Recently, however, I traveled to Alaska for Profoto Alaska, a conference at which Profoto announced their new B10 off-camera flash head. The conference allowed us to get a first look at the new light with a hands-on experience.
On day two of the conference, Profoto set up several stations at different locations just outside of Anchorage. Each station featured models for us to photograph using the new B10. I arrived early at one of these stations and met Brian McGorry, the model I’d soon be working with (and who is featured in the images in this article). Because I had arrived early, I had a chance to photograph whatever I wanted. I set a goal to create a two to three-shot series that featured Brian, as well as his dog, Fundy, and the Alaskan environment.
I’m going to walk you through how I created each of these images in the article below. I’ve also compiled a gear list for you with alternative lighting options for various budgets.
- Profoto B10 OCF Flash Head (or substitute below)
- Substitute 1 to 1.5x: Godox AD200 TTL Pocket Flash
- Substitute 5x: Yongnuo Speedlight YN600EX-RTII or other flashes
- Profoto OCF Beauty Dish (or substitute below)
- Substitute: MagMod MagBox
- Substitute: Westcott Switch Beauty Dish
Camera & Lens
Setting Up For The Shoot
When I arrived at the scene I wanted to scout the location. I love scouting, but I knew my time was limited. I put my camera down and walked along the lakefront where I saw the reflection of the trees on the water. I also saw the tram in the background and the sun coming up and over the hill. To me, these elements screamed “unique” location. They may not scream Alaska, but they represent something different than the scenery I’m used to.
To kick things off, I decided to start with a basic headshot. Sort of.
Shot #1: The Headshot
For the headshot, the process was quite simple. As is true in most of my shoots, I started with the background.
Step 1. Choose the Background
I chose to use the trees reflecting in the water as my background and I took the photo above. In the image, you can see that the pine trees extend down farther on the left and the right, leaving an open space for Brian’s head right in the middle of the frame. With my framing dialed in, I needed to set my exposure for the background.
Step 2. Expose for the Background
In the above image, you can see that the exposure for the background has been pulled down dramatically. Once I determined my background settings, all I had to do is place my subject and add light to him.
Step 3. Pose the subject
As I mentioned in step one, I intended to place Brian in the middle of the frame with the reflection of the trees extending down on both sides. I kept the pose simple and directed Brian to look directly into the camera. In the image below, you can see what it looks like before and after we pull down the exposure.
Given how underexposed Brian is in the image, we need to add light. A lot of light.
Step 4. Add Light
To light Brian, we positioned the Profoto B10 as a butterfly light directly above his head firing at about 1/4th power using the Profoto OCF Beauty Dish.
Can you do this with any flash? Absolutely. I love using Profoto gear, but in capturing this image, the light will be mostly the same, regardless of what piece of gear you’re using.
For those not using a Profoto B10, know this. On a B10, 1/4th power is equivalent to about 50-60 watt seconds. This means you can get the same amount of light that I needed for this image using a standard flash at full power.
Here is the final headshot:
Study #2: The Hero Shot
For the hero shot, I chose a different composition. There are several things happening within this frame. We have a leading line from the tram that leads the viewer’s eye into Brian. At the same time, Brian is facing camera left rather than directly toward the camera to add a bit of grandeur to the image. It’s not something that I normally do, but in this instance, it made sense.
Step 1: Choose Camera Angle
I took a low angle to give Brian a sense of presence in the shot. I also wanted to capture the pine trees and highlight the tram going up the mountain, which leads nicely back into Brian. The low angle allowed me to capture all of these elements.
Step 2: Expose for the Background
After I established my composition, all I needed to do was dial in my exposure settings for the background. Like the headshot, I chose to darken the background for dramatic effect.
Step 3: Place the Subject in Front of the Sun
When I positioned Brian within the frame, I placed him directly over the sun. The sun is the brightest place in the frame and I’ve placed it right behind his head. This does a couple things. First, it creates a natural vignette that automatically pulls the viewer’s eye into Brian. Also, the sunlight creates a perfect rim light, which you can see highlights Brian’s arms and shoulders, and it fantastically brings out his amazing beard.
Step 4: Add Light
To light Brian, I placed the Profoto B10 camera left at full power with an OCF Beauty Dish. The light is actually placed just to the left and behind Brian to create a slight shadow and add dimension to his face. If the light were placed directly to the left, his nose wouldn’t be in shadow as you see in the image above.
Step 5: Pose the Subject
As I mentioned earlier, Brian is facing camera left rather than directly toward the camera to give the image an epic, heroic feeling.
Here is the final hero shot:
Study #3: The Adventure Shot
Finally, we have our adventure shot with Brian and his dog, Fundy.
Step 1: Choose Camera Angle
For this image, I positioned the camera very low to the ground to once again give Brian presence and strength in the frame. I wanted this image to focus on Brian, the adventurous mountain man, as well as the trusty companion by his side.
Step 2: Expose for the Background
When the scene is exposed for natural light, it loses its editorial punch. I chose to darken the exposure for dramatic effect. Below, you can see another angle. This image is unedited, straight out of camera, to show exposure and dynamic range.
Step 3: Position The Subject in Front of the Sun
Brian is once again the center of attention because I’ve placed him directly in front of the sun, which creates a natural vignette and highlight. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the brightest point.
Step 4: Add Light
To light Brian, I used the same settings as the hero shot, but I chose to use a wider angle. In the top left corner of the image, you can see the Profoto B10, which was placed camera left at full power with OCF Beauty Dish.
Normally, I would shoot a plate shot and create a composite to remove the softbox. In this situation, however, time was extremely limited. I handheld the camera and saved time by not having to set up a tripod. Because the softbox is only visible over the clouds, I knew it would be easy to clone out in Photoshop using the content-aware fill tool.
Step 5: Pose the Subject(s)
You can see in the images above that Brian had been looking directly into the camera. In the final image, I asked Brian to look off to the side to once again create a sense of adventure. Fundy laid down at Brian’s side, and I used a ball to hold his attention.
Here is the final adventure shot:
This entire series of images was created in less than 10 minutes while I was waiting for everybody else to arrive at this location. A simple setup and quick planning can go a long way in creating dramatic outdoor portraits. Each of the images above illustrates the power of light and thoughtful composition.
As always, I’d love to hear what you guys think in the comments below.