FotoU: Understanding Outdoor Lighting

It’s a beautiful day, your kids are outside playing, and you are ready to snap some shots with your camera.  You fire off a few and get something that looks like this…


The subject is properly exposed but the background is completely white.

Your second attempt looks more like this…


The background is properly exposed and the subject is black.

For some reason, you cannot get your child AND your background to both have the right exposure.  Why?  Well…cameras can do some pretty cool things, but when it comes to balancing exposure between the subject and the background there are certain things that you must do in order to achieve that perfect balance.  Your camera does not have enough dynamic range for a good exposure when there is a large light difference between the subject and the background.  So…here are some helpful tips for solving the challenge of balancing exposure!

One way is to match your foreground and background lighting.  What I mean by this is if your subject is standing in the shade, make sure the background is also in the shade.  Or, if they are standing in full sunlight, make sure the background is also in the sunlight.  This will give you an even balance of light so there are no areas that are too dark or light.

Another option is to use a reflector to direct the light from the sun onto the subject.  As shown below, the photographer used a reflector to bounce light onto the face of the girl so that she was as bright as the background.

You can also try using a fill flash to balance your exposure.  (BTW, I HATE using a fill flash and only use it as a last resort because it makes the image look flat!)  Here is a shot without a fill flash.  As you can see the background has good exposure, however the subjects are dark.

Here is a shot using a fill flash; the background and the subjects are both evenly exposed.  (Have I mentioned that I hate using a fill-flash??)

The hard part about using available light is creating a correct ‘ratio’ of light on the subject.  A ratio is when one side of the face is lighter than the other.  When you create a ratio, you add dimension to the face and the person looks better!  Creating a ratio is tricky outdoors because light is bouncing everywhere.  The key is to make the light ‘directional.’  In other words, the light is coming from a single direction.  When indoors, this is easy to do by simply placing the person next to a window – as shown below on the left.  When outdoors, there are three important principles:

1.  Place the subject next to a ‘negative space.’  Negative space can be a wall, bushes, fence, etc – anything that will absorb light.  This will ensure that one side of the subject’s face is darker.

2.  On the other side, be sure that the subject can see open sky.  I’m not saying that sunlight should be hitting them on one side, I’m just saying that they should be able to see the sky on one side (away from the negative space).  This will ensure that one side of the subject’s face will be brighter.

3.  If possible, have something over the subject – tree limbs, a balcony, roof, etc.  This is important so that you don’t have open sky ABOVE the subject.  The problem with open sky above is that it will create shadows around the subjects eyes – making their eyes look sunken in.  In fact, we made a mistake with the picture of the girl below – there is open sky above her which is making her eyes look dark.

My preference is to always photograph portraits in the shade.  I feel like direct sunlight is too harsh.

I hope this article helps each of you take better portraits outdoors using available light.  Just realize that available light can be manipulated to create the effect you’re wanting.  Good luck and have fun!

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