How To Light Your Portraits on Location

11 April 2022

As a portrait photography enthusiast, you will be no stranger to the notion that lighting can make or break a photograph. This is all well and good in a studio setting, where you have complete control over this parameter but what do you do when shooting on location when some things are out of your hands? Read on for how to improve your lighting for great portraits on location.

Make the most of what nature provides for you

We are talking, of course, about natural lighting, which is the light from the sun. It's no secret that natural light is among the most beautiful in appearance, which is why lots of artificial light sources aim to emulate this look. To make the most of the sun, we encourage you to avoid shooting in the middle of the day as this produces deep, dark shadows. 

How To Light Your Portraits on LocationHow To Light Your Portraits on Location

Also, learn how to use the sun's direction to your advantage. For example, during the golden hour, you can shoot with the sun at your back which will provide your subject with a warm and flattering quality of light. Conversely, shooting with the sun behind your subject allows you to experiment with using the sun as back-lighting or even producing silhouettes. Developing all of these skills gives you plenty of tools to work with when you are on the job.

Bring some simple but very effective tools along for the job

How To Light Your Portraits on LocationHow To Light Your Portraits on Location

Sometimes the obstacle, when you are working on location, is not so much a lack of light but the fact that it is not in the right places, which is why we mentioned understanding the direction of light above. Another thing that you can try to overcome this is to use some basic accessories to shape and direct the existing light, such as a reflector.

Reflectors are perfect for directing light so it falls exactly where you want it, which in the case of portraits is on your model, x. An example of when a reflector comes in handy is when you are shooting with the sun behind your subject, which generally results in your model being in shade. A reflector can bounce some of this light back at your model’s face, resulting in a more even exposure in the foreground and the background.

There are different types of reflectors that produce different results. Here is a brief outline:

White reflectors - The most versatile option

Silver reflectors - The strongest reflectors

Gold reflectors - Produces a warmer quality of light

Black reflectors - Absorbs rather than reflecting light. Best for reducing light in blown-out areas.

Browse our range of Reflectors

Blend natural and artificial light sources

With an understanding of how natural light works and affects your images, you can start to experiment with mixing it with artificial light sources; we are talking about flash or constant lighting equipment. If you need help deciding between the two we have a blog on the subject but basically, flash gear is more powerful and suitable for advanced lighting setups, while constant light sources are simpler to use and more budget-friendly.

As with reflectors, generally artificial flash gear is used on location to counteract the natural light source being overwhelming, or simply to prevent the face from being in shadow, which is often a problem when shooting in direct sunlight.

How To Light Your Portraits on LocationHow To Light Your Portraits on Location
How To Light Your Portraits on LocationHow To Light Your Portraits on Location

The basic technique to use with flash equipment on location is called fill lighting, which involves balancing the natural light source with light produced by your artificial light source, which is placed at opposing angles. Here are some pointers to help you get a handle on fill lighting:

  • Place your fill light at opposing angles to your key light, which is the sun in this case
  • Your fill light should be less powerful than your key light, with photographers generally discussing this in rations, such as 2:1, which would mean the key light is twice as strong as the fill light
  • A handheld incident light meter is the best for taking such measurements as discussed above
  • Consider using your flash or LED light off-camera, so you can play around more with positioning. As an example, you could place your subject with the sun at an angle behind them rather than directly behind and position your fill light accordingly
  • Also, consider multiple artificial lights. This may seem tricky but just remember that a fill light is generally just to life shadows and can be very subtle, so if you see an area that is a little dimmer than you’d like, add a second light or even a reflector
  • Take test images! Take advantage of your LCD screen and get your lighting setup perfect before you start worrying about capturing your perfect portrait

Take a look at some of our favourite lighting gear

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