Subtractive Lighting – The Secret to Outdoor Portraits

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Everyone struggles with outdoor portraits. Every once in a while, the light is perfect, but all too often either the sun is shining into your subject’s eyes, or it’s flaring your lens, or it’s directly overhead causing unappealing shadows, or maybe it’s hiding behind dark clouds and making everything look flat and dismal. Problems, problems, problems.

Most people use one of two standard responses to difficult outdoor lighting situations: either they use a reflector to bounce light where they want it, or they use a portable strobe to add light. The common denominator is, of course, ADDING light. If you’re working outside on a bright day, that’s a lot of light. It’ll probably make your subject squint, and feel uncomfortable, and it also probably won’t even look that good.

I prefer a different approach. Instead of ADDING light, I SUBTRACT light. This approach works equally well for either video or photography.

Take a look at this example. I was filming student testimonials for a college promotional video. This particular testimonial was scheduled for around 1 p.m. The sun was almost directly overhead. Look at the way the student’s forehead, nose, and hair are glowing, while her eyes and lower face are in shadow. If you’ve done much shooting outside, you’ll be familiar with this look.

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Rather than try to “bounce light in from underneath,” which never works the way it’s supposed to, I simply set up a 60″ umbrella on a stand, to cast shade over her. This way, she’s not being DIRECTLY illuminated by the light bearing directly down on her, but INDIRECTLY illuminated by the light bouncing off the environment around her. As you can see, the lighting still looks very natural, but it’s much more flattering, and it even brings the tones of her hair and skin into the same range as the background, giving me a shot with plenty of detail and no blown-out highlights or gloomy shadows.

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A few days later, I used a similar setup for a corporate photo shoot. The umbrella I use is convertible; it is made of a white material designed to diffuse light, but it comes with a removable outer layer which is completely opaque black. (You can even get a larger, 84″ umbrella kit that’s specifically designed for this purpose.) For the student testimonial, I had used the umbrella with the black layer attached, to really knock out the overhead light, but for these photos, I used the umbrella with just the white layer. It looked like this. Notice how it turns into its own light source, when the sun shines on it. (It was a little breezy out, and I had no sandbags with me, so I used extension cords to weight down the stand. It still blew over a couple of times, so I strongly recommend investing in a couple of sandbags.)

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The results speak for themselves. These (and the photo at the beginning of this post) were taken outside, around noon, on a sunny day. You will NEVER get this kind of soft, flattering lighting by adding strobes and reflectors to a scene. You can only get it by subtracting light.

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  18 comments for “Subtractive Lighting – The Secret to Outdoor Portraits

  1. October 7, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Good stuff Alex. Thank you for sharing.

    • amani
      November 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm

      This stuff is pretty good i should known before for using in my wedding shoot

  2. Karey Heyward
    October 9, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    AWESOME information. will be adding this to my arsenal of knowledge. Where would I get an umbrella like that from?

    • Alexander
      October 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      Thanks! Here’s a link to the umbrella I use: 60″ Convertible Umbrella

      I might be investing in a larger one, designed for this type of work. I only recently found out about this product: Photek Lightbuster

  3. October 15, 2013 at 4:37 am

    Awesome tip! No batteries required either.

  4. Chris
    October 15, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Good stuff.

    I don’t have an umbrella, but plenty of bounces/diffusion. Would holding one of these overhead for shade achieve a similar quality result?

    • Alexander
      October 15, 2013 at 5:18 pm

      Absolutely … The shape of the diffusion panel doesn’t matter, it just has to be big enough to cast a shadow that will cover your subject. Umbrellas are convenient because they are easy to mount on a stand. I’ve used other items (reflectors, foamcore board, etc.), but they take longer to set up and take down.

  5. November 12, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Surely this is pretty well standard stuff though. Light diffusion is normal practice. I find it a little dubious for a crew of one to lug around a 5 foot umbrella, tripod and weights unless, as seems to be the case in your photo, you have your vehicle parked close by. It doesn’t work too well if you have a distance to walk to find a good spot for the shoot.

    • Alexander
      November 12, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      I see your point, Trevor, which is why I posted this follow-up about taking advantage of available shade – http://crewofone.com/2013/subtractive-lighting-in-urban-areas/

      But, in fairness, this setup is equivalent to carrying around a reflector or speedlight rig. In a situation where you have to shoot outside, and you need to do something to improve the quality of light, this is just one more technique in the toolbag.

      • November 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm

        Fair enough Alexander. I was debating the “crew of one” supposition. I think I would need an assistant to help lug my camera bag, tripod, umbrella, tripod support for the brolly, weights etc. usually, my subject would be a 120 lb model and if I were doing a paying client portrait outside I would wonder about asking “do you mind helping with my equipment? 🙂

        • Alexander
          November 12, 2013 at 1:24 pm

          Heh … Well, I didn’t say it was EASY. 🙂

          In all seriousness, my list is a lot shorter than yours. Shooting portraits outside, I don’t need a tripod. Also, I don’t take the whole camera bag. I pick one or two lenses, put an extra CF card and some batteries in my pocket, and leave the rest of the kit in the car. Finally, I don’t use weights as much as I should. If it’s windy, I’ll put my foot on the leg of the stand.

          So, basically, what I’m carrying is a camera, a stand and a folded-up umbrella. So, actually, I guess it is kinda easy.

          • Tulaga
            December 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm

            Trevor is just being a douche thats all… stop stirring things up out of nothing

  6. Steve M.
    November 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    It’s called a backpack. I wouldn’t have a problem packing this setup anywhere. Very sound technique, thank you for sharing it!

  7. Alissa Rose
    July 21, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    Brilliant…never heard of this but it is a brilliant idea! So easy to do if you already have the umbrella set up with you anyway! Thank you!

  8. doug
    August 1, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    Just be careful about wind. Even with weights, I have watched too many expensive umbrellas bite the dust. Using an opaque reflector and a light stand might keep the wind damage to a minimum and there are lots of clamps that will make it work, My two cents worth.

  9. August 12, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    Thanks! Good points!

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