Lighting Gear for Outdoor Portraits

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After posing for a few gigabits of formals in a hall, you can sense the wedding party’s palpable relief when, weather permitting, it’s time to take it outside. If you’re lucky enough to have nicely landscaped grounds, it’s a great opportunity to stop fighting with the tungsten light sources inside and take advantage of that flash-friendly sunlight.

Whether you’re just starting out as a wedding photographer or a friend asked you to shoot his wedding or you’re a seasoned professional, you’ll need some kind of help to maximize your outdoor location’s light. Luckily, there have never so many choices of flash units, reflectors, batteries and light tools to help you do it.

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An on-camera flash is perhaps the most common denominator for outdoor wedding photography. Whether you’ve been asked to shoot candid wedding shots for an impecunious friend or record the whole happy event, you can definitely do it with a Canon 600EX-RT, Nikon SB-910 or other similar flash unit. Professionals reading this are probably shaking their heads already, and at the professional level they’re right—you’ll quickly learn just how hard it is to do what the pros do dependably and repeatedly. But you have to start somewhere, right? As long as your friend’s expectations are in line with your experience and equipment (of lack thereof) you’ll still be friends after you deliver the photos. Just make sure you develop and agree upon an essential-shots list and a realistic expectation of the results. With that settled let’s build a professional setup from bare-bones on up.

Basics

To begin with, let’s think about why that flash is sitting atop your camera to begin with. It’s certainly not dark out there but, some parts of the scene, such as deep shadows, are dark. Your eyes can see into the shadows but the camera really can’t, not beyond a certain contrast range. The familiar results are harsh, jet-black shadows and blown-out dresses and highlights, as even the most sophisticated cameras strain to bridge the contrast gap. Enter your flash to fill in the shadows. Lighting, in the simplest possible terms, is all about main light and fill light. The sun, almost always the main light source outdoors, acts like a spotlight when high overhead, like a portrait light from 45 degrees up and off axis, like a hairlight from behind and above the subjects, or low and warm colored at sunset. Some might object to anything called a hairlight being touted as the main light but since you’re filling in the foreground shadows to a desired degree, for our purposes it’s a main light source.

Today’s TTL flashes have become quite powerful and refined in features. Sometimes called Speedlights or some variation of that, TTL flash can be invaluable when working under the low or quick-changing lighting conditions common to wedding venues. They are equally adept at opening the shadows when shooting outdoor portraits and/or backlit candid photographs. The best versions like those available from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Quantum and Metz have tilting and swiveling heads and diffusion lenses that zoom from 12 to 122 degrees to cover 14-200 mm lenses. Flash-exposure compensation, controllable on the unit or the camera or both, allows you to vary the strength of the fill light to avoid the artificial look caused by overfilling. What you’re looking for in virtually all cases is a readable background and detail in the dress and tux, and it’s a more delicate balance than you might think.

Light Modifiers

Working with flash light alone, though effective, can be a bit harsh. The next step in refinement is the use of light modifiers, including softboxes, domes, bouncers and shell-like scoops that look like a jai alai xistera. Widely available from manufacturer’s like Vello, Gary Fong, LumiQuest, Photoflex and Westcott, light modifiers all have the same aim: soften the contrast and broaden the beam spread to complement facial tones and maintain detail in the dress.

Speaking of the dress, besides overexposing it there is the issue of color, especially when you’re outside. If you’re lucky enough to have one of those cloudless, cerulean-blue sky days, chances are there’s a lot a UV kicking around that a neutral color like white might pick up as blue. Shooting in open shade picks up a lot of blue as well. Then there’s something called anomalous reflectance. Some fabrics absorb ultraviolet radiation and re-emit it in the near-blue (shortest wavelength) portion of the visible spectrum, which is invisible to the eye. To correct this you can use a somewhat aggressive UV filter on your lens, available from Canon, Heliopan, B+W and Tiffen. It’s also a good idea to add a UV filter to your flash, available cheaply in gel form from Rosco. If possible, take some test shots of the dress before the ceremony so you know what you’re dealing with.

Brackets

A flash bracket ensures that your flash is in a consistent place over the camera, and drops the shadows, if there are any, slightly down and behind the subject. It also kills the possibility of red-eye when shooting in dim light. Brackets come in several styles including rotating, where the camera rotates vertically or horizontally while the flash stays in the same position overhead, and flip, where the camera remains stationary while the flash arm is flipped to position the flash over the camera when it is turned to take a vertical shot. They’re available from Newton, Custom Brackets, Stroboframe and Vello just to name a few. If you want to maintain TTL operation you’ll also need an off-camera TTL cord like Canon’s OC-E3 and Nikon’s SC-29.

Power

Today’s digital cameras are very light efficient and you can shoot at higher ISOs so you can get a lot more out of a set of AAs than you might think, especially in fill-flash scenarios. But if you’re trying to light a large wedding party on a big lawn with a diffuser, you’ll be pumping out maximum power almost every time; allowing 4 to 7 seconds each time for recycling, that’s a lot of foot-tapping. Powering up with a battery pack will shorten your full power recycle times to around one second and increase your flash capacity from 100 full-power pops to 400 or more. The simplest packs like the SD-9 from Nikon utilize six additional AA batteries (for a total of ten when you add those in the flash) to give you almost 300 flashes with an approximate two-second recycling time. Third-party versions from companies like Bolt are affordable alternatives. For a step up in quality and performance, Lumedyne offers the Cycler series for full power flash capacities up to 440 shots and recycling under one second. Quantum makes several versions of their Turbo series that make similar claims.

So far, we’ve got a quality digital camera and flash, with a flash bracket for even light distribution, a light modifier to soften the flash’s output and a battery pack to keep up with the action. This is a good fundamental kit for shooting small or simple weddings while standing up to the ambient light level outdoors. The only potentially weak link is the beam spread of the flash, which we’ve expanded with a light modifier, but lost power in the process. Removing the modifier hardens the light again and worse, exposes the falloff in what is essentially a horizontal beam of light causing the areas around your couple’s lower body to be darker in full length shots. So the next step up is to swap out your shoe-mount flash with a head like Quantum’s QFlash X5DR or Lumedyne’s Signature Series, both of which have TTL connectors.

Unlike shoe-mount flashes, these heads have a bare-bulb design that accepts reflectors somewhat like studio strobes do, and diffusers to flare the beam out to about 120 degrees. Most importantly, unlike small shoe-mount flashes, they’re a large circular light source, which means even coverage with less falloff of light, which means less post-production work on the 1,000 or so photos you’re going to take. These are powerful lights that need powerful packs to drive them. The X5DR runs on a QPAQ-X power pack or Lumedyne’s P4QX, and is approximately 400W/s or eight times more powerful than a Canon 600EX-RT, for example. Lumedyne’s Signature head comes standard with an 800W/s flash tube and is also available with a 2,400W/s flash tube. It runs on the 200W/s P2LX pack or the 400W/s P4LX pack, which can be boosted to 2,400W/s. These are serious professional rigs with which a solo photographer could churn out a great deal of quality work.

Add a Light (or Two)

Unlike when you’re shooting a friend’s wedding for free, professional wedding photographers usually work in teams of two or three, or even more when video is involved, in a carefully choreographed dance around the events of the day. As great as the rig that we’ve built so far is, we’ve pretty much exhausted the potential of this single light source. Adding another light will not only make working with a large party easier but, if held off the side or “raked” across the subjects, will also lift up the surface details of clothing, delineate facial features and add the dimension missing with a single light.

If we don’t have the proverbial “fine day” to work with, with lots of good sunlight, having an extra light also allows you to make your own light. On a gray or overcast day, your assistant with the second light in a softbox on an extension pole like those made by Manfrotto or Lowel, or even on a monopod, now becomes the main light to your on-camera fill light. You can add another assistant with a third hairlight to delineate the couple from the background.

Also consider that a tangle of wires would only spell disaster to this photographic minuet, so it’s time to call on wireless triggering products from the likes of PocketWizard, MicroSync, Impact or Quantum. Although we’re discussing outdoor photography, this is the setup the pros will be using at the reception inside as well.

Pack Systems

With many weddings now taking on aspects of a fashion shoot, the appearance of larger, more powerful, 2-outlet battery pack systems is no surprise. They allow you to bring the studio outdoors and they sure beat dragging hundreds of feet of extension cords around. Battery packs made by major lighting manufacturers offer the benefit of tapping into a considerable array of reflectors and other light-shaping tools and in most cases, modeling lights. The Ranger series from Elinchrom includes the 400W/s Quadra RX and the 1100W/s RX, both with symmetrical or asymmetrical breakdown of power. Broncolor has the 1200W/s Mobil A2L with built-in radio receiver, while Profoto has the 1200W/s Pro-B3 AirS LiFe with 300 full-power flashes, 1.8-second recycling and short action-stopping flash durations. The 600W/s AcuteB2 and 1200W/s 7b are also available. There are many more, including some reasonably priced lighter weight offerings like the Impact Mini LiteTrek and Dynalite Uni400JR that run on low-voltage Jackrabbit batteries. And speaking of Dynalite, the 1100W/s battery pack/inverter can power AC studio flash units. Broncolor makes one as well, called the Powerbox, which lives up to its name with Bron and Visatec AC monolights. Not to be outdone, Profoto offers the BatPac, which although intended to power D1, ComPact and Acute2 AC packs and monolights, will also drive chargers, wind machines, constant light sources and other electrical devices.

Active vs. Passive

Up to now we’ve been discussing the many choices available to image makers that actively output light but there’s a world of reflector panels, discs and scrims that contour existing light; these “passive” controls can be used alone or in conjunction with flash. They can be separated into two broad categories: reflectors and diffusers.

Reflectors, popularized by the fashion industry, have become ubiquitous in recent years and if you have a free pair of hands (an assistant) they can go a long way in providing some, or sometimes all, of the fill light you need. Sizes vary to accommodate the size of the subject you need to cover. By far the most popular are the collapsible or popup renditions that break down to about 1/3 their open size and are generally available in discs sized from about 22 to 52” or in panels that are approximately 42 x 72”.

Besides traditional double-sided discs, manufacturers like Photoflex, Westcott, Impact and Lastolite make them in 5-in-1 or 6-in-1 versions that have a translucent core and a reversible sleeve with some combination of white, silver, gold, soft gold or sunfire and black. White has the most neutral and softest reflectance quality, adding virtually no color to the light. Gold is aggressively warm and will prevent late-day or open-shade blue hues from creeping into the shot, as well as adding complementary fill light to sunset shots. Silver is the coolest (blue) light and somewhat crisp, specular and highly reflective. Most photographers reserve it for long-throw situations when they are forced to work at a distance from the subject. Arguably the most useful, the soft-gold or sunfire surface is actually a weave of silver and gold providing good reflectance characteristics with a mild, warm color hue that enhances skin tones.

The black surface, in reality not a reflector at all, is a light absorber providing what might be called “negative reflectance.” Imagine that you’re stuck with a flat cloudy day—even the subtlest flash looks artificial, as does aggressive reflected light. A black disc, or better yet a 41 x 72” panel, will absorb the light on one side of your subject and actually make it appear as if your subject is lit from the opposite side, thus creating depth and a pleasant lighting ratio that brings out detail. The translucent core disc at the heart of these multi-discs and panels is something akin to a softbox on a light. It turns harsh light into soft illumination.

Having touched on diffusion, this is a good time to mention the many reflector/diffuser frame systems available. Taking their inspiration from the film industry, where manufacturers like Matthews make overhead and butterfly frames in sizes up to 30 x 30’, manufacturers like Photoflex, Lastolite, Chimera and Westcott offer systems tailored to small and medium sized production crews. With their Scrim Jim line, Westcott was one of the pioneers of these scaled-down frames and indicative of the direction other brands have taken as well. The system includes light aluminum frames configurable to 42 x 42”, 42 x 72”, 72 x 72” and 96 x 96” sizes. The 35 fabric options run the gamut of several strengths of diffusion screens and silks, black and white nets and numerous reflective surfaces. Blue and green screens are also available for color keying. A special clamp and griphead combination makes setting up a butterfly a snap.

California Sunbounce is a relatively new arrival in the field, making a line of nicely machined, light but robust reflector frames that bridge the gap between small and large production with hand-holdable frames from 3 x 4’ to 6 x 8’ and butterflies up to 20 x 20’. Their catchy-named Sun Swatter employs a 3 x 4’, 4 x 6’ or 6 x 8’ frame with interchangeable diffusion screens mounted on a pole that resembles a giant fly swatter. Ideal for wedding photographers and videographers shooting at midday, the Sun Swatter held aloft gets you a very large patch of bright open shade with manageable contrast, instead of glaring, deep-shadowed sunlight broiling your subject.

B&H carries every major line of imaging and support gear for the wedding industry. If you’re a wedding pro, you know us already and we’ll continue to be there for you. If this is your first wedding or you’re just starting out, by all means jump in but be prepared. We’ll help you do it.

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Thank you very much for this wedding series of tips and equipment.

I will certainly read all of it to learn what I did not know or forgot about; not using; and/or can use better.

Wow, this is great info.  Summer reading material and working on my wish list!

i really enjoyed reading this piece

Excellent post!

Great info. 

Lots of little things to make your out door shoot go smoothly. 

Thanks,

Mark

This was awesome for a person who is just starting out in the photography buisness.  I have learned a lot of tips and informations that I have been learning on my own.

Nice overview.  Lastolite and Elinchrom both make poles with handles which are intended for use with small lights and modifiers that are much better choices than the lightstand extension poles listed in the article.

First I would like to thank everyone participated in this precious article. Second I would like to ask about a flash I saw . It looks like a gun and the bulb in it is round . It works I think on batteries. I saw a photographer in thailand using it . But he didn't allow me to ask questions. I appreciate your quick respond.

Regards.

Thank you, this information has been very helpful.

Great..!! very useful for beginners..

Informative and educative.

Thanks a lot the articles are informative and educative.

Outdoor Lighting