Working with great natural light for portraiture is difficult to top and capturing people at ease in their own homes where they feel most comfortable often yields the best results. But if you want or need your portraits to show more of the environment you’ve got to move outside. Early morning and late afternoon are favourite but sometimes the midday sun -with attendant Mad Dogs and Englishmen – is unavoidable.
Natural light can work beautifully outside too if its dull and even, but if you have to shoot on a sunny day when its very bright (as above, from a recent assignment in India) then fill-flash can be a life saver as, subtly used, it will allow you to preserve detail and colour in your subject and the environment at the same time. I’d already photographed Sudari and her baby (see first photo at the top of this post) just inside the doorway of her home in rural Rajasthan and was pleased with the result. But I wanted to get another shot of her outside, for a couple of reasons. Firstly its always best to give your client a range of shots that they can use in different ways and secondly I wanted to convey the remoteness of her location as this was important for her story.
As always seems to be the way (!) time was at a premium and I could not spend too long on the shot. So after a very quick scope of the views on offer I positioned Sudari with her back to the picturesque nearby hills and, more importantly, facing away from the strong sun so that she would not be squinting too much. I also liked the framing provided by the tree to her left and the pieces of wood on her right. I would normally shoot in Manual mode on the camera for this kind of set up as this forces you to think more about what you’re doing because you have to make all the inputs. For example, keeping the shutter speed within the flash sync speed is advisable in bright light as it gives the flash gun a fighting chance of filling in the foreground from a distance. If you shoot above this magic figure and venture into the realms of the Auto FP High Speed Sync flash mode (explained here) the range of the flash will diminish drastically and re-cycling times will increase too, often resulting in many shots underexposed in the foreground during a shooting burst. This is especially true if you are using a medium or longer lens as the further from the subject the camera is the harder the flash will have to work.
But on this occasion for whatever reason my fevered brain chose Aperture Priority which is my one of my favourite exposure modes. Something must have sparked in the grey matter though as I had the sense to choose an aperture (F18) that gave me an outdoor ‘flash-gun-friendly’ shutter speed of 1/160th of a second with ISO 200. Then I used an obliging VAL (Voice Activated Light Stand – AKA a friendly person who is willing to hold stuff, thank you Keith!) to hand-hold one of my Nikon SB800 ‘s a little above Sudari’s eye-line off to the right by around 30 degrees or so. This I triggered with an SB900 flash gun mounted on the hot shoe of the camera via the Nikon Creative Lighting System. This unit was simply commanding the SB800 and not contributing to the lighting. Initial exposures showed that the remote flash (with no compensation) was not illuminating Sudari’s face sufficiently from the closest range (5 – 6 ft) that Keith could stand without appearing in the frame, – because with such a small lens aperture it needed a power boost. So over the next few frames I bumped up the flash output by a stop and a half and zoomed the head out to 70mm. This then produced the semi-spotlight-ish effect you see above. I’m quite pleased with it as the flash illuminates Sudari’s eyes and face well giving a nicely modelled, three dimensional light. It also makes her stand out from the background and the colour of her clothing pop. All in all it took about 5 minutes. It’s by no means perfect I admit, with more time I’d have liked to have used a second light to illuminate her lower half for a more even effect. I could also have tried a ND (Neutral Density) filter on the 50mm lens I was using to reduce the amount of light entering the camera, this would have allowed me to use a wider aperture with a reduced depth of field to further separate Sudari from the background though personally I think the DOF is fine as it is for the intended use of the image.
Another good tactic is to move your subjects into the shade, as above. This will help them relax as they will be more comfortable (especially if its very hot) and they won’t have to squint, meaning you will get the chance of putting catchlights in their eyes. Here I also put down a handy charpoy for them to sit on with my chosen view behind. The shot was taken just a few minutes after Sudari’s portrait and this time I reverted to Manual mode on the camera using my 17-35 lens at 28mm, F5 at 1/400th of a second on ISO 160, – instantly breaking my own ‘keep it under 250th of a second’ rule I know, but then I always like to make life hard for myself! The wide angle lens gives much more depth of field than the 50mm, so F5 was appropriate to give a detailed but not distracting background. Fill-flash was needed here to make up for the wide exposure discrepancy between the sunlit background and the shaded foreground. My generous VAL, Keith, assisted me once more standing camera left with the SB800 held high. This time I refitted the dome diffuser to provide the wider spread of light that the wide angle lens required. A bit of plus EV flash compensation was required once more before I got a nicely lit series of shots of the family. Ideally a third light with a grid attached, to camera right and behind the couple and out of shot would have given a nice bit of rim-light to the couples hair and separated them more from the background but time had run out, we really had to go. When I queried the urgency of our departure with a field worker, he said that due to the enthusiastic consumption of locally brewed ‘country liquor’ in the area, the road became ‘unsafe’ in the late afternoon due to ‘dacoit’ (bandit) activity, so, discretion being the better part of valour we beat a hasty retreat!