With the practicalities of bringing lighting equipment to location, it’s not feasible to set up elaborate lighting scenarios, though I would dearly love to do so. Instead, I adopt the KISS approach and keep things simple. And that means one or two light sources, with ambient light being one of the sources. So ultimately, it’s really the interplay of these two light sources that dictate how I light the model on location.
When you’re working with multiple light sources, varying one or the other can give you different moods and styles. In my case, where I am shooting on location, one light source is naturally natural. Depending on the weather conditions and the time of day, the quality and direction of light will vary. That makes it challenging and interesting.
As a result, compromises are often necessary. The perfect camera angle might not work because of the direction of the sunlight. To a certain degree, I can compensate with my strobe. This is when you need to be creative. For example, you might try to shoot silhouettes.
Why Natural Light Photography Is About Seeing the Shot, Not Setting It Up
Shooting with natural light is often the best option. Firstly, the image will actually look natural. And if you’re shooting landscape nudes, the natural look is what you want. Which means – by the way – that the model needs to look natural, little or no makeup, no tattoos or body piercings, no jewellery, no earrings, etc. (read “What’s The right Photo Model“)
Once on location, the first step for me is to evaluate the ambient lighting. In the majority of cases, this is the sun, whether it’s direct specular sunlight or sunlight diffused by clouds.
- On cloudy days, the lighting can be quite flat. But, that’s OK. I can shoot more sensual, softer images. I can shoot high-key images, with less contrast and not much shadow areas.
- On a sunny day, I like the dramatic effect of shooting towards the sun and using my strobe or flash to fill-in. But there are a few tricks to competing with the intense power of the sun. More about that later in this article.
The quality and direction of light are key considerations. I’ll keep these in mind as I assess the location until I find a combination that meets my vision. When this happens, I can shoot without the need for additional lighting. Perfect.
Posing & Direction of Light
Another thing to consider is how the model poses. Remember, the direction of light needs to be considered in relation to the background as well as the model. Naturally, you can’t move the background, so this is when the time of day is important. It’s where you can get different looks from the same location, simply by being there at the right time of day.
If I’m shooting in the midday sun, I’ll often ask to model to do lying or reclining poses, so that the sunlight is falling across her body. By doing this, the sun is now shining across her, which creates a more pleasing look, and it can actually accentuate her natural curves. I’ll often have her looking towards the sky so that her face is not in shadow and I can eliminate shadows around the eyes (known as raccoon eyes). Unless she’s wearing sunglasses, I usually get the model to close her eyes, and either open them briefly when I’m ready to press the shutter, or I will simply shoot her with her eyes closed, which suggests a dreamy, serene feel to the photo.
I will look for areas with shade. That could be under a rock overhang, under trees, on the shadow side of rocks and buildings. Under awnings, etc. When shooting in shade, you might have to contend with bright backgrounds. In those situations, you could change your camera angle to have both the subject and the background in the shade. If that’s not possible, I might set my exposure for the bright background then light the model using a strobe or flash.
You can get some interesting looks by changing the ratio of background and subject lighting. For a dramatic low, you might like to underexpose the background. The model, being the brightest element in the photos will stand out. Or you can shoot a balanced look, where it may be difficult to tell that you’ve used a separate light source. This is a great technique, because you can get a lovely look and not have to worry about the model squinting into the sun.
If the location doesn’t offer shade, I’ll use flash or strobes to add fill light. If you have an assistant, you could bring along a collapsible reflector instead. But, I don’t have an assistant. If the day is calm, or there’s only a light breeze, I’ll attach a transparent shoot-through umbrella to soften the light. There’s no need to bring along a softbox, because when outdoors, there aren’t white walls to reflect the stray light, unless I’ve got a white rock face behind me. Even then, the amount of reflected light is not likely to affect the image.
Usually, I’ll mount the strobe on a tripod with a spigot attachment and use it as a light stand. I prefer this because then I don’t have to carry a separate light stand. And often the terrain is very uneven, like rock platforms, so when positioning the light, I find it convenient to extend or retract the tripods legs individually to suit the terrain.
In harsh sunlight, I prefer to avoid strong shadow areas when shooting nudes. In the studio, I love creating dramatic “Bodyscapes”, and shadows play an important role for this style of images. Outdoors, I prefer to soften the shadows, so that the contrast ratio between the areas in light and the areas in shadow is 3:2. In the context of a brightly lit background, if the ratio is higher, like 2:1 or 3:1, the details in the shadow areas are lost, and become too much of a distraction. The only exception is when I’m shooting silhouettes, which I’ll discuss a bit later.
To achieve the 3:2 contrast ratio, I’ll introduce flash units or strobes to fill the shadow areas. Though I have a light meter, I tend to fire off a few test shots and adjust the power settings on the strobe to get the right balance of light. The hardest part is evaluating the image on the back of the camera when standing in bright light.
Overpowering the Sun
I can use the sunlight as a rim light and pump up the power on my strobe and overpower the sun. This can be quite a dramatic look, and may not suit everyone’s taste. You’ll need a hefty strobe or multiple flash units. I used to shoot with four Speedlites mounted on a Lastolite quad-flash bracket. But, I upgraded to a battery-powered strobe, which offered more power.
Let’s break it down:
- First, I’m sure you know about the “Sunny 16 Rule” (SLRLounge) of thumb that says in sunny conditions (using f/16), if you set your shutter speed to the same fractional value as the ISO value, so for ISO 100, set your shutter speed to 1/100 sec and your exposure will be pretty close, when the sun is behind you, illuminating the subject.
- If I want to underexpose the sun, I know I need to close the aperture further. I’ll go for an aperture setting of f/22 or smaller. In the case of my Canon 24-70mm lens, f/22 happens to be the smallest aperture. So that’s what I’ll use. I’m pretty sure that the sun will be underexposed. In addition, depending on the number of blades on your lens, using a small aperture can create a star effect with the rays of light radiating from the bright center.
- Next, I’ll need sufficient power to overpower the sun. A powerful strobe is usually what I use. Technically, it’s possible to use a flash, but you’d need to bring the distance between the flash and the subject extremely close. This is the “Inverse-Square Law” working. The limitation is that if you get the flash close to your subject, it may be in the frame of the image, and as you get farther away, the flash power diminishes.
Another way to overpower the sun is to use a technique called high-speed sync or HSS. More info in “Demystifying High-Speed Sync” on Fstoppers.
The trick is to understand that when shooting with flash, and in this case, I’ll include strobes, you have two exposure settings to consider. If you have been working with flash photography for some time, you’ll appreciate that with flash photography, the shutter speed doesn’t affect the exposure. Why? Well, the duration of the flash when it fires is so fast that changing the shutter speed doesn’t make any difference to the flash light getting to the camera sensor. Yet there is one caveat. This is the sync speed of your camera. This is the speed where the image sensor is fully exposed. When you shoot at a higher speed the shutter is not fully opened to the sensor. In other words, one part of the shutter is closing while the rear of the shutter is still opening, so a narrow band is travelling across the image sensor. When the flash fires, only part of the sensor is exposed to the flash light. The other part of the sensor doesn’t pick up the flash light because it’s obscured by the shutter blades.
Now, high speed sync is a clever technique to get around this limitation. The flash actually fires repeatedly, in quick succession so that the light falls across the whole sensor, and there is no banding.
The disadvantage is that it reduces the power of the flash, usually about 2 full stops.
Think of the analogy of a bucket of water. Compare throwing a bucket of water at an object in one go, compared to throwing a series of smaller amounts of water from the same bucket. The amount of water, in the case the light energy, is spread out over a longer period of time, so less power is available.
Last but not Least: Silhouettes
On sunny days, one technique that I love to shoot is silhouettes. They can be very dramatic and they are very easy to do. You don’t need much equipment for this. No need for strobes or reflectors; just your camera. After all, you only have to deal with a single light source. You’re shooting directly into the sun, with the model between your lens and the sun. Starting with the Sunny 16 Rule, increase your shutter speed and/or aperture to underexpose by 1 or 2 full stops.
Here’s a trick. To get a decent image, posing the model is extremely important. If the model strikes closed poses, her silhouette just looks like a blob of nothing. When shooting silhouettes, I like also shoot profiles and I get the model to strike poses where she has stretched out limbs.
To add drama, I tend to shoot with a wide lens. With silhouettes, distortions of the model’s body accentuate rather than detract from the image.
I’ll usually choose to shoot from a low camera angle to emphasis the model’s legs. If necessary, I can get her to lean her upper body towards the camera. As the sun is low to the horizon, shooting from a low angle enables me to include the sun into the image. Sometimes, I hide the sun behind the model’s body. Other times, I’ll get her to interact with the sun. For example, I might get her to stretch out her hand as through she has the sun in the palm of her hand.
Depending on your lens’ aperture ring, you can get interesting star patterns if you shoot with a small aperture. On my Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, the smallest aperture is f/22. When I shoot at this aperture, I can get this beautiful star effect.