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Getting Great Portraits At Sunset

As the sun dipped down I was able to completely remove the flash and use the sun as my main light source, with no fill. I simply moved around my subject, asking her to turn her head a little so I could see the changes in the light on her face, and position her so that the light was the most pleasing.  EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/250.

As the sun dipped down I was able to completely remove the flash and use the sun as my main light source, with no fill. I simply moved around my subject, asking her to turn her head a little so I could see the changes in the light on her face, and position her so that the light was the most pleasing. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/250.

I try to take advantage of natural light for shooting portraits whenever I can.  It’s important to recognize the ways different types of natural light affect your images.  A few months ago I wrote about shooting portraits in midday sun.  This past week I was approached by a close friend who wanted a portrait taken.  After discussing ideas, we decided the beach at sunset would be our setting. Sunset can be as problematic as midday sun for a variety of reasons.   As sun dips lower in the sky, the light gets softer as atmospheric haze diffuses it. In addition, the color temperature warms up, giving a nice warm glow to your scene. However, even an hour before sunset, the light can still be harsher than preferred, casting odd shadows, or creating a harsh backlight. Using flash as fill can help, but as the sunlight takes on a warmer tone, the flash will appear to be too blue. So how do we solve these issues?

This was one of the first shots taken, on the boardwalk at the beach.  The sun was harsher than I wanted so opted to use wireless flash.  I positioned my friend with the sun at her back and over her right shoulder, and the flash to her front left.  I also had the flash set to high speed sync. I then set the flash to E-TTL, with flash exposure compensation set to even.  I set the camera's exposure compensation to -1, in Aperture Priority.  Doing this lessens the sun's impact on the image, helps darken the sky, and the background overall. Exposure was ISO 100, f/4, 1/4000.

This was one of the first shots taken, on the boardwalk at the beach. The sun was harsher than I wanted so opted to use wireless flash. I positioned my friend with the sun at her back and over her right shoulder, and the flash to her front left. I also had the flash set to high speed sync. I then set the flash to E-TTL, with flash exposure compensation set to even. I set the camera’s exposure compensation to -1, in Aperture Priority. Doing this lessens the sun’s impact on the image, helps darken the sky, and the background overall. Exposure was ISO 100, f/4, 1/4000.

Let’s deal with the harsh light, an hour or so before sunset first.  First, as I mentioned in my earlier post, you can use a scrim or reflector and modify the sunlight that way.  However, this time it was just me and my friend, so I had no one to hold the scrim or reflector and the wind on the beach was too gusty to risk putting the reflector on a stand. I had to use flash.  I was able to use off-camera flash, wirelessly.  I was shooting a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an ST-E3 wireless flash transmitter mounted to the camera’s hot shoe. I used a 600EX-RT speedlite off camera, mounted on a lightstand.  Again, due to the wind, a softbox or umbrella was out of the question, so I left the flash bare.  There are several ways to compensate for the cooler color temperature of the flash.  You can use what’s known as a warming gel, or CTO (color to orange) gel, on the flash to match the temperature of the sunset.  This is fairly simple solution.  The other solution is simply to set your white balance for the flash, which will have two effects.  One, it will warm the illumination from the flash.  Second, it will warm the sunset light even more, which can be quite pleasing if not overdone.

As the sun dipped down I wanted to turn the flash off and go for a more natural look. The light was still a bit harsher than I wanted so I started shooting backlit. I tried some fill flash, but the light was casting unflattering shadows and not meshing well with the available lighting. Turning the flash off, I positioned my subject so she was facing away from the sun, but had some sand in front of her that reflected enough light back into her face to create some soft catchlights in the eyes.

Finally, the sun dipped down and softened enough that I could ask my subject to look directly into it. This creates a soft, warm look on the face with nice shadows.  Pay attention to how the light falls on your subject when doing this. Ask your subject to slowly turn her head so you can see how the light on her face changes as she does so.  This will give you an idea of how you want her to pose, using the sun as a point of reference for her positioning. The shot in question is the first image in the article.  I also used this technique in the last image, for a wider shot.

Another way to deal with the harsh sun is to shoot backlit. I had tried some fill flash on this shot but it just didn't look the way I wanted it to. The flash caused the noise to cast an unnatural shadow that I found unflattering. I turned the flash off and positioned her so the sand created some fill in her face.  EOS 5D Mark III with EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/400.

Another way to deal with the harsh sun is to shoot backlit. I had tried some fill flash on this shot but it just didn’t look the way I wanted it to. The flash caused the noise to cast an unnatural shadow that I found unflattering. I turned the flash off and positioned her so the sand created some fill in her face. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/400.

This was one of the last shots of the day.  The beach was nearly empty and I wanted to use the texture of the sand, the deep blue of the sky, and the red glow of the sun to create a graphically strong image. I positioned her so that if she turned her head her face would be lit by the sun and the sun would create a rim of light on her side. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 100.

This was one of the last shots of the day. The beach was nearly empty and I wanted to use the texture of the sand, the deep blue of the sky, and the red glow of the sun to create a graphically strong image. I positioned her so that if she turned her head her face would be lit by the sun and the sun would create a rim of light on her side. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 100.

 

Quick lighting diagram for the shot using off camera flash.

Quick lighting diagram for the shot using off camera flash.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Natural light is the biggest friend of a amateur photographer like me. Lovely captures and thanks for pointing out the potential.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://www.cramerimaging.com Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    Thanks for this topic. The diagram will be most useful for those who are still learning the techniques of overpowering the sun in portraiture. Thank you for sharing.

  • Cris

    There is some strange blur in most of your portraits on FB. That’s not genuine bokeh. Second photo in this article she’s posing like she’s about to smack you. That strong shadow on her arm makes her look wider. You do nice on landscapes though. Sorry if I’m a bit harsh. I’ve read better articles on dps.

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    You’d have to be more specific about the strange blur on Facebook. I find their compression scheme leaves much to be desired. Unless you’re saying its my portraits in general. Not sure what you mean.

  • Cris

    It looks like you used a brush to reduce the clarity locally. It works well when one wants to diminish distracting elements, but looks unnatural when overdone. I also find that elements on the same focal plane should have same level of sharpness, and only background and foreground can be out of focus. Please disregard the previous post about censure.

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    Cris can you show me an example? I don’t selectively blur anything except for adding an occasional soft focus vignette at the edges, so I’m unsure what you mean. Depending on subject I will occasionally soften the skin and hair, but that doesn’t sound like what you mean.

  • http://dondemaio.com Don

    These are great shots. (It helps to have a beautiful subject, doesn’t it?) But I love the lighting, the mood and especially the expressions that you got from her.

  • http://www.throughcherylseyesphotography.com/ Cheryl Garrity

    Rick,

    I don’t do portraits, but I love sunset and sunrise landscape. You have given me some ideas of how to include portraits into my first love. I believe your information will be very helpful to me.

    Cheryl

  • Gaby Awad

    Great article Rick. I was wondering if I can refer to it on my blog at gabyawadphotography.com/blog

  • ArturoMM

    The photo with flash looks “professional” the others look “natural”, I prefer the natural look.

  • http://mattheathphotography.com/ Matt Heath

    Love that 1st shot, I use off camera flash a lot in my work, very effective.

  • Elena

    To much photoshop even for me. But thanks for the article.

  • Mike

    Nice article, not sure I’m a huge fan of that second shot. Absolutely loved the third though, very nice light.

  • Mike

    I think the FB shot Chris is referring to is the color shot of your model where she is facing the camera and smiling to show her teeth. The blur around her shoulders and hair doesn’t look natural (looks more than just camera dof at work) and her face is very sharp. Not sure you intended that effect, but it’s not very flattering IMO.

  • James

    Yeah, I’d have to agree with most of the comments here. The photoshop work on most of the images is very off putting. The blur on the face in the first pic just doesn’t look good.

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    It’s funny what people THINK they see. I went back to the original file on the first pic- there’s just not that much skin softening going on. I do soften hair, and I do adjust color and contrast. I will soften skin if the image calls for it. There is some in this image. I have never had a client complain about my retouching techniques. Many in fact have stated that my images of them are the best they’ve had taken. The woman featured in this article will not allow anyone else to photograph her.
    You have to understand- most of my portrait clients are not interested in reality. They can look in the mirror themselves and see their pores, their wrinkles, and their blemishes. They want an “enhanced” version of themselves. I’m not saying wholesale plastic surgery, but they want to be flattered and made to look as good as possible. They want to look like celebrities on magazine covers. We all know that’s not reality. I’m not sure why so many people insist that photography capture reality. Maybe this should be my next article. :)

  • Mentor TOKO Online

    THANKS for this lighting tutorial. no dark anymore at sunsets.. keep posting. http://missjoaquim.com

Some older comments

  • Rick Berk

    September 29, 2013 07:34 am

    It's funny what people THINK they see. I went back to the original file on the first pic- there's just not that much skin softening going on. I do soften hair, and I do adjust color and contrast. I will soften skin if the image calls for it. There is some in this image. I have never had a client complain about my retouching techniques. Many in fact have stated that my images of them are the best they've had taken. The woman featured in this article will not allow anyone else to photograph her.
    You have to understand- most of my portrait clients are not interested in reality. They can look in the mirror themselves and see their pores, their wrinkles, and their blemishes. They want an "enhanced" version of themselves. I'm not saying wholesale plastic surgery, but they want to be flattered and made to look as good as possible. They want to look like celebrities on magazine covers. We all know that's not reality. I'm not sure why so many people insist that photography capture reality. Maybe this should be my next article. :)

  • James

    September 26, 2013 02:08 pm

    Yeah, I'd have to agree with most of the comments here. The photoshop work on most of the images is very off putting. The blur on the face in the first pic just doesn't look good.

  • Mike

    September 21, 2013 05:54 pm

    I think the FB shot Chris is referring to is the color shot of your model where she is facing the camera and smiling to show her teeth. The blur around her shoulders and hair doesn't look natural (looks more than just camera dof at work) and her face is very sharp. Not sure you intended that effect, but it's not very flattering IMO.

  • Mike

    September 21, 2013 05:40 pm

    Nice article, not sure I'm a huge fan of that second shot. Absolutely loved the third though, very nice light.

  • Elena

    September 21, 2013 08:26 am

    To much photoshop even for me. But thanks for the article.

  • Matt Heath

    September 20, 2013 06:49 am

    Love that 1st shot, I use off camera flash a lot in my work, very effective.

  • ArturoMM

    September 20, 2013 06:14 am

    The photo with flash looks "professional" the others look "natural", I prefer the natural look.

  • Gaby Awad

    September 20, 2013 02:39 am

    Great article Rick. I was wondering if I can refer to it on my blog at gabyawadphotography.com/blog

  • Cheryl Garrity

    September 20, 2013 01:06 am

    Rick,

    I don't do portraits, but I love sunset and sunrise landscape. You have given me some ideas of how to include portraits into my first love. I believe your information will be very helpful to me.

    Cheryl

  • Don

    September 20, 2013 12:43 am

    These are great shots. (It helps to have a beautiful subject, doesn't it?) But I love the lighting, the mood and especially the expressions that you got from her.

  • Rick Berk

    September 19, 2013 10:40 am

    Cris can you show me an example? I don't selectively blur anything except for adding an occasional soft focus vignette at the edges, so I'm unsure what you mean. Depending on subject I will occasionally soften the skin and hair, but that doesn't sound like what you mean.

  • Cris

    September 19, 2013 10:25 am

    It looks like you used a brush to reduce the clarity locally. It works well when one wants to diminish distracting elements, but looks unnatural when overdone. I also find that elements on the same focal plane should have same level of sharpness, and only background and foreground can be out of focus. Please disregard the previous post about censure.

  • Rick Berk

    September 18, 2013 11:25 pm

    You'd have to be more specific about the strange blur on Facebook. I find their compression scheme leaves much to be desired. Unless you're saying its my portraits in general. Not sure what you mean.

  • Cris

    September 16, 2013 02:06 pm

    There is some strange blur in most of your portraits on FB. That's not genuine bokeh. Second photo in this article she's posing like she's about to smack you. That strong shadow on her arm makes her look wider. You do nice on landscapes though. Sorry if I'm a bit harsh. I've read better articles on dps.

  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    September 15, 2013 09:47 am

    Thanks for this topic. The diagram will be most useful for those who are still learning the techniques of overpowering the sun in portraiture. Thank you for sharing.

  • Mridula

    September 14, 2013 07:54 pm

    Natural light is the biggest friend of a amateur photographer like me. Lovely captures and thanks for pointing out the potential.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

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