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?
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.