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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
Rick Berk

is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

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