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I’ve grown to really love making portraits of people. My preferred way of working is on location with my natural light outdoor studio.
For many years I had a dedicated studio set up in my home. During this time I hosted many travelers who passed through Chiang Mai. I made photographs of them all and we had a lot of fun making them. However, I was never so comfortable using studio strobes inside as I am working with my outdoor studio.
Early on in my photography experience, I became aware of American photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009). He’s celebrated as one of Vogue magazine’s top photographers. Penn produced more covers for them than any other photographer over the 60 years he worked with the magazine.
Fashion photography has never been much of an interest for me. What attracted me to Penn’s mastery was the portraits he made outside his magazine work. Often he would stay on in these exotic locations where his assignments took him, and he’d make portraits of the locals.
He outlines some of these experiences in his book ‘Worlds in a Small Room.’ In the book, he tells how he developed a portable daylight studio he could set up on location. This allowed him control of the background and lighting.
Living in northern Thailand, I have opportunities to visit mountain villages and photograph indigenous hill tribe peoples. So I decided to design and build my own portable daylight portrait studio.
Setting my studio up in villages allows me to make studio portraits of people as they remain in their own environments.
This was a completely DIY project, so you could easily copy the idea and make your own.
My studio has metamorphosed over the years. It now comprises of:
Because I often work alone my studio needed to be easily portable, unlike Penn’s which was large, bulky and required several assistants to set it up. I had to sacrifice size to make it practical. You could design a larger, less-portable studio for use in your backyard.
Originally I made upright supports using fiberglass tent poles. These proved too flimsy, so I replaced them with more sturdy stainless steel. I have also enlarged the background area and included a white background. My initial design only had a short black background. Now I also use reflectors to enhance and balance the light.
I prefer to set the studio up in the morning or later in the afternoon. If the sun is too high overhead, the light is more difficult to work with.
Choosing a location where the sun will be behind the backdrop is important. This helps to provide a hair light. The piece of thin grey nylon fabric I set up above the backdrops softens this hair light.
If the ground where I’m setting up is bare earth, that is perfect. Light reflects off the light colored soil up into the faces of my subjects. This is good for Asian skin tones, but not so good for Caucasians as it has a slight yellow/orange tone.
When I have to set up on a lawn, I lay down some white or light tan plastic sheeting to provide some uplighting. Without this, the grass would reflect an unpleasant green cast onto the people’s faces.
In the early days of using my studio, this was all I did to manipulate the light. Now I also use a large foldable reflector to bounce more light onto my subjects. This gives a little more control of the shadows.
The background fabric is a very stretchy polyester. It does not wrinkle and can be pulled tight between the uprights, so it’s flat. Behind the black background, I add a sheet of thick black polythene sheeting. This completely blocks out the sun which would otherwise partially shine through the fabric.
Your exposure settings are critical. A lot of light shines through the white background, while none shines through the black. Including too much of either background in your exposure calculations will result in an underexposed or overexposed subject.
You need to take your exposure reading from your subject’s face only. Using manual mode, once you have it set correctly, you won’t need to change it unless the light changes. This will happen if the sun goes behind a cloud or you bounce more light onto your subject with the reflector.
You can use the same exposure settings for both backgrounds because the light on your subject’s face does not change.
If you take a light reading from the white background, you will see it is far brighter than your subject. Taking a reading from the black background will show there’s much less light reflecting off it than your subject. These contrasts help you achieve a pure white and pure black background.
The thin fabric above the background reduces the light and prohibits full sunshine from affecting your subject. You need to make sure your subject is not too far from the background; otherwise, the sunlight might hit their head directly.
Putting together your own outdoor studio is relatively easy and cheap. You can use it anywhere there’s sufficient space. You don’t need to buy expensive lighting equipment or have a large studio space. The materials are inexpensive, and it’s portable so that you can use it anywhere.
Working outside you are reliant on good weather. It’s best when the sun is shining, but you can still use it under an overcast sky.
Photographing with available light is so much fun, especially when you have a little control over how it affects your subjects.
We’s love to see photos of your outdoor studio in the comments below.