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• pictureperfect.co.za DIY photo newsletter

Making your outdoor pictures pop

Winter is upon us and with it comes the most awesome blue skies. Straight after the rains, our skies are washed clean and superbly soft and blue. You should be taking advantage of this by shooting outdoors whenever you can, before summer's harsh lighting stops all that again. Shooting outdoors however is challenging as you have to counter the effect of the sun - you can't just move the sun around to light your subject to best effect.

So you have to add light with which you can supplement the natural lighting - and help your subject stand out against the background. It's actually quite simple to get a great effect with very little extra lighting. I don't like shooting outside much because of the lack of control over my lighting I always experience. But due to my job, I have to, and the pressure is always on to make the images really stand out, especially if they're editorial (for magazines).
So how do you do this? You use flash. Lots of it. In this case, I had a mobile flash unit, powered by a battery, left of camera, slightly behind the subject's face, in other words, not 90 degrees to right, but slightly further around the back so that the light could wrap around his face and body a bit and add some modelling to the shot.

I then used a Nikon Speedlight set to quarter power on camera to pop some flash in underneath the hard hat and put some catchlights into the subjects eyes. The battery-powered flash, a Quantum, was triggered by using a sync chord off the camera nipple, while the Speedlight sat on top of the camera in the normal hotshoe position.

In the second shot, there was no time for the off-camera flash unit, so I used only the Speedlight, and the result is not quite as nice.

However, in both shots, what makes the shots work, is the background lighting - when you set up the shot, first take a reading of the sky behind where the subject is going to be. Meter for the sky, then underexpose the shot by one stop. The trick here is to stop your flash from reaching objects in the background.

If you want the subject in the foreground to stand out, light only the subject. You can soften the flash by popping it into a bounce board, or if you have the nifty off-camera ability that Speedlight technology offers, and you know how to use it, then position your Speedlight 45 degrees to the left or right, and slightly up from eye level, for a more flattering effect.

Strangely enough, you can use the same technique on cloudy days, making really dramatic pictures by underexposing the background, setting your camera on a tripod, and punching flash from far left or right, balanced with a bit of frontal light from your on-camera flash. Take note though that your on-camera flash should never be full power, otherwise it will kill the effect of the sidelight. I use my Speedlight on the manual setting, and dial in a 1/4 strength or stronger, if need be, for instance if quarter strength is just not strong enough to reach the subject sufficiently.

Don't use TTL on your flash though, as it will tend to read and try light for the entire picture. You want to limit your light output to fall only on the subject for best effect. Once you've got this technique waxed, try playing around with light modifiers - bouncing off polystyrene boards or through silk screens to soften the light. But then you should start thinking of using a flash meter to determine the exact exposure.