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How to shoot portraits in natural light and enhance them with LED lights


The vast majority of us learn photography with the aid of natural light. Whether we started years ago with our parent’s film camera, or whether you found your passion for photography thanks to your smartphone, natural light was most likely the sole source of light in your shots.

For many, making that first step into the world of controlling the light can be a daunting one. Which light should I use and how do I learn to use it? Regardless of whatever light you choose though, one of the simplest first steps, is to use that supplemental light in conjunction with natural light and in this article I aim to show you a simple method of combining your lights with the ever-faithful natural light.

The Lighting Setup

At first glance, this is a fairly simple setup in that we’re only adding 2 lights to the sunlight that’s already present in the scene. Take a look at what each of the lights is doing below and then I’ll explain some of the finer details of the setup and try to explain how I got that more unique-looking colour in-camera.

Note: I was using LED lights from Rotolight in this shoot and they are named in these diagrams below as the Titan and the AEOS 2. I’ll talk more about using LED lights with daylight later on in this article, but for those simply interested in the setup itself for now, here are the details.

Individual Lights…

Below are shots displaying what each of the three lights in this setup are doing. The Titan X1 as the key. The AEOS 2 as the hair light and the sunlight as the fill light. Click on any of the images below to enlarge them.

TL;DR/ADHD/Artist Setup Explanation

  • Position your model with their back to the sunlight.
  • Ideally, place a backdrop behind the model to limit any direct sunlight from hitting the model.
  • Place a large white scrim/sheet in front of the model to bounce sunlight onto them.
  • Place a key-light to camera right, up high and angled down towards the model.
  • Place a hair light behind the model and off to camera left. Again, position this up high and angled down.
  • Set both your key and hair light to 3000K.
  • Set your cameras Kelvin to 3500K.
  • Underexpose your daylight by about 1 stop and allow it to act as a fill light.

What You Will Need

2 lights – Ideally these lights should have adjustable Kelvin, but if not, be sure to place full CTO gels on your lights instead.

Sun Placement – This seems like a big ask, but if you’re using a supplemental backdrop outside like I’m doing here, you can position your model wherever you like. The important part is to have the sun behind the model and I actually waited for the late afternoon when the sun was lower in the sky to avoid any direct sunlight on the subject.

Hand Painted Backdrop – This isn’t mandatory of course, but a block tone background behind the model will allow the lighting and colour you’re adding to the subject to shine through.

Scrim/White Sheet – Although I’m using a scrim here, you don’t need it and really any large white material to bounce the sunlight will work. A white sheet will work just as well, you’ll just need a couple of extra stands to set it up.

Camera Settings

  • Camera – Nikon D850
  • Lens – 24-70mm f2.8
  • Shutter Speed – 1/125th
  • Aperture – f2.8
  • ISO – 100
  • Kelvin – 3500K
  • Focal Length – Various ~50mm

The Results…

Breaking it Down

I’m sure the lighting diagrams and BTS shots above have explained the setup for the most part, but I’ll still elaborate on a few key areas that you might have missed.

Sun Position

To begin with, position your subject with their back to the sun, ideally, this should be late afternoon or early morning…. we all quit landscape photography to avoid those early starts, so the late afternoon is fine unless you’re a masochist.

The late afternoon is to get that sun low in the sky. With it low, we can position our backdrop behind the model and avoid all direct harsh sunlight entirely. So with the sun behind the model, essentially being hidden by our backdrop, we can place our white scrim/sheet in front of the model and allow the sun to bounce off of that and light our model with a beautifully soft light.

Note: These BTS were taken after the shoot was over and the sun had dropped lower in the sky, hence the shadows on the scrim here.

The Fill Light

This bounced sunlight is our fill light, so be sure to underexposure that light by about 1 stop. The other important factor to consider at this point is the white balance. We want to take control of our camera and set the white balance to around 3500K. This cooler white balance setting ensures that the daylight colour is now a cool, blue colour.

The Additional Lights

With our camera set to ensure that the fill light (the daylight) is a little dark, it’s now time to bring in our additional lights. I’m using LED lights here, but if you have other lights instead, that is also fine. Regardless of the light you use though, the one key aspect to note here, is that these additional lights must produce a visually warmer light than our daylight. For me, I simply set my LED panels to 3000K and I was done. If you don’t have that functionality on your lights, you may need to use CTO (colour temperature orange) gels on your lights to do so. With this warmer colour now present on our key and hair light and our camera set to around 3500K, the skin of the subject will take on a warmer glow whilst the surrounding environment will appear cooler and a little more visually interesting over the typical green foliage we might expect from this type of image.

Many good quality LED lights will allow you to adjust the Kelvin colour of the light output. This shot shows this Titan set to 4000K, but for this setup, you’ll need the light set to 3000K to get that rich, warm glow.

Modifiers

As you can see from the BTS above, I didn’t need any modifiers on my LED panels as their larger surface area and naturally collimated light produces a beautiful look. But if you’re not using panels and are instead using speedlights or strobes, what modifiers should you use? Personally, I’d recommend a beauty dish on the key here as that will produce a very even and clean light, similar to what I have here. For the hair light, I’d suggest a modifier that may give you a little more control if needed as you don’t want the light spilling onto your background. Either a barn-doors or even a gridded strip-box will provide the light control required.

Atmosphere

Lastly, I did add a very tiny amount of haze to this set. You can only see it in a few shots (more so in the bonus images below) as using haze outdoors is far from consistent. I wanted a small amount of atmosphere to be caught by the lights, especially by the hair light and although barely noticeable, I still liked the effect and wanted to mention it here in case you were curious.

Key Takeaways

At its core, this is a very straightforward setup and although I’ve added further visual interest with Kelvin shifts, you don’t need to do this at all to achieve a cool-looking shot with some supplemental lighting.

The main aspects of this setup are that we’re using the sun as a fill light. To make this work, we not only have to soften the daylight, but we also have to make sure no sunlight directly hits the subject.

As I mentioned at the start, the main idea behind this setup was to offer you a way to step into using additional lighting with your ever-faithful daylight. One of the core differences here to what you may be used to is that we’re using the sun mainly as a fill-light and not as your key. Ordinarily, the sun is your only light source so this may seem odd at first, but understanding the core principle of this technique will open up a lot of creative possibilities for you in the long run. Just remember to soften that daylight first like we did here with that bounce and then you can add harder keys and hair lights on top of that.

One other key aspect to remember is that the model should not be hit directly by the daylight as it’ll simply be too bright and ruin the effect. Either find a natural barrier behind them like a wall or tree or better yet, bring a backdrop outside to help block the sun.

Bonus Images

One huge benefit of using LEDs for me is their simplicity. What you see is what you get. No syncing or misfires to worry about and although with digital photography the consequences of a few blank frames are negligible, it can be a costly pain when it comes to shooting analogue film.

I’ve recently started to fall back in love with shooting film again and my favoured beast of choice right now is my medium format Pentax 67. If you’re unfamiliar with this thing, then just know, it’s a monster!

The following images are all taken with the aforementioned Pentax 67 and I have to say, I think I actually prefer these shots over the digital ones! Take a look and decide for yourself. What do you think, do you like this film look?

Featured Model: Sophieellaaa

Exploring LEDs with Daylight

I’ve already explained the core details of the setup above and the rest of this article will simply see me exploring the potential for using LEDs alongside daylight. What follows will likely be a little nerdy to some, so feel free to skip it if you like, but if you’re intrigued by how far LEDs have come in recent years like I am, take a look at what I found.

Lighting Used

Historically, I’ve shot with strobes for the past 20 years and I’ve only recently started to play and work with LEDs. One of the reasons I was so hesitant to use LEDs in the past, was my concern with their power output. Surely LEDs aren’t powerful enough to work outside in bright daylight, right?

To test this concern, I used the Rotolight Titan X1 and the Rotolight AEOS 2 LED panels during the shoot above.

Power Output…

In a controlled environment, how bright are these lights? Sure, I could paste some watts, lux or lumen values here, but what about some real-world figures we can relate to? How bright are they in reality?

To test this for you guys, I positioned each of the lights 1m away from a white background and measured the brightness with a light meter set to ISO 100 at 1/60th second shutter speed.

One other very important note to mention here is that these LED lights have adjustable Kelvin ranges from 3000K all the way up to 10000K. Due to how LEDs output power and colour via multiple LEDs, there is not a consistent power output throughout the Kelvin range. This is pretty normal and you’ll often find that the middle of this range sees the most power, as the LED light is combining multiple LED colours to output the desired colour temperature.

Titan X1

Light at 100% Power – No Diffusion and 1m from Background – Shutter Speed 1/60th – ISO 100

  • 3000K – f5.6 +2 tenths
  • 4000K – f8
  • 5000K – f5.6 +5 tenths
  • 6000K – f5.6 +1 tenths
  • 7000K – f5.6
  • 8000K – f5.6 +1 tenth
  • 9000K – f5.6 +1 tenth
  • 10000K – f5.6 +2 tenths

AEOS 2

Light at 100% Power – No Diffusion and 1m from Background – Shutter Speed 1/60th – ISO 100

  • 3000K – f4 +4 tenths
  • 4000K – f5.6
  • 5000K – f5.6 +2 tenths
  • 6000K – f4 +8 tenths
  • 7000K – f4 +5 tenths
  • 8000K – f4 +5 tenths
  • 9000K – f4 +6 tenths
  • 10000K – f4 +6 tenths

Tested at 100% power output, 1m from a white wall, no diffusion. Camera settings: 1/60th – ISO 100

NOTE: Due to f-numbers being weird and not scaling normally when placed on a chart, I couldn’t use them directly on this graph above.

For reference:

Note: These lights are not casting those hard lines you see at the edges of the background. It’s actually the wall behind showing through this white backdrop.

Results…

As you can see, there’s actually minimal difference between the two lights. At its brightest (around 4000K), the Titan is only 1 stop brighter. What’s interesting though, is that using these lights at a common Kelvin value of 5000K, you’ll see that the lights are only minimally different in power with them only being 3 tenths of a stop difference in power.

Why the comparison?

As I mentioned, I’ve only recently started to use these Rotolight LED panels and although I’ve been singing their praises, many have expressed their concerns about the cost of a Titan X1 and at nearly £3000, they’re certainly not for everyone’s budget. That being said, I was convinced my AEOS 2 light had a similar power output and after doing these tests, I was right.

Yes, the Titan has a bunch of very useful features, but they’re maybe better suited to a film set. For most of us working on smaller projects, the new Rotolight AEOS 2 is doing 90% of what the Titan can do and if power is your concern, spending more on the Titan isn’t needed for around half a stop of additional power at a regular Kelvin range.

At almost a third of the cost at around £1000, the AEOS 2 is certainly packing a hefty punch when it comes to power. So if you ever see me using Titans in my shots, I’m not using them for that extra third of a stop in power and you can most certainly do everything I use them for with the AEOS 2s.

Conclusion

Using LEDs in conjunction with daylight was not something I thought possible years ago, but their power and affordability have come an awful long way. As many of you know, I’ve used strobes exclusively for over 20 years and it’s only very recently that I started to use and test the LEDs for their viability in my work. The core reason for me switching a lot of my lighting to LEDs has been the quality of light that they provide. That’s a very broad topic that warrants its own article, but my desire for better quality light was only thwarted by my concerns over power output. Thankfully, most of those concerns have been quashed and although I’ll keep my strobes for when I really do need that extra power on a very bright location, the LEDs will be taking over as my main lights.

Working with daylight is always a little tricky when it comes to balancing power, but this shoot was a great test of the power for these LEDs and although most of you may not have been interested in the finer details of their outputs, I was certainly very curious and I thought I’d take this article as an opportunity to share my findings.

Can you use these Rotolight LED lights alongside daylight? Absolutely, and I look forward to playing with this daylight and LED combo light setup a lot more in the future. As always, if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.

Thank You

As always, thanks for checking out this article and spending a little bit of your day with me here. I hope you found it useful and if you left with a little more knowledge than when you arrived, it’s been worth it.

If you have any questions or comments, or if something doesn’t make sense, by all means, fire away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again and I’ll see you in the next one.

About the Author

Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. On Jake’s Facebook page, you can also tune in for a live stream every other Tuesday night. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.





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