JUMP(ing) for Joy in the Outdoor Portrait

Back in late June this year we had the kind of enjoyable experience that photography has become lately–working with great collaborators to create photographic images for our own satisfaction. This time the partners-in-artiness were a couple visiting from Las Vegas, Cassee and Keith Olson.

With the children mostly raised and career well established, Cassee has recently started a new adventure in modeling, and Keith, a photography fan himself, has taken on the challenge of supporting her and helping to expand her marketing reach. In an unusual bit of good fortune, they both work for Southwest Airlines, and are able to fly standby for free to anywhere SW has a presence, including Boise.

Cassee and I had met on One Model Place, one of several model/photographer networking sites I subscribe to and where we found each other’s contact profiles. She needed professional-quality photos for her own portfolio, and since most of my portrait business in these days of cell-phone selfies is in the glamour-and-boudoir genre with clients who are typically between the ages of 30 and 50, I’m always looking for attractive models who don’t fit the standard 18-20 year-old demographic. Cassee said she wanted something different than Las Vegas’s “desert brown” background, a “different venue, mountains with green trees perhaps?” Since Les Bois translates, literally, to “the woods” and we sit comfortably ensconced in a lush, river-divided valley between a local mountain range on the north edge of town and the Owyhee Mountains to the south, we decided we were a perfect fit. She and Keith arrived on the evening of the 19th, and we started early the next morning with some basics.

Outdoor portraiture, however, is anything but “basic.” Getting it right, particularly the lighting, is such a complex process that we actually offer a complete workshop in our Mastery Series called “Mastering Outdoor Portrait Lighting” (catchy title, eh?). The primary issue is trying to balance the extreme contrast ratio between blindingly bright, sunlit backgrounds, including bright blue skies, and subjects who, unless you want that ever-so-glamorous squinting look of facing them into the sun, are in relative shadow. Put simply, you can expose for the bright background and keep your skies blue but reduce your subject to a shadowed silhouette… 


…or, you can expose for the subject and blow your backgrounds out, turning your beautiful blue skies completely, unnaturally, white.

The trick, quite simple in concept but not so much in execution, is to basically take two photos at once. Which means, if you’re one of those lazy ‘togs who like to boast about being a “natural light photographer” who would, as a matter of misguided principle, “never use artificial light,” you’re out of luck; you simply can’t do this without bringing in… yep, you guessed it, artificial light.

In practice, first you find a correct exposure for your background, and then lock it into the camera’s settings. That’s the first photo. Now you pose your subject away from that brightness and find just the right amount of fill-flash to correctly illuminate your portrait subject–the second photo. Now when you snap the shutter, you’ve effectively balanced both exposures, i.e., one locked-in setting to optimize the sky and some fill-flash to optimize your subject.

Model: Elena Lapteva

Futzing with the gear and getting the right balance takes a bit of skill, but the basic procedure is pretty straight-forward. Why outdoor portrait photographers are so resistant to fixing this problem will be the subject of Sourcelight’s probably-never-to-be-developed workshop, “Mastering the Psychology of Not Being So Doctrinaire in Your Approach to Photography.” Heh.

That lighting gear, by the way, doesn’t have to be elaborate. For quick run-and-gun shoots like this one, I prefer to keep it simple, using a basic speedlight shooting through a collapsible 12-sided light box, which, being kinda round-ish, gives nice catch-lights in the eyes. The new Chinese-built Godox line of portable lights (sold through Adorama as Flashpoint) is powerful, surprisingly affordable, and all of the units come with a built-in radio receiver for remote triggering. 

For Cassee’s initial model-portfolio session, we wanted to explore the newly-opened JUMP center in downtown Boise. An acronym for “Jack’s (J.R. Simplot) Urban Meeting Place, JUMP is a gorgeous community activities facility with a number of outdoor locations that are perfect for cityscape portraiture. The second-story rooftop lounging area right above the JUMP sign is where we decided to start.

Shooting in bright, open sunlight is usually a recipe for disaster. You can see the overexposed skin tones from the direct sun behind Cassee’s left, which also then casts a harsh shadow over the parts facing away. Time for some fill light, visible here growing out of the photographer’s head (establishing photos courtesy of session documenter, Sharon Johnson).

And the two-shots-in-one result:

Moving to a standing shot, we’re still dealing with the same extreme contrasts. This is, by the way, what your smart-phone or expensive DSLR sees when you leave it in Auto mode. Welcome to Facebook.

But lower the exposure, add some flash, et voilĂ !

Now lower the photographer for an up-shot perspective to create that heroic look, and reposition just slightly to clean up and simplify the background a bit — same shot but different effect:

One of the truly unique locations in the bountiful JUMP environment is this self-contained “leafy cocoon” that offers a simple bluetooth connection for listening to your own smart phone music through the cocoon’s sound system. It truly is a peaceful oasis. Oh, and it’s also pretty dark inside. You know what happens next.

When the light stand won’t fit, it’s time for Gaffer Keith to step up. Minimum gaffer requirement: 6-feet tall.

Ah, the digital era, when we can review our shots in seconds rather than waiting a week for the negatives to come back. That device on top of the camera, by the way, is the radio transmitter that talks to and remotely triggers the speedlight. The PocketWizard I used back in the day cost $280; the Godox/Flashpoint version? $69. There’s really no good excuse for not using flash anymore. Seriously.

Because here’s what we see.

Up one more floor to an outdoor food prep pavilion. Again, lots of bright skies and dark interiors.

And the usual answer–hey, mountains and trees, just as Cassee requested:

Next, Cassee and Sourcelight tour a few of Boise’s parks for some conceptual work. That one’s coming soon.

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