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Outdoor Portrait Control Lighting by Russ Burden

The world is chock full of items that don’t go well together. The quintessential example in science is oil and water. How about a cell phone and swimming pool – not a good pairing. Another that comes to mind is a raw egg and a tile kitchen floor. An unfortunate one for the times is left and right wing democrats and republicans. In the world of photography, how about harsh sunlight and portraiture. While there may be no hope for the first four examples, there are work arounds for the last. They come in the form of technology, home made light modifiers, ingenuity on the behalf of the photographer, store bought products, or a combination of any of the above that provide a solution to the harsh light problem.

© Russ Burden

Example #1 – Before and After: These two images were made with a digital point and shoot camera. I intentionally included these before and after pics to prove that one doesn’t need to spend thousands of dollars on sophisticated lighting equipment to net a pleasing image. I made this photo of a participant on my nature photo tour to Hunts Mesa and Capital Reef. It was our last morning in Capital Reef and we were getting ready to say our Good Byes. When I saw how the fall foliage and the red vest blended, I knew there was a photo op, but the light falling on the subject was awful. Carpe Diem – one last photo lesson for all the participants before we headed home.

© Russ Burden

Out from my pocket came my little point and shoot which netted the usual smiles. I knew I had to use fill flash to counter the contrasty light falling on the subject. I set the flash mode to Forced On as it otherwise would not fire due to the intensity of the ambient light. Most of the “students” with me knew the scene required flash which was good. I made the image but the result was still less than ideal. I showed the photo to the “class” and the realization was that the flash on the point and shoot was not powerful enough to overcome the harsh sun. I then asked for two volunteers who I instructed to walk to the subject’s right side to cast their shadows across her. This softened the light to the point where the flash on my trusty point and shoot worked just fine as evidenced by the result in the After photo. Moral: a combination of flash technology along with a bit of ingenuity and two volunteers worked together to provide a nice souvenir portrait even with a point and shoot camera.

Overhead Sun and A Large Hat – two major obstacles: When the sun hovers directly above, deep shadows appear in the eyes, under the nose and under the chin. To make matters worse, the lit portions of the face tend to be washed out. Add to the mix a hat that creates its own havoc filled shadows and the photographic nightmare begins. Thankfully the fix is as basic as the pop up flash on a DSLR providing you get close enough to your subject. As one of the instructors for the Panasonic Digital Photo Academy, myself, along with all the others, were flown to NYC for an orientation. During it, one of our sessions involved a photo shoot in Central Park with live models. I positioned one of them by an iron fence as the setting matched her outfit.

© Russ Burden

As you can imagine, the light was horrendous as the hat created a strong shadow directly across her right eyebrow and left eye. I set the focal length of the lens on my Panasonic L1 DSLR to 50mm and moved in close so the pop up flash would be strong enough to offset the harsh ambient light. I had to set the aperture to f9 because of the strong ambient light but in checking the depth of field, this was not a problem in that the background was far enough away to throw it out of focus. I set the compensation on the flash to +2/3 so it would act more as a main light rather than fill which was necessary to overcome the shadow cast by the hat. Look closely at the image to see how the shadow line of the hat crosses just above the eyes but how even the light is as a result of using the flash and moving in close to overpower what would have been a poorly lit photograph without its use.

© Russ Burden

White Reflector: In the portrait of the girl in the red blouse, I used a reflector to bounce light back onto the face. The conditions were such where cumulous clouds appeared in the sky. I made the photo at the point when the sun just started to be obscured by one of them. This provided directional, yet soft light. The reflector kicked back just enough light onto the face to make it the brightest part of the image. Without the reflected light, she wouldn’t stand out as prominently and soft shadows would have appeared in her deep eye sockets and under the nose.

To learn more about this topic, join me on one of my Photographic Nature Tours. Visit and click on the NATURE TOURS button for more information. Also, pick up a copy of my book, Amphoto’s Complete Book of Photography. You can purchase a signed copy directly from me or visit your local book store or Amazon. Contact me at   to order your signed copy.


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