Assignment: Portraiture, Harsh Light and f/2.8

Every so often I like to give myself projects or assignments. I love to do portraits in the studio where I can have perfect lighting and control all the conditions. Normally I shoot at f/8 or f/11 to assure excellent sharpness and depth of field. For this assignment I decided it was time to move out of my comfort zone and venture into the real world. I decided that I wanted to shoot a series of portraits at f/2.8, to obtain a soft appearance. I also decided to shoot outdoors during the mid-day hours when the sun is at its most intense to see how I could handle those conditions.

My equipment for this shoot consisted of a Nikon D800 with a 70-200mm, f/2.8 zoom lens and SB910 flash. For some shots I also used my 24-70mm, f/2.8 lens. An incident light meter was used to read the ambient light levels. And of course the most important part of the shoot, my friend Sharon, who served as my model.

The idea was to shoot in a variety of locations and under varying conditions. I had already decided that for this shoot I was going to operate the camera in manual mode. All photos were taken at f/2.8. Using the light meter I would determine what shutter speed to use to correctly expose the background. I could lighten or darken the background by altering the shutter speed and let the flash compensate to maintain correct exposure for my model.

We started shooting in my back yard at about 9:30 in the morning. The sun brightly illuminated the shrubbery on the hillside while the patio and Sharon remained in shade. I used a focal length of about 150 mm to assure that only the brightly illuminated hillside was included in the background. I then slowed the shutter speed to 1/125 sec. to create the bright high-key effect that you see below. In most of the photos I set the flash compensation to -1, although in some cases I used no compensation.  Unfortunately, I thought the EXIF data would record the flash compensation value but it doesn’t so I don’t know which flash setting was used with each picture.


I next decided to try to darken the background. I changed the shutter speed to 1/2000 sec. and obtained the following image.


The resulting photo was pretty much what I wanted but the flash was a bit too strong giving the scene an artificial feel. However, it did show that I could control the background independently of the subject.

For the next shot I decided to move Sharon out into the bright sunlight. I positioned Sharon with her back to the sun, and the camera slightly off-axis to the sun. The background was mostly in shadow. The effect was to produce a halo of light around Sharon with a nice soft focus. Again the fill flash did a great job of filling the shadows and giving the photo extra punch.


It was time to move out of the back yard and into other environments. The trees lining the street next to our house were covered with white flowers. I thought this would offer a great background for a high-key portrait. In order to fill the frame with Sharon while simultaneously having the trees fill the background it was necessary to use the 200 mm lens to obtain a sufficient narrow angle of view. Once again I metered the ambient light with the incident light meter and then slowed the shutter speed by one stop to provide an even stronger high-key effect.

In this case the flash provided the perfect fill light to produce a stunning portrait.


The street was flanked by a block retaining wall. The rough gray blocks were a perfect counterpart to Sharon’s black dress. She leaned up against the wall to produce the following photos. In this case the shallow depth of field produced by the f/2.8 aperture and 200 mm focal length gave a wonderfully soft background.



For our next venue we got into the car and drove to an empty field that was covered with yellow flowering mustard. By now it was almost noon, with the sun directly overhead. Certainly not great light for portraiture. Once again I positioned Sharon with her back to the sun so that no direct sunlight spilled onto her face. I set the camera’s exposure to 1/1000 sec. and f/2.8. In this case I had a huge field of yellow flowers I could use as a background so I switched to the 24-70mm lens. With the focal length at 52 mm I was able to fill the frame with Sharon and a background of brilliant mustard. Once again the flash did its job of filling the shadows and making Sharon “pop” against the background.


The next idea came from Sharon. She got down behind some of the mustard plants and started looking through and around the stems. This allowed me to move in close and obtain the following intimate portrait with great foreground interest and soft background.


Our final shooting venue was a row of eucalyptus trees in the middle of a housing development. I noticed, however, at the right angle, the frame could be filled with the trees and shrubs, avoiding the houses, etc. It also provided a shady respite from the noon-time sun. I chose to use long focal lengths of 180-200mm, even for full length shots, in order to provide the narrow angle of view that would provide a clean background. In this situation the only trick was to shoot at just the right angle to prevent any highlights from shining through the trees and spoiling the tranquil mood.



So in a period of 3 ½ hours we managed to shoot in 6 different locations with 3 changes of wardrobe under very challenging conditions. I loved the wonderfully soft effect that I obtained by shooting at f/2.8. By careful selection of location and control of lighting direction we were able to obtain beautiful portraits under what would normally be considered “bad” light, even without the use of scrims or other light modifiers. The use of on-camera flash to provide balanced fill light helped considerably in giving proper lighting for the model.

I’d have to say that this turned out to be a very successful assignment. I now have much greater confidence in shooting in direct sunlight. So don’t be afraid of the sun. Get out there and shoot.


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