Portrait photography from the road

In Photography, RV, Stories from the road, Tutorial

Kelly in the Granite Dells

Drab back drop
The scene we worked with for many of the images in this article

Getting my senior portraits done in the 1980’s was pretty straight forward.  Make and appointment with Olan Mills in downtown DeLand Florida, get dressed up, head into the studio and get a few head shots.  When people think of portrait work they often think of heading into a studio, but that’s not necessary any longer.  In fact, even in an RV you can have all the gear you need along with you to do portrait work as well.

In this month’s post on photography for the road we’re going to talk about what it takes for RV’ers to have their own little portrait setup.  And you will be surprised by the small amount of extra gear you need along.  You don’t need a studio space with roll out backgrounds.  You’ve got incredible backgrounds everywhere you travel.  And we’ll talk about using those backgrounds to your advantage.

Your Camera

If you’re really thinking about doing portrait work while on the road, the first thing you’ll need is a decent camera.  You don’t have to get the highest end gear, but you’re going to need something good.  We’re talking a mid-line Digital SLR or one of the new mirrorless digital cameras that have interchangeable lenses.  Whatever camera you get, you’ll need a hot shoe (to put your flash or flash controller).

The camera you choose should offer a manual mode for shooting.  Today’s DSLRs and new Mirrorless setups normally offer Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority, Programmable, and Manual Mode.  Whenever we do outdoor portrait work, we strictly work with Manual Mode.  And you’ll learn why as you read on.

Personally I shoot with a Canon 5D II, and a Canon 7D.  I used to run a 40D as well, and it was actually my favorite portrait camera body, but sadly it was destroyed after being packed for the road, and the pack came open, the camera hit the ground, and that was the end of that.

Travel Photography Tutorial
Camera Modes

Lighting Gear

Right out of the camera
Storm clouds rolling in, winds hampering the shoot, and the sun breaking through the clouds directly above. No edits, right out of the camera.

To create really stunning outdoor portraits you’re going to need to invest in a little lighting equipment.  This is not something that will break the bank.  In fact you’re going to be pretty surprised by the low expense.  In the case of our off camera lighting gear, everything used cost less than $1,000.  Here’s what we run.

  • Alien Bee Strobe – For my main light the Alien Bee 400 does everything I need it to do.  It’s a relatively small unit, and I also purchased the carrying bag for it.  Normally for a single subject this one strobe will do almost everything you want to do.  The Bee 400 costs $224.95.
  • Radio Poppers – Radio Poppers are my triggers of choice.  The Radio Popper transmitter sits in the hot shoe of my camera (where you could also put a small flash), and the Radio Popper receiver is attached to my strobe (the Alien Bee).  I now have a way to control my flash from my camera up to several hundred feet away.  I use the Radior Popper Jr radios.  They are no longer available, but the new Jr 2’s are amazing.  A transmitter and receiver cost $260.00 together.
  • Portable Power, The Vagabond Mini- You’re going to need something to power your strobe.  The Vagabond Mini is an excellent portable battery pack that can not only power you flash, it can also power other gear and recharge equipment through a USB as well.  And it holds a charge for an extremely long time!!!  The Vagabond Mini sells for $240.
  • Lastolite Ezybox 36×36 – Our Lastolite 36inch by 36 inch softbox is a must.  It folds down to nothing, and is easy to work with .  The softbox is used to create nice soft light from the Alien Bee.  You put the strobe into the softbox and voila!  Nice even light for your subject.  The 36×36 Ezbox sells for $270.00
  • Light Stand or Mono Pole – Finally you’ll need a portable light stand or monopole for your assistant.  You can find decent light stands for under $100.

Totaling things up I see we’re coming in just over $1,000.  So my statement above was in error.  But here’s the deal, you don’t have to get everything retail.  I’d search Craigslist or other online venues to find the light stand and the softbox.  I would buy the Radio Poppers, Alien Bee, & Vagabond retail.

What About Super Portable Flash Units, ETTL, and High Speed Sync?

Portrait photography from an RV
Shot at 3:30 in the afternoon, sun still high in the sky. Shot in our friend’s back yard

For novice portrait photographers the heading above probably means nothing to you.  That’s okay, don’t worry about it.  And for seasoned photographers this question might mean a lot.

Living In Tin has a lot of photo gear.  We’ve got super portable Speed Lites from Canon.  They’re extremely expensive, and used rarely.  When doing outdoor portrait work these little flash units don’t have enough power to make a difference against the giant light in the sky known as the Sun.  The Alien Bees are used instead to over power the Sun.  So our investment in the Speed Lites was a mistake.  They’re good for indoor work, but outdoors mid-day you don’t even know they’re there.

In our outdoor portrait setups we also don’t use ETTL.  ETTL stands for Electronic Through The Lens.  Basically ETTL helps automate your flash exposure when you’re shooting.  It’s pretty amazing.  Instead of using that feature, we do everything manual.  The results, once you get comfortable shooting this way, are equivalent to using ETTL.

Finally, we also don’t use High Speed Sync.  High Speed Sync allows you to use your flash at exposures faster than 1/200th of a second.  It’s really cool, and sometimes I wish that my Radio Poppers could support High Speed Sync, but it isn’t necessary.  Shooting manual you can work at 1/200th of a second and still control the light under most conditions.

Once again, for novices, don’t let this little section scare you.  We’re going to walk you through the basics shooting manual, and once you’ve got it down you can think about these more complex subjects.  In the end if you wanted to shoot ETTL and High Speed Sync you are going to be spending a lot more money than the setup listed above!

Controlling the Light Outdoors

Who needs a studio backdrop?
Who needs a studio backdrop? This is a friend’s yard, and it worked just fine!

As RV’ers and travelers we don’t have a lot of space.  So working from a studio isn’t really an option for us.  In studios we can control all of the light.  The lighting to see, the lighting on our subjects, the lighting on the background….. you get the idea.  So doing portrait work from the road means we get to enter into one of the toughest photographic challenges of our life.  There’s a giant ball of fire in the sky for about half the day known as the Sun.  The Sun is a very harsh light source for a good part of the day, it casts hard shadows, blows out our skies, and makes our subjects squint constantly.  So our biggest challenge is controlling the sun.

I’m giving you a moment to think about that.  We’re all pretty small in comparison to the sun, so how do we control it…..?  Well, we don’t.

There’s no way to actually control the sun.  Instead, we have to work around the sun.  And lets think about that.  How do we work around it?  I have a few ideas.

  • Find shady areas for your subjects
  • Don’t shoot at high sun
  • Do not face your subjects into the sun
  • Wait for some cloud cover to roll in
  • Shoot earlier or later in the day
  • Scout locations before shooting to know where the sun will be at certain times of day

Since we can’t control our largest light source, we have to be creative in working around it.  As you work on outdoor portraiture you will become good at figuring out how to work around the sun, and you might even find it to be a fun challenge.

Changing the Light Outdoors

Portrait photography for RV'ers
The strobe failed to fire on this image. It shows how under exposed the whole scene is and the subject is lost.

In the end, what we’re really doing is changing the lighting of our outdoor scene.  Normally we’re attempting to darken the sky or backdrop, and properly light our subject.  We want the background to be rich (darker) and we want our subject to be properly exposed.  If we underexpose an image to get deeper blue skies, what’s going to happen to our subject?  They’ll be darker too, and you might not even be able to make them out.  That’s where your strobes come in, and where shooting in manual becomes key.

If you haven’t read our earlier article on Exposure, this is the moment to do it.  We’re going to be shooting in manual mode, setting our lens speed to 1/200th of a second, setting our ISO as low as we can, and using our Aperture to control the incoming light.  So if you haven’t read it, do it now as it will help immensely!

Portrait photography for RV'ers
While not a great shot, you can see the difference in illumination on the subject with the strobe. Same scene, subject is now lit.

When shooting outdoors I have a pretty standard setup on manual.

  • 1/200th of a second – My radio transmitter won’t work any faster than 1/200th of a second.
  • ISO 100, or your lowest ISO possible
  • The Aperture or F-Stop is what I vary, and I also vary the power coming out of my portable flash unit.

Before beginning a shoot I will take several test images to see if I can drop the light level of the background.  The higher the aperture number is (f/10, f/14, etc) the less light comes in from the background.  Put another way, the higher the f-stop, the darker the overall image.

Once I feel that my background is rich enough with deep colors and a darker feel I introduce the subject to the scene and do a few lighting tests.  The overall scene is under exposed, but the subject needs to be properly exposed.  This is where the strobe comes in to properly light the subject.

The Radio Poppers, or any other wireless transmitter, comes into play now.  I can control the power output of the flash directly from my transmitter.  Dial the power down, or dial the power up.  Normally I’ll do 3 or 4 test shots to figure out where we are with the lighting before we actually start shooting a scene.  Thanks to digital, 3 or 4 throw away shots are no biggie.  It’s not like you’re wasting film.

The test shots also help to see where I should place the light, or the lighting assistant.  In the examples here, the light is illuminating the subject’s back.  We can either turn the subject, or we can move the light.  Fortunately I have a lighting assistant who has experience with where I want lights placed.  And the two sample images in this section were both part of my testing process.

After The Shoot

Once the shoot is over, our job still isn’t done.  The next step is off loading your images for review, selection, and finally post processing.  For our most recent shoot our client wanted an edgy look and feel for her images.  A splash of “Goth” and a hint of old time flare.  That part needs to be completed in your post processing / developing.  And for the work done here at Living In Tin, we used Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and Adobe Photoshop.  Honestly, 95% of the work can be done in Lightroom alone, but if you want to get super creative you might ponder Photoshop.

Living in Tin has another tutorial series on using Lightroom from start to finish.  If you want to know more about using Lightroom follow this link.

These days with all of our amazing technology it’s quite surprising when clients ask that you “weather” or “age” an image.  Out of the camera we often find several gems after a shoot, and time and again our subjects ask for filters and weathered looks.  Fortunately you can restyle images all day long, or if you did really well, present something right out of the camera.  There is no correct formula, adjust the images to your own taste and preferences, or to those of your subjects.

If readers would like a full video post on a outdoor portrait session, please let us know and we’ll make it happen!

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