High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

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veeco5150 Contributing Member • Posts: 564
High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

Hi,

Over the past few years I've noticed a great trend of so many outdoor portraits looking a lot like this ... very high key and somewhat washed out; muted color tones.

I noticed this type of imagery is very common ... but it greatly contrasts with my portrait imagery with the backgrounds properly exposed and a fill flash added.

I'd love to experiment and learn this and add to my portfolio and experience.

My guess would be that this would be natural light with no flash, backlit by the sun and overexposed based on the shadowed face which would make the face exposure accurate yet blow out the background .... and then in post heavily bring down the lightlights to show the light detail in the back.

Or overexposing the background naturally and adding a fill flash in the face so the whole image is somewhat overexposed?

Is there tint added to these images possibly or muted contrast .... would love any thoughts.

Thanks,
Matt

Dan W Regular Member • Posts: 359
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

The people look well exposed, so yes they are in the shade on a contrasty day. Looking at the eyes you don't see any catch lights so no flash or reflector was likely used.

It's an interesting look, I might have to try it. The problem its a little distracting. your eye naturally goes to the brightest part of the image, in this case the background. I usually light and expose for the face and some falloff as you move down the body. Portraits its about the face right? I'll also under expose the background 2/3 stop or so because I want the viewers eye to flow to the face of the portrait.

But there's something unique about your photos that I like...

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OP veeco5150 Contributing Member • Posts: 564
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

Agreed and what you talk about is typical portrait photography, which I think is along the lines of what I do ... but I seem to see this type of portrait photography being very desirable and fashionable for the past few years.

I think you are right about no flash and that is what somewhat perplexes me.

Again I feel the trend the past few years is all natural light and no flash or strobe ... photog's running with the most basic and simple gear ... just a camera and a lens ... but getting results like these on heavily backlit subjects (again the trend) and having proper exposure on the subject I can only assume it is post processing and most likely the increasing potential of more dynamic range and lightening the shadows and taking down the highlights ... reducing contrast but still producing a sharp and popping image.

Personally I love this type of image mainly because it is very flatting to any type of skin tone I feel without any retouching needed (my guess) and secondly if there is no strobe as you suggest; it leads to a very simple, light and easy setup .... just a camera and a lens....and here I am lugging around a giant strobe and lightbox on a windy day lol.

So if there is no external lighting, I would only assume that this is post processing technique.

Dan W Regular Member • Posts: 359
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

You might be right about the post work. It would be hard just to use Masks to over expose the background around people and hair to make it worth the time though. But there's a lot of new AI software out there, who knows...

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Richard Hopkins
Richard Hopkins Regular Member • Posts: 375
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

I agree that outdoor portraiture has become more popular, but I'd say it was with flash rather than all-natural light. The trick of course, is to make it look like no flash was used.

The example photos are the work of a skilled professional https://gilmorestudios.com/galleries/families/ and some additional lighting has definitely been used. Look at the last one of the couple, clearly strongly back-lit by the sun but lots of soft light filling-in from the front. Judging from the catch-lights in the eyes, I'd say that was a large softbox with flash.

Bright out-of-focus background, light toned clothes and soft fill-in flash carefully balanced with the ambient light. The rest of 'the look' is mostly post-processing - reduced contrast, muted saturation, added brightness and in some examples on the Gilmore Studios website, a bit more of the same applied to the background as well. Nice work 😎

Ellis Vener
MOD Ellis Vener Forum Pro • Posts: 14,333
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

Along with the technical advice about lighting, also note that the people are all wearing light or pastel toned clothing so make sure you include that direction to your clients.

In the realm of processing, Capture One allows you to create masks based on tonal range and colors. If you create that mask and invert it, you can then brighten and desaturate the everything except the skin tones and dark details like the guy's belt. So that maybe what that photographer is doing.
I think you will also find it interesting to use the R, G, and B histograms as a "forensic" tool to help you work out how the photo works.

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RealVSK Regular Member • Posts: 423
Re: I'll bite... High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

I'll take a chance take a chance...

Last Saturday here we had a nice 70 degree day.  This was at about 12noon on Staten Island, NY with the sun behind and a little to the right illuminating thin clouds.

I used an Adorama Flashpoint Explor600 Pro, (Godox 600) at 1/2 and 1/1 power (I forget which for this one).  25" Glow collapsible beauty dish bare with deflector.

I was a bit shy trying this but seeing the results in the finder I liked it.

I had a few with the subject underlit and recovering the subject in the shadow I didn't like the result that much.  I didn't go for a more ethereal whiting of veiling which looks nice at times.  But I wanted more contrast.

Battery was low but all went well.   We did a lot outdoors with the D850 and 50mm1.4afd rotating a bit to play with the harsh shadows.  But I would feel naked not having some strobe available.

vsk

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elliotn Senior Member • Posts: 2,312
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

veeco5150 wrote:

My guess would be that this would be natural light with no flash, backlit by the sun and overexposed based on the shadowed face which would make the face exposure accurate yet blow out the background.

Bingo!

Ed Shapiro
Ed Shapiro Regular Member • Posts: 339
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips
6

The old expression says, "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear". My version is you can't make an authentic high-key portrait out of a low-key subject by simply providing a white or light background.

Before getting into specific lighting or exposure issues, let's examine the theory. In a typical low-key portrait, the subject is dressed in dark clothing and photographed against a dark background. The subject's face is the brightest element in the composition and the main point of interest. Traditional a high ligh ratio is employed thereby causing the shadows to become darker but detailed.

In a traditional high-key portrait, the subject is dressed in white or light pastel colours, the background is white or bright, thereby makig the subject's face the darkest element in the composition and the principal point of interest.

The portrait-purists will tell you that the best subject for a perfect lowkey portrait is someon with a darker complexion and dark hair and eyes, whereas a fair complected person with blond or very light hear and eyes are best suited for a high-key image.

So...you won't be struck by lightning if you shoot a low-key subject on a high-key background or visa versa, but it won't work as well and takes on a more "commercial "catalogue" look. The problem is the effectiveness of the key, helping to emphasize the subject, is diminished because the viewers' eyes will wander more into the background or clothing that is off-key.

What is more "off-key" is low-key lighting on a high-key background in that dark shadows become the darkest element and therefore distracting, thereby causing the ethereal quality of a high key image to be lost.

In a studio environment, it is relatively easy to create a high-key portrait by precise control over lighting form, ratio and background. Once you get the subject lighting form and ratio under control, all that you need to do is illuminate the background sufficiently to brighten it to the desired level. The exposure on the background can be anythg for 1/3 to 2 full stops over the subject exposure, depending on the unseen-secondary (bounce light for other lighting units in the room and the size of the shooting area and the reflectivity of the surrounding walls and ceilings.

Out-0f-doors requires a slightly different technique, however, the basics are the same. Preplanning clothing is important. Time of day, weather conditions, natural lighting direction all factor in. You can go to all-natural light using reflectors for main and/or fill illumination. You can use flash and balance the exposure with the daylight so that the background is the same density or brighter than the subject. Keeping the basic "formula and concept in mind you need to be able to improvise, use your hand-held exposure meter, and be able to select a background area that will work.

Many might disagree with me but there is very litte you can do in post-processing to make a high-key portrait out of a file that does not have most of the aforementioned elements. Even in a near-perfect file, you can tweak a background to lighten it slightly. Of course, you can control white balance, contrast, brightness and saturation to taste. Just dropping in, eliminating or replacing the background is time-consuming and usually will not yield the best results because there will usually be too many incompatibilities.

Ed Shapiro- Commercial and Portrait Photographer. Ottawa, Ontario Canada

OP veeco5150 Contributing Member • Posts: 564
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

yeah I agree ... I've seen large shoots entirely with this look ... I can't imagine anyone going through to mask every single image if that was the case.

OP veeco5150 Contributing Member • Posts: 564
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

yes I can see this as being the case.

I did find the work from Gilmore and love her work and am inspired by her style ... again it seems to be a very common style over the past few years so kind of looking for the technique.

I can definitely see using strobe and soft box ... overexposing the background a bit and then opening up the facial shadows with a fill light and overexposing that as well.

I'd just love to see the original and see how much of this is done in post.

If there was indeed a reduction of contrast and saturation .... and possibly even a muted tone added to the image?

OP veeco5150 Contributing Member • Posts: 564
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

yeah I would think that in general masking out an entire photo shoot (even huge parts of a wedding) would be an extreme chore for so many photographers to be using this technique.

However if masking software is now that easy to apply and use; than maybe this look is so popular and often used.

Not too experienced on discovering the forensics of the RGB channels ... maybe there is a tutorial of how you think these channels might have been used?

OP veeco5150 Contributing Member • Posts: 564
Re: I'll bite... High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

Nice portrait and thanks for sharing!!
However I do feel this is more of a standard typical outdoor portrait ... basically the same sort of portrait work that I produce as well.....

Most of the frame is well exposed as well as the subject ... colors and subject are crisp and pop in the frame and bounce from the background.

Very good portrait, but the technique used above I feel does not have this normal portrait feel .... it's muted contrast and saturation and the entire frame sort of blends together. Subject is definitely in heavy shade due to sun directly behind; so either a fill flash is used (as you did and I feel would usually look more like the image you are sharing), or post processing is making the entire frame more muted and balanced.

elliotn Senior Member • Posts: 2,312
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips
2

To shoot portraits like this you need to take your strobes, softboxes, brollies, gels, nano-stands etc - and lock them in a cupboard. (You can put your tripod in there too.)

Don't read anything by David Hobby or Joe McNally.

All you need is a camera with a fast prime lens.

Place the sun behind your subject, and then look - really look - at the way the environment is reflecting the sunlight back onto your subject. That's the skill - placing your subject in a position where the reflected light is flattering.

No fancy post-production is required (just pull the highlights, lift the shadows, and reduce the saturation).

OP veeco5150 Contributing Member • Posts: 564
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips
1

Thank you Elliot,

This is kind of what I expected in all reality.

It seems that most photographers employing this type of effect (and the shooting style that I find more and more popular) is minimal in gear. Yes prime lens and a body and natural light.

I just know that all of these types of images are so heavily backlit for that afternoon background glow; the shadows on the face are so great; you need incredible dynamic range if pulling out highlight and shadow details.

I think cameras and technology these days are capable of this ... just kind of wanted to confirm.

Even with ambient reflection; you would need a lot of natural reflected lights to bring these shadows in the face in line with the background.

I'd love to see the original shot of these images ... I'm guessing you expose for the face which would greatly blow out the background and then adjust exposure so that at least you have detail in the background (face slightly underexposed now) and then in post pull down the highlights to get more detail and increase the exposure in the face/shadows to create a spot on facial exposure.

I've not experimented much with this; but as I usually shoot with strobe and softbox; I very much look forward to shooting simply with 1 body and a prime lens instead. Would make my day so much easier.

Do you think these images are toned at all or are the blown out highlights completely white? Looks tinted to me

RealVSK Regular Member • Posts: 423
Re: I'll bite... High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

veeco5150 wrote:

Nice portrait and thanks for sharing!!
However I do feel this is more of a standard typical outdoor portrait ... basically the same sort of portrait work that I produce as well.....

Most of the frame is well exposed as well as the subject ... colors and subject are crisp and pop in the frame and bounce from the background.

Very good portrait, but the technique used above I feel does not have this normal portrait feel .... it's muted contrast and saturation and the entire frame sort of blends together. Subject is definitely in heavy shade due to sun directly behind; so either a fill flash is used (as you did and I feel would usually look more like the image you are sharing), or post processing is making the entire frame more muted and balanced.

True, I examined the original post.  My skies were so bright you could hardly look at them, very harsh even though some light clouds.

Yes, there is too much contrast to be representative of what is being discussed here.

Thanks for the look and input!

vsk

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OP veeco5150 Contributing Member • Posts: 564
Re: I'll bite... High key lighting outdoor portrait tips
2

Yeah I also shoot in the typical style as your image ... with strobe and balanced ambient background ... however I would certainly love to be able to shoot in a different style that does not require lugging around the large strobes and soft box. 
Camera body and 85 1.2 prime is what I would love to shoot with; just have not risked experimenting on a shoot yet; thus inquiring here first.

FuzzyKeys Regular Member • Posts: 276
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

The actual shooting of this kind of stuff is not super complicated imo. Backlight with the sun and use unobstructed sky for big fill. You can use a strobe if you want but I would use just a kiss to supplement rather than overpower the ambient light.

From there, a big part of this look happens in post. In terms of exposure management, you really don’t want to do very much highlight recovery if you can avoid it. If things blow out a bit in the environment, that’s fine. You will also probably want to apply a master tone curve that rolls off the high end and compresses the dynamic range, so you can lift the black point above zero as well. In terms of color, look how de-saturated and pale the greens, blues and yellows are while the skin tones are a hair on the brighter side of “properly” exposed but much more saturated than the environment. That contrast makes the skin pop and sells the stylized look. Turn down the saturation of the non-skin tones by a lot and turn their luminosity up a bit. You can do that with HSL in LR or the color editor in C1, though in LR it can be a bit more fiddly to separate your greenish foliage yellows from the warmer yellows that reside in the skin tones. You can do this or refine it in PS with more precision.

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stateit
stateit Senior Member • Posts: 1,377
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

From the lack of contrast (to the images in the OP) it looks to me like "Boost Shadows" and "Raise Brightness" to an otherwise awkwardly exposed image...

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rmexpress22 Senior Member • Posts: 1,561
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

This just looks like natural light and lowered contrast. But they do look well exposed to begin with.

The couple shoot is not golden hour, but a bit before that so you still get a nice warm color.

At most, I would guess a reflector is being used for the couples shoot. For the family shoot, there's a chance that it's sunny behind the photographer but none of that direct light is hitting the family. They're just getting a very nice glow and it essentially acts as a very huge soft box.

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