Tuesday, December 12, 2017


There’s simply no better way to create portraits outdoors than with natural light. And, there’s no better method to create dimensional—that’s three dimensional—directional lighting (with shadows!) than by using the Subtractive Technique.

This technique is very simple. When your subject is in an outdoor environment that has flat light—like open shade—or out in the open with light striking the subject from all sides, you need to subtract the extra light from two sides (or at least 1 side) to create a nice shadow side on your subject’s face.

One of our tools to create subtractive lighting is an Opaque Black Flat, which we call a GOBO or flag—terms I learned many years ago when Kathi and I were doing independent short films. We also use natural gobos on location to create the same effect; especially with group portraits. A natural gobo can be a line of trees , a large bush, or rocks. Anything that will create a shadow side on your subjects face(s), when you place them close to that gobo, is the goal. If you don’t see any shadows then, at that point, your gobo has become a reflector and will defeat our purpose.

Here is an example using the natural gobo technique…

 f4.5 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 800; Lens at 200mm
I placed the boy close to a bunch of trees at camera left.  The sun is setting behind him and it’s about an hour before sunset. The key light is a huge patch of blue sky (the sky is my soft box!) on the right.  The key to creating this light pattern is being able to SEE the shadows and the direction of light outdoors. I think that the reason so many photographers resort to using flash outdoors is that they can’t see the sometimes subtle difference when the subject is placed next to a gobo.

One of the most difficult times to create and see when the light is good outdoors is in fully overcast conditions.  This is when we bring out our 42” black gobo to break-up the very flat light….

f4.5 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 200mm
This was done at noon on a very overcast day, in the California wine country, where I was teaching a class to professional photographers on this very topic. Because I liked that fence I sat her on the ground; it also gave her something to lean against. Since that overcast sky gave her severe “raccoon eyes” I stood over her (which also gave me a clean background) and had her bring her chin UP until I saw the light in her eyes. Then I had one of my students bring the 42” black gobo in close to her on the right side creating that nice shadow—and the three dimensionality that the flat overcast sky would have ruined.

In a bright sunny situation with again flat light—because there are no natural gobos—we use the hand held gobo like this….

This was done at an hour and a half before sunset with the subject’s back to the sun. We placed him on a picnic table completely in the open with light striking him from every angle—not the ideal subject placement! So, I had Kathi bring the 42” black gobo Close and angled over his head to block the top light and light from the right.

I learned this powerful yet simple technique over 30-years ago from the master of Subtractive Lighting Leon Kennamer. Leon would usually use two gobos—one horizontally over the subject’s head and the other vertically on one side creating a half-box.  However, he did suggest this single, angled, gobo technique when we didn’t want to set-up stands in a windy environment.

So, as you can see there’s no need what-so-ever for flash outside if there is light—in evidence. The key is not just the light—anyone can see light—it’s all about seeing or creating the shadows to give our subjects natural dimension.  

Don’t just be a strobist—be a portrait artist!

As usual I am open to questions….’Til next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

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