Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Using natural light is the only organic way to “marry” your subject into an outdoor setting. Any use of artificial light, that only falls on the subject, tends to “pull” the subject, forward, out of the environment. And electronic flash being a small, hard, point light source is the most unnatural, artificial, light source being misused by many photographers today.

I quit  using any artificial lighting (called additive lighting) outdoors over 30 years ago, after studying under the late, great, photographer Leon Kennamer, one of the pioneers of the Subtractive Lighting Method in outdoor portrait photography. Leon taught that it looks far more natural to subtract light—using a black Gobo (or flag)—from one side on your subject creating direction in the lighting, and if needed, subtracting light from above your subject to prevent raccoon eyes or dark eye sockets. 

While his technique worked fabulously on individuals, I wanted this natural, directional, light look on my groups as well.  Realizing that it wasn’t practical to lug around giant Gobos that would work on groups I started using the Natural Gobos on my outdoor locations to block light on one side of my outdoor “sets”. The entire key to using subtractive lighting outdoors is Subject Placement NEXT to a Natural Gobo so that a shadow side will be created on your subject’s faces.

So, I’ll show highlights from a family session using this technique; we always start with the whole group first…

 f6.3 @ 1/160 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 180mm
We always start with the largest group because it’s the most difficult set-up.

Subject Placement—the setting sun is behind them and I placed them next to a row of large dark stone blocks, with large trees behind said blocks, blocking the sky light on camera Right. On camera Left is a very large patch of clear blue sky creating a nice large main light—the sky is my soft box.

Next, we moved them to a completely different location for a different look—we always do at least two set-ups for the family group.

f6.3 @ 1/125 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 135mm

The reason I like this park (Kathryn Albertson Park in Boise, Idaho) so much is the many mature trees with rocks and logs placed just the way I like them!

Subject Placement—again the sun is setting behind them with a large patch of blue sky at camera Right. To camera Left are more rocks and trees blocking the extra sky light.

Note: Focal Length and Apertures for groups:

My basic rule is to use the Longest Focal Length I can use within the location—up to 200mm. Why?
  • The telephoto compression effect is very flattering on people.
  • Longer focal lengths equalize head sizes when you have two or more rows of people.
  • backing-up using a telephoto gives you more depth-of-field and better bokeh as well!
My basic rule on apertures is to use the widest aperture necessary for the depth-of-field I need; for example:
  • If I have a small family group in two rows and I have enough room to use my lens at 150mm…at 30 feet from my group I know an aperture of f6.3 will give me 4.6 feet depth-of-field. Ideal for many groups.
  • If I have a larger group—say three rows—with my lens at 150mm at 30 feet I’ll stop down my lens to f7.1 which will give me 5.17 feet depth-of-field.
Note: Always focus your lens on the nearest person to your camera!  Why?  Because a common belief that focusing mid-group where the depth-of-field was thought to be 1/3 in front and 2/3’rds behind your point of focus is not necessarily the case, depending on your f-stop, focal length and distance. Doing research using DOFMaster.com, using their excellent depth-of-field calculator, I discovered that most of the time the depth-of-field is 50% in front and 50% behind the point of focus. Now I know why some photographers using the mid-group focusing have complained about the back focusing effect where their subjects in front are “soft”

Next week in Part 2 I’ll continue with this family portrait session with what we call the “breakdowns”.
Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

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