Lighting for Outdoor Photo and Video

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Whether you are shooting a fashion editorial, a wedding reception, or anything in between, on- and off-camera lighting can make a huge difference outdoors. Natural light is wonderful, but there are scenarios in which you simply cannot run the risk of an unexpected cloud or rapidly setting sun ruining your shot. This article introduces the gear and accessories necessary to be prepared outdoors always, no matter what kind of light Mother Nature serves you.

On-Camera Flash…

Most photographers begin with an on-camera flash when they need an extra boost of illumination in a pinch when working outdoors. Equally helpful, whether you just need to fill in shadows or to step up to bat when skies turn gray, on-camera flashes have become increasingly powerful and technologically advanced in recent years. If you are shooting in a rapidly changing lighting environment, look for a flash with TTL capabilities. This will prevent you from missing shots while fiddling with manual settings. Learn more about flash settings here.

On-camera flashes with round heads are favored by portrait photographers working indoors or outdoors.
  1. your primary subject is people, consider choosing a flash that has a round head—for example, the Profoto A10 Studio Light—to produce natural-looking catchlights and more pleasing falloff. Many new flashes allow you to add diffusion, softboxes, grids, gels, and other accessories to shape light like you can when working with strobes. Depending on your exact model, there are flash modifiers with “universal” fits that can be swapped between similar-size flashes or there are several magnetic, model-specific modifiers available for quick and secure attachment.
Some flash modifiers can be swapped between similar-size models while others are specific to your flash.
Some flash modifiers can be swapped between similar-size models while others are specific to your flash.

… and Off

Among the benefits of most new, on-camera flashes is, somewhat ironically, their ability to go off-camera. The option of repositioning your flash, especially when photographing people, can make a huge difference in the quality of your images. On its most basic level, moving your light off-axis from your lens will prevent the dreaded red-eye effect from affecting your subjects.

Flash brackets provide the simplest means of getting your light off-camera while still keeping your setup manageable by one person. For an in-depth look at flash brackets, check out this article. You will also need a flash sync cord to maintain communication between your flash and camera. Make sure to pick a cable that is compatible with your camera and flash to achieve reliable performance and relay features such as TTL from your flash.

Flash brackets are one of the simplest means of adding flexibility to the placement of your flash. Don’t forget a compatible sync cord.
Flash brackets are one of the simplest means of adding flexibility to the placement of your flash. Don’t forget a compatible sync cord.

For maximum light placement flexibility, choose a flash with wireless capabilities. This will get your light truly off-camera and able to be positioned anywhere you can mount or hold it. To communicate with your flash in this way you will need a compatible wireless trigger. Again, you will want to make sure to choose a trigger that can best communicate with your flash. This either means staying on-brand between camera, trigger, and flash or choosing a third-party flash and trigger that are compatible with the flash features of your camera brand. For a comprehensive discussion of pairing flashes with cameras off-camera, click here.

Strobes

While on-camera flashes are extremely useful tools, if you plan on shooting outdoors regularly, you will inevitably need to upgrade to a battery-powered strobe. Whether you are trying to overpower the sun, capture fast action, or simply want to add more complex lighting modifiers to your setup, strobes are the way to go.

Just as on-camera flashes have improved over the years, battery-powered strobes have become more compact, powerful, and—thankfully—more affordable than in the past. Many of these strobes, including the Westcott FJ200, incorporate TTL and/or advanced syncing capabilities depending on the environment you are working in. Multi-light kits , such as the Godox AD200 TTL Pocket Flash Kit, can be excellent all-in-one packages for working on location. More extensive kits, including those that come complete with stands and modifiers are also great options, especially if you are looking for a comprehensive solution.

Location lighting kits can be simple or complex, depending on the type of shoot you have planned.

Like the wireless flashes discussed above, you will need a compatible trigger to keep your camera in communication with your light. If you already have a wireless flash, you may even be able to combine it with your strobe to create more dynamic setups. For more information on upgrading from flash to strobe, check out this article.

LEDs

If you plan to incorporate video into your outdoor work, there are many battery-powered LED lights to choose from. Monolight-style LEDs, such as the Genaray PortaBright LED Monolight (available as a standalone monolight or as part of a kits), have a similar build and footprint as strobes, making it possible to swap modifiers or share mounts on location. Panel LEDs , including this Bi-Color LED Light with an Eggcrate Grid, are another option for quickly achieving a uniform source when working outdoors. For a more nuanced look at these two types of continuous lights, click here.

Genaray PortaBright Daylight LED Battery Powered Monolight

Finally, if you just need a dash more light when recording video, on-camera LEDs can provide that extra boost without worrying about a freestanding light. While you may be tempted to choose a daylight-balanced LED automatically when working outdoors, bi-color LEDs add flexibility matching ambient light and can also be used to add creative color effects without having to fuss with gels.

Light Stands and Support

Now that you have selected your light, you will either need a patient assistant or light stand to position your source. As your lights (and modifiers) get increasingly large, it becomes harder and harder to manage them without secondary support. When working outside, you will need to make a decision regarding how stable or lightweight you want your stand to be. C-stands can take a repeated beating in almost any environment but are heavy if you are traveling long distances. If you do decide to go this route, a dedicated case will make transportation much easier. Compact light stands are excellent for travel but generally less stable and durable. In either case, just like when working in a studio, make sure to use sandbags to secure your stand. The last thing you want is someone’s uncle who has had one-too-many drinks at the family reunion knocking over your precious light because it hasn’t been properly secured. Check out B&H’s Light Stand Buying Guide for more things to consider when choosing a stand.

Don’t overlook the importance of protecting your gear from the elements when working outside.
Don’t overlook the importance of protecting your gear from the elements when working outside.

And Don’t Forget!

No matter what type of light you are working with outdoors, there are a few things that should be in everyone’s bag. First, extra batteries! Do you already have a backup battery for your light? Get another. Seriously. Batteries can be depleted surprisingly fast outdoors, especially if you are working in cold or hot environments. Arrive prepared. Similarly, if you are working somewhere that does have access to electricity, bring one or more battery chargers. Ideally, you will be able to set up a rotation of batteries in use and charging so that you always have a backup ready. Another important accessory for any location work is reliable and weatherproof bags and cases for your gear. When working outdoors, your gear is only as good as its protection when a rain cloud arrives to ruin someone’s wedding. Don’t let it ruin your lights, as well.

Which lights have you used for outdoor shoots? Share your tips in the Comments section, below!

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