Shooting Under a Tree

Finding natural elements to block midday sunlight thoroughly can be difficult.  Most trees, for instance, block only some of the overhead light, resulting in dappling.  Even of you do find good coverage, you may still be faced with surrounding areas bathed in midday sun and the resulting overexposure of your background.  I've come to embrace the blown-out-background look.  If you use it wisely, you can create very nice images.  Make sure you meter on your subject and not the background when doing this.  I set my exposure using either a handheld incident meter (below chin facing camera) or my camera's spot meter with exposure compensation. Headshot 7 shows a result of this technique.  Wadell's face was largely protected from the sunlight from above by the tree.  Facial illumination was a  combination of skylight and light reflected from the field in front.  


Shooting in Midday Light

Shooting in midday sun can be very challenging.  It is nearly impossible to get a good headshot with a subject drenched with light from directly above.  One trick is to seek cover.  The best places are often large covered areas illuminated by indirect sunlight.  Look for porticos, overpasses, porches, or dense tree cover.  Shooting inside using window light is also a viable strategy.  The following are two examples taken around noon.

Shooting Under an Overhang

In the image to the left (Headshot 6), Wadell was positioned under the large overhang shown in Location Photo 6 below.   He was crouching on the floor and facing in the direction of the arrow.  The overhang blocked sunlight from above and provided a variety of positioning options.   When shooting under a large canopy like this, be mindful of areas exposed to direct sunlight that fall within your image frame.  Those areas will likely be highly overexposed.   I usually shoot into or diagonally across the covered space to avoid including bright spots, sometimes shooting down so that the floor becomes the background.  Also note that ground surfaces  illuminated by direct sunlight near your subject can produce excessive under-lighting.  Move your subject away from these offending areas if you don't like what you see.  



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This section presents some ideas for shooting outdoor headshots with a minimum of fuss and equipment.  With one exception, all of these headshot examples were done with just a camera and the existing light.  Most of these images were taken with flat and broad frontal lighting in open shade.  While this lighting is easy  to use and generally downplays wrinkles, it isn't particularly good at  creating relief.  Also, it doesn't do a good job of delineating the transition from the "mask" of the face to the sides of the head.  As a result, many faces will look broader or heavier with this light.   To avoid this problem, you can use the broad lighting source obliquely.  In soft open shade, you can often achieve this by simply rotating your subject left or right of the frontal position and repositioning the camera to achieve the desired facial view. 

All of these images were produced with a reduced-frame DSLR with an 85mm lens set to approximately f2.8.  I mention that as a point of reference only.  You can certainly get equal or better results with all kinds of equipment. 

I'd like to thank the two models who helped with this project: Cesar Silva and Wadell Reed.  Cesar can be contacted at Model Mayhem #792188.  

Afternoon Headshot Tour


Under a Tree at the Edge of a Courtyard

Next we headed over to a nearby university campus and looked around for a few good spots.  Our first headshot there (Example  2) was taken in a rather unconventional way.  Normally, I avoid facing my subject into the sun, but this location provided an interesting opportunity.  I seated Cesar at the edge of a sunken courtyard under a large maple tree.  The tree not only provided excellent  cover from the skylight above, but the thick trunk of the tree provided a means to block direct sunlight.  The lighting, as seen from the subject's position, is captured in Location Photo 2.  This combination of indirect sunlight and sunlight reflected from the paving blocks provides a nice quality of light.  The grass covered courtyard behind Cesar was illuminated primarily by bluish skylight, and renders as blue-green. 

The following shots of Cesar were all done during one late afternoon.  We started our whirlwind headshot session at a historic mansion, proceeded to a nearby university, and finished with a headshot in a park at dusk.   

Ducking Into an Entranceway

The headshot to the left (Example1) was taken in a large, north-facing entranceway of a historic mansion (Location Photo 1, below).  The light streaming into this entranceway was a combination of skylight and light reflected from the sun-dappled walkway and courtyard.  This provided a large, soft source of illumination, with just a bit of sparkle.  Cesar was seated on the floor of the entranceway, back several feet from the entrance, and against the wall in the position indicated by the the red rectangle in Location Photo 1.   The roof of the entranceway blocked skylight from directly above, avoiding any darkening of the eye sockets or the accentuation of skin texture associated with overhead light.  This proved to be a good location that yielded a useful headshot. 










Shooting in a Tree Crotch

The sun was drawing close to the horizon, so we packed our bags and headed over to a nearby park.  We had just enough time to knock out our last headshot using an old beech tree.  Example 5 was taken just after the sun had set.  The light at this time can have a wonderfully warm and soft quality that flatters many subjects.  We placed Cesar facing the sunset leaning into the  tree crotch.  The branches on either side of him partially blocked light from the sides of the head and this resulted in an slight increase in lighting contrast between the front and sides of the face.  The frontal lighting, essentially the vast glowing horizon, has produced soft, creamy skin tones.  A view of the lighting as seen by the subject is shown in Location Photo 5. 


Shooting at the Top of a Hill

At the next location, we decided to depart from the flat frontal lighting used for the prior shots.  We were positioned on the top of a hill with light tree cover from above and open sky to the subject's right.  Sunlight was streaming in from behind and somewhat left of the subject.  A tree blocked sunlight from flaring into the camera lens.  There was a big difference in illumination intensity  between the highlight and shadow sides of the face and skylight from above was causing some darkening of the eye sockets.  To remedy these problems a white reflector was placed just left of the camera lens, picking up sunlight and reflecting it straight into Cesar's face.  As we used a white reflector and kept it close to the camera-subject axis, the fill lighting is barely noticeable.  The results are shown in Example 4.  There is no location photograph for this image. 


Light Reflecting Off a Nearby Building

For our next headshot (Example 3), we selected a location that provided a nice blend of reflected sunlight and gentle backlighting from the sun.  Cesar was  placed under a low, overhanging tree to reduce light from above and faced a large white building illuminated by the sun.  The view from the subject position is shown in Location Photo 3.  The facial lighting resulting from the reflected sunlight and skylight is quite pleasant and the backlighting added separation and depth to the image.