The Sky is the Limit

March 12, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

This time around, I wanted to discuss a new technique I've been working on - using the sky as an exciting background for portrait images.  Zack Arias (www.zackarias.com) is a big fan of using the sky as the background of his portraits, and I am a big fan of Zack Arias.  So, I really wanted to start getting some of the looks he does.

I have experimented in the past using my usual mental approach of:

  1. Setting my initial desired aperture
  2. Lighting the subject
  3. Adjusting ISO / and aperture to get the proper exposure on the subject
  4. Dialing in the ambient light (including the sky) with the shutter speed

I was getting decent result, but never really getting the color, definition, and pop that I craved.  Here is a good example of the type of results I was getting.  Not bad, but neither the subject or the background are jumping out at you.

Here is Emily on the dunes.  I managed to get some good definition of the clouds but not that great eye-cather I wanted.

I got Zack’s book, the ONELight Field Guide and in the first few pages he discussed it.  His approach is as follows:

  1. Set your initial desired aperture (this is an artistic choice after all)
  2. Expose the image for the sky (the subject will most likely be severely underexposed)
  3. Now, bring up the flash to light the subject to the proper level

WOW!  When I explained this epiphany to a friend, and he commented that it was the same thing as I was doing before…  NO IT’S NOT!  Ok, mechanically, it might be, but in the inner workings of my mind, it is the exact opposite of the way I would approach a portrait in the studio. 

Once I got my mind around what was going on, the issues became composition images instead of lighting ones.  The lighting effects you get on your subject are much more a-kin to what you would produce in the studio.  I started getting images like the ones below soon and now it is my preferred method for outdoor portraits.

Foreground and background elements become very important as they will be lit, not-lit, or shadowed depending on the angles and distances selected.  In this photo, it would have been hard to properly light the entire area behind the subject.  It makes for an interesting effect, but it’s a tad bit forced.  Cool sky though, huh?

The sunset under the snare is hip, but that sure is a lot of bush to try to light!

Now I have this big, beautiful sky to play with, how do I make interesting photos that feature my subject, not overpower them?  A couple of quick thoughts on that:

  • Always look to frame them if there are trees or structures in the background.  Trees have a offer lots of opportunities to create lines and angles to draw the viewers attention to the subject.
  • If it’s a clear sky, separate the subject from the background.  You don’t have to fight the clutter of poles, buildings, trees, etc…  I know this is contradictory to the first bullet, but take a look at the photos below to see what I’m talking about.  Besides, in art there is no right or wrong, only good and bad ideas.
  • Use a low angle to really put the subject in space.  If the ground is in the image, you start looking like a landscape shot again, besides, the near foreground will take some dedicated lighting to get right.

Todd gets the studio lighting look with the landscape sky.

 

Stacey jumps out of the image and you can really get a taste of her personality.

So, with just a different point of view and mental approach, I have really started getting shots the excite me.  Give it a bash and see what you can do with it.

- mike


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