Controlling Light Photographic Knowledge.

Location photography challenges me in many ways.  When a project comes in, it is typically relayed  first in an email, followed by a phone conversation and eventually a scouting session. That scouting session gives me an idea of what I can and cannot control on site.   As an example, if I am shooting the exterior of a building and there is only one time the client allows me to be there, I do what I can with sun, clouds and resulting shadows and highlights.   I may elect to shoot at dusk to completely eliminate the sun/clouds altogether.  If the front of a building is facing north, it will never get direct sunlight, so a dusk shot is a good solution for me.  (I can add light with my battery powered speedlights too!)

Controlling Light - commercial building shot at dusk

Location Business Portraits

Interior spaces can vary wildly when it comes to a free area to shoot business portraits.  I have shot in a tiny cluttered storage room of a converted Taco Bell.  I have shot business portraits in expansive warehouses where my setup resembled a bedouin encampment on the edge of a  vast concrete desert, and I have shot outside, tripping the shutter between wind gusts, (and sometimes raindrops).

crowded and cluttered
vast space with tiny setup
storm clouds while shooting

More often than not, for interior portraits,  an unused conference room serves as a good “studio”.  Depending on the choices the client decides on regarding the kind of portrait: environmental or studio ( with a backdrop), will determine my lighting choices.

Windows! Controlling Light.

I just finished a project, where consistency was a prime concern.  Each portrait had to have the same lighting.  I shot on 2 different days in the same space: a large lobby with floor to ceiling windows on 2 sides of the 4 walls.  There was an abundance of natural light, so much that on my scouting visit prior to the first day of shooting, I was seriously thinking of using that natural light.  It was a cloudy day and the beautiful soft light that bathed the room was tempting.   There were 80 individual employees to photograph in total.


The client wanted a background that was a soft white/grey.  It just so happened that the color of the back wall was perfectly matched to that desire.

gray walls
The image above shows what the natural light did, coming through the windows on the first day of shooting.  Even though the soft shadowless light was very seductive to use,  I elected to play it safe and use my own location studio lighting, overriding any existing natural light.  The results were predictable and pleasing.
no challenges on background

The next day…

The following day proved to be challenging.  The weather changed from overcast to bright sun.  The background was no longer a muted partner in my lighting scheme.  The bright natural light now had to be wrestled with.  The stark patterns that the shining light through the windows produced were beautiful and dramatic, however not consistent with yesterday or what the client wanted.

drama on the background

The campaign to balance background, subject and hair light began.  Had I lit the scene exactly like yesterday, the results would be highly unacceptable! (as you can see in the image below).

dramatic light to overcome

The art of manipulation – Controlling Light

In order to override the intense drama of the day’s light, I needed to play with shutter speed, ISO and power pack output.  I also needed to shield the subject’s eyes from the glare of the the sun though the windows.  Even with all the lighting adjustments, a squinting subject defeats the purpose of ALL lighting manipulations.  Luckily, I am using a new deep parabolic softbox that blocked the direct sun to the subject, albeit narrowly.  Below were the adjustments I made to ISO, shutter speed and power output.  The darkness at the bottom of #’s 3 and 4 were the sync curtain beginning to show at 250th of a second shutter speed.  I needed the speed and knew that little dark area would be cropped out.

lighting adjustments

The first subject of the day gets extra time.  I shot a test and the natural light coming through the windows still faintly showed.  To remedy this, I boosted the flash power on the background power pack.

hint of sunlight


fixed background

In conclusion – Controlling Light

When the natural light of an ever changing day presents itself as an element to contend with, options exist:  Block the windows with shades or block out velvet backdrops, (provided the windows are small enough.)  Lower the ISO.  Increase the shutter speed to maximum sync speed for your camera.(200 or 250).  Shutter speed controls ambient light coming in.  Finally, boost the power on the background lights to wash out the ambient light.  There is no order to these solutions and my success is dependant on the capabilities of my equipment.   It might be a combination of adjustments or simply just one, based on the ambient light conditions.  One note: your f stop controls depth of field ( what is in focus beyond the subject).  When trying to “cancel” the ambient light , I leave the f stop alone and work with : ISO, shutter speed and power pack output.

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