Only a week after my cold morning visit to Trostle Pond, I was back on a Thursday evening for a portrait session with Chelsea, the lovely harpist I met during The Vintage’s “24 Hours of Art” event this past summer. I did a series of portraits of artists participating at the event, and had mentioned to Chelsea then that I’d love to get her in front of the camera again in a more dynamic setting.
So a few weeks later we made plans to meet at Trostle for sunset and see what we could come up with.
In this edition of Saturday Light, I’m going to focus on what goes into an outdoor photoshoot, because there’s more to it than meets the eye.
My visit to Trostle Pond the previous weekend was more than just an autumn morning outing for me; it was also a chance for me to scout the location as a possible portrait site and run some mental tests to try and anticipate potential pros and cons. This is the point where I’m glad I’m alone, because I’m usually pacing back and forth, or wandering in small circles, studying the space, the landscape, the light, and muttering to myself.
Location scouting is one of the most important aspects of an outdoor session and there are a lot of variables I take into consideration. How easy is it to find the location? What’s the access like? How far will I have to carry gear – and will the models have to walk? Is there a lot of visitor traffic? Will we be in the way of other visitors? Will we have any privacy? What’s the light going to be like? Do we have to contend with tall grass/standing water/mud/rocks/wildlife?
A lot of it boils down to matters of safety, and Trostle passes those checkpoints without issue. The walk wasn’t so far to be a problem, there are rarely other visitors, and the forecast was good.
For this session, I had decided to work with a single light, the traditional “speedlight on a stick” approach.” In fact, I only brought one flash and one stand with me; packing light was essential, because I fully anticipated having to carry Chelsea’s harp down the trail to the edge of the pond. (It’s poor form, after all, to invite a model to work with you, then make them carry their own harp!)
When working “in the wild,” I find that one light is the better choice 95% of the time. You’ve already got so many other variables at work – variables that aren’t a factor in a controlled studio setting – that trying to then juggle multiple lights can make the whole thing crash. It’s better to keep it simple. And for what it’s worth, I truly believe that many shoots can be executed with one light to begin with.
I brought two modifiers with me; my DIY beauty dish and a shoot-through umbrella. The umbrella would have given a softer, more diffused light, which might have been preferable, especially for the full-length shots. But the beauty dish has a more defined quality of light, plus one other major benefit: wind resistance.
There was a fair breeze when we started shooting and it lasted, in small gusts, right to the end. With umbrellas, that’s a recipe for disaster. In any kind of wind, an umbrella is just a big sail, and it – and the flash and stand it’s attached to – will be picked up, dragged across the field, and tossed in broken pile against a hedgerow somewhere.
Even with sandbags – and I had two with me – there’s no guarantee that the umbrella won’t topple, which may or may not break your flash (I’ve had it go both ways).
Side note – I recently saw a lightstand [LINK] that has little spikes at the end of each foot, which can be extended and driven into the ground. I’m going to buy one of these stands; the spikes won’t make the setup wind-proof, but combined with sandbags, they should definitely make a stand much more stable outdoors. The other solution is to use a big, heavy, honking C-stand and a pile of sandbags. But then you’d better bring a wagon with you to haul it all to and from the shooting spot.
Other considerations? Weather is a huge one. Two hours before sunset, the sky clouded over and it looked like rain was coming. If it rained, we were out of business, as Trostle doesn’t have any kind of sheltered area where we might try to still pull off the session. If you’re going to risk it and have delicate outfits or props – such as, say, a harp – then you’d better have a drop cloth or a tarp with you to protect it. And then there’s temperature; Chelsea came in a great dress, one that really fit the look we were going for. But it was very lightweight and clearly wasn’t going to provide any warmth.
A cold model is an unhappy model, and unhappy models don’t make great photos. I made a point to stop shooting after a bit so that she’d have a chance to put her sweatshirt back on and warm up. As we moved from sunset into twilight the temperature started dropping faster, so we did a final series then called it a wrap.
A few final notes: first of all, if you ever get the opportunity to photograph a harpist next to a pond at sunset, I heartily recommend you take it! While I usually keep up a sort of running monologue/dialogue with models while shooting, this time I simply asked Chelsea to play and pretend I wasn’t there. Now and then I’d offer some encouragement, usually single words like “excellent,” or “perfect.” My only instruction was to ask her to look at the camera, or look away.
Otherwise I just let her play. And it was mesmerising. The evening, the weather, the music, it all just clicked together in utter perfection. As much as I was loving the photos I was making, part of me just wanted to sit down and listen to her play. I think I could have listened for hours. The tranquility of it was amazing.
Shooting info: E-M5 + Olympus 12-40mm, ISO 200-400, f/2.8-f/3.5, 1/160-1/20. YN-460II speedlight + radio triggers.