Big soft light on the cheap

This technique example was originally posted on the ‘pre-blog’ in January 2009

A lot of portrait photography is done with large soft boxes or large umbrellas. The point there being that large light sources give a certain type of soft light that is reasonably flattering, nicely even and pretty good to work with. Bouncing a flash off of a big white wall gives a very similar effect to a large soft box which makes a big pale wall on location a very useful thing.


©Neil Turner, November 2008. Bournemouth, Dorset.

Shooting this portrait of a couple who met and fell in love in later life gave me a few challenges. The picture editor wanted them to be photographed on the beach in my home town of Bournemouth but the weather forecast for the late November morning wasn’t too promising. Having spoken to the couple we decided to head for a location which offered us plenty of parking right near the beach front as well as wide open expanses of sand. The plan was to shoot on the beach and head for one of the local cafes if the rain came. The same stretch of beach also has some covered seating areas, which were to prove very useful.

We started off shooting on the sand but moved pretty quickly under the covered area that you can see to the left. It was out of the wind and out of the rain that was looking likely. The theme for the picture was to be mildly romantic and the strong arch was likely to be useful.

I was shooting with a Canon EOS 50D and 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200 f2.8 L lenses. The lighting was a Lumedyne 200 watt/second pack and Signature head triggered with a pair of Pocket Wizards. The back wall of the covered area was painted with a very pale cream/lemon colour so I decided to bounce the flash off of it.

I mentioned above that the effect is similar to a large soft box and the area of wall illuminated by the flash was about four square metres (a little over ten square feet) which is a big soft light by anyone’s standard.

Looking at the brilliant LCD on the back of the camera after a couple of test shots, it was obvious that the colour of the wall was a little more yellow than was apparent to the naked eye. I shot a frame with a piece of white paper in the man’s hand so that I could do a custom white balance. The net effect of this was to send the daylight behind them and any areas lit by the ambient a little blue – not an unpleasant effect.It was clear that they were enjoying being photographed and were happy to indulge my usual technique of playing around with lenses, compositions, exposures and lighting positions.

I was trying to shoot with a wide lens under the cover and the shot that you see above was taken with my 16-35 f2.8L right at the 16mm end. I usually try to shoot at 200 ISO and the meter reading for the sand and sea behind the couple was 1/125th of a second at f5.6. I altered the output on the flash to give me f5.6 on the couple and changed the shutter speed to 1/180th to marginally underexpose the background. The available light reading on the couple would have been 1/30th at f5.6 so they were lit exclusively by the flash. I shot a lot of different images with similar compositions before changing over to a 70-200 f2.8L IS lens.

I moved my subjects so that they were leaning in the entrance just as the light outside was getting a bit better. By the time I shot the image below the shutter speed was up to 1/250th of a second but not really underexposing at all.

©Neil Turner

©Neil Turner, November 2008. Bournemouth, Dorset.

The ambient light was starting to affect the man’s head and you can see that he has a gentle blue highlight on top of his head. The light balance was just right for about two or three minutes before the ambient became brighter and I had to increase the power on the flash to maintain the balance.

After a few dozen frames we moved back onto the beach where we shot several more ideas. The magazine eventually ran a picture shot on the beach as the day turned brighter and it came towards midday. In the two pictures shown above I am looking almost due south where the midday sun would be. The second picture was taken only 45 minutes before noon and so the reasonably heavy cloud was a real help to make this picture work.

The whole shoot took a little over an hour and the edit took about the same amount of time before I sent the magazine around forty pictures.

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