Thursday, July 23, 2009

Technique: The Sunset Portrait

I have been shooting seniors outdoors for 5 years now. Being on the shore of Lake Erie, I often am at the beach at sunset, shooting a portrait of the senior against a the setting sun and the lake. I'm getting pretty good at metering for natural light and color balancing for available light. But I still get a bit flummoxed at sunset. The light changes quickly and I need to be able to properly illuminate my subject in balance with the background.

I've written about sunsets in the past, but I wanted to hit it again while the summer season is fresh. My technique revolves around exposing for a deeply saturated sunset, then providing adequate fill lighting for my subject. I'll set the ISO for 100 to drive a lower shutter speed, then take a sample shot of just the sky under Aperture priority and tweak the shutter speed to get under 1/250 second - the max sync speed of my attached flash.

Then I review for exposure. Generally I'll underexpose the default sunset parameters by 1-2 stops. Say at ISO100 my exposure was 1/200 sec at f/4 under Aperture priority. Then I'll switch to Manual and set 1/200 and f/5.6 to f/8. That will darken the skies and saturate the colors.

Here's where it gets tricky. Sometimes the sky is too bright even at ISO100 to give me a decent f-stop at 1/250. I often have trouble balancing the flash with the ambient light. So I tried a neutral density filter on the lens. That lets me set a lower f-stop / shutter speed combination.

In this shot I had a Tiffen .9 Neutral Density filter on the lens. This gave me a lot of control over the shutter and f-stop combos in my flash speed range. Through trial and error, I set a flash compensation to give the right fill and shot away.

At this point, the ND filter and camera settings give me great background exposures. I still have to tweak the flash settings a bit to get the right fill so the subject isn't washed out or underexposed. That's my next area of improvement.

Overall I'm pretty happy with the set of exposures using the ND filter. I'll want to put some diffusion on my bare flash next time, to soften the shadows, but other than that I am happy.

If anyone has tips to get good foreground/background balance for this kind of image, please let me know!

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