Subtractive Lighting – The Secret to Outdoor Portraits

Everyone struggles with outdoor portraits. Every once in a while, the light is perfect, but all too often either the sun is shining into your subject’s eyes, or it’s flaring your lens, or it’s directly overhead causing unappealing shadows, or maybe it’s hiding behind dark clouds and making everything look flat and dismal. Problems, problems, problems.

Most people use one of two standard responses to difficult outdoor lighting situations: either they use a reflector to bounce light where they want it, or they use a portable strobe to add light. The common denominator is, of course, ADDING light. If you’re working outside on a bright day, that’s a lot of light. It’ll probably make your subject squint, and feel uncomfortable, and it also probably won’t even look that good.

I prefer a different approach. Instead of ADDING light, I SUBTRACT light. This approach works equally well for either video or photography.

Take a look at this example. I was filming student testimonials for a college promotional video. This particular testimonial was scheduled for around 1 p.m. The sun was almost directly overhead. Look at the way the student’s forehead, nose, and hair are glowing, while her eyes and lower face are in shadow. If you’ve done much shooting outside, you’ll be familiar with this look.

Rather than try to “bounce light in from underneath,” which never works the way it’s supposed to, I simply set up a 60″ umbrella on a stand, to cast shade over her. This way, she’s not being DIRECTLY illuminated by the light bearing directly down on her, but INDIRECTLY illuminated by the light bouncing off the environment around her. As you can see, the lighting still looks very natural, but it’s much more flattering, and it even brings the tones of her hair and skin into the same range as the background, giving me a shot with plenty of detail and no blown-out highlights or gloomy shadows.

A few days later, I used a similar setup for a corporate photo shoot. The umbrella I use is convertible; it is made of a white material designed to diffuse light, but it comes with a removable outer layer which is completely opaque black. (You can even get a larger, 84″ umbrella kit that’s specifically designed for this purpose.) For the student testimonial, I had used the umbrella with the black layer attached, to really knock out the overhead light, but for these photos, I used the umbrella with just the white layer. It looked like this. Notice how it turns into its own light source, when the sun shines on it. (It was a little breezy out, and I had no sandbags with me, so I used extension cords to weight down the stand. It still blew over a couple of times, so I strongly recommend investing in a couple of sandbags.)

The results speak for themselves. These (and the photo at the beginning of this post) were taken outside, around noon, on a sunny day. You will NEVER get this kind of soft, flattering lighting by adding strobes and reflectors to a scene. You can only get it by subtracting light.


If you’re shooting in a heavily built-up urban area, with lots of high-rise buildings and other looming structures, an incredibly easy way to get great portrait lighting is simply to position your subject facing the sun, but in the shadow of something. In other words, if the sun is in the east, the subject is facing east, but there’s a building in the way. Use a nice lens (my favorite portrait lens is the Canon 85mm 1.8) with a wide aperture to put selective focus on your subject, and you’ve got upscale-looking shots that work perfectly for corporate, editorial or fashion work.

Here are a few examples from a recent corporate assignment where I used this technique. These images are from three different cities, and I used shadows from trees, buildings and even the awning of a parking garage.




18 Replies to “Subtractive Lighting – The Secret to Outdoor Portraits”

  1. AWESOME information. will be adding this to my arsenal of knowledge. Where would I get an umbrella like that from?

  2. Good stuff.

    I don’t have an umbrella, but plenty of bounces/diffusion. Would holding one of these overhead for shade achieve a similar quality result?

    1. Absolutely … The shape of the diffusion panel doesn’t matter, it just has to be big enough to cast a shadow that will cover your subject. Umbrellas are convenient because they are easy to mount on a stand. I’ve used other items (reflectors, foamcore board, etc.), but they take longer to set up and take down.

  3. Surely this is pretty well standard stuff though. Light diffusion is normal practice. I find it a little dubious for a crew of one to lug around a 5 foot umbrella, tripod and weights unless, as seems to be the case in your photo, you have your vehicle parked close by. It doesn’t work too well if you have a distance to walk to find a good spot for the shoot.

      1. Fair enough Alexander. I was debating the “crew of one” supposition. I think I would need an assistant to help lug my camera bag, tripod, umbrella, tripod support for the brolly, weights etc. usually, my subject would be a 120 lb model and if I were doing a paying client portrait outside I would wonder about asking “do you mind helping with my equipment? 🙂

        1. Heh … Well, I didn’t say it was EASY. 🙂

          In all seriousness, my list is a lot shorter than yours. Shooting portraits outside, I don’t need a tripod. Also, I don’t take the whole camera bag. I pick one or two lenses, put an extra CF card and some batteries in my pocket, and leave the rest of the kit in the car. Finally, I don’t use weights as much as I should. If it’s windy, I’ll put my foot on the leg of the stand.

          So, basically, what I’m carrying is a camera, a stand and a folded-up umbrella. So, actually, I guess it is kinda easy.

  4. It’s called a backpack. I wouldn’t have a problem packing this setup anywhere. Very sound technique, thank you for sharing it!

  5. Brilliant…never heard of this but it is a brilliant idea! So easy to do if you already have the umbrella set up with you anyway! Thank you!

  6. Just be careful about wind. Even with weights, I have watched too many expensive umbrellas bite the dust. Using an opaque reflector and a light stand might keep the wind damage to a minimum and there are lots of clamps that will make it work, My two cents worth.

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