Shooting Night Portraits – Using shoot through umbrellas to diffuse troublesome streetlights

Rosie (Stranger #86/100), London Soho
Rosie – Stranger #86/100, London Soho – Using a shoot through umbrella to diffuse a relatively powerful street lamp and mix light colours with speedlite.

What with work and family travel, I often end up shooting my street portraits at night.  Of course, it’s a lot more sociable when on holiday with my daughter and wife to shoot once they’re asleep, and with an intense, gripping job it’s not possible at lunchtime in the week.  For street portraiture, however, the night offers both challenge and opportunity in terms of mood and light.  In busier areas, strangers can be more open to shooting a portrait; there’s a permissive openness to the night perhaps, that leaves people more willing to take a risk – in terms of participation and expression.

Martyna (Stranger #74/100), London  Sarah (Stranger #38/100), London Southbank

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Whilst the dark shadow and eerie glow of streetlamps or cars can be a fantastic tool in reinforcing this mood, there is challenge too.  If setting up for a sharp shot handheld, one can easily end up with a black background that fails to express the strange nocturnal world in its full, nuanced glory.

My headshots are shot almost exclusively with the Canon 100mm f/2.8 L Macro on a 5D iii.  On that lens and camera, to get the DOF and background detail I want from a night portrait, within the constraints of a maximum acceptable ISO (1600 for colour) and slowest acceptable handheld shutter (1/50 given the 100mm and IS, I prefer 1/100), I end up shooting around the f/3.2, 1/50 – 1/100 and ISO 1600.  That gives the background a dark, miscreant glow – perhaps still needing a kick of shadow +50 or similar in Lightroom, but in the right region for the mood I’m after for the background.

The trouble is those are pretty sensitive settings.

You need your flash to be on minimum power, yet can easily overexpose a subject even then.  It’s especially tricky if you want your light close (and therefore softer).  I now put a diffuser on the flash to get rid of more light.  Softboxes being too efficient, I recently moved to shoot through umbrellas in a bid to waste more light still and bring the effective flash power down additional stops.

When I made that switch, I discovered something else – that one could place the umbrella in front of a street lamp to create a strangely blended light.  The street lamp, likely carrying the temperature/tint of your foreground ambient light, mixes with the flash to create a soft, smooth, better harmonised output.  On sensitive settings with weakened flash, streetlamps can throw pretty harsh shadows under noses or chins or within eye sockets.  Umbrellas are perfect for blocking streetlamps, being close and wide, yet a powerful streetlamp still kicks enough light through the umbrella to assist in focusing, whilst blending the colour of the light as noted above.

This was the principle used in the large shot of Rosie at the top of this post – a stranger encountered in Soho – lit with an umbrella boomed out over her to block a street lamp by her friend Lois.

To better demonstrate the difference of this technique, here are a couple of shots of a Paris stranger – kind enough to stop with her friend.  I sadly lost my email notes from the trip, and have forgotten her name, for which I apologise.  (If you’re reading here please do email me or comment below – I have you and your friend’s shots processed and ready to send to you!  Sorry not to give you named credit here!).

Sadly I did things backwards here.  The first/left most shot uses the technique described above.  A 43″ white shoot through umbrella is blocking a powerful streetlight (as well as projecting a minimum power flash from Canon 600EX-RT speedlite).  There is, to my eye, a nicely balanced warmth to the stranger and her background.

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The second/right shot is taken a few moments later, having moved forward from the wall for a better blur, but having forgotten in doing so to ensure the street lamp was fully blocked.  The settings and flash were identical.  However, you can see the impact in terms of harsher, unflattering shadows and a nasty mix of light temperatures.  Try as I might I could not recreate the temperature of the first shot – the mix of cooler flash and green/orange street light undermining any simple attempt to manipulate the white balance without a grueling series of masks and layers in Photoshop.

I hope this idea helps people setting out to shoot portraits at night.  I’m looking at larger umbrellas again to help waste flash power and better mask out/mix in street lamps and the like.  Hopefully I will have more examples for you shortly!

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3 thoughts on “Shooting Night Portraits – Using shoot through umbrellas to diffuse troublesome streetlights

    1. Great question! I guess I plan as if doing so… I go out with more kit – not nearly as much as people might imagine, but not exactly “nimble” – and look for backgrounds, lighting situations first, then strangers second. I’m trying to get something in a Vogue style, rather than a photo-journalistic shot (nothing against them, others do that very well, just not my project!).

      However, in doing so I’m trying to hard wire myself to be better, more complete in my craft, when I need to sudden pounce on an opportunity.

      Bahar is an example of that – someone awesome I bumped into, and just had to find a shot there and then.

      More recently Zoe was one of those too – the background I had tested on was suddenly behind a locked door and we had to improvise!

      In both cases, it’s the borderline OCD tinkerings and experiments that hopefully have worked their way into my muscle memory and help me find something on the fly!

      Hope that’s a helpful ramble! “Accept the sacrifices of aiming for one, to ultimately get better at the other,” would maybe be the short story!

      Liked by 1 person

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