Controlling Ambient Light – A Commercial Portrait

Portraiture of all types can be the cornerstone of many photographers’ business.  Sooner or later, in one way or another, someone will want you to take a portrait.

The difference between a good portrait and and a great portrait is in the details.  Below I offer you the details to what might look like a simple location portrait, but was actually quite complicated to shoot.  Lucky for me, the most unpredictable factor in many portrait sessions, the subject, was incredibly natural and easy to work with.  Unfortunately, another important factor in a portrait, the light, wasn’t as cooperative.

Read all about this photo after the jump.

Taiwan Portrait Photography

The client wanted a portrait of a college student with a “typical Taiwan backdrop.”  If you’ve ever been to my blog before, you know that “typical Taiwan” to me is the beautiful nature found here.  But the client wanted something more urban, so we decided on some big buildings and busy traffic.

Once a location was found, I went out to scout it and found many problems that had to be solved.

The first problem was a lack of space.  We were shooting on an elevated pedestrian cross walk and I simply didn’t have much room to move back and forth.  There crosswalk only had about 12 feet of space in between the rails and that really limited my lens selection.  I ended up shooting with a 35mm f/2.  Not the first choice for shooting a portrait, but it gave a nice perspective of the background and helps the viewer to feel “right there” with the subject.

Click for a larger view

Click for a larger view

The second problem was the color temperatures of the ambient lights.  There was light coming from everywhere!  Bad, bad light. So bad, that I thought of trying to find another location.  But, this being Taiwan, I knew that every crosswalk in town would probably have the same problems.  So I settled on trying to get the big street lights down the middle of the road to an acceptable color.  I set the color temperature on my D700 to “tungsten” and it looked pretty good.  All I had to do was add a full CTO to the single strobe in a medium softbox that I used and it look pretty good just OK... There were more lighting problems!

The third problem:  To get the cars’ lights to do that cool streaky thing, I needed to shoot with a long shutter speed.  I ended up shooting at 2.5 seconds and that meant that any ambient light falling on the Alyssa would be picked up by the camera.  And there was plenty of ambient light coming from all over!  The client also wanted the background to be blurred out a bit, which meant a wide aperture!!!  Uggh!  So, I thought about borrowing someones BB gun and shooting out all the annoying lights (but only for a second, I swear)  Then I had a more conventional idea: Block the lights!  But how might I do that on this small crosswalk?  Unpaid assistants!!!  YES!  A call went in to local shooter who brought a friend.  I had them hold two big homemade black cards up high, on either side of Alyssa to block the bad ambient light.  Wonderful.  (Thanks Teo and Sei-ji!)

Click for a larger view

Click for a larger view

The fourth problem: There was still some bad ambient light coming in!!!  It wasn’t as bad as the light in the third problem, but if the subject moved even a little during this long exposure, it would cause a blur.  Now at my wits end, I got lucky.  Alyssa, the subject, was a natural in front of the camera.  I asked her to smile, and she beamed…  I asked her to look comfortable, and she chilled..  I asked her to hold still-as-a-stone for 3 seconds and… well, you get the idea.  She held absolutely still, giving the knockout blow to that tedious bad ambient light that wanted to make her blurry.

There were a few more problems including tape gunk all over the rail and a few lights on in the building in the background, but Apple Aperture handled them easily, so I won’t bore you any more.

Moral of this story is that using your noodle can really make the difference between a mediocre portrait and a good one.  If you closely study all the light in your photograph and figure out how to control it, you can change a good portrait to a great one.

Go to my stock photography website to see more portraits.


Bookmark and Share

Technical Info: Nikon D700, Nikkor 35mm f/2.0, 2.5 sec at f/4.5, ISO 100, tripod mounted, A single Nikon SB-800 in a medium softbox was the main light source, tungsten white balance with a full CTO on the flash, flash fired with Paul C. Buff’s Cybersyncs, Location: Chengde Road, Taipei, Taiwan.

Categories: PHOTOGRAPHY, Techniques | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Post navigation

10 thoughts on “Controlling Ambient Light – A Commercial Portrait

  1. ashlin

    Absolutely terrific shot Neil. Hats off my friend :) Wonderful information on lighting too.

  2. Nice to see the write-up and strobist-style drawings. Glad I could help out! I’ll let Seiji know about this post. Have you checked out Dustin Diaz? He does similar kind of strobist portraiture with neat diagrams –


    • Thanks again Teo. I just had a quick look at Dustin’s website. He really does have some nice stuff. Makes me think I should work with models more often!

  3. Thanks for sharing your thought process behind this photo! Do you always diagram your plan of attack or was that just for blogging purposes? :)

    • Usually when make a tutorial like this, I’ll add a diagram. I like drawing, so I always do them like this… That said, I think these are actually my worst ones!

  4. First time visit.. Great detail problem solving information that you provide. Your hand drawing of the surrounding helps the most! A great commercial portrait!

  5. Great detailed explanation and result. Excellent work.

  6. I like the sense of motion in the shot with the long exposure like that you did a great job firing off a flash right at the end of the exposure. At least that’s what im assuming you did. Great work.

  7. Nice – Love the drawings…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: