“Wow,” I thought to myself, “this is some amazing light. Where the heck is it coming from?”

“Amanda, sit up here on this ledge, Indian style.” I’d long ago given up trying to be politically correct by saying criss-cross applesauce. They’d just give me a blank stare – especially guys.

“How about put your elbow on your knee, rest your head on your hand. Wait, here, try it like this, break your wrist back,” I said, bending my own wrist backward, putting my hand against the side of my head like I wanted her to do. “See how nice that looks?”

Amanda was my first session of the day. We’d finished her in-studio stuff and we were at the Plummer House Gardens, the ultimate outdoor portrait location in Rochester, doing her outdoor images.

Creating close-up portraits outside is just like doing them in the studio, except you have the beautiful outdoor light to work with. Over the years I’d trained myself to look for the light – letting its quality and direction determine the location I used.

Amanda was sitting on a short retaining wall that outlined a small parking area out in front of the main entrance to the Plummer House.

The Plummer House is a public garden at the edge of Pill Hill in southwest Rochester. Doctor Plummer and his wife Daisy built the house. Plummer was one of the doctors who helped the Mayo brothers get their little clinic off the ground.

I’d used this retaining wall spot before because of the overhead branches. Knowing that blocking overhead light was one of the best things I could do to improve my outdoor portraits I’d learned to look for spots with a natural overhead gobo. But today the light was different – amazingly different. I didn’t even need my off-camera flash.

Amanda and I created several images using that same cross-legged pose, her wearing the blue plaid shirt, and then we took a break so she could go back to her car and change.

I turned around to look for my next location and realized where the awesome light was coming from. The front of the Plummer House has a Tudor design; brick and timbers and stucco. Turns out the early morning sun was reflecting off the beige stucco front of the house and bouncing right into my portrait location. Reflected light with a natural overhead gobo – it just doesn’t get any better.

I may not be a smart man, (Forest Gump) but once I find a great spot I’ll come back to it again and again. These two images were in the same spot at the same time of day, no fill-flash needed.

Different day, same summer, my first senior of the day was Olivia. And just like Amanda’s session, we finished her in-studio images and headed outside. Except Olivia wanted the Urban outdoor session – images downtown, on the streets and alleys right around our studio. We’d only recently added the Urban session to our portrait session options – because of client demand.

I’d always used the railroad tracks behind the studio for an image or two. But then one day I had a guy – you know the one – he’s only there because Mom’s making him. Mom wanted some outdoor portraits but no way was he going to waste any more of his time driving a mile and a half to the Plummer House for more pictures. So we just walked around downtown, stopping here and there to take an image. And Mom loved them. He did too we could tell, but he certainly wasn’t going to admit it.

Other than the Mayo Clinic buildings, Methodist Hospital and a couple of hotels, downtown Rochester is mostly two and three-story buildings. Even at only two or three stories, the buildings are tall enough to block light meaning there are certain locations I can use in the morning that are no good in the afternoon; and vice versa.

Olivia and I were on Third Street walking east, heading back towards the studio, the morning sun in our eyes, blinding us as we walked. As we drew closer to Broadway I noticed the sunlight skimming the tops of a line of shrubs planted to cover up a utility box on the sidewalk. There was a bird-shit-covered picnic table in front of the shrubs. Perfect.

“Olivia let’s try one right here,” I told her, pointing to the picnic table.

She was a sport, never batted an eye at the bird shit.

She sat at the table and I had her slide back and forth until that bright sunlight, filtered through the shrub tops, illuminated her hair perfectly. You don’t get hair light like that in the studio without a lot of futzing.

My Q-flash with a Photoflex Mini Softbox was mounted on a Redwing collapsible stand and I set it up to camera left.

I had the Nikon D200 on a tripod with the 70 to 200 lens. Zooming in I spot metered on her cheek and adjusted the shutter speed to keep the aperture at f4. I wanted that soft blown out background you get from a wide aperture.

Holding my Sekonic L-358 light meter at her cheek I popped the flash and checked the percentage. I absolutely love this light meter. It measures the flash output and tells you – in a percentage – how much of the overall exposure is coming from the flash.

From experience, I knew I wanted my fill-flash to make up 20% of the overall exposure – just enough to pop her irises and fill in any dark circles under her eyes.

Four clicks of the shutter and we were done. A beautiful image at a bird shit covered picnic table, the ground covered with trash, and cars parked within six feet. 

Outdoor close-up portraits, it’s not about the location, it’s about the light. Look for it in your next session.

Want to see some more close-up outdoor portraits? Then just CLICK RIGHT HERE.


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