Outdoor portrait photography has its advantages and its challenges. Lack of control over lighting and backgrounds can lead to frustrations. The sun, however, is a fabulous light source. Learning to work with it and manipulate natural light to your needs is a good skill to acquire.
Building your own outdoor studio is a great DIY project which will give you more control, more easily. You can have a choice of your own portrait backgrounds. You can also somewhat manage lighting conditions. In this semi-controlled environment, you can learn to manipulate light to suit your creative desires.
Most people who own cameras do not have easy or regular access to photography studios. If you do, it can be a very expensive photo session. A DIY outdoor studio can be an effective alternative to using electric studio lighting and working indoors.
You can build your own with a few inexpensive items to set up a backdrop, diffuser, and reflectors.
Two Kayan girls enjoy having their portrait made in my outdoor studio in their village in north Thailand. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
I am not talking about taking a roll of backdrop paper and some lights outside to make your portraits. A natural light outdoor portrait photography studio is about setting up a special environment.
This is a situation where you manipulate conditions. It’s about how you utilise available light to your best advantage. It also can create a more comfortable space for your models.
A DIY photography studio can combine the best aspects of indoor and outdoor photography.
Why Make Your Own Outdoor Portrait Photography Studio
I started my photography career in newspapers. I learned to carry minimal equipment, especially for lighting. And I relied mainly on available light, knowledge and technique to create my photos. Sometimes, when I really needed to, I used a flash. Often I was required to work quickly to create my photos.
After finishing at the newspaper I moved on to work in a studio. I also worked in commercial and corporate photography. In these environments I often used studio lighting.
I would set up very controlled environments to ensure I got the photos I wanted. I was paid by the hour, so never in too much of a hurry if I could help it. Working with studio lighting is typically a slow process as they take time to set up and adjust well.
Portrait made in my indoor studio using three or four electric studio lights. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
I far preferred working more naturally and with less equipment. This was not always possible because I had to ensure my client’s requirements were met.
For my own personal work I wanted to find a balance. To make portraits with a plain background. To control the lighting and manipulate it to get the look I wanted.
I also wanted to have a comfortable environment for people to enjoy the experience of being photographed.
Inspired by the Photography of Irving Penn
American photographer Irving Penn is well known for his fashion photography. He’s also known for being one of the first fashion photographers to pose his subjects against a simple grey or white backdrops.
He had a long career working with Vogue magazine. He often worked in exotic international locations. It was not uncommon for him to stay on where he’d been on assignment and spend time photographing his personal work.
His portraits of indigenous people in Morocco, Peru, Papua New Guinea, and other locations are stunning.
I had the pleasure of reading his book “Worlds in a Small Room” and becoming inspired by his work. In the book he shares his love of working with natural light and how he had is own portable outdoor studio built.
He would set up the studio wherever the people that he wanted to photograph were.
A Karen man shows off his traditional tattoos while photographed in my outdoor studio in his village in northern Thailand. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
I live in northern Thailand. At times I have the opportunity to photograph people of various ethnic minority groups.
I was inspired to imitate Penn’s inventive creativity. I appreciated the freedom he had to photograph portraits in a studio environment anywhere. So I designed and built my own natural light outdoor photography studio.
My studio has undergone various developments and changes to improve it. The current version is easier to work with and the final portrait results are much better than when I started.
DIY Development and Experimentation
Initially, I purchased a few lengths of velveteen fabric and hung them from a tree. Not ideal, I know, but I had an opportunity to make some portraits in an Akha village and wanted to make the most of it.
Backdrop fabric hung from a tree in Ma Salong to isolate my subject. I purposefully did not crop the edges of the frame to add context. The light is flat and dull. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan.
Looking at my results I was pretty happy. I had isolated my subjects against a neutral background. But I was not satisfied with the lighting or my backdrop fabric. I wanted to have more choice in placing my backdrop. This would allow me to manipulate the light more freely.
I went to work designing a free-standing frame I would be able to place best according to the position of the sun. I would set up the studio so the sun was behind it.
And I also added a thin fabric scrim above the backdrop to act as a diffuser.
Original Design and Construction
A Karen grandfather watches as I begin setting up my outdoor studio in his village in Om Koi district, northern Thailand.
My original construction used fiberglass tent poles and nylon rope. I had a single piece of black stretch fabric, (rather than the velveteen,) for a backdrop. The backdrop did not reach down to the ground, so it was only usable for half-length portraits.
I backed this with a black polythene sheet. When pulled tight, the stretch fabric shows no wrinkles. The polythene blocks the sunlight, preventing it from shining through the stretch fabric.
I used this setup in a Karen village and was more satisfied with the results. The morning was sunny and the light was lovely. My overhead diffuser softened the backlight nicely.
This was particularly beneficial as my subjects mostly had dark hair. Without the backlight, their hair would have blended with the background too much.
The ground in front of the studio where my subjects stood was bare earth. It is a light brown colour with a warm tone. With the sun coming from behind it reflected a pleasing warm light into the people’s faces.
The colour tone of this light is more suitable for Asian skin tones. It is a little too warm for Caucasians. I have not tested this with darker skinned people.
Photographing grandpa with the first version of my natural light outdoor studio.
I made further improvements to the frame as it was not sturdy enough. If there was even a slight wind, it would try to sail away in the breeze.
I replaced the fiberglass tent pole uprights with stainless steel poles. These are much stronger and firmer. I also made the overhead diffuser larger and the backdrop fabric full length.
As I have continued to use my outdoor studio I have doubled the width so now I can work with a black and a white backdrop.
I can photograph someone against the black and then have them move across to photograph them against the white background also.
I have also increased the size of the overhead diffuser again as well. This allows me more flexibility. I can now have the models stand a little farther away from the background without losing the effect of the softened light.
This also allows me to work for longer. Most often I make the portraits in the morning. Now I have more time as the sun takes longer to rise above the diffuser before it becomes ineffective.
Setting up the outdoor studio for a workshop in a remote village in northern Thailand. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
In some locations I have not been able to utilise the light coloured earth as a reflector. In these places I lay down some light coloured sheeting. If I have set up the studio in a grassy area using the sheeting is vital to avoid an ugly green reflected colour cast.
When I am photographing Caucasians I always lay light coloured sheeting on the ground in front of them. I have recently started to use a large fold-able reflector.
I have this held in front of my subjects to add more dynamism to the lighting.
This was the second occasion photographing this woman. She had enjoyed the first time so much she arrived with three changes of clothes and her pipe fired up and ready to smoke. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
My natural light photography studio is effective because I manipulate the light. Having my subjects backlit and light reflected into their faces produces a pleasing light for portraits.
Because the sun is behind the black backdrop the front of the black backdrop is in the shade. Using the polythene to prevent the sun shining through the black fabric means it is significantly darker than my subjects faces.
This is why the background is so dark and requires little or no post processing for it to work well.
Light shining through the white stretch fabric from behind has the opposite effect. The background is rendered far brighter than my subjects faces and is overexposed. This gives a clean white background.
I always take a spot meter reading from people’s faces and adjust my camera manually. This ensures the light value of the backdrops is not measured by my camera’s meter.
Adding a white background to my outdoor studio provided fresh opportunity for more diverse photographs. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
You Can DIY
I designed and built an outdoor studio that was smaller and more portable than Penn’s. I often work alone or with only one assistant, so I needed to make it easy to carry and assemble.
Suitable space in villages is generally limited, so my studio could not be too large.
It is lightweight but sturdy enough to withstand a light wind. It has two backdrops. I usually use one black and one white. The space to set the full studio up must be about five meters wide, or three meters if I use only one backdrop.
I typically photograph with a 105mm or an 85mm lens on a full frame camera. This requires me to have enough space to stand five or six meters back from the studio.
Everything I use to set up my natural light outdoor studio. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
How To Build Your Own Outdoor Studio
Here’s an outline of how to build your own outdoor portrait photography studio based on my design. I have not included dimensions. You can vary these to fit your circumstances and your available space.
You will need:
- Two or Three strong poles about two meters in length
- Four or six fiberglass tent poles about one meter in length
- Stretch fabric for the backdrop(s)
- Black polythene
- Thin grey fabric for the diffusor
- Two or Three keyrings
- White sheeting
- Grounding pegs
- Tent pegs
- Cable ties
- Small step ladder
This can consist of two or three poles, depending if you want one or two backdrop options. The height you use will have some effect on the usable backdrop space.
If the poles are too tall they will be difficult to manage, but you will have a larger backdrop. If they are not tall enough you will have limited space.
My upright poles are about two meters tall. To make them more portable they can separate in two.
I drive heavy steel grounding pegs into the ground and use cable ties to attach the upright poles. At the top of each pole I have connected a keyring to thread the rope for the backdrop through.
The grounding poles and pegs I use to hold the upright poles for the outdoor studio and to keep tension on the guy ropes. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
The stainless steel poles showing how they are connected and the key ring for the backdrop ropes. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan
Attaching the Backdrops
My black backdrop has a hem sewn in to thread the rope through. I clipped the white backdrop into the rope, (until I remember to take it to be sewn!)
I pass the rope through the key rings and draw it tight. It is tied to the tent pegs at a suitable distance away and a little behind the backdrop. Another rope is attached to the top and tied to tent pegs a little in front of the backdrop. Having guy ropes in front and behind provides extra stability.
The backdrop fabric is stretched tight and clipped to the upright poles so there are no wrinkles. If there are wrinkles these will reflect the light, especially in the black fabric. The polythene is clipped behind the black fabric.
Fabric, polythene and plastic sheeting used in my outdoor studio. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan.
Setting Up the Diffuser
Two fiberglass tent poles are joined together with regular tent pole connectors. Each upright pole has a bent connector attached to it. Into these I place the tent poles that support the thin grey diffuser fabric.
I attach elastic to the outer end of these and clip it to the front guy rope to stop the diffuser from moving around.
If the ground is not suitable to utilise as a reflector, I spread out the light coloured plastic sheeting.
The outdoor studio set up in a village showing the diffuser above, the bare earth used as a reflector in front and the large fold out reflector. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan.
Keep a Relaxed Environment
Most people are not used to a full indoor photography studio. It can be quite intimidating to walk into a room full of studio lighting, stands, booms and backdrops etc,. Using a natural light outdoor studio has a different effect.
Every time I have set up my studio it draws interest. People look in wonder at what I am doing and ask what it’s for. They have never seen anything like it.
I work in places where I have a local contact and have them prearrange who I’m going to photograph. Assembling the studio in a village does not take long. Locals often gather to watch.
This usually means I have more people to photograph as soon as I am finished.
I have no idea what they were laughing about. Their son, who was my assistant, was standing behind me talking with them. Photo: Kevin Landw
Photographing people who have a sense of fascination allows me to capture some wonderful expressions. Far more interesting ones than if people were feeling intimidated by loads of gear.
Working without electric lights or flashes affords me greater freedom and flexibility. There are no cables or stands. I don’t have to wait for flashes to recycle. There are no bright pops of light creating an alien atmosphere.
Having an assistant who knows how to handle a reflector is an advantage. My wife and I take turns assisting and photographing.
At times we enlist the help of a local to work with the reflector. Including someone like this helps us build a nice raport and can be great fun.
If my outdoor studio were very fancy looking and complicated I am sure the effect would be different. Because it looks DIY and I assemble it myself, local people are interested and not intimidated.
By setting up the studio in a village I can photograph my subjects within their comfort zones. They are still at home. They are more relaxed and confident.
A participant in one of our photography workshops shows a Karen woman her portrait. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan.
Good relationships and rapport are important for every portrait photography session. Part of this is creating a comfortable atmosphere and relating well with people.
Having a local contact to work alongside is a big advantage. People will see that I get along well with someone they know and this builds trust. If they trust me, people are more likely to respond positively.
This was the case with the two Pwo Karen men who were initially reluctant to show their tattoos. I have a close friend who is my contact in their village and he was able to convince them to roll up their trouser legs.
Two Pwo Karen men with their traditional tattoos photographed in my outdoor studio. Photo: Kevin Landwer-Johan.
Give It a Try!
Making a natural light outdoor studio is relatively cheap. Compared to buying lighting equipment and renting a large enough room the cost is minimal.
It’s portable, so you can take it to where your subjects are and they can remain in their comfort zones. You could set it up in a backyard, local park, school playground, or anywhere with enough space.
You will need to be patient with the weather. You’ll need to find good open locations to set up with the sun behind the backdrop.
When you do I hope you have as much fun as I have experimenting and creating beautiful outdoor portrait photography.
It’s always fun setting up the outdoor portrait photography studio. Photo: Pansa Landwer-Johan
If you already work with an outdoor photography studio or decide to DIY I’d love to hear about it.
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