Location photography requires flexibility and the right tools to overcome unpredictable conditions, which is particularly relevant in the UK where the weather can change from wind, to rain, to clouds and to sunshine in a matter of minutes. Hannah Couzens, a St Albans based photographer, is no stranger to battling the conditions in location shoots, where preparation is key to allowing photographic flexibility. On a trip to the Cornish coast, she explains how to balance natural and ambient light, create natural and beautiful light and shoot portraits in hazier lighting conditions.
Preparation: the key to on location shooting
Hannah's model for the shoot, Tassy Swallow, is a professional surfer - and where better to shoot than in the place home to sand, sea and surf itself? Whilst preparing for the shoot in Cornwall, Hannah packed her Profoto B1Xs, the OCF Beauty Dish in white, the OCF Magnum Reflector, an OCF Softbox 2x3 and an OCF grid. This gave her the opportunity to be prepared for any lighting conditions the Cornish coast was to throw at her, whilst allowing for flexibility and variety within the images shot.
Hannah explains that communication with the client beforehand is key in determining what equipment to take with you on location, as it saves you time, effort, and maximises your chances of getting the shot.
“If I am working on location, I will spend time speaking with the client ahead of the shoot to get a solid idea of what they are looking for and also what kind of location we have in mind and what obstacles we may encounter.
From there I like to take a further look at what style of photography they like. Sometimes I’ll ask them to create a mood board, which helps me as if they only select soft light images I know to leave the harder modifiers behind and vice versa. No matter what though, I will always take a modifier I can adapt to create softer or harder light. For example, with a beauty dish I can add a diffusion panel.
I also like to get an idea of the space I’ll be shooting in as the last thing you want to take is an extra-large umbrella if you haven’t got the room to put it up!”
Familiarisation: Choosing compositions
When shooting on location, it is also important to familiarise yourself with the potential backdrops and compositions that could be used. This is a helpful part of the creative process, which allows you to decide what will work and what won't.
“Firstly, I like to look at the location and figure out where I’d like to shoot and determine if there is anything in particular that would enhance or ruin the composition. At that point, I then look at the ambient light and think how I can work with it.
The beauty of portable flash is that you can pretty much deal with whatever ambient light is falling on the area where you wish to place your subject. For example, you can use the sun as a hair light if it’s in the completely opposite direction to where you want to shoot. Or if the natural light is good on the face but causing too many shadows, we can fill them with flash. I won’t allow the conditions to dictate what I shoot.
With the best will in the world you also have to be ready to adapt to the conditions (especially if you live in the UK!) as the weather is forever changing. I like to get an idea of where I’ll be shooting but I absolutely cannot control the weather, so when I look at a scene, I try to think ‘what lighting would suit this and how can I get the best out of this situation?’”
The first shot: Tackling overhead light
When arriving at the first location, the conditions were bright, harsh and overhead, which is why Hannah chose light shaping tools to balance the light in her initial image of Tassy.
Her first choice of light shaper on the Profoto B1X was the OCF Beauty Dish in white with a diffuser, which lifted the shadows on Tassy's face that were caused by direct sunlight. The use of light shapers enabled Hannah to achieve a balanced image where the overhead sunlight wasn't too powerful.
The second shot: Creating drama
When arriving on the second location the dark clouds that typically accompany a British summer moved in. Embracing the conditions, Hannah decided to create a dramatic portrait using the OCF Magnum to create a hard, contrasting light against the clouds.
“In one direction was beautiful clear blue sky and in the other, dark moody clouds. Occasionally the sun would still break from behind the clouds and create a hair light for our model which looked great, but it wasn’t consistent.
I decided to embrace the cloud and pull out something dramatic by using high-speed sync to shut down the ambient light. I thought that a harder light source would give me a nice contrast and more drama against the sky, so I used the OCF magnum."
To create further drama, Hannah added her second Profoto B1X with an OCF Grid behind Tassy to help replicate the sunlight as a hair light, creating a more consistent and reliable light source. Hannah also wanted the styling of the image to equal the mood created.
"We made sure to have Tassy wearing the wetsuit rather than a bikini, which matched the stormy backdrop. Whilst it was sunny in the other direction, we felt it would be better to choose an outfit that would make you think the photo could have been taken in stormy autumn weather.”
The third shot: Natural portraiture
In the next shot, Hannah wanted to create some more natural lifestyle images. To do so, she used the shade from a cliff and an OCF Soft Box 3x2 to soften and balance the light with the ambient.
This method creates images where it not so obvious that flash is used, and helps to generate a soft and balanced portrait with a natural feel.
The final shot: Golden Hour
Later in the day, the Cornish coast turned into a hazy paradise at sunset where the sun was lower in the sky. This gave Hannah the opportunity to enhance creativity and shape light differently to than she did earlier in the day.
“As we know, the light is more diffused from the atmosphere, so, therefore, softer looking when the sun is lower in the sky. Towards the end of the day, a beautiful hazy light was coming over the cliff. I decided to use this as a hair light and shoot into the sun.
I framed up the image so that I didn’t get any flare that was too distracting, but we needed a bit more light on Tassy’s face as of course, the light was coming from behind her. By adding the 2x3 softbox I could just lift the shadows on the face to keep the natural looking light that was already being created from the low sun.”
By using the softbox as a fill light, Hannah was able to blend the Profoto B1X with sunlight to create a golden hazy shot.
Hannah's top tips for shooting on location
Hannah shares her top tricks and tips to keep in mind when shooting on location:
1. Make sure you have enough power. Remember to choose the right equipment based on what you are trying to achieve. If you want to overpower the sun, you are going to need a bit of power or choose a modifier such as the OCF magnum which will help you get you more stops of light and allow you to get the most out of your light.
2. Don’t restrict your composition choices because the light is ‘better’ in a particular place. Using flash enables you to create whatever light you want so find a good spot then think how you can correct a problem or maximise the scene with light.
3. Decide what kind of look you are going for. If you want to keep things looking natural then choose modifiers which will enable you to do that. Think about the environment and ambient light and decide what light quality you want to use to either create natural-looking portraits or really dramatic style portraits.
4. Travel light and smart! It’s tempting to take all our light shapers ‘just in case’ but at the same time, the weight might get to you after a while. Try and figure out a style with your client first and think about how you can really make your light shapers work to achieve different light qualities whilst style travelling light!
Behind the scenes video
Thank you to Hannah for sharing her top tips for location shooting! To see more of her work, visit her website or Instagram.