Pwo Karen Pipe Smoking grandma

Want to Take Better Photos? This is How I Do It #3

by
Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Karen Woman Smoking

Setting up my outdoor daylight studio is always a lot of fun. Not only for me, but also for the people I photograph. I’d photographed this lovely Karen woman a number of years before. She was ready with three changes of clothes and her pipe when I returned.

Having willing subjects makes portraits with depth more likely. The more you have to cajole and coerce people to be photographed, the more challenging it is to create portraits that capture their true character.

Two Pwo Karen women portrait taken using outdoor studio by Kevin Landwer-Johan

Setting the Scene

There are no clues in this image to tell you where I made it. She could be an actor wearing a costume in a studio anywhere.

Mae Lai is the name of the village. I’d set up my portable studio in a small, flat piece of bare ground next to the church. Her three outfits are hand woven, traditional Karen designs. She made them on the front porch of her home.

The Karen people living in Mae Lai now live a reasonably modern lifestyle. There’s running water, electricity, tv, internet and good roads. But all this has only come about within her lifetime and not really changed the lifestyle so much.

Meals are still cooked over an open fire. Fields are planted by hand. Nothing moves to quickly apart from the trucks on the main road.

This photo is from the first time I set up my outdoor studio in the village many years ago.

Isolating My Subject

Since 2008 I’ve been tinkering with my outdoor natural light studio. I love the simplicity and portability of it. I can set it up in about 20 minutes. It needs no electric lights and rarely have I ever used flash.

I was inspired by Irving Penn’s outdoor studio which he wrote about in his book, ‘Worlds in a Small Room’. My version started life a lot smaller and lighter than Penn’s. I’ve altered it and expanded it over the years, but it’s still manageable on my own.

Working with a black or a white background and available light, I am able to isolate my subjects. They are worth setting apart. Keeping them within the comfort zone of their home village, yet having them appear on their own creates dynamic portraits. Had I to make these portraits in a city studio with electric lighting the energy would be profoundly different.

Natural Light Outdoor Portrait Photo Studio by Kevin Landwer-Johan

Working WIth The Light

I love working with available light. Studio lights are cumbersome.

The sun is behind my the backdrop, so my subjects have their backs to it. Filtered by gray nylon fabric above the backdrop, this creates a soft rim light. The effect of this light creates depth, separating my subject from what’s behind them. This is most important when I have black on black or white on white.

Bare earth in front provides a soft warm light reflecting up into my subject’s face. If I’ve set the studio up on a lawn I lay down some white plastic sheeting. Light reflecting off grass creates an ugly green cast on people’s skin.

One of the more recent additions to my outdoor studio lighting kit has been a large reflector. It stands taller than most of the people I photograph when it’s unfolded. The extra kick of light it adds makes a huge difference.

Because the main light is behind, smoke from a pipe is illuminated terrifically.

Pwo Karen Pipe Smoking grandma

Balance is the Key

Dark or light backgrounds can cause exposure problems unless precise light metering is used. Skin tone is the most important to render correctly when making a portrait.

I take a spot meter reading from the face and set my exposure accordingly. The black background will be underexposed. The white background will be overexposed. Exactly how I want it to be.

Extra light is blocked from seeping through the black fabric of the background by a piece of black polythene. The fabric of the white background is smooth and translucent, allowing light to pass through it. Balancing the light and exposure makes for a simple set up and studio-like results.

Pwo Karen woman smoking a pipe being photographed in an outdoor natural light portrait studio by Kevin Landwer-Johan
Another older photo. Can you see the difference in the light? I did not use a reflector for this photo.

Further Reading

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post you will also enjoy “How Self Assignments Will Make You A Better Photographer” and “Want to Take Better Photos? – Hot Wheels.”

To see more photos I’ve made with my outdoor studio, please have a look at this gallery.

If you’re interested to experience using the studio and creating stunning natural light portraits of your own, please book a photography retreat with us.

Kevin Landwer-Johan photographer
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