Have you ever attended a truly great seminar? Where the impact on your life was enough to actually motivate you to change? A couple of weeks ago I attended Skip Cohen University’s THRIVE in Las Vegas, and it was just that sort of event. The best thing about SCU is the relationships you get to build with other photographers as well as the instructors. I finally met Tom Shue and he invited me along for a wonderful afternoon making pictures with him and Clay Blackmore. Clay is an instructor at SCU, and it was really a pleasure to get out and see him personally apply all the techniques he taught.

I had a great time, and enjoyed making this image, and I think you might benefit from the techniques I used. In this post I’ll tell you how I got that terrific blue sky and the soft, directional light in the middle of an abandoned mine in Southern Nevada after sunset. It’s also nice to know that it costs less than $100 to buy all the gear to make this sort of image (besides your camera, of course). In future posts I’ll show you other ways I use these same tools to take control of light and make great portraits.

Let’s talk about the tools, then I’ll share the technique. I used a Nikon D800, and a 105mm lens at f/5 and ISO 250 for 1/30th of a second. That telephoto lens gives a flattering view, and I highly recommend similar focal lengths for portraits. The light happens to be a Nikon SB-900, but I could have as easily used the old Vivitar I got at a garage sale in high school. It’s a flash, and I triggered it remotely. If your camera doesn’t have a built-in triggering system, then you can get perfectly adequate radio triggers online for less than $30. The flash has a CTO gel on it (Color Temperature Orange). That means it’s shining through a piece of cellophane that is the same color orange as an incandescent lightbulb. I use the one I got from the Roscolux Swatch Book. I bought the book of more than 300 colors for less than $5. The most import thing about the light is that it’s shining through the diffusion material of a 5-in-1 reflector. I prefer the 40″x60″ size which is usually available online for less than $30, as well. In this setup picture you can see my pal Jared up front holding the flash attached to a monopod while Nick and Brent hold up the diffuser.

When I saw the jeep and the sky and I was hurrying to make the picture, I thought about colors first, and the setting in your camera that deals with color is white balance. I had this terrific model with hot red hair, and then I saw this old red Willy jeep, and the sun setting behind it and I knew I wanted to utilize these things together. I learned about color contrasts in a great book Rich Harrington has recommended, The Visual Story, by Bruce Block, so I knew that a rich blue sky would make the reds more vivid. I also know that when I set my camera’s white balance tungsten (the lightbulb symbol, for incandescent lights) it adds a blue filter to the whole image in order to compensate for the orange cast those light bulbs create. That means anything lit by an orange lightbulb will look normal, and anything not lit by an orange lightbulb will look blue. So, the orange gel on the flash makes anything it lights look normal, and everything else is blue–hence the super rich sky! You with me?


It’s best to do this when the sun has set and with your subject in front of the horizon so that the sky’s brightness lends luminance from behind–blue luminance. It’s also good to have a flashlight to shine on your subject’s face to help with autofocus; it’s dark out, after all. You’ll note that I used 1/30th of a second shutter speed. That speed is what controls the brightness of the sky. A faster shutter speed makes the sky darker, slower makes it brighter. Also, that speed is way too slow for me to make a sharp portrait at 105mmunless the only light is coming from a flash that is firing for 1/1200th of second. The short time the light is firing makes it possible to have a sharp picture even at a very slow shutter speed. I also recommend setting your camera’s flash setting to second curtain or rear sync so that the flash fires at the end of the exposure; try it otherwise and you’ll see why.

Those settings gave me the colors, but the diffuser gave me the light. I like soft light for portraits, and a big light is a soft light. Shining a tiny speedlight through the diffusion material makes it into a very large light. The other way to make a light bigger is to bring it closer to your subject. That’s why I’ve got this light sitting just above the jeep’s windshield, barely out of the frame. I always like to use a directional light and include shadows in my portraits. Shadows give depth and reveal form, and I usually like light coming from the side. However, because the jeep is important to my picture (and no time to move it with the sky darkening) I couldn’t light the model from the side without having one end of the jeep too close to the light and thus too bright. So, I used a glamour setup with the light coming from above and in front. It lights my model nicely and reveals just the right amount of the jeep to show her environment.

A big diffuser and white balance are the keys to this image. I’ll show you some other ways to use the diffuser in future posts.