Natural Light

Outdoor Photography Studio



This is a growing series of portraits made using my outdoor studio.This is a natural light studio which is best used in the morning or afternoons when the sun is not too high in the sky. I set it up with the sun behind the backdrop. There’s a thin gray nylon screen across the top to filter the backlight that falls on my subjects. The ground in front must be bare earth or sometimes I use a neutral colored plastic sheet. More recently I have been using a large fold-out reflector to bounce in more light. Occasionally I used flash with subjects on the white background, but now prefer not to.

I first designed and built it in 2008. I have tweaked it an upgraded and enlarged it over the years and at this point it has two backgrounds, white and black.

The inspiration for this studio came from legendary photographer Irving Penn.

Ask about a taking a workshop with our Outdoor Studio.

Scroll down for behind the scenes photos and article about my natural light outdoor photography studio.

Pwo Karen

Mae Lai Village, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

November 2016

Baan Thong Luang

Ethnic Minority Village

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Novemeber 2016

Baan Thong Luang

Ethnic Minority Village

Chiang Mai, Thailand

July 2015


Chiang Rai, Thailand.

March 2011

Pwo Karen (My assistant and his Bride)

Chiang Mai, Thailand.

February 2011

Pwo Karen

Mae Lai, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

April 2010


Doi Mae Salong, Chiang Rai, Thailand.

March 2008

Not the full studio. I was trialing the idea and had a few pieces of backdrop fabric with me. The people asked if I could make individual, full length portraits of all the adults so they could place the photo on their coffin when they die!
The young girl dressed in her mother’s costume for the first time as she wanted me to make her portrait too. It was a lot of fun.

Working With My Natural Light Outdoor Studio

Ever since I built up enough courage to photograph people I have loved making portraits outdoors. It does have its advantages and its challenges. Lack of control over lighting and backgrounds can lead to frustrations which can inhibit your creative flow. The sun, however, is an fabulous light source. Learning to work with it and manipulate natural light to your needs is a good skill to acquire.

Natural light outdoor photography studio portrait of a Karen woman smoking her pipe against a black backdrop

Why I Made My Outdoor Photography Studio

I started my photography career in newspapers. I learned to carry minimal equipment, especially for lighting. 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 get set up and adjusted well.

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 be able to make portraits with a plain background. To be able 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.

Kayaw woman portrait made using an outdoor studio during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

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 erect the studio where ever the people were he wanted to photograph.

I live in northern Thailand. At times I have 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. This has taken place over a number of years. 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.

Looking at my results I was pretty happy. I had isolated my subjects against a neutral background. 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 locate best according to the position of the sun. I would erect the studio so the sun was behind it. I also added a thin fabric scrim above the backdrop to act as a diffuser.

natural light portrait of an Akha woman during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

Original Design and Construction

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 set up in a Karen village and was more satisfied with the results. The morning was sunny and the light was lovely. My overhead diffusor 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.

photographing a portrait using a natural light outdoor studio in a Karen village in north Thailand

Making Improvements

I made further improvements to the frame as it was not sturdy enough. If there was even a slight wind it wanted 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 diffusor 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 backdrops. 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 diffusor again as well. This allows me more flexibility. I can now have the models stand a little further 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 diffusor before it becomes ineffective.

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 the studio up 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 foldable reflector. I have this held in front of my subjects to add more dynamic to the lighting.

natural light ourdoor studio set up ready to make portraits against a black and a white backdrop

Manipulating the Light

My natural light outdoor 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.

A Karen woman holds a foldable photographic reflector during a portrait session with a portable natural light photography studio

Good Relationships

Good relationship and repore is 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 I get along well with someone they know and this builds trust. If I am trusted, 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.

Outdoor photography studio portrait of a Karen couple using natural light only

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 some pre arrange people to be photographed. 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.

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 of flashes affords me a 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 repore 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 the studio up in a village I can photograph my subjects within their comfort zones. They are still at home. They are more relaxed and confident.

Daylight outdoor studio workshop with model and photographer


Setting up the studio for a workshop is great fun. We love teaching people to work with available light and manipulate it. The results they achieve so easily surprise most of our customers. Once the set up is right the principles of how the light is balanced make getting beautiful portraits a real joy.

Kayaw girls look at their photo ont he back of the Hasselblad camera of a participant in a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop