3 easy tricks to Take Locations from Boring to Brilliant

ZJ Newsletter

We are Zach and Jody Gray and we have had the amazing privilege of working with photographers all over the world enabling them to shoot better images, run more profitable business and live the lives they’ve dreamed of. We hope you enjoy this post on off-camera lighting!

-Zach & Jody




Isn’t it great how EVERY time you go out on a shoot, all the locations are just picture perfect, the lighting is awesome and you don’t even need to think about what to do because all the shots just “happen” the whole session? I love that!

Unfortunately, that actually never happens. MOST of the time when we are out on-location shooting, we create images in places that at first glance, don’t always appear to be amazing. Today, we want to share with you the 3 tricks that we use to make average locations look AMAZING! We will be using 3 set-ups from our recent New York City photo-shoot workshop that we did with Adorama.


Set-Up #1 – Reflective Background with BAD lighting:

Our first goal at ANY shoot is to of course find great lighting (and that should always be your goal too). But, some days the lighting just all around stinks, so we will then start looking for good locations that WOULD look good if the lighting were better.

Trick #1, Find Cool Backgrounds and add flash

Once we find an interesting location, then we use lighting to make it work. Good locations that I personally tend to gravitate towards with lighting are reflective backgrounds (like metal walls, which are great because when my flash hits it, it creates all sorts of cool light bouncing around and back to the camera), dark doorways and door frames (these are cool because I can add a second small flash to easily light them up), or something that can create a frame around my subject like a large tree with leaves (this is great for a vignette effect around my subject).


For the New York shoot we had cloudy overcast skies for most of the shoot and the lighting was not very dynamic. This location had a cool metal wall (one of my go-to spots!), and here is how we set it up.


NYC 2014_0022

Metal Wall

The lighting was fairly flat and boring and the overhang above our heads (if we got too close to the metal wall) caused the light to fall off of our model’s face and only light her torso.

We put our main light to camera left at a 45 degree angle and aimed the light a little more towards my camera position than we did towards her. This caused just the EDGE of the light to hit her and only SOME of the light to hit the background. This helped give the background some light and texture, but not create any hot spots from it reflecting off the metal wall.

I then added a background light (with a tungsten gel on it) leaning on the back wall in order to allow it to graze off the background and also light her up at the same time. That light was 1 stop darker than my main light.




Edited in Adobe Lightroom 5

Set-Up #2 – Good Location with Bad Lighting:


photo 2 (2)

Sometimes you do have a good location, but the lighting is not enough to create a great image. For the shot above, I liked the trees and the way that it framed up our subject, but when we shot it, the natural lighting was not good. The little bit of good light was coming from behind her to the right, which made the light hit her face and cast deep shadows into her eyes when posed at the above position. Not good!

Trick #2 Mimic sun with flash

We first added the main light at 45 degrees to camera left, and overpowered the ambient light by 1 stop (as seen above).

photo 1

Then, we added our second light with that same tungsten gel on it to the background. We ran it up HIGH and directly behind our subject and shot it through the trees (make sure it is not too close to the nearest branches to avoid blowing them out). The flash was bare-bulb to help the light spread out more like the sun would. We powered it up until it was about 1 stop lower than the main light when it hit her hair, and got the below result.


As you can see, it looks like the sun is setting in the background! Very cool effect.


The image below is what the shot looked like without that background light on and just the main light. It is not bad, but that background is just sort of dull looking in comparison to the final shot. We would use this technique at weddings ALL the time using a Speedlight later in the day when it wasn’t too bright out.


Set-Up #3 – Good lighting, busy location:



This location was our first set-up of the day, and the ambient light was actually good for a little while. You can see the light on the left side of her body (camera right), and if we had turned her face that direction, the lighting would have been fairly good (we still used flash since this was a lighting workshop).

The problem was, the background was really busy with lots of people in it.

Trick #3 Change Elevations/Cropping


We first started out by having her stand just at the top of the few steps we had to work with. This helped get her higher up (without having to shoot up as high at her) and then we just had the tops of people’s heads in our shot.


For the final image, I simply cropped the image pano style to keep out the distracting elements that I didn’t want in the image. Sometimes, just adjusting your elevation or angle can help you get a great looking shot in a less than ideal location. It is rare that you have the place all to your self in any city, so being creative on the fly can help your subject really stand out!

PS. If you enjoyed this post, SHARE it with someone by tweeting it out HERE! Or, copy and paste the below into Facebook!

“I just read about 3 easy tricks to shoot great photos in bad locations from @zachandjody! Check it out at http://bit.ly/1lzFmlO” 

Our Bio:


(Over the years we have been incredibly blessed to not only receive recognition for our work (named as one of Nashville’s top wedding photographers in 2009, one of Wescott’s Top Endorsed Pros, members of the exclusive SanDisk Extreme Team), and been published in leading publications (People Magazine , Rangefinder, Southern Weddings), but have been able to personally instruct over 1,200 photographers through our IN-CAMERA workshops.

We have spoken on international and national stages equipping others around the world to succeed (WPPI, London’s SWPP,  creativeLIVE, IUSA, Toronto’s Exposure, PhotoVision, MyWed conference in Moscow).

We live in Nashville, TN with our son, Jaxon, and our daughter London Rain)