Create a stylised portrait

Shoot a fun portrait in your back garden, and turn a rainy backdrop into a shimmering blur with beautiful bokeh

Shooting fashion portraits doesn’t always require a studio setup with complex and costly lighting setups. You can capture fun and stylish portraits like ours in your back garden with just a couple of simple props. Although you’ll be using flash to light your portrait, the setup is simple and you’ll only need one flashgun if your D-SLR has an on-camera flash. We’ll be lighting our model’s head and shoulders with our pop-up flash, which will also send a signal to our external flashgun to fire at the same time. The flashgun will be placed behind our model to backlight the water, which we’ll throw out of focus to create an attractive bokeh. All you’ll need is a hosepipe to create the illusion of sparkling rain, and an umbrella to add a fun element to the shot — and to keep your model dry! In the second part of our project we’ll show you how to add the finishing touches to your image, by converting it to monochrome and subtly blurring the model’s skin to get the ‘starlet’ look.


What you’ll need

• Tripod • Flashgun • ND filter,

• Umbrella • Hosepipe • Model and assistant

How long it’ll take

Half a day

The skills you’ll learn

• How to light portraits outdoors using off-camera flash

• How to blur a watery backdrop to capture bokeh

• How to convert your portrait to mono and enhance skin tones

Find a location

1. For this shoot you’ll need a hose, and plenty of room to spray water around, so a garden is ideal. As we’ll be creating a raindrop bokeh effect for our backdrop you’ll need a simple background, such as hedge or wall, for your model to stand in front of. A sunny day is best for this technique, as the sun will create shimmering highlights in the raindrops.

Props and styling

2. You don’t need to worry about your model being in direct sunlight, as she’ll be holding an umbrella to shade her head and shoulders. To add to the stylised effect we also got our model to wear dark, smoky eye makeup and fake eyelashes. You’ll need an assistant to direct the hose, and a tripod on which to mount your external flashgun.

Camera settings

3. Set your camera to Manual mode, and set the shutter speed to 1/200 sec to sync with the flash. Set a wide aperture of f/2.8 to capture a shallow depth of field that will blur the background and create the bokeh effect. To retain maximum image quality keep the ISO at 100, and shoot Raw files.

Control the light

4. If you’re shooting on a bright day, because of the wide aperture you may need to use an ND filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens — we used a variable ND filter to give us some flexibility. Ideally you need to underexpose the scene by around one stop to ensure that the background is dark enough to emphasise the bokeh effect in the water.

Flash settings

5. Place the flashgun on a tripod. Set the flashgun to slave mode, select the E-TTL setting and fire it using a trigger, or the on-body flash. To set this up, go to Flash Control Menu > Built-in Flash Func. Setting > Wireless Func and select the third option. We set the exposure on our external flashgun to +3 stops, but this will vary depending on the light. Position the flashgun to one side so that it illuminates the ‘rain’.

Start shooting

6. Get your assistant to crouch down in the background, and have them direct the hose so the water falls off the umbrella behind your model. To get the classic ‘street portrait’ look, direct the model to stand sideways-on to you, looking back over her shoulder. Make sure you’re focusing on the model’s eyes, and start shooting.

ACR adjustments

7. Open water_start.dng in ACR. Set Exposure to +1.30 to brighten the image, then set Highlights to +30 to lighten the highlights a bit more, and Blacks to +25 to add some fill light. Set Clarity to -15 to soften the detail a touch. Crop in on the image, then click Open Image to open the shot in Elements’ main editor.


8. Press Ctrl+J to duplicate the ‘Background’ layer, and remove any small blemishes with the Spot Healing Brush tool. Next click the top layer, and press Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E to create a merged layer. Target this layer, go to Filter > Blur > Smart Blur, set both Radius and Threshold to 8 and click OK.

Blur the skin

9. Hold down Alt and click the Add Layer Mask button in the Layers panel to add a black mask and hide the blur effect, then paint the blur back into just the model’s skin with white brush at 100% opacity. Add a Levels adjustment layer, and to lighten the image and boost the contrast set the Shadows slider to 15, Midtones to 1.23 and Highlights to 247.

Convert to mono

10. Create another merged layer, then go to Enhance > Convert to Black and White, select the Newspaper style and click OK. Add a Brightness/ Contrast adjustment layer, and set Brightness to 15 and Contrast to 12. Set this layer’s blending mode to Overlay and reduce the opacity to 62%. Create another merged layer, go to Filter > Correct Camera Distortion and set Vignette Amount to 40 and Midpoint to 42.


Phrase Book


The word ‘bokeh’ originates from the Japanese word ‘boke’ meaning blur or haze. In photography this term describes the quality of the blur in out-of-focus areas of an image. The shape of the bokeh is defined by the shape of the aperture. Most lens designs have bladed apertures, so when they’re stopped down to the maximum aperture the out-of-focus points of light are rendered as polygons. A prime lens is ideal for achieving a good bokeh effect, as they tend to have a fast maximum aperture and produce a high-quality blur.

Super Tip!

When shooting images that you plan to convert to mono, select your EOS D-SLR’s Monochrome Picture Style. This enables you to view the scene in mono in Live View mode, and view images in mono in Playback mode. Make sure you select the Raw quality setting (or Raw and JPEG) so you retain the image’s colour information to work with at the processing stage; if you shoot JPEG only, the mono effect will applied in camera and the colour will be discarded.

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