Light - How Can I Get Good Light?

Finding and generating soft, flattering light for portrait photograph

One general query I’m asked often while teaching photograph workshops is, “How am I able to improve my images?” Participants expect to listen to answers like, “Try a different lens,” or, “Change the composition.” True, these things may help, but lots of times I reply, “Try shooting the subject in better light.”
What is “better light?” With portraits, softening or diffusing the light often is the best strategy. Photographing people on a sunny day will lead to strong contrast and shadows on the subject. What are your options to soften the light? You could return on a different day with no harsh sunlight, or you could move the subject in to some shade or window light, add diffused flash to overpower the sunlight, or pop out a reflector and fill in the shadows. Let’s explore ways to soften the light.

Window Light
Since the early masters of painting, window light has been recognized as an excellent source of diffused light. Often known as “north window light,” this term refers to ambient light entering the window without any direct sun rays. In the northern hemisphere, windows facing north normally don’t have direct sun coming through them, only natural ambient light. With this in mind, virtually any window at the right time of the day can be an excellent source of diffused light for a portrait.
Window light alone makes a great portrait light. If the shadows are strong on your subject opposite the window, try using a reflector to bounce some light back onto your subject. In the event you require to soften up the light, place a large diffusion panel between the window and your subject; this will diffuse the light further.
What about moving your subject in to the shade? True, this will soften the light and eliminate any harsh shadows on a sunny day. In the event you have no other options, use shade. But shade alone is very flat light and omnidirectional, unlike window light, which originates from a directional source. Try using a reflector in the shade to add a small directional quality to the light.

Using reflectors is step one in learning to alter light. Reflectors produce what I call “real-time lighting.” What you see is what you get, and the light is consistent, so it’s simple to meter and adjust the angle of the light. You can make simple reflectors at home for about a dollar, though excellent collapsible reflectors are very inexpensive—no batteries needed, pop them open and start to shoot!

Reflectors come in a variety of styles, shapes and colors. There's two basic kinds of reflectors, collapsible and rigid. Small, circular collapsible reflectors are about a foot in diameter when open and fit in to your photograph bag or coat pocket. take them out of their bag, and they spring open. These reflectors work well with small subjects, from flowers to headshots. Collapsible reflectors also come in larger sizes, up to two feet or more. Advantages of collapsible reflectors are their small size and light weight.
Rigid reflectors consist of metal frames with reflective material stretched tightly across them. Some rigid reflectors collapse for simpler carrying and others don’t. The massive advantages of rigid reflectors are they don’t flutter in the wind, which makes the reflected light flicker, and they come in very giant sizes.

You also require to select what color of reflective material you require. White is the classic standard and works well for lots of applications. White isn’t adding color, it’s basically adding a small light to the subject—great to fill in shadows. Gold and soft gold are choices for adding some warm color to the subject. I find gold a small orange, so I prefer soft gold, which is a muted hue of gold. In lieu of turning skin tones orange, it adds a pleasant tan!
Silver is very bright and specular, great for adding highlights to your subject. Black will subtract light from your subject, adding shadows. Reflectors are also available in a white translucent fabric. These reflectors are more exactly called diffusers, as they diffuse and soften the light, great for use in harsh, sunny conditions. You can use them to bounce a small light, or place them between your subject and the light source to reduce its intensity.
Most reflectors come in two different colors, one on each side. My favourite combinations are soft gold/white and silver/white. I also always carryover a reflector with translucent material to diffuse the light. Another consideration in your choice will be how close you can get to your subject. If you’re using a wide-angle lens, you may require gold or silver to “throw” light a long distance to your subject. When using white, you require to be close to your subject to get much effect.

There's a number of ways to make your own reflectors. The simplest way is to buy pieces of white and black foam-core board from your local art store. Foam core works great as a reflector, in the event you leave them in a studio. Since they don’t collapse, they’re bulky to carryover in the field. To make a silver reflector, discover a small piece of cardboard (pizza delivery boxes work great) and tape aluminum foil onto it. I carryover a 12x12-inch aluminum foil reflector with me anytime I’m headed out the door.
The basic idea is to position the reflector at an angle to the sun (or light source) to redirect the light at your subject. If you’re only using one reflector and you’re close to your subject, you can hold the reflector in one hand and hit the shutter with the other (along with your camera on a tripod). If you’re a small further away, try setting your self-timer so you have time to get back to your subject and position the reflector. At some point you’ll require to have a mate hold the reflector, or use stands and clamps.
The simplest way to make use of reflectors is adding some fill light to the shadowed side of your subject. Select the color of your reflector, and bounce light back in to your subject. Experiment with reflector colors to see what you like. Sometimes I am liking a hot silver fill on my flower images, and other times soft gold looks nice. With portraits, I am liking soft gold and white. Reflected light can make people squint, so only reflect the light when you’re taking images. If your subject is wearing glasses, watch out for the reflector being reflected on the glasses.

The next step in reflector method is using over one reflector. A great combination is using one reflector with diffusion material together with a colored reflector. Position the diffusion panel above your subject to eliminate harsh, contrasty light, then add fill light using a soft gold or silver reflector. You won’t think the results!
Using a diffuser extends your shooting time in the coursework of the day. When the sun gets harsh at midday, grab your diffuser and keep on shooting. A great portrait method is to position your subject in shade, but close to the sun/shade line that you can reflect sunlight back on your subject. This leads to flattering light on your subject against a shadowed background, generating nice separation.

Flash Diffusers
At some point, using flash, whether TTL flash or larger studio strobes, will be the best solution for generating the right light. Lots of people are intimidated when you mention flash, but this is based on elderly perceptions that flash requires lots of technical expertise. Today’s TTL flashes are very correct and simple to make use of. Two times you discover the possibilities using flash, you’ll see the world through a brand spanking new set of eyes!
The simplest way to make use of flash is with a TTL flash mounted on top of your camera. Light from TTL flash is very directional and not diffused, but there's lots of options to diffuse TTL flash. Lots of TTL flashes have small, white flash-card diffusers that pop up. These are used by tilting the flash head up, not aiming at your subject, and shooting away. The flash is reflected by this small card onto your subject, bouncing the light than sending it head-on.
Another option here is putting a small plastic diffusion cap on the flash, thereby diffusing the direct strobe. If you’re in a room with a white ceiling, try aiming your flash head at the ceiling and shooting. The ceiling acts as one giant reflector, greatly diffusing the light. But recognize the bounced light will have the color of the ceiling, so don’t try this on a green ceiling unless you require alien light!

An important principle to keep in mind is that the larger your light source, the more diffused the light and softer the shadows. Small flash attachments will help diffuse the light and sometimes are the most practical solution, but I usually prefer softer light sources for my portraits, and a small softbox attached to a TTL flash works great. Lastolite makes the 24-inch EzyBox, a softbox with a bracket designed for TTL flash. This handy tool comes in a small bag, and when you take it out it pops in to its shape. What’s even better is that the box has a variety of panels with Velcro® on the front to alter the light, from small circle panels to long rectangle shapes. I was two times recently in Kenya photographing the Masai, and this softbox became my light of choice. I could set it up in under a minute and start shooting. I used an SU800 wireless trigger to pop the TTL flash off-camera. Using your flash off-camera greatly improves your portraits, since it lets you angle the light the way you require it.

You can also shoot your TTL flash through diffusion panels or off reflectors to diffuse the light. Having one or two TTL flashes in your camera bag isn’t a lot to carryover and gives you an fabulous set of tools to generate portraits using diffused light.
Beyond TTL flash comes studio strobes, and with this resource comes a large assortment of accessories to diffuse the light. The most basic are softboxes, which can be one foot square to larger than two feet square. Flashes are attached to these boxes, and the light is shot through diffusion panels and the outside fabric, making a pleasant, diffused light. For very diffused light, try shooting strobes through softboxes and then through a large diffusion panel, getting “double diffusion” before hitting your subject.

My favourite tool for generating diffused light when shooting portraits is the Elinchrom Octabank. This seven-foot circular softbox with silver interior produces fabulous, even diffused light. Unlike other softboxes, where the flash head shoots straight through the box, the flash in the Octabank is oriented pointing at the back of the bank. The flash bounces off the back of the Octabank before going forward through the front, generating even softer light. If you’re thinking of getting in to serious portrait work, studio accessories like the Octabank are a sound investment.

Whether you make portraits for fun or profit, or both, all of these tips will help you control your light for more flattering results.


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