I do love natural light, particularly for portraits. A virtue of living in Britain is that the permanent coating of cloud across the sky turns it into a giant softbox, without having to lug around lighting. It’s a soft, flattering light which works well for everyone. You can shoot with a wide open aperture to get a beautiful bokeh, or shoot narrow and have your whole image in crisp, clear focus. What I love about natural light, is that it allows me to keep a shoot low key, with minimal hassle. Everyone, and most importantly the subject, is relaxed which makes for a better photo.
But whilst the giant softbox in the sky is very useful, it’s still a big light coming from one direction, and there can be times when you want to be able to control and sculpt the light a little more. You might want to reflect a little more light up onto the subject. This is where reflectors come in handy. They’re usually pretty cheap, and it’s fairly straightforward to make one yourself. I use this one, which has a silver, gold and white reflector and a small scrim.
But maybe you forgot your reflector, or you’re shooting on short notice, or there’s just no one around to hold it in the right place. In times like these, you can look for a natural or environmental reflector. You want to find somewhere with a pale or white surface to reflect light back onto your subject. I’m going to show you a few examples of how this can be done.
For this shot of Niomi Smart, we were shooting some portrait’s in her living room. Fortunately, she has a beautiful, white painted living room with big windows, so there was plenty of natural light to work with. We shot some portraits against the windows, and then on her sofa. She was actually facing away from the light, giving a backlit effect. But because she was facing white walls, the light reflected back onto her face (full disclosure: I forgot my reflector, but her living room's white walls meant this wasn't an issue).
It’s all well and good being inside where you can control elements a little more, but what if you’re out and about? The key thing is to look for light coloured pavements and walls, and position your subject in a way to get the best light onto them. In the example above, Niomi was positioned under a house, where the road underneath provided a driveway to houses behind the front facing houses along the road. If this was a black painted tunnel, we would have had problems getting the right amount of light onto Niomi, but because it was painted white, it reflected light from outside onto her, diffusing it further.
The image above provides another example from the same shoot. The white houses, walls and pale pavement provide a great reflected source of light, ensuring Niomi is lit well from every angle.
Just as using your environment can reflect light onto your subject, you can use your environment to diffuse the light on your subject. Direct sunlight can often be hard to work with: If you position your subject looking towards the light, they’ll be squinting and quite uncomfortable; position them half towards the sun and you get very strong and dark shadows; and if you position them facing away from the sun, and they’re in shadow. You can counteract the shadow by facing the subject away from the sun, and towards a pale surface. You can also diffuse the light by putting them in a pale coloured shaded area.
In this example above, we were in a white painted pergola on a bright sunny day. The shelter of the pergola combined with the bushes outside filtered the light so there weren’t any strong beams of light on Niomi. The white walls reflected the light coming in, allowing Niomi to be lit by diffused light. Shooting in tunnels or sheltered areas is a great solution when shooting on a bright day if the sun outside is too bright, as it can diffuse the light on the subject.
The aim of today's post is to teach you how to use your available environment to utilise natural light to create a great, well lit portrait. I hope you found this post informative!