Natural Light and Reflectors

You might be wondering where daylight fits into all this. Very well spotted, it seems to be something I’m skating over and avoiding, and there’s a very good reason for that. Since all light has those 4 key characteristics (direction, quality, quantity and colour) the same principles apply no matter the light source, but it’s much easier to use artificial light of some sort to create a certain effect, rather than try and wait for daylight to do what I want it to do! It might take me months to get exactly the right light I’m after, whereas I could illustrate a principle very quickly just by turning a flashgun on. That’s why I’ve not mentioned natural or daylight quite so much!

Working with Natural light

However, daylight is obviously hugely important to us as photographers, and learning how to light with it and use it is a vital skill. The catch is that of course, “controlling” daylight is a bit of a problem, since it’s impossible to tell the sun what to do!

You obviously can’t control what the sun is doing, nor can you choose what the weather is doing. If you want to take an image with strong sunlight, and it’s currently very cloudy, or vice versa, you’re a bit stuck. The way to work with natural light is simply to accept these quirks, and do your best to minimise them.

For example, we know that the sun follows a set pattern across the sky during the day. We can even look up online exactly what time it will rise and set in a chosen location, or use a sun compass app on our smartphones that will show us the course of the sun throughout the day. With this, we can then choose to shoot at the appropriate time. We might want the sun in a certain position so that it hits a particular building, or shades a certain area, or want to make use of the warmer, low angled light at dawn and dusk. Simply choosing when to shoot gives us a small degree of control – or at least, allows us to be prepared and ready to go at the right time.

Along the same lines, we should check the weather forecast to give us a clue as to what the conditions will be like, and increase our chances of getting the light we’re after. We all know that the forecast is nothing like 100% accurate, but it’s usually pretty close within a few hours. Just be prepared to wait around a bit for the light you want, and if necessary, shoot quickly when the conditions are right.

If you plan on shooting with natural light, start from the 4 basic characteristics, and then decide on when, and under what conditions, you need to be shooting. Start with direction – whereabouts in the sky do you want to sun to be? Now think about quality – do you want hard overhead sun light, or soft diffuse clouds? Now, quantity – do you want lots of light so you can get a fast shutter speed/small aperture, or do want very little so you can use a wider aperture, or a slower shutter speed, or perhaps to allow you to use less power in other lights you might be using? Finally, colour – although daylight is a pretty standard colour temperature, it obviously gets warmer at the start and end of the day.

So, you can exert some influence over these by simply choosing when and where to shoot. But what if you’ve only got a limited time, and the daylight isn’t doing what you want? Well, there are ways you can alter it, and here are a few suggestions. It’s almost impossible to make soft, diffused daylight harder (without a very complex system of mirrors and lenses) but you can easily make the hard midday sun softer by simply moving into the shade, or placing some sort of diffuser between the sun and your subject. This diffuser could be something you’ve brought with you like some translucent fabric, or it could just as easily be a layer of foliage in a tree, or reeds near a stream. You could also reduce the harshness of a shadow by using a reflector of some sort, again – this can be natural in the shape of a white wall, or bright sand, or artificial in the form of a photographic reflector which we’re about to cover in more detail.

Be alert to what happens to daylight throughout the day, and in different locations. Watch how it reflects off things, shines through things, and casts shadows of things. Plan as carefully as you can ahead of time, carry some simple kit like a reflector or diffusion panels, be prepared to wait for the light you want, and then work quickly when the moment strikes. Daylight is amazing stuff to work with, but there’s always a small element of luck involved. You can increase your luck with a bit of careful planning though.

Reflectors – Introduction

The last type of light, isn’t a light at all! Reflectors are really handy, and pretty inexpensive pieces of kit – I own several, as you can see, and I’d suggest you get one pretty early doors.

First things first, and although it’s stating the obvious, a reflector just reflects light – it is not a light source in it’s own right! I know that’s pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen people waving them around on dark cloudy days wondering why they’re not having much effect.

How they work is (hopefully) very easy to get your head round – they just bounce light. Since light travels in straight lines, think back to the science you hopefully did at school, and you’ll recall that angle of incidence equals angle of reflection. Simple as that, and with a reflector it’s pretty easy to observe the effect just with the naked eye.

Different Types of Reflector

They come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, as you can see here, and they also come in different finishes. White is very common, as is silver, which gives more of a kick than white. Gold is quite popular too, as this reflects a lot of light, but adds a warm tone to things.

Reflectors can also subtract light, as well as adding it. Any surface that absorbs a lot of light – namely a black one – won’t reflect very much back. This means that any shadows will get deeper. Sometimes controlling where the light is falling, and bouncing around can be as vital as bouncing more of it back, which is why in lots of hire studios you find the polystyrene boards that are white on one side are usually black on the other.

Some reflectors can also be used to soften the light by diffusing it too. A white reflector can be quite translucent, and you can find ones that are nearly totally translucent, or use material known as frost or spun – all of which diffuse and scatter any light passing through them. Obviously this affects the quantity of light hitting the subject, but it can dramatically alter the quality too. Place a large one of these between a subject and the harsh, midday sun, and watch those thick, dark shadows under the eyes disappear.

Probably the most versatile type is either a frame system like this one – they come in smaller sizes, don’t worry – or a disc like this which consists of a white diffusion layer – which also reflects – and then a fabric that can be pulled over the top with silver on one side and gold on the other. This one is effectively 4 in 1, costs about £30 and fits in most camera bags.

Reflectors in use

Disc reflectors offer all sorts of fun and games – familiar to anyone who’s ever put up one of those pop-up tents. The secret is to place a hand at each side, one hand palm away, one hand palm facing, and then push your hands together and twist. Practice this, and your friends will be very impressed, but do be aware they open with quite a “pop”!

They can obviously be handheld, although make sure whoever you delegate to hold them actually understands what they’re doing – I’ve worked with a number of people who seem to fail to grasp the most basic aspects of how they work. If you’re short on personnel, there are stands available, or some come with their own legs. Just be aware how easily they will catch any wind and fly away on location.

It’s most common to see reflectors in use outside on bright sunny days – generally to reduce some of the shadows cast by strong sunlight, and this is how I use them a lot of the time – just be careful about bouncing the reflected light right back into your subject’s eyes!

Don’t forget they can be used as a diffuser in some instances, and also that they don’t just have to reflect the sun! If you’re stuck trying to make some soft light, and all you have with you is a flashgun and a reflector, well, try bouncing the flash off the reflector, or firing it through the diffusion material. Bingo – one soft light

Reflectors are definitely something you should add to your lighting kit, possibly even before you buy any lights. Finally – don’t overlook the fact that reflectors require no power supply, no sync cables, nor any batteries. As your photographic life gets more complex, you’ll be very grateful for this!

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