- Rock Steady Sandbag
- Lite Stand Large
- Lite Disc Holder
- 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector
- LitePanel Kit 39 x 72
There is absolutely no question that using natural light in portrait photography produces fantastic results and produces very natural looking images. Most photographers working today also know that an overcast day produces a very soft light. Most photographers working today also know that an overcast day produces a very soft light. This mimics, to an extent, the light produced by a diffuser. The lower intensity as well as the high overhead position of the sun can create a darker more shadowed subject, especially when working with a background that has more contrast with the subject. Also, the clouds diffuse the light creating a slight blue color cast needing to be corrected through white balance adjustment. On the same note, overcast light can be a life saver if you are forced to shoot midday, however, you must remember that you have been asked to capture beautiful images of your subject – that is your job. Natural Light does not always behave as we would like – we have to alter or modify it to our needs. So, manipulating the light is just as important as understanding how to work with the available light.
When choosing a location, first consider the background, the color clothing, complexion and hair color. I am working with Nicki, she has dark hair, a darker skin tone and a blue shirt. We chose to shoot at a local park because it offered a number of “contrasting backgrounds” to use for the images. I chose to make the images with her standing in front of two small cypress trees at the edge of a lake. The sun, although obscured by the clouds, was behind and slightly to the left of Nicki. The slightly stronger light created a small backlight on the top of her head adding some texture to her hair. My first test shots helped me establish that my background choice was correct and the correct white balance.
In the first shot, I had set my camera to ISO100 – the low ISO maintains good color saturation, keeps digital noise to a minimum and optimizes the image’s sharpness. Next, I chose f2.8 on my 80-200mm zoom – the wide aperture allows a shallow depth of field both in front of and behind the focus point. This is Nicki’s headshot. It will be used as casting director’s look at potential talent to fill roles in a variety of productions. The image should focus purely on Nicki and what she looks like. The shallow depth of field does not allow the background to compete with her for the viewer’s attention. The first shot also has a blue tint. This is produced by the cloudy overcast conditions. In the second shot, I have used a custom white balance setting to “balance” the color to a more pleasing appearance. If you are using the automatic white balance setting on your camera, the amount of blue and red can produce false readings in your camera, so manually setting the white balance is my choice.
In each of the previous images, Nicki's face is not well lit. I do have however, a sleek back light illuminating her hair. Positioning her with the glow of the sun through the overcast sky behind her created shadow in her face and a very nice hair light. Backlighting, especially on an overcast day produces a beautiful rim light outlining the subject. Working with someone who has dark colored hair, it often introduces just enough light to define the texture.
Overcast days are when I actually enjoy shooting. This condition produces a very even light. The primary problem is that the light, although even, is weak – often very weak. As you can see by the first two images, it can also create heavy shadows under the eyes and chin. To counter balance the shadows, I tend to have at least one, if not two reflectors at work. My job as a photographer is to capture the best possible image for my client. Using a reflector helps me achieve this – I can gently bounce and feather light onto the subject to separate them from the background giving them contour and shape as well as a bit of added warmth.
The word photography is derived from the Greek - phôs, which means light and Latin – graphia, meaning to write. In photography, everything happens with light and as photographers we must understand it and use it to our advantage regardless of how much or how little we have. Regardless of the color of the color temperature presented, we must adapt. One of the best and most underrated tools available is a reflector/ diffuser. My first reflector was hand-made using crumpled aluminum foil taped to cardboard. Now, I have several and they travel with me as a staple piece of equipment in the back of my SUV. Whenever I need to bounce, fill, diffuse or flag light they are right there and handy. Add to that a light stand that has a couple of pinch clamps and I have an unpaid assistant to hold it steady for me. My “go to” reflector is the Photoflex 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector.
The reflectors I choose to carry have multiple colors for a variety of uses. Silver is the color I choose primarily when I am shooting in monochrome. It can increase highlights and yield a high-contrast image.
Gold produces a natural, golden warm fill light. I primarily use this for portraits and product work at sunset or working under indoor lights. The gold color produced by this reflector is too strong for bright sunlight, but is perfect working under much weaker indoor lights. White produces an even, soft fill light in harsh strong sunlight. The Sun Lite side of the reflector is a combination of silver and gold reflective surfaces. This produces a stronger fill light with a warmer glow, this is perhaps my favorite reflector to use.
In the next images I have asked Nicki to hold the 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector in front of her. Reflectors do just what the name implies—they reflect the light. By doing this I am attempting to harness the light coming over her head and shoulders and bounce in back at her as a front light. This will open the shadow created by the hairlight. I chose the SunLite side of the 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector for a slight warming look to the light. Under most conditions, however, I would have chosen the silver side of the 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector. In headshots, my goal is to create a warm and inviting feeling, the SunLite side of the reflector consists both of silver and gold elements. The result is a brighter light with a gold tint.
The resulting image shows the extra bounced fill light with a warmer color has opened the shadows under her cheeks and chin and generally illuminated her face much better. The image is warmer and more inviting, but still maintains the desired contrast with the background. This keeps the focus on Nicki and not on anything else in the image. Look close at Nicki’s eyes – you will see the reflector as a catch light there.
If I am working with an assistant, I will have them hold the reflector. Especially if the subject will be moving around a lot. I am not a fan of having my subject hold the reflector unless I am working in a studio or controlled environment. My own style of work means that I instruct models and subjects working with me to hold a pose no longer than three seconds. By doing this I am turning the session into a collaboration between us. That being said; I prefer the control of a light stand – especially if the reflector I am using is slightly on the larger side.
The light stand keeps the reflector in one place and maintains the direction of the bounce/fill light. If the subject is moving to be more animated, which is often the case with actors and actresses, the light will change as the reflector moves. Animation in the actor/actress headshot is very important. Based upon the audition, the headshots must be appropriate to that role. In image 5, I have attached the 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector to the Lite Stand with Lite Disc Holder. This simple approach maintains a constant direction of light and allows Nicki to change positions and become a bit more animated in her posing. The result is fluid motions, a higher frame rate of shooting and eliminates the need to continually reposition the 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector.
The 32" 5 in 1 Multidisc Reflector is basically now a small sail on the light stand. It is subject to wind gusts, bumping and a variety of things that can now knock it over in an outdoor environment. A Rock Steady Sandbag placed on the legs keeps the stand in an upright position.
Now, with her hands free, Nicki appears much more relaxed and has the ability to move much more freely. The lighting is constant and has a very nice warm feel to it.
Now with Nicki relaxed and free to move a bit, I came in a little tighter as Nicki looked down and away with her eyes closed. I used a top crop in a landscape format. My goal was create a headshot that she could use for a comp card. The open area to her right is perfect for putting her name and basic information. On the reverse, she would place her stats and other information. The comp card is a perfect leave behind item for her auditions.
Keeping with the comp card idea, we introduced sunglasses to the image. Having her hands free from holding the 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector allowed to her pose through a series of images putting on and taking them off. As you can see the mood is very different between the two comp card images allowing Nicki to present both for different cast calls.
For my next series of images, I wanted a more neutral background than the one I was using. When thinking about neutral, my mind immediately reverts back to the film days. Grey is the color coming to mind – I still carry to this day a grey card – although the one I use is a collapsible neutral disc. In the color spectrum, I originally was taught to meter green grass in bright sun as a substitute for a grey card – it has the same reflectance as an 18% grey card.
Now, I asked Nicki to turn 90° with her back towards a large stand of cypress trees. The green was fantastic, but with her dark hair, complexion and clothing, she quickly lost tonal separation from the background. The purpose of a headshot is to make your subject stand out. I switched next to a larger reflector. The LitePanel Kit 39 x 72 using a Sunlite reflective surface provided more of the same warm light I had with the 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector. The key light – the sun through the clouds – remained the same.
Just like the 32” 5 in 1 MultiDisc Reflector, theLitePanel Kit 39 x 72 is now a larger sail on the light stand and more sensitive to wind gusts, bumping and a variety of things that can now knock it over in an outdoor environment. A Rock Steady Sandbag again placed on the legs keeps the stand in an upright position.
The use of a large light source creates a much softer light, but the closer your subject is to the light source the even more soft it is. This meant that I would move the light (LitePanel) as close as possible – so close that it was almost bumping her. Portraits benefit from soft lighting because the smooth transition from highlight into shadow lets the viewer focus less on lighting and more on the subject.
The larger light source gave me a nice wrap around light as well.
Written and photographed by George Wilson