Using Reflectors with Available LightThe old-school advice was to keep the sun at your back to fully illuminate your subjects. While that may have been valid in the early days of photography, there are better ways to light your subjects using available light. The simplest technique is to pose your subject in indirect light such as open shade. The omnidirectional nature of this type of lighting is quite flattering, although it likely will render skin tones a bit “cool” in color. This can be easily remedied on the spot by changing your camera’s white balance to Cloudy or Shade, or fixed later with a minor color correction during your workflow.
Another method is to pose your subjects with their backs to the sun, then use one or more reflectors to bounce some light back onto their features. There are many reflector brands and styles available on the market, but using a plain white reflector always works well to even the lighting on your subject. Reflectors that offer a neutral surface such as the Bruce Dorn Select Natural Muslin + Silver from Westcott work great for portraits, since the reflector surface is very close to a natural skin tone. The Photoflex Soft Gold/White LiteDisc is a popular choice for many pros. California Sunbounce also makes reflectors as well as scrims, which are used to diffuse harsh sunlight. Even in the most difficult lighting situations, beautiful portraits can be created by choosing the right location and then using a combination of reflectors and scrims to control, modify and redirect the available light.
When faced with a challenging lighting scenario, such as bright overhead daylight producing harsh shadows, a couple of reflectors and diffusers can be used to harness that light and manipulate it into a soft, flattering source that produces professional results.
First, you’ll need to position the diffuser between the sun and subject so that it filters the direct sunlight and transforms it into a soft and muted source. Second, a reflector will need to be positioned so that it bounces some of that soft light back into the subject’s features. With the right positioning for background, you can achieve very professional results quickly with a minimum amount of gear. Naturally, you may need some “voice-activated light stands,” aka helpers, to hold the reflectors, but any nearby friend or family member will serve nicely in that role.
When shooting indoors, available light is used for portraying interior features in a realistic and natural manner. Subdued indirect light for churches or cathedrals and stage lighting for theatrical performances are prime examples. Most of the time, you won’t need to change this lighting, since it represents the mood and veracity of that environment. For portraits or still-life images, it’s best to find a strong source of indirect light such as a skylight or north-facing window to provide the main lighting source. Then use reflectors, fill cards or even a brightly lit wall to provide the extra available fill light if needed.