Tools For Lighting Outdoor Portraits

When working with natural light, the singular light source of the sun is difficult to control. It’s a large, directional light source, which means it produces a lot of "hard" light that comes from only one direction. This results in high-contrast images with a lot of shadows. There’s nothing wrong with this very dramatic look, but by altering and harnessing that natural light, you can use it for any number of lighting styles. Whether you want to add a bright commercial pop to your images or subtly influence the nature of the light, there are a variety of tools available to help you get the look you want.

When working under natural light, photographers often will position their subjects in open shade to even out the shadows while reducing the overall contrast (not to mention that models will also have an easier time keeping their eyes from watering). Diffusion panels are another way to gain this advantage. Diffusion spreads light evenly through a semitranslucent material, generally white, for a softer, more natural feel to the light. Softboxes, for instance, use diffusion panels to reduce and soften the directional light coming from the bare bulb. Diffusion also is available as silks or domes for use with flashes or studio lights, and can be used in combination with other light-modification tools for changing the quality of the light.

Photoflex 5-in-1 MultiDisc Reflector

Reflector panels and bounce tools guide and focus the light by reflecting it. Most often available in gold, silver, white or combinations of the three, these materials will affect the nature of the reflected light, as well. With gold, for example, you gain an afternoon glow that highlights skin tones with warm, pleasing tones. Silver, on the other hand, is a highly specular reflective material, much like a mirror, which is great for adding a lot of extra light to your subject, though it also can add contrast. A silver-and-gold combination reflector panel will give you the best of both worlds. Additionally, reflectors are highly portable and almost always bendable, which makes them ideal for shaping the light spread.

Sometimes taking light away from a scene can be as important as adding it. Flags remove unwanted light by blocking light rays directly or by absorbing it. Flags are made of dark materials, which reduce light because very little light is reflected, one of the reasons why a black car or dark clothes will get so hot in the summer. Flags also can be used to reduce lens flare when used to shade the camera lens from the sun, and they can be used to control light spill whether working with natural light or studio lighting.

Lastolite TriGrip Difflectors


Available as the 18" Mini TriGrip Difflector or the 33" TriGrip Difflector, Lastolite’s soft silver and soft gold TriGrip Difflectors employ a unique material that allows light transmission from only one side. The panel can be used for bouncing light from the reflective side or diffusing it via the opposite side. The TriGrip Difflector can be held with one hand. Lastolite also produces a number of basic 18", 33" and 48" TriGrip reflector solutions, as well as collapsible models in a range of sizes. List Price: $63 (18" Mini TriGrip Difflector); $78 (33" TriGrip Difflector); $112 (48" TriGrip Difflector, large).

California Sunbounce Sun-Mover

Interfit Photographic Portrait Reflector Kit

Photoflex provides a number of reflector solutions that range in size from the affordable 12" LiteDisc Circular Reflectors to the large 42" MultiDisc Kit with Large LiteStand and LiteDisc Holder. The 5-in-1 Kit offers gold, soft gold, silver, white and translucent materials in a single system for gaining evenly illuminated bounce, high-contrast specular highlights, warmth, all-around fill, neutral reflection and diffusion. Estimated Street Price: $215.

Flags from Matthews Studio Equipment

Available in Silver/White or Zebra/White, the 32" Sun-Mover from California Sunbounce offers two handles and a spring steel ridge that keeps the reflector taut for consistency in the reflected light and sturdiness during windy days. The Silver/White gives you a choice between strong, specular light and softer, more diffused natural light. The Zebra pattern is a combination of gold and silver for warmth with more moderate contrast. Estimated Street Price: $99 (Silver/White); $109 (Zebra/White).

F.J. Westcott 24×36-Inch Fast Flag Kit

California Sunbounce
(Bron Imaging Group)
F.J. Westcott Company
Gary Fong
Interfit Photographic
Matthews Studio Equipment

Eliminating the need for an assistant to hold your reflectors, the 36×24-inch Portrait Reflector kit from Interfit Photographic includes one Gold/Silver reflector and two Sunlight/Silver reflectors that can be finely adjusted on a multi-angle joint arm for combining reflected light on the face of your subject. The heavy arm secures to a light stand (not included). For outdoor use, it’s recommended that you use a weight at the base of the stand to keep the system from blowing over. Estimated Street Price: $109.

Matthews Studio Equipment produces a number of flags with varying sizes and shapes that begin small at 12×18 inches and go up to 48×48 inches. The frames are sturdy for mounting to stands. Additionally, Matthews offers the 18×24-inch RoadRags Black Flag and the 24×36-inch RoadRags II Flag, which are also available in kits with scrims and silks for diffusion effects. Both models sport an elastic corded frame for easy folding and portability. Estimated Street Price: Begins at $25.

F.J. Westcott offers a number of Fast Flags materials for blocking and diffusing light, including the 24×36-inch Fast Flag Kit with an assortment of inte
rchangeable flags and diffusion fabrics that can be mounted to two included carbon-steel frames. The kit collapses for travel into a carrying case, and it contains a Single Black Net Fabric, a Double Black Net, a 2-Stop Artificial Silk and a Black Block Fabric. Estimated Street Price: $215.

Leave a Comment