It can be easy for new photographers to feel like they have to have lots of pricey equipment in order to make great pictures. That feeling is exacerbated when it comes to lighting, where the options are abundant and expensive. The feeling is understandable, but it isn’t quite accurate. After all, lighting is free and accessible for all of us courtesy of the sun, right? And for those who want to augment it, a simple speedlight can go a long way—if you know how to use it. Here are three tips for making a lot out of a little, by using available light and a single flash to create nuanced lighting for portraits and more.
Making an outdoor portrait on a sunny day with literally no light modifiers at all? Not a flash or a reflector or even a big silk diffuser? No problem—as long as you know where to put your subject relative to the light. In reality, it’s not the light at all that you’ll be looking for—it’s the shadows. Specifically, for outdoor portraits, you want to look for open shade. That’s the kind of shade from tall trees or buildings that’s largely open to the sky. It means that, unlike a deep, dark shadow, you’re still in fairly bright light, but it’s indirect as the subject isn’t standing in bright sun, but rather the sunny sky is softly illuminating the subject. Trust me, this is some of the most flattering light you can find anywhere. All you’re looking for is a place to get the subject out of the sun, into the edges of shade. Look for trees, doorways or other overhanging elements that help shade the subject from bright sun.
Do you want to light a subject but don’t have access to a studio or lots of lighting? No problem. You can use any single light source—from a window to a speedlight to a table lamp as in the example shown here—and create beautiful and nuanced studio-style lighting for inanimate objects. The secret is in the shadows because that’s what provides the shape and definition of the object. Position your light at, say, a 45-degree angle camera left such that it’s illuminating the subject from a quartering position. (If the subject is a cube shape with very distinct sides, position the light so that it’s illuminating one of those sides—the one you’d like to be most prominent.)
Step two is to light the remaining sides and/or top of the scene to prevent them from falling into deep shadow. For this, you’ll simply use reflectors. A white card or pop-up reflector is perfect for this. Place the reflector close to the side that you’ like filled in strongest, but be sure to provide enough distance that the shadow is distinct. Too much fill minimizes that shadow and eliminates the sense of shape we’re trying to achieve. For the third plane, place another white card reflector, but this time try to make sure that it’s closer or farther from the subject than the other reflector. This will sure that it appears tonally different, a bit lighter or darker than the first filled side. These three distinct lighting levels are crucial for making an object appear deliberately illuminated, and they can be done with just one light and two cheap paper reflectors.
Want to make diffused strobe light without an umbrella or softbox? No problem. All you need is a white wall or ceiling so you can bounce the strobe to diffuse it. The main reason speedlights are adjustable is in order to point them up at the white ceilings that are so often overhead. This indirect flash position effectively turns the ceiling into a broad soft light source. I find it helpful to think of any reflector, whether it’s a Litedisc or a white card or a ceiling, as an actual light source itself. Because that’s what it is as far as the subject is concerned. When you aim your tiny little flash at a white ceiling, that flash spreads out over several square feet as it illuminates the ceiling.
In practice, that large area effectively becomes the new light source. And it’s a big one, so it acts just like a big softbox or umbrella or cloudy sky to diffuse the light. This is especially helpful for portraits, for which soft lighting is so often key to flattering skin tones and happy subjects. It’s also very useful for any situation in which a specular light source (the small, pinpoint light from a flash, for instance) would be distracting—such as shiny surfaces. I’d go so far as to say there’s almost no situation in which a flash doesn’t look better bounced off of a wall or ceiling, especially compared to that flash mounted on the camera and aimed directly at the subject. And it’s such a simple fix!