I write photography lessons called Making the Shot for past students of The Photographers' Workshop. They're big, detailed lessons and are designed to really help past students of mine hone in on specific photographic skills (like shooting in low light situations for example.)
And while I currently only make those issues available to past students (because Making the Shot is intended to build on the foundation of knowledge that is taught during The Photographers' Workshop) I find myself wanting to occasionally share some photography-related tips here on my blog to past students and non-students alike.
So that's exactly what I'm going to do. No particular frequency, no particular format, no particulars at all - I just want to periodically show you some strategies that have helped me photographically in the hope that they might help you as well...
Light is key to any photograph.
In fact, in the absence of light, you simply cannot create a photograph and therefore, you have to have a certain quantity of light to create any image.
That said, you have to have a certain quality of light in order to make that image a 'great' image and one of the most overlooked, but beneficial sources of high quality light comes from natural reflectors.
A natural reflector is any surface that reflects light onto your subject.
Think of the sun hitting a light colored wall and bouncing off of that wall and onto your subject, bathing them in a quality of light that simply wouldn't be available without the presence of that light colored wall - that's a natural reflector. Think of light hitting a shiny car and reflecting that light onto your subject. Light reflecting off a pond or a swimming pool. Light bouncing off of cement.
Basically, the lighter the color of the surface is, the shinier it is, the bigger it is, and the closer it is to your subject, the more effectively it will work as a natural reflector.
Let me say that again to make sure it hits home...
Natural reflectors work best when they are:
- light in color (because light colors reflect light while dark colors absorb light.)
- shiny (because shiny surfaces reflect more light than non-shiny surfaces.)
- big (because the bigger the surface, the more light it can reflect.)
- close to your subject (because the closer it is to your subject, the stronger the reflected light will be.)
I look for and use natural reflectors constantly.
For example, when I'm shooting professionally, I wear a white colored shirt because I know that white shirts will bounce a small, but significant amount of light onto the subject I'm photographing.
If I'm shooting in a room with a white door that opens up to a dark hallway, I'll close the door in the hopes that the white door will become a natural reflector since a dark hallway doesn't add light to my subject. (If there were lots of light streaming in from the open door though, I'd leave the door open.)
If my subject is laying on a bed and I have the option of tossing them a light colored pillow or a dark colored pillow to snuggle up with, I'm going to choose the light colored pillow every time.
When I paint any rooms in my house, I always choose a glossy, white paint for my ceilings because the combination of gloss + a light color = a great natural reflector. (I use a color called Betsy's Linen by Valspar.)
If I'm shooting one of my kids taking a bath and I have the option of partially closing the white shower curtains to use them as a natural reflector, or leaving them open and having no nearby natural reflector, then you'd better believe I'm going to partially close the shower curtains...
Nikon D700 camera body, Nikon 35mm f1.4 lens, shot at f2.2, 1/320th, ISO 800
* In the images above, there is a small window above Cole and to his right (my left) that is providing a small amount of light as seen in the top image. However, when I partially closed the shower curtain, the light from that tiny window hit the much larger surface of the white, plastic, shiny shower curtain liner and that, along with its close proximity to Cole made for a powerful natural reflector that created the great illumination you see in the bottom shot. If you look at the position of the shower curtain in each of these shots, you can see that with the shower curtain pushed back in the top shot, no window light was hitting it. However, once I pulled the shower towards me for the bottom shot, its new position allowed window light to spill onto it, creating a natural reflector. (My camera settings were identical for both shots and neither image is edited in any way.)
The next example is kind of a dramatic one, but it is a great reminder that you never want to overlook the significance of even seeminly small, natural reflectors.
The first image is just a quick pullback to show you the overall scene.
This was shot in the late afternoon, just an hour or so before sunset and at that time of day, I've got soft, indirect light coming from the window you see to my left and tons of rich, golden, direct light coming from the window to my right as the sun starts to set in the sky. (And you can see the scaffolding my husband left out along the side of our house for almost a year.)
In this situation, the book that Annie was holding became a small, but mighty natural reflector when she held it in front of her face while reading a mainly white (reflective) page as the direct sun that was coming from the window behind her hit the pages of the book.
* In the image on the left, Annie has the book leaning up against her chest and therefore, it is not acting as a natural reflector. In the image on the right though, Annie is holding the book in front of her, which caused the direct sun coming from the window behind her to hit the white pages of the book, allowing the white pages of the book to act as a natural reflector, bouncing a substantial amount of light onto her face. (My camera settings were identical for both shots and neither image is edited in any way.)
The key is training yourself to even notice natural reflectors in the first place and the best way you can do that is simply by developing a habit of looking for and thinking about natural reflectors even when you don't have your camera around.
For example, I just took a quick break from writing this lesson to grab a Coke from McDonald's because:
#1 - I didn't sleep good last night and I needed some caffeine.
#2 - I'm convinced that there is something magical about McDonalds Coke in comparison to the Coke available anywhere else in the world.
And while I sat in the drive-through, I caught myself looking for and comparing natural reflectors. I looked at the cars driving down the street to my right and noticed how the lighter colored cars driving by reflected more light than the darker colored cars even though they were both shiny surfaces. I noticed how the direct sun hitting a portion of someone's white colored, front porch created a huge, natural reflector while the shady portions of the porch reflected a much smaller, but still significant quantity of light. I noticed how much light the shiny white surface of my McDonald's cup reflected (and how good my Magic Coke tasted.)
It's those kind of daily observations that will help you develop and train your own eye to recognize the natural reflectors that are all around you; on city streets, at the park, in the grocery store and around your own home and once you notice them, you can start utilizing them.
And once you start utilizing natural reflectors, your photos will never be the same.