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Photography Reflectors—Natural or Artificial Light
Reflected or Directed Light Qualities
In this photo of Heather during our recent Costa Rica photo workshop, we are forced to use artificial light because there is no sunlight to reflect. Here she is illuminated with a Hensel Porty Premium fitted with a Chimera 3-foot octabox.
While I’m still a photographer that uses artificial lighting in my photo shoots with Hensel lights and Chimera soft boxes, I also use reflected light from the California Sunbounce system. I use both their Pro and Mini versions with either the gold, silver, or white fabrics to reflect artificial light or natural light onto my subjects, but it’s not just about reflecting light, but understanding the qualities of the light.
Natural light is light from the sun (nature), whether it’s direct or reflected off natural sources, such as snow, sand, and even manmade sources like walls of a building or the fabric off a reflector. Reflecting natural light with a reflector like a California Sunbounce Pro is still natural light, though it’s reflected. However, natural light is also considered an ambient light source when not reflected.
Ambient light itself is either natural or artificial, as long as it’s from a continuous light source, hence why sometimes it’s also called existing light. (You can find the complete breakdown in my previous article, Natural, Ambient And Existing Light in Photography.) However, ambient light is the light that exists in the area around us, not direct light from something like a reflector or a lamp a photographer points toward a subject purposely.
In other words, if you walk into a room lit by a lamp, the room is filled with ambient, existing light, but if you pick up the lamp and place it next or physically direct it to your subject, then it becomes directed, artificial light and not necessarily ambient. There is a difference and the difference is based on whether you manipulate the light around you by directing it.
In this photo of Heather, the snow is acting as a natural reflector to natural light.
Another way to look at it, think of ambient light as a light you shoot around in because it exists in the area, but you don’t control it, unlike light on a stand you control and direct physically toward your subject. Once you start to control light, you are actually modifying it and it’s qualities, this includes artificial and natural light too.
While natural light isn’t manmade, you can control it, or redirect it, using a reflector or even one of the California Sunbounce scrims. The light once modified is still considered natural, but once directed and/or diffused, it is no longer considered ambient. Sounds a little semantic, doesn’t it? It is if you really think about it, but what makes the real difference is to understand the light qualities of any type of light, ambient or natural, based on whether it’s ambient, reflected or directed—all are different.
For example, direct overhead sunlight is horrible as a light source on a bright sunny day, however, if the clouds roll in, it’s now diffused (scrimmed) and though slightly flat, or lower in contrast, it’s less harsh plus more flattering to your subject. Knowing this fundamental comes in handy when you’re on an outdoor shoot where clouds either exist or don’t exist, but it’s also a light you can’t control and you work in it by where you place your subject, such as in it’s direct or indirect path.
When there are no clouds and the sky is bright and clear, simply place your subject in open shade (shaded area where direct sunlight is blocked or scrimmed), then fill your subject with redirected sunlight from a reflector like that of a zebra or white fabric California Sunbounce. Now your light quality will provide a bit more “pop” to your subject, but without the harshness of direct overhead sunlight because the light is now diffused too.
In this photo of Heather during one of my Moab photography workshops, we used a California Sunbounce Pro reflector with zebra fabric.Notice she is also in “open shade.”
You can also do this with artificial light, point it into a California Sunbounce reflector, and now redirect the reflected light onto your subject. I’ve done this many times where I’ve taken a Hensel Integra Pro monolight, with a 7-inch metal reflector attached, then pointed the light right into the reflector at a distance of two to five feet. This then creates a reflected light look vs. a direct light look. Reflected light holds a beautiful quality of light vs. direct harsh light when it comes to illuminating your subject.
Now if I take one of my Hensel monolights, fit it with a Chimera soft box and direct it at my subject, my light is an artificial but diffused light source vs. reflected light. This form of light also provides a beautiful light quality for my subject. So what makes me decide if I want reflected or direct diffused light? Sometimes it’s the shooting location, sometimes I may only have my reflector as I don’t always carry my more expensive studio flash gear in my car, and sometimes it’s just because I want a more natural light punch to my subject so it doesn’t look like flash photography.
In this photo of Heather during our Las Vegas photo workshop, the glass on the building acted as a manmade reflector of ambient, natural light.
You could say it’s subjective to my photographic style and in theory, depending on the type of fabric material of your reflector you do gain some diffusion from reflected light. Obviously white-fabric reflector material is more diffused than a metallic silver reflector fabric. It’s important to note that contrast decreases with increased diffusion (white) and contrast increases with decreased diffusion (silver).
Regardless whether I choose reflected natural light, ambient light, or diffused artificial light, it’s about the light quality I want at that given moment. Light quality controls many things including contrast, ease of achieving an image, and even the mood I’m trying to create in the final photo. It’s up to you the photographer to decide whether you want natural, reflected or directed diffused light and to understand how it impacts contrast in your images. Many photographers make this decision on personal style tastes too. Personally, I like to try them all at one point or another.
With that I close and like always I ask you to not forget the men and women who server patriotically to protect our freedoms; God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.