Professional portrait light

In the past, I’ve shown you how I used a translucent diffuser to create soft light with a Speedlight and hot red hairdo in a hot red jeep. When you shine light through a translucent material, it spreads out and makes it bigger and softer.

But speed lights are expensive and calling them temperamental is an understatement. The diffuser can be had for well under $50, however, and is the perfect complement to the largest, cheapest light source in the solar system: The sun. I’d go as far as to say that the cheapest, fastest way to make your portraiture better is to learn to use this simple tool. My preferred style is the 40-by-60 inch oval, and it comes with covers in black, white, silver. and gold.

Light direction with reflectors

In the picture above, I’ve used two of these to create soft light on the subject’s face and a warm hair light from behind. The hair light is done simply by standing in the sunshine behind your subject and bouncing the light onto the back of her head. It sounds simple, but you should really practice finding the light and bouncing it in the right direction. It’s especially tricky when the sun is setting low and long shadows are in the way of standing in the direct light.

Photographers usually ask me what to do if you don’t have assistants to hold these. My answer is: Get an assistant to hold these!

You can get reflector holders that will mount to a light stand, but they are easily blown over in the slightest breeze. Plus, you’re missing out on an opportunity to build a relationship with a fellow photographer if you don’t ask someone for help.

When you work with other photographers you build trust, learn new skills and add resources to your network. That is the most valuable thing you can do as a photographer or business person. Just ask someone in your camera club, or your Facebook group to join, and return the favor. My best friends are those with who I have worked with helping each other on shoots.

Watch your background

Second, place your subject in front of a dark background. the diffuser makes the light larger, but it also reduces the brightness. That means if the sun is shining on your subject and also shining on the house behind her, when you diffuse the light on her the proper exposure on her face will be darker than the exposure on the house and the house will appear blown out and there will probably be many distracting elements in the image.

Placing your subject in the sunshine in front a dark background or a background in the shade will keep your viewers attention on the brightest thing in the image: your subject. Plus, since it darkens the sun, it often makes it easier for your subject to not squint.

Third, redirect the light. If the sun is directly overhead, you can hold your panel at an angle and create a different direction of light that is more flattering on your subject. That means I can create good light on a bride at high, and that should keep you from being grumpy about shooting weddings in the middle of the day


Final touches

Lastly, pay attention to your own shadow, and the edges of the light. When I photograph a senior, the mom is often along for the shoot, and I’ve seen some photographers use her to hold reflectors for them. The thing is, you’ve got to be diligent about the placement of the light, especially with a reflector. If mom turns a little to the left, the light on the face disappears. It’s really tough for people who haven’t practiced to maintain a constant light for you, let alone find the right light to begin with.

Mom can probably handle a hair light, but I need an attentive assistant to hold the diffuser and make sure their own shadow doesn’t block the light shining through. Then, while I’m looking through the lens, I’ve got to be sure that all the light falling on my subject is coming through the diffuser so there are no hot spots as on the hands and sleeve at the bottom of this image.

It’s still a great expression, and the little breeze in her hair is nice, but I’d probably crop it so the light is more homogenous.

Photography is all about light, and using a the diffuser from an inexpensive 5-in-1 reflector kit will help you create great light anywhere in the world.

It’s all pretty simple stuff, really. Just training yourself to keep your word to yourself.

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