Improving photography by bouncing light

On my company's website (, we have a monthly contest...the "mega chica" contest. Women submit their photos and we have a weekly runoff allowing visitors to vote for their favorite lady. One a month we pick a "girl of the month". We then shoot these women at different locations in the Central Florida area. It's a very popular feature of the site and it means we do a fair amount of photo shoots.

Our photo shoots fall in two categories...outside versus inside photo shoots. I've found that when working outside, our job is to control the available light. Inside shoots are much harder because we have to create light instead of managing it. When working outside, I've found the use of reflectors & diffusers to be indispensable.

When the sun is harsh, especially during a cloudless day around noon, it's important to control the amount of light hitting your subject. Take a look at this photo and see how harsh the shadows are, this is a perfect example of how using the available light can make your photograph look unnatural.

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This photo was taken outside at around 10:30 am. The sun was directly behind and to the left of the camera. You can see extremely harsh shadows throughout the photograph.
© Ray Villalobos 2007

I could have turned on the on-camera flash to fill out some of the shadows, but that wouldn't have changed the quality of the light. To improve the photo, I need to reduce and diffuse the amount of light hitting my subject. For this I used a large diffuser to block out the sun


A diffuser takes light and spreads it out so that it is less harsh. Clouds, for example, are natural diffusers of light. Take a look outside when it's cloudy, the light is less bright, and doesn't seem to be coming from a single source. a cloudy day is better for shooting outside than a bright sunny day (although the sky doesn't look as good).

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You can see a dramatic improvement in the harshness of the light once a diffuser is used to block out/spread out the light.
© Ray Villalobos 2007

With the diffuser blocking out the sun, two things are happening. 1. The harshness of the light is dramatically improved 2. the amount of light hitting my subject is reduced, which is not really what I want for this photo. One thing about using diffusers/reflectors is that you're going to need an assistant to help you with your shoots. There's no way around it so find yourself a good apprentice/friend/sibbling. You can use stands to hold the stuff instead of assistants, but assitants are much more valuable.

The only problem now is that not enough light is hitting my subject in comparison with the previous shot. We can fix this by adding a reflector. Reflectors can do one of two things, they can add light back into a subject, and they have the added benefit of adding color as well, if you want. Why would you want to add color? Well, sometimes, you can add a little bit of gold to give people a healthier look. Take a look at the final photo.


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I placed a gold reflector to the right of the model, which bouced back some of the sunlight onto her. In addition, the gold tint gave her a healthier, suntanned look.
© Ray Villalobos 2007

Reflectors come in different colors. You can get white, silver or gold. Sometimes you can get a silver/gold mix as well. I have a small reflector that I use in shots like this. It cost me about $45 and it comes with a zip up reversible attachment. Without the attachment, the unit works as a diffuser, it can help block out light. This particular unit is about 3 feet in diameter, so it doesn't do a good job covering up large areas. If you use the additional attachment, you have four colors to pick from. On one side is a gold reflector, on the other side is a silver reflector; if you reverse it you'll get a white reflector or a half silver/half gold reflector.

I used the gold reflector to throw some color back onto the model. This throws a lot of light back, and it makes her look like she has a sunny complexion. I think the different is quite dramatic. The original diffuser I used to block out the sun cost about $100. If you don't have a lot of money, you can use a towel or something else to block out the sun. You can also use a vehicle windshield.

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