Magazine Article


An Exercise in Lighting
Using sunlight indoors

The reflector outside the studio
2008 Amy Smith

The reverse view showing the model in comparison to the photographer. Note the fill card to the model's right, and the diffuser in front of her, softening the light coming through the window.
2008 Amy Smith

The first test of light through the window without modifiers.
2008 Kirk R. Tuck

The diffused light through the window.
2008 Kirk R. Tuck

Changing the angle just a bit more and changing the background gives a whole different feeling to the image.
2008 Kirk R. Tuck

A year ago I wrote a book called Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography, which was aimed at teaching photographers how to do assignments and projects using small battery-operated lights instead of the "plug in the wall" A/C electronic flashes traditionally used by professionals. The book is successful, but I got lots of emails and even a few reviews that took me to task for using "expensive" lights or "too many" lights.

I kept this in mind when I was working on a second book about studio lighting. I wanted to do a shoot using just the sunlight outside my studio. No electronic flashes, no multiple light sources, and no large studio flashes. What follows is my version of a totally sunlit portrait session with one of my favorite models, Heidi.

I started as I always do, setting up a background and positioning Heidi in relation to the background. I chose a medium-blue background set up at a 45-degree angle to the west-facing window. I seated Heidi at a posing table so I could control her position as we built up the lighting for the shot.

Once I figured out the camera position relative to the windows, I had to figure out the best way to get a strong, directional light through the windows. We were shooting around 10:30 a.m. on a Summer day, so the sun was still in the eastern part of the sky. Our "wall of windows" was on the west side of the building. Shiny panel to the rescue! I selected a shiny silver surface on a Chimera 48-inch square panel frame for the highest efficiency--I have this theory that the closer you get your reflector surface to 100 percent reflectance, the more you are able to "cheat" the inverse square law.

The concept of bouncing sunlight is fairly straightforward, but its success depends on positioning the silver panel correctly in relation to both the light source and the subject. In this example, I needed to get the panel high enough to catch the sun over the top of the peaked roof. This also gave me a nice, high direction for the light on Heidi's face. When using a panel high up on a stand, it's always a good idea to use plenty of sandbags.

Once the reflector is set up and you've got the angle you need, it's time to head indoors and start modifying the light to suit the way you'd like your final image to look. In the same way that you control the quality of the light when using studio flashes, you can use diffusers to soften the direct light from the sun bounce, as well as reflector panels to control contrast and to add fill. Our first light without any modifiers is pretty nice.

I thought the light was a bit contrasty and hard coming straight through the window, so I modified it with a diffuser. Ever mindful of the critics who chided my use of extravagant equipment, I chose a shower curtain as my diffuser. The shower curtain allowed some light to travel straight through while diffusing the rest.

I also wanted to soften the shadow on the other side of Heidi's face, so I added another Chimera panel with a 48-inch square white reflector. The combination of the shower curtain and the flat panel provided just the light I wanted to show off Heidi's skin tone.

After a few adjustments to fine-tune my composition and lighting, we began photographing in earnest. A 48-inch square Chimera white reflector panel on the shadow side of Heidi's face acted as fill.

Finally, while moving the sun around is a bit difficult, moving your model is less so. I turned Heidi a bit away from the window to give a more dramatic nod to the lighting.

This technique is not just something to use when the power goes out. I think the bounce light off a silvered reflector has a quality that is much different than the light you get from a strobe in a softbox or an umbrella. Couple that with the idea that the high reflectance bends the inverse square law, and you've got a light source that doesn't fall off very quickly. In the past I've used this technique to good effect in lighting rooms in houses and other buildings. The ability to blow in lots of sunlight without having to use big strobe packs is a real plus. If your studio is on the fourth floor or if you live in an area with cloudy weather, it's a whole different ball game.

But it's a technique that costs relatively little to try.

This article was adapted from Kirk Tuck's ( second book, which is about studio lighting, to be published by Amherst Media in spring 2009. Tuck's first book, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography, released in May 2008, is already a classic "must-read" for people who want to light well without carrying excess gear. Tuck works with clients such as Dell, IBM, Motorola, Time Warner, and many others.