Outdoor Lighting Tips For People Photography

July 2, 2013

Working with natural light on location for portraits can be very challenging. A couple of months ago I posted about how to find soft, directional light to make great photos of people but sometimes we can’t find the perfect situation. We need to modify or add light to get the beautiful, directional quality that is essential for this kind of image making. Probably the simplest (and most misused) method of light modification is to bounce light back on our subject. I say, “misused” because I have seen many photographers positioning their reflectors incorrectly. Let’s take a look at what I mean.

For my series of images I placed my subject in the open shade of a building. (The sun was still very high in the sky and if she had been in the direct light she would have had dark shadows in her eye sockets or “raccoon eyes.”) The open shade provides very soft and extremely flat lighting. There is no direction to the light and no shape to her face as shown in the first image.

Photo One:

For the second shot, my assistant held a flexible reflector in the sunlight and bounced light back into the shade to illuminate my subject. The position of the reflector is slightly off to the side and very low relative to model.

Photo Two:

(Some photographers mistakenly call this a “fill light” but it is not because it is brighter than the ambient shadow and is directional. It is the KEY light.) The light on the subject is now directional and her face has more shape but the direction of the light is from below. 

Photo Three:

Photo three is called “monster light” from the idea of old Hollywood movies lighting the monsters from below. (Remember putting a flashlight under your chin at Halloween to scare your little brother or sister? Not very natural or complimentary.)

The next shot shows we have moved the reflector to the correct position.

Photo Four:

This means the reflector is higher than the subject’s face and tilted up slightly to maximize the reflectance of the sun. This allows the direction of the light to come from above the horizon and have a much more natural feel. We are still slightly to the side allowing the light to gently wrap around our model’s face, providing shape and contours. 

Photo Five:


I used a commercially available reflective disc for this series but any neutral reflective surface can work. I’ve used mount boards, foam core, and a white bed sheets clipped to a frame. I’ve even used the silver side of my windshield shade from my car. The point is not what you use but how you position it.