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Shooting Great Photos at High Noon

by Philippe Dame on September 21st, 2010

One thing I learned along the way about outdoor portraits is that bright sunlight is NOT your friend after all. Keeping the sun behind you is not the solution to getting great photos. It’s the best way to get flat light and really harsh, over-exposed highlights. So what do you do when it’s the middle of the day? You seek shade!

When my friend Natasha asked me recently to take some updated photos of her for her blog, I gladly agreed. A willing model and a free lunch – thanks Natasha! When we stepped outside it was a cloudless day and thus the contrast between light and shade was high. The sun was beaming down harshly so we headed for a courtyard in the Byward Market.

I brought along my 42″ Westcott Illuminator “6-in-1″ Reflector and Diffuser Kit (US$99 or $199 with stand and boom arm). This is my low-tech, battery-free way of controlling light.

I’ve used the silver reflector indoors as a fill light (i.e. bouncing light from a flash into a shadowy area) but I’ve never used the other panels to bounce sunlight. I had also used the diffuser to soften my camera’s flash but had never used one to soften sunlight.

This particular kit has 6 panels you can use in one tidy lightweight package:

  1. Silver (matches flash and some indoor light, cooling)
  2. Gold (matches sunlight, warming)
  3. Sunlight (a silver/gold mix)
  4. Black (for greater contrast)
  5. 1-stop diffuser (1/2 the light goes through)
  6. 2-stop diffuser (1/4 the light goes through)

I picked this kit for its variety but mainly because it allows me to use a diffusion panel and a reflector at the SAME time. The reflector (and black panel) is just a zippered fabric that covers one of the two diffusion panels. By having two, the reflector material covers one and leaves the other available.

At 42″, this kit is also big enough to do everything but full length portraits. There is a larger 52″ version and a few smaller editions like 30″ and 20″. What’s essential is that they all collapse to 1/3rd their full size and it all fits into one round zipper pouch (as shown in the last image above).

The biggest problem is that it takes an assistant to use the kit well. I therefore bought the version that came with a light stand and boom arm so that I could use it hands-free. I’m not sure I’d bring it outdoors without a big sandbag but it’s great for indoor use.

Reflecting Light

I was almost shocked how much light a 42″ shiny panel can pickup in the shade to bounce it somewhere else. If you actually bounce full sunlight it will make your subject tear up!

Another surprise was just how noticeable the reflector color is on the subject. The gold panel is very warm, it appears to mimic sunset hues. Silver is the opposite, it’s very cool and balances best with cooler days and camera flashes. Silver wasn’t bad outside but a bit cold. Luckily this Westcott kit has a “Sunlight” side which is a blend of silver and gold literally woven together. Compare the results below. Click the photos to see them enlarged.

Diffusing Light

To my absolute delight, the last set of photos I took with Natasha were done out of the shade and with the 2-stop diffusion panel. Even without any reflectors, the photo was amazing right out of the camera. As soon as the diffusion panel went over her head it was like magic as harsh light was so smooth away like a cloudy day. It made for the best photo of the entire shoot. Compare my favorite shot below with the one that follows to see how nice the diffusion panel works when it comes to avoiding harsh highlights. Again, click the photos to see them enlarged.

Indoor Use

As I mentioned above, one of my first photo equipment “tests” was with this with this reflector and diffuser kit indoors. If you follow me on Facebook then these are not new. Here’s just a few examples of what the reflector and diffuser can do with a camera flash when it’s used off-camera.

Overall, this kit (or one like it) would rank very high on my list of recommended equipment. It will give you a “second light” (a fill light) when you only have one flash and it offers you a great degree of control outdoors. Bring a friend as an assistant and you’ll be able to shoot at high noon with confidence.

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