Molding Ambient Light

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For this first post I thought I would go over some of the ambient lighting theory I use for my location work.  While as photographers we have no direct control over the intensity, directionality, or softness of sunlight, there are a number of techniques and products that we can use to control the intensity, directionality, and softness of the ambient light illuminating our subjects.

Full Shade and the edge of light

The first concept I want to go over is that of full shade. Full shade is essentially anywhere that direct sunlight does not hit: in a carport, under a tree, in a doorway, in a building, behind a wall, etc.  When you are in full shade, the sun itself is not illuminating you, but rather the sun’s reflection on everything in direct sunlight provides the illumination.  The pavement, buildings, trees, sky, and everything else lit by direct sunlight you can see from your position in full shade is lighting the image.

When we move into full shade we no longer have to deal with the harsh highlights and shadows which direct sun can create.  As we will see later, direct sun can provide a very pleasing light; however, in general it is much more unforgiving to less than perfect skin, improper posing, and improper exposure.

One thing a lot of photographers struggle with while shooting in full shade is a lack of depth in their photos.  Imagine you’re shooting on a clear day in the full shade of a small picnic shelter at a park.  The shelter is surrounded by a grass field and you have your model in the middle of the shelter.  The reflection of the sun off of the sky, the grass, and perhaps off the pavement around the edge of the shelter is what is illuminating the model.  You have escaped the harsh rays of direct sunlight, which may or may not be a good thing, but you have also placed your model in a location where the light has almost no directionality.  Sure, you have no light coming from above the model because of the shelter, but other than that you essentially have a 360 degree softbox surrounding him or her.  As there is no directionality to the light, this particular scenario provides unpleasing, flat images.  A lighting diagram for this hypothetical scenario can be seen below.

To create a pleasing image in full shade, we need to create some directionality to our light.  For this shot, I had Natalie pose in my garage, in full shade, just on the edge of the direct sunlight (a couple steps toward the camera and she would have been in direct sun).

Photographer: Robert McCadden

The only light for this photo came in from the direction of the garage door, directly behind the camera (in front of Natalie).  The walls of the garage subtracted light from the sides and back of the image.  A lighting diagram for this scenario can be seen below.   The softbox in this diagram represents the reflection from the surrounding environment in direct sunlight, and the black reflectors represent the walls of the garage.

For this next picture of Natalie, she was once again in full shade, underneath a covered walkway with the sun behind her. A white wall off to her side, just left of the frame, provided a directional key light for this image.  As the covered walkway extended quite a bit behind the camera, and Natalie was once again at the edge of full shade (direct sunlight behind her), there is a subtle back-lit quality to the image.  A large California Sunbounce white reflector was also placed camera right to provide just a bit of fill.

Photographer: Robert McCadden

Notice the directionality and relative intensity of the light provided by the white wall (facing out toward the water) that is just out of frame camera left; it looks a lot like the quality of light you might get from a large softbox.

An important aspect of shooting in full shade, as I mentioned, is having the model stand in the full shade toward the edge of the shade and direct sun.  Going back to the garage shot, I’m sure it isn’t hard to image that the light falls off fairly quickly as you move away from the garage door and then, ten to fifteen feet into the garage, the illumination becomes more or less constant for the last ten feet toward the back of the garage.  The reason for this can be explained by the “inverse square law,” which states that the intensity of light decreases at the inverse square as the light to subject distance increases.  Move your light twice as far away from the subject and you get 1/4 the intensity of light.

If you need more explanation google “inverse square law.”  It’s a basic law of light that every photographer should understand.

Back to my point, which is that toward the front of the garage the environment close to the garage door, and in direct sunlight, is providing a significant amount of the reflected light, and that this light falls off relatively quickly and  provides more transitions between the highlights and shadows, giving more contrast, and adding more depth.  Toward the back of the garage only reflections from the parts of the environment that are relatively far away from the garage door provide any amount of illumination.  The bottom line is that the closer to the transition between direct sunlight and full shade you place your model (while they are in full shade), the more light falloff you will have.  This is an important concept, since we are dealing with a relatively large light source while shooting in full shade.

This next shot was taken inside of a giant barn.  There was a large sliding door just right of the camera that let in a beautiful soft light. There were also windows around the edge of the barn that let in bits of light from all directions.  As the barn was huge, the light coming in from the other three sides wasn’t enough to kill the directionality of the light coming in through the sliding door and provided just enough fill for the background.

Photographer: Robert McCadden

Once again, notice the light falloff and directionality of the light, which was created by placing Talisa toward the edge of the full shadow area.

For this final image of Matt and Raven, we were working in a freight elevator.  The models were once again in full shade, but this time the reflection of the sun off the elevator wall behind me was providing the illumination.  We placed Matt and Raven relatively close to the window, which gave us a directional kicker (see the back of Ravens arm) and I included just a bit of the direct sun in the photo to give it a flared-out look.

Photographer: Robert McCadden

That’s it for now. In part two I discuss more on shooting in direct sunlight, using reflectors, using scrims, subtractive lighting, and just a bit of mixing strobe with ambient. Hopefully the post will get your creative juices flowing.

Robert McCadden

Robert McCadden

Robert McCadden is a fashion and beauty photographer based in Seattle, Washington.

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