Lesson Of The Month
Creating Cinematic Lighting The Easy Way
Basic Methods For Working With The Sun

Photos © 2003, Ben Clay, All Rights Reserved

Anyone who's ever been on a movie set is sure to have a sense of just how involved the lighting setups can be. Because shooting for film is very involved, expensive, and takes up a lot of time, production teams need to be able to create their own lighting setups so as not to be at the mercy of the weather or direction of the sun. On most sets, huge, generator-powered lights are used to simulate sunlight, while other large-scale light diffusers and reflectors are used to control the quality of the light that illuminates the subject or scene.

While this level of production may seem overwhelming, keep in mind that light is light, and that the techniques used in expensive movie sets can also be applied to photographers working on a much smaller scale to achieve the same effects. Here, we'll examine some basic methods for working with, and modifying, a very beautiful (and free) source of light: the sun.


I was recently in Boston visiting some friends and wanted to take some outside portraits of my friend Liz in the north end of the city. As we were scouting a place to shoot near in the north end, I noticed a small side street lined with tall buildings where the afternoon sun was just about to shine in. So we decided to quickly set up some lighting gear to take advantage of this momentary lighting opportunity.

Head And Shoulders Portrait
First, I decided to start with a head and shoulders portrait and considered a couple of lighting options. I could have had Liz facing the sun and then used the translucent section of a Photoflex MultiDisc to diffuse the sunlight falling on her, but instead I decided to have her backlit against the sunlight pouring onto the street. I also wanted the sunlight to create an outline, or "rim light," around Liz to create separation from the background.


Since Liz's face would be dark in shadow in this position, I attached a 32" MultiDisc to a LiteDisc Holder and LiteStand and positioned it so that the white side of the reflector would bounce sunlight into the top half of her body (#1).

When the MultiDisc was positioned where I wanted it, I grabbed my Olympus E-1 digital camera and made some adjustments to the settings. I set the Exposure mode to Manual; the Focusing mode to MF; the ISO to its lowest setting (100); the Record mode to TIFF; and the White Balance to Daylight to match the color temperature of the sun (5500K).


Since I wanted a short depth of field, I set the aperture to f/3.5 and the shutter speed to 1/500 sec to compensate for exposure. Once the camera was set, I framed up the shot and fired off a few frames. Here is a keeper of the bunch (#2).

The result shows a very dynamic portrait. The sun lights up Liz's hair and shoulder to create separation from the background, and the MultiDisc does well to bounce white, soft light into the top half of her body: a good exposure all around. Also note that the sun rakes along the wall of the building, giving it dimension and an interesting texture.


While the white side of the MultiDisc is good for bouncing soft light into the shadows, it is also neutral in tone. Sometimes it's nice to use the soft gold side to warm up the skin tones somewhat, and that's what I decided to do here next (#3). To do so, I simply flipped the fabric on the MultiDisc, reattached it to the LiteDisc Holder, checked the reflection in Liz's face and took a few more exposures.

Notice how the soft gold side of the MultiDisc really warms up the color of Liz's skin (#4). And because the soft gold side is shinier than the white side, it adds a little more contrast, or "punch" to the shot. It almost looks as if Liz is being lit by both the sun and a nearby window reflecting sunlight into her face.


Full-Length Portrait
Next, I wanted to shoot a full-length portrait of Liz, but I knew that the 32" MultiDisc would only be able to light a section of Liz's body, leaving the rest in shadow. In order to light a person evenly from head to toe, you need to use a reflector that is at least as tall as the person you are photographing.

In this situation, the 39x72" LitePanel is the right tool for the job. It uses the same fabrics the MultiDiscs use, only it reflects 3x6 ft. First, we set up the LitePanel frame. We then attached a soft gold/white fabric to it, attached two Photoflex Main & T Clamps onto two Photoflex LiteStands and mounted the sides of the LitePanel frame to the Clamps. Once the frame was supported by the LiteStands, we angled the frame slightly downward to optimize the reflection and then tightened down the Main & T Clamps to prevent the frame from rotating.


Once everything was in position, I asked Liz for a few different poses and fired off a few more shots (#5 and #6).


The result shows a bright, even light that fills in the shadows from head to toe (#7). Even the black pants are illuminated enough to reveal texture and detail. As you can see, the white LitePanel fabric helps to create natural-looking lighting without appearing as though the scene is artificially lit.


Next, we decided to flip the LitePanel to reflect the soft gold side of the fabric. Again, the soft gold side is both brighter and warmer in tone than the white side, and gives us a different look to the shot. Once the LitePanel was in place, I took a few more exposures at the same camera settings (#8).

Notice the difference the soft gold panel makes. The result shows a very dramatic light that ties in well with the contrast of the building in the background (#9). A very cinematic shot lit simply by the sun and a reflector.


As the sun made its way across the sky, we decided to reposition our camera angle so that the building across the street would be in the background. While we waited for the light to rake across the brick, I had Liz put on her sunglasses and a scarf for a slightly different look. With the same camera settings and the soft gold panel in place, I took a few more shots. Here is Liz's favorite of the bunch (#10).

Again, a well-lit, dimensional subject in front of a nicely textured background. It just goes to show that you don't have to spend a fortune to get professional-quality results!


If you would like to continue your digital step by step education lessons on editing, printing, and e-mailing your photos it will be on the private section of the Web Photo School. To enroll for WPS just go to www.shutterbug.com and click on WPS Free Lessons.

Technical Equipment
Camera/Media: Olympus E-1 digital camera; Olympus 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 Digital Zuiko Zoom Lens; Olympus 512MB CompactFlash card
Lighting: Photoflex 32" MultiDisc; Photoflex LiteDisc Holder; Photoflex 39x72" LitePanel frame; Photoflex 39x72" Soft Gold/White LitePanel fabric; 2 Photoflex Main & T Clamps; 2 Photoflex LS-2232 LiteStands; Photoflex Single Kit Case