Photo Tip: Reflected Light in Outdoor Photography ___ 2013/05

A Red-brested Nuthatch in deep shadow, with bounced light from 42" Photoflex LiteDisc.
Nuthatch in shadow, bounced light from 42″ Photoflex LiteDisc.

Bounce light into shadows to add fill or extend the photographic day

I’m not much of a fan of outdoor flash photography. I find it cumbersome to carry a multiple flash system, and I’m generally unhappy with results from a single strobe. If flash looks necessary for a backlit bird, I’ll seek a different angle, find another subject or pack it in.  When natural light needs assistance, though, a choice other than flash can work magic. If you can set up close to the subject, try a large white reflector, like a Photoflex LiteDisc. If you’re on the water, over-the-shoulder reflected light bounced from a mirror-like pond can turn contrasty light into gold.

The last three years we’ve had Red-breasted Nuthatches nest in a homemade, backyard nesthole. The limb is under the house eaves, and therefore deep in shade. When the afternoon sun shines, the northside location is blue, blue, blue. A reflecting disc saves the day. I use a white, 42” Photoflex LiteDisc that throws even light, adding a couple stops, and thereby transforming a blue scene into marketable images. I’m lucky that the Nuthatches tolerate both my presence and the huge white circle just a few feet away.

Cliff Swallows, sunlit with reflected light off pond. Note light and dark shadows.
Swallows sunlit and with reflected light off pond. Note light and dark shadows.

I love photographing from the water by kayak in the early morning. A sunlit water bird gets some extra light reflected off the water, postponing the time when the light gets harsh—and forces early-rising photographers back to camp for a nap. For birds like swallows that nest often at water’s edge, reflected light acts just like fill light, or a bounced reflector. Harsh shadows disappear. The fortuitously nice thing is that the additional light is a couple stops less than the direct sun, and a bit more even, filling shadows but keeping the modeling. If you inspect the Cliff Swallow image, you’ll see two levels of shadow, the dark, normal sun shadow, and the light one—also sun shadow—but one that’s illumined by reflected light.

Look for reflection opportunities when sunlight turns harsh toward midday. Reflections off water may need a boat like a kayak—or a dock, or jetty or pier—but reflections off building glass, light-colored sand, a LiteDisc or a hand-made reflector can work magic as well.