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How I Got the Shot: Controlling Natural Light with a Diffuser

Midday, with the sun at its highest point in the sky, has often been typecast as the worst time to take outdoor photos. With the light falling straight down, little to no light falls on the subject from the side producing dark shadows. The eyes on portrait often become very dark. Some say it’s best to put the camera away for a few hours and wait it out. But what if that’s not an option? What if that’s the only time you have to get the shot? To solve this problem, we used a diffuser to control natural light. This is how I go the shot.

Quick settings overview

  • Nikon D810
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4
  • Shot at
  • f/1.4
  • 1/1250 sec shutter speed
  • AUTO ISO
  • -2/3 EV (exposure compensation)

We started our shoot in historic downtown Melbourne at 1pm on a sunny Florida day. We originally planed a studio shoot but it rained earlier that morning. Loving the effect rain produces on the background, we decided to take the shoot outside and use a diffuser to control the light.

Closed Shade

A diffuser is designed to spread harsh light evenly across your subject producing a beautiful soft light. The closer the diffuser is to the subject, the softer the shadows become. The key is to find a good location as a starting point then use the diffuser to spread the light. We chose to position our model Marlina in closed shade under a tree. The light coming down through the tree was uneven and produced unwanted highlights. By adding a 1 stop diffuser in between Marlina and the tree, light was spread evenly.

Direct Sunlight

Our next location was in direct sunlight. To control the light further, we added a silver reflector to bounce a little light back onto Marlina. The tricky part is to shoot in between the reflector and the diffuser keeping them out of the frame.

Open Shade

Our final location was on a set of old rusted stairs. A building blocked the sun keeping us in open shade. We still used the diffuser to spread the light evenly and a silver reflector to bounce a little fill light under Marlina’s chin.

Why Did You Use….

Auto ISO:The light kept changing and I wanted to focus on Marlina. Knowing I wanted to shoot at f/1.4 and a shutter of 1/1250 sec, I let the camera intelligently figure out ISO. I knew it wouldn’t go past 400 ISO. I could have chose aperture priority and let the camera figure out shutter speed. Either way, I had the same results; I didn’t have to think about settings.

-2/3 EV: I knew Marlina’s top would effect the camera’s metering so I set the camera to spot meter and applied a -2/3 exposure compensation to the image. This gave me the exposure I was looking for.

Silver Reflector: I needed to bounce a little fill light back onto Marlina. The silver side of the reflector gave more light than the white side.


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