Reflected or Directed Light Qualities. Like most photographers, on occasion I still use artificial lighting in my photo shoots, but today, especially with mirrorless camera technology, I prefer reflected light from the SUNBOUNCE light enhancing tools. I tend to use more their PRO and MINI versions with the ZEBRA and SPARKLING SUN, as my favorites, and sometimes, even the white fabrics to reflect artificial light or natural light onto my subjects, but it’s not just about reflecting light, but understanding the qualities of the light itself.

model photography, scrim light

In this photo, the overhead sunlight in the middle of the day is “scrimmed” with a SUNBOUNCE SUN SCRIM.

Natural light is light from the sun, or nature, whether it’s direct or reflected off natural sources, such as snow, sand, and even manmade sources like walls of a building or the fabric off a SUNBOUNCE reflector. Reflecting natural light with a reflector like a SUNBOUNCE PRO is still natural light, though it’s reflected and more controlled. However, natural light is also considered an ambient light source when not reflected.

Ambient light itself is either natural or artificial, as long as it’s from a continuous light source, hence why sometimes it’s also called existing light. However, ambient light is the light that exists in the area around us, not direct light that originates from a lamp or studio strobe that a photographer would point toward a subject.

In other words, if you walk into a room lit by a lamp, the room is filled with ambient, existing light, but if you pick up the lamp and place it next or physically direct it to your subject, then it becomes directed, artificial light and not necessarily true ambient light. There is a difference and the difference is ambient light changes to directed light the minute a photographer manipulates the light by directing it.

ambient photography light

This photo was taken with only ambient room light that filtered through a window.

Another way to look at it, think of ambient light as a light you shoot around in because it exists in the general area, but you don’t control it, unlike light on a stand you control and direct physically toward your subject. Once you start to control light, you are actually modifying it and its qualities, this includes artificial and natural light too.

While natural light isn’t manmade, you can control it, or redirect it, using a reflector or even one of the SUNBOUNCE SUN SCRIMS. The light once modified is still considered natural, but once directed and/or diffused, it is no longer considered ambient. Sounds a little semantic, doesn’t it? It is if you really think about it, but what makes the real difference is to understand the light qualities of any type of light, ambient or natural, based on whether it’s ambient, reflected or directed—all are different.

For example, direct overhead sunlight is horrible as a light source on a bright sunny day, however, if the clouds roll in, it’s now diffused and though slightly flat, or lower in contrast, it’s less harsh plus more flattering to your subject. Knowing this fundamental comes in handy when you’re on an outdoor shoot where clouds either exist or don’t exist, but it’s also a light you can’t control and you work in it by where you place your subject, such as in its direct or indirect path.

photography reflected light

This photo is illuminated with a studio strobe with beauty dish attached, plus a SUNBOUNCE PRO reflector fitted with a ZEBRA fabric screen to act as a “kicker light fill” to soften the facial shadows. Behind the scenes lighting photo is further below.

When there are no clouds and the sky is bright and clear, simply place your subject in open shade, an area where direct sunlight is blocked  either by something natural like tree leaves, or a highly engineered SUN SCRIM, then fill your subject with redirected sunlight from a reflector like that of a SUNBOUNCE ZEBRA or the SPARKLING SUN photography reflector. Now your light quality will provide a bit more “pop” to your subject, but without the harshness of direct overhead sunlight because the light is not only reflected, but diffused.

You can also do this with artificial light, point it into a SUNBOUNCE reflector, and now redirect the reflected light onto your subject. I’ve done this many times where I’ve taken a studio strobe with a seven-inch reflector, or an on-camera flash, then pointed it into the SUNBOUNCE photography reflector at a distance of two to five feet. This then creates a reflected light look vs. a direct light look. Reflected light holds a beautiful quality of light vs. direct harsh light when it comes to illuminating your subject. Wedding photographers practice this with the SUNBOUNCE BOUNCE-WALL.

Now if I took a studio strobe, place a soft box light modifier on it, I still have an artificial but diffused light source vs. a reflected light source.  A reflected light source provides a beautiful light quality for my subject. So, what makes me decide if I want reflected or direct diffused light? Sometimes it’s the shooting location, sometimes I may only have a more portable reflector then heave studio flash gear when I travel, and sometimes it’s just because I want a more natural light punch to my subject so it doesn’t look like flash photography.

photography kicker light

In this lighting set-up we use a SUNBOUNCE PRO reflector as a “kicker fill light” that allows us to combine three forms of light quality, reflected, ambient sunlight, and artificial. Notice how the reflector is reflecting light on the model’s face before the flash is fired.

You could say it’s subjective to my photographic style and in theory, depending on the type of fabric material of your reflector you do gain some diffusion from reflected light. Obviously white-fabric reflector material is more diffused than a metallic silver reflector fabric and it’s important to note that contrast decreases with increased diffusion (white) and contrast increases with decreased diffusion (silver).

Regardless whether I choose reflected natural light, ambient light, or diffused artificial light, it’s about the light quality I want at that given moment. Light quality controls many things including contrast, ease of achieving an image, and even the mood I’m trying to create in the final photo.  It’s up to you the photographer to decide whether you want natural, reflected or directed diffused light and to understand how it impacts contrast in your images. Many photographers make this decision on their personal photographic style.

Rolando Gomez is a professional photographer and author of five photography books that has traveled to 45 countries for assignments. The former soldier and U.S. Army combat photographer has taught hundreds of photography workshops for almost two decades. A 2016, 2017 and 2018 Top Writer for Quora, his partial credits include Newsweek, Parade, Playboy, Rangefinder, Maxim, Rangefinder, New York Times, Stars & Stripes, and various other publications.
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