Putting light where you want it

As you may now realise, I am a photographer that prefers ambient light to illuminate my subjects. When all you may have as a source of light is daylight from a window, you need to be able to bounce that light to where you want it.

Let’s not worry about how much light. I think it’s fairly obvious that you can take some pretty good images with quite low levels of light, provided you are patient and your camera can hold its shutter open long enough! Essentially, as long as you can bounce the light into a dark corner, and hold it still long enough, you will be able to take a picture.

So, reflectors. It’s a subject I have been meaning to get to for some while now, and as I find myself at a bit of a loose end for once, here’s my take.

You don’t actually need much to act as a reflector. A white shirt may well suffice, if you are wearing one; a large sheet of white paper or card is also useful. If you want to go to the expense, you can buy “proper” reflectors, some of which can be folded up into your pocket. (I’m not getting into the issues of controlling reflections, getting volunteers or using your own body to block unwanted light, and so on. That’s probably a topic for another time.)

Let’s assume you don’t want to spend a fortune on expensive reflectors, and won’t necessarily have a team of willing volunteers to hold and direct them at your bidding. What can you do? Well, I generally get by with the white paper—especially if the photographic session is a little ad hocand I haven’t brought the full kit. For something a little more reflective, however, I made something from a sheet of hardboard wrapped in aluminium cooking foil. The board is A4, and was salvaged from a picture frame that was damaged. I cut a sheet of foil larger than the board, scrunched it up to scatter the reflection and, once flattened out, wrapped it around the board, dull side out. It’s held in place by tape, so it’s very easy to replace when it gets damaged—which it does when pushed into various pockets in the camera bag.

It’s something very simple and effective, particularly for the small scale of the subjects I specialise in! You might well find this kind of reflector useful if you want to play with macro work, but you don’t want to invest in ring flashes and other lighting gear.

In use, the technique is to frame your subject and get the focus where you want it. Set the aperture and shutter speed to taste. Look through the viewfinder while moving your reflector about. You should see subtle variations in the illumination of shadow areas. When you think you’ve got it about right, fire the shutter. For long exposures, you can actually move the reflector about a little to widen the illuminated area. It all seems a bit ersatz, but it can just provide enough to light the nether regions of a locomotive or wagon and bring out the details.

A technique I’ve not tried yet is to “paint with light”. With a long exposure, it is possible to use a torch or keyfob LED lamp to light areas. The pitfalls will most likely be colour balance, especially with an LED lamp: white LEDs are very white, as well as bright. I think I may do some tests to see what can be done.

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