Lighting Sermon: Stripped naked – Portraits without pro gear…

What do you do when you’re out with friends, without your “real” camera, and someone says “Hey, this looks like a nice spot for a LinkedIn picture! Will you make a picture of me here?”

Uh…ok but the light stinks and your sweet Canon, Nikon or whichever camera you use for serious photography is back home because you broke your own “always carry a camera” rule – so all you have is your iPhone….

On top of that it’s noon so this picture has to be made using the yuckiest, nastiest, grossest light of the day…. (for photography, at least) But….your friend is serious about actually wanting a portrait in this location so it has to be done with my iPhone YET, as a matter of professional pride, the photograph cannot suck…

During a recent mountain bike ride on a lovely spring day, we ended up at a 1800s-era cemetery, a remote spot that requires climbing a few steep, sweaty hills to get there. The historical cemetery has a visually appealing white picket fence around it – great for graphic appeal and intriguing diminishing lines – yet the midday light my good friend Bernardo wanted to be photographed in was tough. The question was HOW do I make a nice portrait with only a phone – in nasty light???

It would have been nice to have a diffuser or reflector but we were miles from nowhere so I positioned Bernardo in a backlit position, always my method for shooting people in harsh midday light. Backlight creates even light on the subject’s face so it is always far preferable to having people face the midday sun which typically creates nasty, hard shadows. Especially with hard backlit, tho, some sort of reflector to bounce fill light onto the subject’s face is always nice. But I was not on a per se Photo Ride so there was no handy mini-reflector in my CamelBak Hydration pack, a terrific water pack for outdoor sports with nice cargo space for gear.

Perspiring from the ride, I reached into my pocket to grab the sweat-towel I always carry on long rides to clean the sweat off my glasses and ponder the scenario for a moment.

Then it hit me! It was a WHITE towel and, even though terry cloth is not a highly reflective surface, it absolutely did bounce light well enough!!! I could use my sweat-towel as a reflector to help overcome nasty noon light!

I also noticed bright light was directly striking one area of the white picket fence so I positioned my friend near that fence so his face would get a bit of bounced light from it.

I had Gunnar, our 79 year old partner, an amazing athlete, hold the white towel near my subject’s face and, voila, we nailed a decent iPhone picture with our ReflectoTowel/ReflectoFence combination!!! What a thrill!!!! (no expensive gear required…) I love it!!!

This was the first time I’d used a white towel as a reflector but what the heck, it worked fine and the resulting portrait, though created using a cheap camera and a rag as a reflector, looks pretty good on LinkedIn!!!

Moral: When you find yourself in any vaguely similar situation, remember that ANYTHING can be used as a reflector, in a pinch. Your white shirt, a piece of light-colored junk laying in the weeds, a bright wall or any object being struck directly by the sun can serve as a reflector when you find yourself photographically stripped naked, needing to make a portrait when all your fancy camera and lighting gear is back home. Simply position your subject so that reflected light –FREE light – illuminates the subject.

I’ll be conducting a recurring lighting workshop called “Simple Lighting Solutions” starting up soon. Lighting solutions can be store-bought gear or, as in this case, any number of simple methods can be employed. In this workshop we’ll be talking about all kinds of simple methods to bend and manipulate light, from small strobes to, well, sweat towels… Come join us if you feel a need to See the Light a bit more brightly!

1 comment

malcolm bramwell - May 18, 2013 - 7:33 PM

OK Gary, some of us might figure out that a white towel would be a stand in reflector, but what most of us would not be able to visualize is the pose low down by the bike with the white picket fence as background. Most of us just don’t see the potential picture like you do.