carved wooden alebrije is lit with window light and a photo reflector

3 Easy Techniques To Enhance Your Lighting With Photo Reflectors

Text and Photos by Chuck Place©

Are you ready to start modifying the lighting in your images for more impact? There is an easy and inexpensive way to do this without carrying cumbersome and expensive photographic lighting equipment. Photo reflectors make it possible to control contrast, change lighting patterns and alter the color of the light you are using. You can even change the apparent time of day with a reflector. They are light weight, inexpensive and you can even see the results before you press the shutter button. Are you getting to the point in your photography where you are developing a personal style or creating storylines in your work? Take your work to the next level by using photographic reflectors to modify and shape the light in your images.

selection of different photo reflectors
selection of photo reflectors in different sizes, shapes and color

Available in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors and surface reflectivity, photographic reflectors are light weight and inexpensive tools to modify light. Shooting professionally, I have a collection of reflectors ranging in size from 3×6 feet to a tiny 12 inch disc that looks like a frisbee.

backlit woman is lit with a diffused photo reflector
backlit woman practicing yoga on a grassy hillside is lit with a diffused photo reflector

My favorite reflector is a 24 inch round disc that folds to 8 inches that always hangs off one end of my camera bag. It weighs only ounces and has a matt white surface on one side and a shiny, reflective surface on the other side composed of tiny gold and silver rectangles. The white side reflects soft, neutral light while the other produces a brighter light with a slightly warm tint. It’s versatility makes it invaluable in a wide range of situations.

My favorite reflector is a 24 inch round disc that folds to 8 inches

The most basic reflector use is controlling contrast by adding light to the shadow side of a person or subject. See Featured Image above. This is useful in backlit subjects, where you want your subject nearly as bright as the background, or side-lit subjects, where you want to reduce the contrast between the bright key side of your subject and the darker shadow side. 

A gold photo reflector lightens the shadow side of both the model and the owl
A gold photo reflector lightens the shadow side of both the model and the owl, lowering the contrast of late afternoon sunlight

Using a silver reflector, it is also possible to change the lighting pattern on a subject’s face, creating a flatter “beauty” lighting pattern with a single, available light source.

A silver photo reflector is used to flatten the ambient light on a model
A silver photo reflector is used to flatten the ambient light on a model lit from camera left, creating beauty lighting

One of my favorite uses for my small 22 inch reflector is simulating sunlight. I first place my subject in open shade next to a building and set my camera to underexpose my subject, usually a food dish, about 2/3 of a stop. I next place my reflector out in direct sunlight with the gold/silver side aimed roughly at my subject. I adjust the reflector’s position to give me the angle I want and feather it to get the amount of “morning sunshine” that I want for my image. 

Light from a gold/silver photo reflector simulates morning sun
Light from a gold/silver photo reflector simulates morning sun for a dish photographed in open shade

I’m essentially blending the soft cool blue light of open shade with the more specular warmed sunlight from my reflector. I use a tripod and long cable release so I can manipulate the reflector and fire the camera at the same time. Depending on how much light I add with my reflector, I may have to adjust the exposure a bit. This is a great technique for simulating early or late-in-the-day sunlight during a mid-day photo shoot. 

This is a great technique for simulating early or late-in-the-day sunlight during a mid-day photo shoot. 

Keep in mind that you do not aim the reflector directly at your subject. Because light bounces off a reflector at the same angle that it hits the reflector, you always aim roughly in the middle between your light source and your subject. And if your model is looking in the general direction of the reflector, be careful not to blind them with a bright, specular light.

The possibilities are endless for shaping or completely altering ambient light using a reflector. It’s merely a matter of previsualizing the final image. The question, of course, is why aren’t you working with this simple tool to manipulate ambient light and produce more dramatic photographs?

If you want to fine tune your photographic techniques a bit or get more comfortable with your camera controls, my popular Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit class “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” starts on October 30 from 9:00AM-11:20AM. It is a free class and will be held on Zoom. The class can be found in the Career Skills section of the School of Extended Learning. The links below should help in the registration process. Hope to see you soon.

https://www.sbcc.edu/extendedlearning/get-help.php

https://www.sbcc.edu/extendedlearning/apply-register.php


livestock barn, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

Photography Road Trips: Getting Out Of Town For Some Great Adventures

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

Have you ever asked yourself why you love photography? Is it that creative urge you need to feed? Is it sharing your life with others? How about just plain adventure? All of the above probably works for most of us, but for me, adventure is one of the strongest motivations in photography.

And nothing embodies adventure like a photography road trip!

In my photography career, I have taken many road trips. Each one of my books was really one long road trip, but road trips come in all sizes and colors. I enjoy short ones just as well as the long ones and being situated in Santa Barbara gives me lots of choices for one-day trips.

moving horses, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

Recently, one of my editorial clients sent me a stock image request list for an article on the nearby Santa Ynez Valley. I had material on a number of the subjects, but there was one location I knew nothing about—Folded Hills Farmstead and Winery. I did a little research and found that Folded Hills is a working farm that welcomes visitors. The adjacent wine tasting room was a bonus.

I arrived early. My camera does its best work early and late in the day and I never argue with it. There was no one there yet and the coastal fog was just breaking, so I found a nearby high vantage point that looked over the little valley and captured a few atmospheric images with a long lens. 

Clearing fog over Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
Clearing fog over Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

After the fog cleared, I headed back down to the farmstead and spoke to some employees about permission to photograph the farm. The owner was very gracious and gave me permission to photograph the farmstead and tasting room and I could use my drone as long as I didn’t frighten the livestock.

goat ready to be fed, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
goat ready to be fed, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

Folded Hills Farmstead is a collection of beautiful old barns, corrals with livestock, a produce stand, u-pick fields of produce and an old farmhouse converted to a an elegant tasting room with outdoor seating. Lots to explore. 

U-Pick Field and barns, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
U-Pick Field and barns, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

I started with the barns and u-pick fields, using a drone for high angles. When I moved to a barn and corral with goats, a pig, a cow and a lama, the shoot got interesting. The goats slept through it all in the shade. The pig and cow ambled around, ignoring the drone completely, but the llama knew something wasn’t right with that strange bird. As I repositioned the drone for each shot, the llama moved with it, not taking its eyes off the drone for a moment. I finally landed the drone and moved on. I could feel the llama’s eyes on me every step of the way.

livestock and barns, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
livestock and barns, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

As the farm stand was getting ready to open, I roamed the barn area for interesting details. I love finding what I think of as “photographer’s images”, those details that make each location unique to itself—antlers on an old barn, a veggie cleaning station for u-pick produce. It often feels like an Easter Egg Hunt when I was a kid. 

I know there are treasured images out there. I just have to find them.

vegetable wash station, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
vegetable wash station, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

My focus then moved to visitors when the Farmstead opened.

The goats, cow and pig had all moved to the corral directly behind the small barn with the produce stand and families bought lettuce and carrots to feed to the livestock. I asked permission before I photographed anyone and had a great time capturing the interaction between kids and livestock, including a classic tug-of-war over a carrot between a young, curly-haired girl and a huge cow. Results were predictable but very cute.

visitors feeding ranch livestock, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
visitors feeding ranch livestock, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
honey and baked goods for sale, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
honey and baked goods for sale, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

I pushed up my ISO to 800 to capture a few interiors of the farm stand and then moved across the street to the Folded Hills Winery tasting room. I talked to the two young women behind the bar in the tasting room for a few minutes and was able to stage a pouring. A quick couple images outside under the shady umbrellas and oak trees finished my shoot.

wine tasting room, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California
wine tasting room, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

I ran into the owner, who gave me some fresh peaches, and stopped back at the farm stand to buy some of their amazing heirloom tomatoes. It had gotten hot and I was pleasantly worn out. The wine selection and tasting room would require a more in-depth investigation which I promised myself would happen when the weather cooled down in the fall. You can’t explore everything with a camera. 

patio of wine tasting room, Folded Hills Farmstead
patio of wine tasting room, Folded Hills Farmstead, Santa Ynez Valley, California

Although Folded Hills Farmstead is less than an hour’s drive from my home, it was a unique adventure that I always seem to experience on a road trip. The Santa Ynez Valley Scarecrow Fest is coming up in October and many of the local vineyards explode in fall colors in November.

Just because our travels are a bit limited right now, it doesn’t mean our photography has to be.

If you want to fine tune your photographic techniques a bit or get more comfortable with your camera controls, my popular Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit class “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” starts on October 6 from 4:30-6:40PM. It is a free class and will be held on Zoom. The class can be found in the Career Skills section of the School of Extended Learning. The links below should help in the registration process. Hope to see you soon.

https://www.sbcc.edu/extendedlearning/get-help.php

https://www.sbcc.edu/extendedlearning/apply-register.php


Line of margaritas with soft background

Shallow Depth Of Field—Photography’s Most Powerful Technique

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

It has always seemed ironic to me that, as a professional photographer, the technique I use most often is something I can not see with my own eyes. Shallow depth of field is a product of camera optics and I can only “see” it as I previsualize an image and on the back of my camera, of course, after I shoot.

Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field
Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is such a powerful effect that I carry my camera with the lens set to f2.8, no matter what focal length lens I have mounted on my camera. I can always stop down the aperture for more depth of field if I need it—see my previous post—but most of the subjects I like to photograph appear best with shallow depth of field. People, food, flowers, wine—they all “pop” with shallow depth of field. 

Let’s start with “Why” we would use shallow depth of field and then get to the “How To”.

Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background
Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background of a busy Farmers Market

Shallow depth of field is used to separate our main subject from the background and sometimes even from the foreground. This sharply defined subject forces our viewers to focus on our main subject first and understand that the softly focused environment is secondary in importance to our main subject. It helps create a visual storyline, something I strive to create in all my images. 

If everything in the frame is sharp due to great depth of field, as in a landscape, a viewer tends to wander around the image visually and decides for themselves what is important and what isn’t. Leading lines and forced perspective can guide the viewer to some extent, but the photographer is telling their viewers that everything in the frame has equal importance. 

It all depends on your storyline!

Shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping
Very shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping on a chair

The first step in creating shallow depth of field is setting your lens to a wide aperture or f-stop. F2.8 to f4 or so will do the job and because these settings let in lots of light, a fast shutter speed is often necessary for a proper exposure. This is a bonus when photographing people, wildlife or sports.  

Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8
Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8

Shooting a longer focal length lens also help soften the background behind your subject. The longer the lens, the softer the background becomes. Keep in mind that wide angle lenses have built in depth of field and it is pretty tough to do a wide angle shot with shallow depth of field, even with your aperture wide open.

Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8
Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8

The last step is rather counter-intuitive but makes sense if you think it through. Move closer to your subject. As the camera to subject distance gets shorter, the camera to background distance becomes relatively greater and the background becomes softer. Try it and see. Keep in mind the focal length should remain the same and because of that you will need to crop tighter on your subject as you move closer.

Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field
Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field to separate it from the background dish

There you have it. For sharp subjects with soft, buttery backgrounds, open your aperture wide, shoot with a longer focal length lens and move closer to your subject. 

Whether you are photographing people portraits at a busy Farmer’s Market, creating the perfect image of a margarita in a crowded restaurant or capturing an intimate moment with the kitten your kids just brought home, shallow depth of field pulls your main subject out of the background with great visual  impact.  

Don’t you wish your own eyes could work that way? Give it time. They will.