Over-thinking it: Using an opening as a Softbox

What happens when you overcomplicate your light

Jess and I do like spending time together, and we get some good moments to connect while we're out exploring.  I usually bring along my camera, and sometimes our outings turn into photo walks, but as an artist, Jess is (mercifully) very understanding of a creative drive.   Many times, in fact, our walks turn into photo sessions, with Jess as the subject.  This really helps me when it comes to location scouting, or doing posing/lighting exercises.

A walk we did last week produced a pretty fantastic location in Point Pleasant park:


The first thing that popped into my head upon seeing this (right after: "I have to get a photo!!") was: "I'm going to go all out with my flashes to make this location work for me!"  Seems like a good starting point, but thus began a long process of balancing light.  

I started out by getting my flash out and trying to find a good balance of flash and background and wound up with this:

Flash is hand-held, off camera left and modified with a diffuser.  I used ETTL mode, and my results were...meh. I really wasn't satisfied with this.

The dark background was a pretty poor starting point, and the light wasn't doing any favours to Jess, being a small harsh point of light.

I opened up the aperture to see what kind of results I'd get, perhaps some more background:

I got more background alright, but the flash also got some extra punch as a result.  


I remembered that opening up my aperture will allow ALL the light in the scene to increase in intensity, even my flash.  I also still had that awful shadow in the background, which I really didn't like.  I tried increasing my light size by bouncing the flash off of my reflector:

Uh, yeah.  This didn't really work either.  

 I could have pulled the flash power down, and closed up my aperture, but the reflector was posing another issue: I was really limited in where I could move.  I could get Jess to move about, but that's an awful lot of work for someone doing this for free. 

I pretty much gave up, abandoned the idea of using flash or a reflector and just snapped a shot for fun.  My light was perfect.  Absolutely spot on: Soft, wrapping, pleasing, and balanced.  WHAT?!?  I just spent all that time trying to do something that the location was already doing for me.  

Having Jess in a shaded area, with no direct sunlight, the open facade of the building was acting like a big softbox. In fact, the light was so perfect, I didn't have to do much in post-processing to get this result:

The final image, with some vignetting and saturation. I also burned in her white shirt a bit.

It goes to show then, that ambient light is sometimes the best light.  Had I made the shot with ambient light FIRST, like a good boy, I probably wouldn't have dug through my bag of tricks trying everything to make the light do what it was already doing.

This kind of result happens with windows, open buildings, or any shaded area with an opening.  The clouds really helped on this particular day, but if your light is very harsh, a bedsheet or diffuser panel (whichever is available to you) can provide you with that soft light as well.  

There is always one more thing I would have tried, and in this instance, I'd put a gridded flash behind Jess on low power, just to provide a small rim light to separate her from the background. 

Cheers!