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Who moved the sun?


Natural light is often very nice and easy to work with, but sometimes it comes from the wrong direction and makes the location you find yourself in not optimal. One solution to that might be to chose a better location, but why not move the sun instead?

When shooting portraits of famous author/illustrator Anna Höglund we were using her studio which is a small house on her lawn. It is very small and full of stuff, and that autumn day the sun was shining hard light through the windows. With no adjustment to that light, the portraits would probably come out very dark with too much contrast, not really what I had in mind.


First test shot

With nothing more than the natural light coming through the windows to the left in the image above, the shadows were really dark and you almost couldn’t see all the nice things inside the studio.


When exposing the test shot so the highlights weren’t totally blown out, the rest of the photo got boring. I had to do something about that sun.


Diffuse sunlight and use as fill

Starting with reducing the amount of light that was coming from the wrong direction and soften it a lot so it didn’t felt like the main light in the portraits.

Hanging a sheet of flimsy white fabric on the open doors turned that into a very large softbox, and making it a lot easier to work with.


Adding a sun of my own

Profoto-Magnum-AcuteB-Manfrotto-bomstativ-utanför-fönsterI could have stopped here and would probably have gotten a few soft portrait. But not with the backgrounds I wanted.

What I needed was more light coming from the windows from behind where I was shooting from, so I placed a Profoto AcuteB with a Magnum reflector high up on a stand, a bit higher than three meters.

As the studio house was standing on a slope, the light came almost straight in through the windows, simulating a setting sun. A bit.

Fortunately there was no wind that day, so I could keep the stand and light stable with just the weight of the battery pack. Otherwise I would have needed to tie the stand to the tree, even if a reflector doesn’t catch the wind as an umbrella or softbox would do.


With my new sun I could work from other directions and get the backgrounds I wanted, using a shutter speed of 1/200 s and aperture f/5.6 at ISO 200. Depending on the angle and the mix of ambient and flash, they have different degree of naturalness in them.


On this last portrait, I let a bit more of the natural sunlight seep into the photo by using 1/80 instead of 1/200. The diffusion fabric on the doors softening the sunlight was just on the lower parts, which let the light shining through the top windows of the doors create a nice pattern on the background.

It is nice to see how much you can change the light inside a room with just one large stand, a light and sheet of white fabric. I never changed the settings of the AcuteB flash, just moved around inside the small room to create quite different portraits.

I guess I could have been able to do similar portraits with Speedlights and stands inside the building, but this gave me a lot more freedom to move around.

Winter is soon coming to Sweden and good natural light is not something you can rely on much. Working more with flexible lighting solutions to get the job done no matter what the weather is really a priority right now.

My next step is to incorporate Speedlights into this mix, I don’t like carrying too much stuff around, but I am still in the beginning of the learning curve on that.

If you have any questions, or suggestions, please write a comment. Or just press Like and share this post. Thanks.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Ksenia August 18, 2015, 08:29

    Thanks a lot for this post. Really helpful and creative. I’ve been recently shooting with natural light (I’m in Australia), but was too much conditioned by the time of the day, type of light etc. So the solution you are offering is actually really great. 🙂
    Thanks and cheers from the downunder 🙂

  • Stefan Tell August 30, 2015, 00:32

    Thanks for the comment, Ksenia.
    This is a method I use all the time, as long as I can get my light high enough. I would love to have a crane, but a good lighting stand can often work.

  • Mark Klebeck September 7, 2015, 04:25

    Really great solution Stefan. Did you use a grid on the magnum reflector? I love that early morning/late afternoon sun but I too am limited by cloud cover and the ever-changing direction of sunlight. Thank you for posting this! -MK

  • Stefan Tell September 24, 2015, 11:23

    Thanks Mark,
    No grid on the Magnum, the main purpose was to get the light in through the window, there was no real issue with spill here.

    Natural light is nice, but very hard to keep the same during a shoot, if that is what you want, so creating your own is much better 🙂

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