Changing The Quality of Light Outdoors

Finding soft light on a hard light day

Photo by Chris Gampat

I’ve talked about changing the qualities of light before in my post Understanding light: Intensity vs. Quality, but mostly in regards to the studio. When shooting outdoors you are subject to the elements. Sometimes you get a cloudy day when you want soft lighting or a bright sunny day when you want strong shadows. Other times you have the opposite of what you want that day – but there are still things you can do.

Finding soft light on a hard light day

Finding soft light on a hard light day

Use a Reflector

One of the most reliable ways to soften light on a subject when outdoors is with a reflector. A collapsible one like the Interfit Collapsible 5-in-1 Reflector is ideal. Use it to bounce light back into a subject, fill in shadows or change the color balance of the image subtly. You’ll need to either have an assistant hold it or use a stand that will put it where you need it like the Impact Multiboom Light Stand/Reflector Holder, one of my favorite stands because it’s so versatile while staying light and portable.

Try to use your reflectors slightly twisted, like a potato chip. Think of Pringles and you should know what I mean. An assistant can twist it or the stand can too.

Use your environment to make the light source bigger

The sun is out and there are no clouds. While the sun is big in reality, it’s small in relationship to a subject on earth (the only planet I currently shoot on). This is going to cause harsh light and strong shadows but it’s not what you need today.  The reflector isn’t cutting it for what you’re going for at this moment. So, look around. There are always ways to diffuse it.

The intro photo for this article was done in exactly that scenario. I found a place where the sun was completely hidden from us and all the light was reflected off a large glass building. The building made the light source larger (relative to the subject), softening the shadows and creating a nice even light.

Other options could include trees, windows or water. Look around. Where is the light bouncing, how can you take advantage of it?

Use your environment to make the light source smaller

When the sky is cloudy the light is diffused. The whole sky becomes your light source like a massive soft box, shadows are soft and light sources are even. Contrary to popular belief this is usually your friend. You get soft lighting and everyone looks beautiful. Most of the time these are good days for photographers shooting people outdoors. But what about when that’s not what you’re looking for?

Using your environment to make the light source smaller

Using your environment to make the light source smaller

Find places where the light is focused. This photo was taken on a day where the sky was cloudy and light was coming from everywhere. But I needed a shot that was dramatic with strong shadows and highlights. By taking the photo under an abandoned railroad track I was able to get strong light on her back and feet while keeping her face in the shadows.

Other options could include alleys, doorways or cliff edges. Again, I don’t know where you’re shooting—use your eyes, they’re far more important than your camera.


Keep your eyes open all the time for how light is working for and against you. An arsenal of reflectors and other options are ideal, but there are usually ways to make a shot by taking advantage of your environment. Because of the level of importance I put to light, I tend to look for the right light first and then find how I can make that a good environment. It is not unusual to see me walking around staring at my hand – I’m looking at shadows. If you’re more about the environment than the light that’s fine, you’ll just be more reliant on light modifiers like reflectors or portable lights.

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