Photography is largely the art of capturing light. When you look at professional photographs, you may notice the depth created by shadows and highlights. This play of light enhances your subject, whether it is a portrait, landscape, or still life.
Natural light, such as sunlight through a window, can create a lovely indirect light that spreads gently over your subject without removing the shadows that give it depth and interest. However, perfect natural lighting is not always available and flashes are often needed to supplement the existing light.
Flash photography can sometimes have the same affect as shining a flashlight directly in a person's face. A direct flash can be harsh. It can remove or "blow out" the details of your subject or cause unnatural and unflattering shadows. Luckily, there are many ways to both add and manipulate light.
You may remember from elementary school science that white, or light-colored, objects reflect light and black, or dark-colored, objects absorb light. Photographers often use white or gold reflectors to redirect light.
Imagine you are taking someone's picture outside. If your subject faces the sun, the light may be too harsh and can also result in squinting. Turning your subject with the sun behind her, may add lovely highlights on her hair, but leave her face shadows. Holding a reflector at an angle in front of your subject, bounces the sun softly onto her face.
Reflectors can be used with any light, existing or flash. You can purchase reflectors that fold away when not in use, or you can try making your own. A white posterboard can be an inexpensive way to start experimenting.
Bouncing a flash is exactly what it sounds like. It simply means angling your flash toward another object, such as the ceiling or wall, so the light will bounce back onto your subject. When the flash bounces, it spreads and casts a softer, more even light.
Many SLR cameras have a hot shoe for mounting an external flash. External flash units often pivot in many angles, making it very easy to bounce the flash off of the ceiling, a wall, or a mounted reflector. Try setting the flash at different angles to see how it changes the results.
Most external flashes can also be detached from the camera and fired with a flash cable. Having the ability to move your flash gives you more freedom to change the angle of your lighting. You can also use multiple flashes to achieve different affects.
A diffuser is simply a piece of material that is put over the flash to spread the light as it passes through. It has a similar effect to that of sheer curtains on a window.
Diffusers can be purchased in a variety of styles or they can be made at home. Some diffusers look like a white plastic cap that fits over your external flash or a mini soft box made of special fabric. It may even be a sheet of material that folds over the front of the flash.
You can experiment with many objects at home to make your own diffuser. You can cut out part of a plastic milk container, use sheets of tissue paper, or attach bubble wrap over your flash. Different materials will give different results.
Whatever tools you use, remember that the first step to effectively using indirect light in photography is to notice when it occurs naturally around you. Being aware of how light naturally spreads and bounces will help you learn how to duplicate the effects artificially.