3 Quick and Inexpensive Ways To Control Ambient Light For Your Portraits

3 Quick and Inexpensive Ways To Control Ambient Light For Your Portraits

It doesn’t always take expensive equipment to make big changes to the mood of a shot. Here are a couple ways I found to improve my portraits with a tool I didn’t so much buy as I found laying in the trash.

Okay, before I begin, you’ll have to forgive me for the decidedly lackluster model. As this was an experiment I undertook alone in my backyard, I had no choice but to turn the camera on myself. My deepest apologies.

I should also mention that while I did find the lighting tool that inspired this experiment in the trash, I did not technically go dumpster diving. I have actually had it for a few years after finding it in the discard pile in the hallway of my old office building. Being both a photographer as well as a cheap bastard, I pulled it out of the pile thinking that it could be of potential future use.

So, what did I pull out of the pile?

A simple poster that had been printed up on presentation board for an employee initiative. But as exciting as deals on studio services can be, what I was really interested in was the reverse side.

The matted black board on which the sign had been printed was perfect as a tool for negative fill. Black. Dull and able to absorb light. And big enough to be used in association with a human subject. I stashed it away in my gear closet and looked for ways to put it to use.

For this particular test, in addition to the makeshift black card, I was shooting with a Nikon D850, Profoto B2 1200 Pack with a Pro B head inside a Magnum reflector (to increase the throw of light), and tethered to a 2013 Mac Book Pro running Capture One Pro 11 (no color toning or levels adjustments). I mention these items for reference, but you could easily recreate these results with any camera of your choice, a speedlight, and any black surface. I had the discarded black board at hand so I mounted it to a light stand with an under $10 articulating clip from Amazon and I was all set.

You could also go with a black floppy, a larger black VFlat, or even a black bed sheet if that’s what you have at your disposal.

It was about 10 am (prior to the time change) and the sun was somewhat angular. As is my habit, I positioned myself so that the sun would be a kicker hitting me on my back and to the right (of the model). I positioned the strobe as my key light in front of me to my left. There is a tall tree blocking the sun off of the background, but I myself am standing away from the tree out in the open.

Here’s what you get without negative fill, using just the combination of strobe and the sun mentioned above.

This is a pretty efficient setup, but I wanted to go a bit darker and more dramatic, at least as I define those terms. But that is, of course, a matter of subjective opinion. So, the first thing I did was to place the black board between the sun and myself (black side facing me). This has the effect of putting me into the shade, even though I am actually standing out in the open. The kicker coming from the sun is removed. In addition, the black surface to camera left is absorbing any fill/ambient light being reflected back onto the right side of my face and adding more shadow/contrast to the image. Here’s the result.

I think this is actually my favorite from the series. But exploring further options available, I decided to try out turning the black reflector from a lighting implement into set decoration. I moved myself under the shade of the tall tree to take away the direct sunlight and put me into open shade (you could also add a second black flag/board but I only had the one). The strobe continued to be in the same place, in front of me to my left. I moved the black card around to the back of me as a makeshift backdrop and took more studio type portrait in the comfort of my backyard.

You'll notice that without the black negative fill, the right side of my face is brighter due to ambient fill from natural daylight bouncing off off nearby walls.

Lastly, I remained in the shade of the tree, but moved the black card to camera left, just out of frame, about three feet or less from the side of my face. The strobe is still in the same position to camera right, in front of the subject. This iteration had the most subtle effect. In this case, there is no direct sunlight to block, so the card’s main purpose to absorb any unintended ambient light bouncing onto my right cheek.

The lighter back wall is a result of me being physically closer to it and the wall receiving a bit of spill from the key.

There are, of course, many more ways to use negative fill to affect the look of your portraits, and it is worth experimenting to discover your own method and the results that you like best.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

Log in or register to post comments

Really great article, man! Good score on the discarded poster board!

"Lackluster model" "Cheap Bastard". :-)
Oh yeah... Good article!


Hmmm. Using the black mat surface to "absorb" ambient light. Not just block. Going to have to ponder the implications of that. Like a sponge. Fascinating discussion .... thanks for sharing

The light that hits the black, matte surface doesn't bounce off to light other objects so, yeah...it's absorbed.

yup, sometimes i have ground that's reflecting too much and i'll lay down a few black reflectors (if composition allows of course) to "absorb" the light.

well written and excellent tips. i once found a sweet, blue picture frame in the forever21 alley, in pasadena. i still wish i would've taken it. . haha...