Creating High-End Lighting Without Strobes or Hot Lights

Have you ever had to shoot at a location that didn't warrant you lugging your big case of lighting around? In this very inspiring behind the scenes video, see how Alexis Cuarezma maximizes the potential of direct natural sunlight to create flattering results every time without the use of any additional lights. 

In this lighting breakdown from San Francisco-based advertising and commercial portrait photographer Alexis Cuarezma, he breaks down his methodical and versatile approach to filming or photographing people in direct, harsh sunlight. The catch is that he doesn't set up any lights or strobes. By utilizing a layer of diffusion material and a couple of bounce cards, he is able to get flattering and professional results in any situation. 

To simplify the equation, Cuarezma breaks his process down into three simple steps: 

  1. The first step is to set up your composition and frame your shot prior to positioning the diffusion or bounce cards.
  2. After you have framed your shot, the second step is to diffuse or block the direct sunlight or simply find a shaded area. 
  3. The final step is to add a reflector or set of bounce cards. 


In this behind the scenes image from the video, you can see he's shooting directly into the sun, which gives him separation from the background. By diffusing the light, it makes it more flattering and soft. Then, to act as a soft yet directional key light, the reflectors on either side kick back the light and reflect it directly back on his face. With this combination, it produces a layered lighting effect, which I use on nearly every shoot I do.

If you enjoyed this tutorial, be sure to check out his YouTube channel and be on the lookout for new and informative videos every week. 

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Eli Dreyfuss is a professional portrait photographer based in sunny Miami, Florida. He focuses on making ordinary people look like movie stars in his small home studio. Shortly after graduating high school he quickly established himself in the art world and became an internationally awarded & published artist.

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Great idea- but- as a ‘crew’ of 1 I find setting up strobes on location much easier than setting up diffusion/flags/reflectors- especially if there is any wind!!

Hi Robert, thanks for checking the video. I have other videos that show using strobes. This video wasn't to advocate that setting up diffusion & flags is easier. Simply to just show an alternative of what people can do if they don't have any lights. Certainly, if you have lights and they can make you job easier, use what works best.

Appreciate it Brad Smith . I also just wanted to address Robert Altman here as he left the same comment directly in the YouTube video as well.

just watch any of peter lindbergh behind the scenes on location... this is what is called high-end.
pesonally to me this looks like a half-baked cake. also you can see even from his face - its too bright, he barely can open his eyes lol. i would never put a person or celebrity in such condition. your subject will sit, will say one word ïts too bright" and good bye to your set lol.
also how is it flattering? making something evenly bright not equals flattering immediately.

is it a matter of taste? who watches at it and says - wow, this is good... if i ever came on set and see this set-up, i will ask for the assistant who made it and will ask him to leave the premise, cause this is so amateurly bad.

Hi Tim, I never said this was "high end" or called it "High-end". Like I said in the video, if you're a natural light shooter, this is a way to get cleaner looking images if you need to shoot in direct sunlight or if you don't have any lights/strobes.

The title says High-end

I didn't write the title or the article. I made the video

Thanks for replying Alexis.
Lets talk about "natural light" shooting from a pro perspective. Natural means use of natural light, not uncontrolled light... some people may misunderstand it for lack of control. Than there is a question of subject looking "natural", in this video I am not sure it does.

Anyway, here is a few tips. I just had recently a shoot for a magazine, swimsuit model (sorry cannot share it yet, its not even in print yet) in a situation that looks like yours. A client wanted a natural, under-the-sun look, near pool, with girl looking relaxed. The problem is the same - light bounces from floor and near by pool, the eyes become overlit, the subject is too bright, hard to open eyes and everything is too evenly lit, which makes a subject flat.
What we did and usually do - is we spread a big black light absorbing cloth on the floor right in front of the subject. Than made a "black box" around her - instead of using a diffuser like yours, we used a folding black flags?(not sure the english word), we created a shadow around, the box is narrow enough to cover the subject, but not too big to create unwanted shadows. To create a flattering highlights we bounce some light from the back from the sides... now the subjects pops from the background, flatteringly lit, beautiful catch-light.

I think if anything close to flattering (though the subject is of personal taste) is even gradation of shadow and light... whenever something becomes flat unless it is intentional and has purpose - its just bad lighting.

Tim Gallo

I have other videos about lighting. This is a simple 3min video to show 1 way how you can deal with direct sunlight if you're a natural light shooter, don't have any lights and need to shoot photos and/or film an interview. It was never meant to be a video about "high-end" lighting or a mini lecture discussing philosophies about shaping light.

awesome job on that shoot, congrats! I'm sure the magazine will be thrilled with the results.

i dont know what about you, but i believe if you teach something you should do it a proper way. "average" education raises average creators, if its your goal than fine ... maybe some people and clients are satisfied with this kind of a result. i think you should do an add piece where you explain what to do next with this set.

if you have no lights but have c-stands, weights, clamps and diffuser, than maybe you can add flags, black cloth and etc :)

I feel like this requires far more time, effort, and bulky things to carry around while creating a more discomfort for the subject and worse result in the camera than just packing a few strobes...

This wasn't intended to say this is a better solution then strobes or a knock on using them. Just a way to show what you can do to control light if you don't have strobes and need to take photos or film an interview.

"Have you ever had to shoot at a location that didn't warrant you lugging your big case of lighting around?"

Seems to me like the amount of hassle would be about the same.

Deleted User ""Have you ever had to shoot at a location that didn't warrant you lugging your big case of lighting around?"

I didn't write that and it wasn't part of the video

Well someone wrote it considering it's literally the first sentence of the article. Just responding to what's in plain text.

More people have a strobe or two than a 6x or 8x overhead. I am not a big fan of "snow light" IMO there at about a stop too much light from below...but everybody has an opinion.

If you have lights, awesome. I never said to not use them or that this was better. It was just showing a way to deal with direct sunlight without lights. I also mentioned if you don't have a scrim like I used in the video, that you could use bed sheets to diffuse the direct sunlight or find shade.

"The first step is to set up your composition and frame your shot prior to positioning the diffusion or bounce cards.
After you have framed your shot, the second step is to diffuse or block the direct sunlight *or simply find a shaded area.*
The final step is to add a reflector or set of bounce cards."

But if I have set up my composition and framing already, why then would I move to somewhere else? Confusing.

Hi Jay,
sorry for the confusion. If you don't have a way to diffuse or block direct sunlight, you would need to setup your framing in the shade to begin with.