Reflected Light

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

As landscape photographers, we spend a significant amount of time in the field chasing after magic hour light (for more information, see The Magic Hour Times Two). We all know that the magic hour produces a soft, saturated light that can dramatically increase the beauty of landscapes. However, magic hour light does have its drawbacks. Foremost among these drawbacks is the brief duration of the light. At best, magic hour light lasts about a half hour in the morning and a half hour in the late afternoon. In other circumstances, the best magic hour light may last but a minute or so.

On the other hand, there is another type of light that is also soft and saturated. In addition, this light sometimes lasts much longer -- increasing the amount of "shooting time" that a photographer has in the field. This light is commonly referred to as reflected light.

Reflected Light

Figure 1: Reflected Light

Reflected light is created when light from a light source, such as the sun, reflects off an object before it strikes the subject to be photographed. Figure 1 shows a simple diagram of one case of reflected light. Here the sunlight reflects off a mountain and illuminates a tree.

Reflected light tends to be soft and to have a colorcast. The softness of the light is a result of two primary factors. First, the reflected surface is often quite large and close to the subject. For instance, when light reflects off a canyon wall and shines on a tree in the canyon, the canyon wall acts as a huge reflector that is many times the size of the close-by tree. Anytime that a large light source or reflector is close to a subject, the light will be soft. Second, the surface of the reflecting object is often very rough. This scatters the light which makes it even softer.

The colorcast is created because the light picks up the color of the object from which it is reflected. This can be either a blessing or a curse. For instance, assume that a photographer wishes to photograph a rock formation. Light that reflects off a red canyon wall will have a warm tone that may accentuate the rock formation. However, light that reflects off vegetation will pick up a green tone that may not go well with the formation. Thus, it is very important that a photographer match the color of the reflected light with the object to be photographed.

Figure 2: Reflected Light on Indian Ruins
Figure 2 shows an image that was created using reflected light. In this image, the natural red of the rock was enhanced by a reddish, reflected light. This light was created when the sunlight reflected off a rock surface before striking the Indian ruins.
Figure 3: Reflecting Surface
Figure 3 shows another shot of the ruins. This shot was taken much later in the day when the sun was directly striking the ruins. This image demonstrates some important points. First, the image shows the surface from which the light reflected onto the ruins. This reflecting surface is the rock surface directly in front of the ruins. This image shows only a small part of the surface. The rock actually forms a large slab surrounding the ruins. Second, compared to the shot taken with the reflected light, the direct sunlight has washed out the beautiful red of the ruins. This emphasizes just how important the reflected light was to this shot. It also clearly demonstrates an important consideration when setting up reflected light shots: the object to be photographed should be in the shade of the direct sun. In many cases, this happens naturally. However, it is possible that a subject could be illuminated by both direct and reflected light. In this case, the direct light will, most likely, be the stronger of the two light sources and will wash out the reflected light.
Figure 4: Reflected Light on Rock Formation
Figure 4 shows another example of reflected light. This image demonstrates an important point with respect to the reflecting surface: large reflecting surfaces create soft light. Figure 5 shows the reflecting surface for the light used to create the image in Figure 4. As can be seen, the reflecting surface was the side of a large mountain. Furthermore, the mountain was relatively close to the rock that was photographed. This created a relatively soft light (with a harsher light, the shadow sides of the rock would have probably dropped to near black).
Figure 5: Reflecting Surface
Figure 6: Reflected Light on Alcove

Figure 6 shows one more image that utilized reflected light. This image illustrates another important point about reflected light: if a photographer wants a warm reflected light, it is best to have as little open sky above the subject as possible. The problem with the open sky is that the light from the sky is bluish. This bluish, open sky light will dilute the warm color of the reflected light. The more open sky that exists above the subject, the more dilution will occur. While it can not be seen in Figure 6, this alcove is in a tight corner of a very narrow canyon with tall walls. As a result, there is very little open sky above the alcove; consequently, the warmth of the reflected light is preserved.

Sometimes, a photographer may find that there is a large section of open sky above the object to be photographed. In this case, it is a good idea to try a polarizer. The light from the open sky sometimes has a component of polarized light. This light can be removed by the polarizer. This will help to preserve the impact of the reflected light.

A few additional points should be kept in mind when using reflected light: