I've been reading Strobist lately and love the moody half-lit-half-dark effect in a lot of these types of photos. I'm a beginner and have a limited equipment budget, so I got a 45" reflective/shoot-through umbrella.

It gives great softness for the really low price. However, I find that I can't get the really dark areas/high contrast in my portraits. I think that this is because the excess light from my strobe is bouncing off my room walls and coming back at my subject. This effectively creates a new "ambient" light source (I've killed the real ambient) that prevents the deep shadows.

What are some good ways to work around this? Bonus points for being low-cost.


One option is called "bookends"; 4x8 sheets of foam board, hinged together with tape. Leave one side white and use it as a reflector, paint the other side black and use it to eat light.


As light intensity falls off faster when you're close to the light source, you can minimize the effect of wall/ceiling reflections by putting the umbrella as close to your subject as possible.

Another very low cost option is to wait for the night and shoot outdoors.

  • 2
    Studio lighting, particularly softboxes, are almost always a whole lot closer than you'd think they'd be in practice. It took me nearly a year to learn that the right distance for an Elinchrom OctaLite from a subject was 3-4 feet most of the time -- you'd think that something that big should be wa-a-ay far back, but you'd be wrong.
    – user2719
    Dec 19 '10 at 16:54
  • 1
    @Stan: Well, the closer you put them, the softer the light is, so why buy insanely huge softbox when you can work with something that is only huge? :-)
    – che
    Dec 19 '10 at 17:46
  • "Insanely huge" is for half-figure or better without vertical fall-off (even a 1m^2 large softbox has falloff top & bottom for anything that goes below shoulder-height -- you have to do a sort of "quantum include" to avoid the Venus de Milo treatment).
    – user2719
    Dec 19 '10 at 19:35

Maybe try hanging some fabric remnants (I got 2 yards of black velvet for 5$ from hobby lobby) or some landscaping fabric from your walls. Anything black and non-specular (I think thats right?) will do. If your wife / roommate / mom won't permit such a thing, consider placing something closer to the light source, in a smaller format. Zack Arias recommends bifold closet doors I think, but you could basically use an easily standable, movable piece of cardboard. I think the strobist crowd calls these barn doors - you might search Hobby's site for that.


I often use black wrap to prevent spill. Great for general shaping of light.

Black wrap or black foil is a black aluminum foil that's primarily used to block out light and is attached to light fixtures and/or their barn doors.


A great low cost option is to buy a black sheet at Walmart and use it as a "black reflector". Instead of adding light, it will subtract the light.

As well as being useful for photography, it never hurts to have a spare set of sheets for guests.

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