How to Use V-Flats with Natural Light

How to Use V-Flats with Natural Light - Mastin Labs

Making your own studio gear can be a really affordable way to stock your studio with useful tools. For my studio, I made V-Flats to help shape light.

A V-flat is two pieces of 4' x 8' board, usually made of foam, that are taped together on the long edges to create a hinge. Ideally, the boards are white on one side and black on the other. Sounds simple, right?

Something so simple may not immediately appear all that spectacular, but V-flats are by far one of the best light shaping tools available! While I could wax poetic about my love of black and white foam board, let me show you a few ways that I've used V-flats with natural light. 

My studio is in a warehouse with tall ceilings. The 100+-year-old building used to have huge, glorious windows, though all that exists in their place now are a few 2' x 4' panes of glass that allow a modest amount of light in on a sunny day. The walls are dark, rusty looking brick with steel piping and some wood or metal here and there.

The original wood plank flooring remains from when the five-story building was erected in 1908. What I'm saying is, despite its unique charm, you would not describe my studio as a "light and airy" setting. But, I can use one of those small little windows and the power of a V-flat to produce this:

Photo Credit: Chris Daniels | Preset: Portra 160 +1 

V Flats with Natural Light Set Up #1

Gretchen in v-flat set #1. Photo Credit: Chris Daniels | Preset:  PanF 

This is one of my personal favorite setups!

With its open edge close to the center of the window, place the first V-flat about a foot or so from the glass. Open it approximately 90º so that the black side is facing you (my V-flats have a white and a black side). Mirror the first V-lat with the second, leaving about 8 inches or so of separation between the edges close to the window's center. You will also pull this V-flat forward and just slightly offset it from the other. See the lighting diagram below.

This creates a kind of light leak in a dark backdrop. Note in the diagram that the subject is not directly in line with the opening between the V-flats, but standing to the side of it. This offset allows the light to shine on her, but blocks it from illuminating the background, leaving it a beautiful rich black.

Gretchen standing in place. Notice the slight offset position of the v-flats.

Photo Credit: Chris Daniels | Preset: Portra 160+1

V Flats with Natural Light Set Up #2

I like to call this one the "Light Cave." As soon as you do it, you will see why.

You almost do the exact opposite of set #1. Take two V-flats and with the white side facing you, box yourself, the window, and the subject inside. You will find yourself standing in the most beautifully lit tiny room you've ever been in. See the lighting diagram below.

One of the beauties of this setup is that it doesn't really matter what angle you're shooting. It changes the light direction a bit, but you have so much gorgeous diffused and reflected light that you can pretty much go for it!

Gretchen looks out from the opened "cave"

Light Cave portrait. Photo Credit: Chris Daniels | Preset: Portra 160 +1 preset

V Flats with Natural Light Set Up #3

This setup is straightforward and can also make use of a background. I used one of the texture boards I created earlier this year.

By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Fuji 400HN preset

Position the subject so that the window light is at their side and the V-flat, with the white side facing them, is on their opposite side. This acts as a bounce, filling in some of the shadows. You can do this with one of the V-flat panels parallel to the window, or you can position it as you see in the below diagram, at a 45º angle. This helps to reflect the light further around your subject. See the lighting diagram below.

The angled v-flat helps to bounce light all around the subject.

The other V-flat that you see behind the camera is optional. Without it, your lighting will have higher contrast. I chose to shoot with it for the extra fill.

By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Ilford PanF preset

V Flats with Natural Light Set Up #4

By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 160 +1 preset

This is a quick variation on the above setup. The only change made is that you flip the bounce V-flat around to the black side. The black absorbs the light from the window and deadens the fill and reflection. Without the white bounce, this creates a very classic and high contrast "Rembrandt style" lighting.

As with set #3, the white bounce behind the camera is optional, and I elected to use it for this set of images as well.

Photo Credit: Chris Daniels | Preset: Portra 160+1

I hope this serves as a guide for you to start working V-flats into your shooting arsenal. They genuinely are a phenomenal tool for shaping light, and there are many ways of using them beyond what you see here. I'd encourage you to play and experiment with them.

I'll leave you with some general reminders about shaping light:

The closer the source of light is to the subject, the softer it will be. In the case of V-flats, if you're bouncing window light and want it to be ultra soft, place the white side of the V-flat as close to the subject as you can. 

Black absorbs. Use the black side of the V-flat when you want to create contrast. 

Play, have fun, and show me what you come up with! As always, if you have questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. If you're a member of our bustling Facebook group (and you should be), you can tag me there! (@Chris Daniels) Otherwise, feel free to reach out to me personally.