Our thanks to all those involved in setting up the portrait areas on Thursday night, in particular to members Steve Dyer, Gerry Painter and Myk Garton. Also thanks to our models Melisa Wright, Helen Morgan-Rogers and Bethany.
“Portrait photography or portraiture in photography is a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses”. Wikipedia
The key phrase there is “Effective lighting”. Yes the pose matters and yes the backdrop or background matters, but the lighting has to be effective too, it is the biggest single factor. Let us dig into this a little bit further.
All photography is about the fall of light on a subject, I know. We are here weekly (more or less) in this blog. We are here every time we push the shutter button, for good or otherwise.
Effective – having an expected or intended outcome; producing a strong emotion or response. So, we are talking about lighting that does as we designed it to do and in so doing produce a strong emotion or response in the viewer. Or as we have said (frequently) always start with the end in mind.
This is easier in the studio than outdoors and in fully candid photography a.k.a. Street. It is true that beggars can’t be choosers, but this merely underscores the importance of picking the background first then letting subjects pass through it. Obviously we have to mindful of the fall of light and, if shadows are part of the composition, the dynamic range that we are asking our cameras to deal with. What we want to avoid is the background swamping the subject to we end up with unintended under or over exposure.
Outdoors we need to be more mindful of natural reflectors and flags, that is light sources and environmental shadows rather than the ones we create for the purpose of getting an acceptable shot. Again, putting ourselves in the optimal position and waiting for the subject or scout and bring your model along on the live shoot.
With the studio, as we had in the hall, then the preparation is just as important. For those of us new to it, on a restricted budget, or just casual studio portraitists one light can be used. Grids, beauty dishes and soft boxes can be improvised. Cheap versions can also be sourced (e.g. Grids, beauty dishes and/or softboxes / diffusers) but if we are going to use them often then we are better off on paying for more robust versions.
Poses are as established as any other part of art and the symbolism and interpretations that the idea of the pose creates are based on, or at least can be based on, the assertion that body language accounts for 55% of the communication between two or more actors. A photograph takes out the verbal and the wordage, the other 45%, and in doing so makes the visual element more important, makes the subject’s form and shape the only. So far so obvious, but the human body can express so much with just a few small adjustments.
There are differences in posing men and in posing women, based in culturally based perceptions of masculinity and femininity. As ever practice makes perfect and preferably with the same subjects. Posing in itself is a big subject, but in essence it is a form of composition, or at least a branch thereof. Mastering the art is still 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, and as ever, having the end in mind when we start can help us immeasurably.
There are any number of poses that work, but the pose itself may break an image but it is not going to make an image. The eyes have it. Engagement between the subject and the viewer make the image, the rest of the subjects body, that is that of it which is visible in the image. This goes for any pose, and any gender and age.
In putting these three essentials, light, background and pose, together meaningfully lies the art of photographing people. And here we are talking the difference between grabbing a picture and making a photograph, between reciting the alphabet of buttons on our camera body and writing with light. It doesn’t have to be complicated, though that won’t stop people trying to make it so. It is about two (or more) humans communicating to a common purpose. Even so it has its own grammar.
It is worth repeating that the image that works most effectively is the one that is the product of the photographers craft, not their camera’s algorithms. As was once said of the example of the great American Jazz player, John Coltrane, their “Must be a priority of integrity, honesty, decency, and mastery of craft” (Cornel West).
I think the same can be said of portrait photography, whatever its form.
Jo Gilbert took us through the first exercise in generating materials for the 2019 Kingswood Salver. If you missed last Thursday’s “Shadow” Panel session, fear not, bring in your versions and, if available, a lap top or similar device that you can edit on and you can join in too. This week we shall be editing our panels and extra shots will be welcome. Doesn’t even have to be a shadows panel at this juncture, though it would be better if it were.
Three things we found out across the shadows session: They are simple to create, difficult to capture just right and working in teams can be very productive. We started with a look at some past panels entered in the Kingswood Salver and applied a critique to each individual image in the panel and the overall panel itself. Certain patterns started to emerge and each of the six teams then at least had a grounding in where to start.
I have mentioned Stephen R Covey before and his most famous work: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and specifically his admonition to always “Start with the end in mind”. When faced with a task and a time limit the temptation is to wade straight in and start experimenting. The flip side of this is that it can quickly become quite dispiriting when the expected result doesn’t emerge or doesn’t emerge quite as quickly as expected.
As amateur photographers (and not a few professional ones) have found out that having a clear idea when we start shooting simplifies the looking, framing, shooting of our images is “A good idea”. In our we set out some common criteria to the panel entries from last year and included or rejected ideas simply by adding the magic word “Because” to our impressions.
It was, on looking at what was being produced around the room, “A good idea” because the story behind the panel became part of the focus of producing our own. Mainly the story seemed to follow the images, which gets us going, but drawing a story from what resulted wasn’t always going to be easy. Without the continuity then building a panel gets a lot harder and we end up with a frame driven by necessity rather than by design. Other than by luck this will produce weaker stories.
Weaker stories are a problem in photography because photography is a way of exploring and telling the stories we gather by the reflection of light. Stronger photographs tell better stories. This then can be easily extended to a series of pictures, can’t it? When introducing photographs in a series they may be equally strong, then the problem becomes, if not complementary, of there being a tussle for attention and the whole display becomes weakened.
So the idea is that, in any multi panel presentation, the whole is more than the sum of its’ parts, which is as far as most people get with Gestalt theory. There is something – a whole photo-book at the very least – absolutely useful in the eight “Laws” found in Prägnanz (and you didn’t think you could at your age), basically that:
Proximity – when objects are close together we perceive them as a group and give them meaning as such.
Similarity – elements, (colour, form, shape, shading etc.) within an assortment of objects we group together in our mind’s eye if they correspond to each other.
Closure – we perceive objects such as shapes, letters, pictures, etc., as being whole when they are not complete, we fill spaces in the visual gap to produce a consistent view.
Symmetry – our minds perceive objects as being symmetrical and forming around a centre point. We tend to like splitting scenes into an equal number of symmetrical parts which goes some of the way to explaining the rule of odds when we want to make a number of objects stand out in a composition.
Common fate – states that objects are perceived as lines that move along the smoothest path. Short explanation: this is why leading lines work. The eye and all objects in the frame are visually drawn to a point which becomes the point of visual weight.
Continuity – We are less likely to group elements with sharp abrupt directional changes as being one object, we like things to go as expected.
Good gestalt – objects tend to be perceived as grouped together if they form a regular pattern that is simple and orderly.
Past experience – under some circumstances what we see is categorised according to past experience.
As photographers rather than psychologists we can use these ideas to promote harmony and continuity among not only objects within a frame but subjects across frames. For the Salver competition that means across five frames.
Frames are useful in the context of our individual development as photographers. I remember from when I first started out in photography as a hobbyist in my early teens coming across a piece of advice that came back to me when discussing their progress with one of the groups.
Basically it was an axiom that, and this is in the days of film (of course!), you should frame your shot three times from different angles before pressing the shutter to capture the strongest view of the three. In these days of virtually zero cost to the additional frame this is still good advice but one where we have taking the luxury of pressing the shutter each time we frame.
A very good general exercise is to think of your compositions in terms of three frames – a form of triptych. This allows us to expand the possibilities that just one shot precludes, it is also good practice in presenting different angles and it is a very good way to remind us to vary our perspectives, It is also generally quite instructive when we take even a basic structure to looking and critiquing our own pictures.
Apologies for missing a post, IT problems. Our guest speaker was the always welcome Peter Weaver, who will be returning in a couple of weeks to judge Round 3 of the Open Competition. This was followed by a video tutorial and a table top session. Peter showed us many instances of his own photographic journey and this set me to thinking about one particular aspect which we have talked around but not directly addressed in a while, that of taking pictures of people.
There are many forms this can take from the happy snap via passport style documentary through street to high art. For all of these we are going to use the same basic formula with appropriate, or lack of appropriate, vigour, starting with the background, putting our subject in it, lighting it then recording it. We are speaking generally.
So, background. Avoiding the classic lamp post/tree branch growing out of the subject’s head takes a bit of practice. Border patrol needs to become a habit when our attention is mainly on the subject, but that is easier said than done, especially when we are starting out. Choosing the background against which we will contrast our subject helps in getting this right. Not fool proof, but it works more often than it doesn’t and that little equation can be affected positively by establishing a routine and sticking to it.
Two easy to stick to rules for backgrounds are fill the frame with your subject (goes for all single subject photographs) and blur the rest. In the first of these we can either zoom with the lens or zoom with our feet. Perspective doesn’t change the same way when we zoom with the lens as when we zoom with our feet, as different focal lengths will handle background compression in a different way (sort of, it’s the subject to distance that changes in order to keep the subject the same size in the lens).
Putting the subject into a pre-selected background minimises the chances of there being unintended distractions in frame. Basically, if it doesn’t add to the story you are trying to convey, get rid, either by moving to another location, cropping tighter or changing the angle between lens and subject.
In the studio we might generally light the scene at this stage and refine with the model in it, which is fine where control is total, but we don’t always have this option. In more public and more chaotic situations, “Running and Gunning”, we might need to see what we are lighting first but this is really a personal preference and down to the workflow we adopt – not all workflows are automatically the most efficient but we are after the most effective and that means thinking critically about them from time to time.
Where ambient light is variable it is preferable to put the model in the scene, then light. Variation is part of every point on this process as each time something changes we have a different image and opportunity. Being prepared for the opportunity is a vital step in capturing it.
Posing our model is relative to the formality of the shoot. The corporate head shot is probably the most convention bound of these as portraits of friends informal. Inflation of ego aside, it always amazes me that the item by which their audience is going to judge them most, the corporate mug shot on the annual report, on advertising, on the web, commands such little time in the executive’s “busy” day. Herd instinct aside, the corporate headshot is a very conservative market. Everything can be pre-lit because so very little changes.
Admittedly there are poses to generally avoid because body language is very specific in what it conveys. Posing is also gender specific, at least by convention, so we have the idea of male poses and female poses, which, in actuality, are merely what society expects.
Then the lighting. Lighting is as straight forward or as difficult as you want to make it. Essentially it is the interplay of light and shadow and it is something over which we have varying control over depending on the environment we are shooting in.
A home photo-studio doesn’t have to be expensive to build, and if we start out with flash, as many of us do, then we have a very versatile and portable light source that has many uses, the light from which can be usefully and quite cheaply modified for hard light (grids, snoots, beauty dishes and reflectors) or soft (soft boxes, umbrellas, diffusers and flags). What we get in the studio is control.
Light is by far the biggest factor in any photograph. It’s in the name, as we have discussed before. Its qualities are exactly what we trade in. That balance of light and dark we control has four elements: quality, position, intensity and colour and the modifiers are how we go about it when using artificial lighting or a mix. The portability of modifiers (well the smaller ones, a seven foot octobox may not weigh a lot but the slightest of breezes will turn it into a sail) doesn’t preclude them being used outside (and here).
As, more often than not, we are using a mixture of ambient and boosted light, the options for control are broad. For non-artificial lighting we have the exposure triangle, white balance and filters to affect the look of the light. We have exposure compensation, full manual too.
It is all dependent on the way things are arranged in the frame of course. Composition is no small matter. It is as important as the light, indeed it is at least half of what we do to capture our vision, that thing that grabbed our attention. It’s about making a statement, or taking that statement and making it our own, but remember : “It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”
— Paul Caponigro
Pixelsticking, if there is such a word, was our last little venture and thanks to members Rob Dyer and Myk Garton for providing the pieces of kit aforementioned. The pixel stick is a relatively new device, for those of us unfamiliar, that allows the projection of an image across a frame using a long exposure. It is a form of light painting and requires a certain amount of dark in the frame in order to get a long enough exposure and a high contrast.
October 2013 and the Pixelstick was yet another project on Kickstarter a way for pre-designing a light painted image invented by two photographers, Duncan Frazier and Steve McGuigan, and as we saw, the possibilities are almost endless. Frazier and McGuigan’s invention allows not just for sweeps of coloured LED’s to be recorded, but by breaking down image files into 198 x 1 pixel format and displaying them one line at a time any image can be rendered. Each full colour RGB LED in the 198 high (6 foot) stack represents a line when moved across the field of view of the camera lens (utilising anywhere between 1 and all 198 pixels) and combined make for a time lapsed light painted image.
Not that light painting is new. (Time line by light painting photography). The first light painted image on record was taken in 1889, and had the really snappy title of “Pathological walk from in front” (only in French). As such it was a documentary photograph, recording the movement of joints, created by Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny. Denemy was a student of Marey, when Marey was teaching physiology at the Collége de France. They attached a set of incandescent bulbs to the joints of a subject in the dark and took a long exposure. Long exposures were pretty standard in 1889. Marey also was the first photo-sniper, being the inventor of the chronophotographic gun, and a very great deal more.
The next name in the development of light painting is not a photographer but an early supporter of the Scientific Management movement, you’d probably know it better as Time and Motion, though that was only part of the larger movement, and certainly those of us who engage in any volume of editing in post are aware of the idea of efficient workflow. As with Marey and Demeny Frank Gilbreth Snr used the light painting to study the actions of workers in their work looking for the least effort to produce the most work volume (read profit). He also invented a concrete mixer, but that is by the by.
Perhaps the first name recognisable name to us as photographers to use light painting to effect is that of Man Ray. Man Ray is regarded as a leading figure in the Avant-garde and Dada movements, and he was an extensive, but not exclusive, user of photography in creating his art. He used light painting techniques in a series he called “Space Writing”.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s there were experiments in light painting by artists like Gjon Mili, famous for attaching lights to the boots of ice skaters and his experiments with flash exposures, but most famously in the light paintings executed with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; Barbara Morgan; Jack Delano; and Andreas Feininger. In the 50’s David Potts started moving the camera rather than the subject and explored the use of colour film in what became known as Kinetic Light Painting a.k.a. Camera Painting. George Mathieu, an Abstract Expressionist, used the more traditional method to portray movement for a Japanese magazine cover but his work was mainly as a painter and portraying movement a key feature of that work.
Light painting, then, was something of an oddity, not at all mainstream even though the technique, comparatively, is pretty straight forward. It lurked upon the fringes of photography until the digital age. It starts to look more familiar to us in the 1970’s. David Lebe’s Light Drawings came from his experimentation with pin hole cameras, which capture movement over long periods of time on an essentially still medium. He has an extensive oeuvre in the style. Eric Staller’s work looks like it could be contemporary, many of us have images that look like a Staller, only his were the originals. That said it is David Chamberlain who is the flag bearer in the modern era, being the only artist to exclusively use the techniques of light painting to present his body of work, at least the only one wrooith an extensive reputation. Susan Hilbrand, Jacques Pugin, fill out the cast and into the 80’s artists like Jozef Sedlák, Viki DaSilva, Mike Mandel, Kamil Varga, John Hesketh and Tokihiro Sato show the popularity of such techniques moving towards, if never actually becoming part of, the mainstream of photographic techniques.
But it is simple to do and you can get a lot of very striking images and it engages the imagination. It is a problem solving exercise, as photography is at heart, and it is fun. It is also getting more popular and though the PixelStick is part of that, it is still expensive and in its infancy. Flickr has its small assembly of PixelStick groups, in the wider Light painting communities there are dozens of groups to choose from. Other social media has its fair share too.
It doesn’t take a lot of extra equipment, most of us will have something around the house we can use to get started. It’s one of the more fun aspects of photography, if you haven’t tried it, why not give it a go?
We did Programme as a camera setting back last November, when an alarming number of members were convinced that Elephants were a European phenomena (you had to be there), possibly confusing them (the pachiderms) with Mammoths, possibly from remembering seeing them at the zoo. This meeting it was the turn of the rest of the dial and no such confusion reigned thanks to the scholarly efforts of Chris Harvey, Gerry Painter, Steve Hallam, Eddie House and Simon Caplan. Between them they had manipulation of the exposure triangle well and truly nailed.
And if we nail the exposure triangle we have the control of light within our grasp. The other thing we need to have control of is what is acceptably sharp in the picture, a function of lens aperture and shutter speed moderated by the selected ISO setting. With these two things nailed in under ten minutes we are a photographer! Our position in the Point and Shoot Pantheon is but a matter of time!
Ah but …. these are the mechanical issues of image capture. Often photographers are as interested in the settings a frame was taken at as the content and whereas they are the key mechanical elements in capturing the image we are viewing they are actually a long, long way down the list of priorities in making a good, bad or outstanding one.
Unless our job is making, marketing and or selling cameras for a living.
The reasons are thus: to plagiarise that image you have to be in the same place, at the same angle, in the same light, focused in the same manner, with the same connection to the same elements within the frame, and using the same size sensor. Even then all you have done is copy. The only thing worth copying is the look and that can be as much about post processing as image capture these days. The valid reason for copying a look is to learn about photography by applying it to other opportunities. The camera settings represent one choice from a multiplicity of options to arrive at the same amount of light captured.
Let’s put it this way: ISO 100, F8, at 1/125th second gathers as much light as ISO 400, F11, at 1/250th of a second, gathers as much light as ISO 1600, F4, at 1/8000th of a second gathers as much light as ISO 200, F32 at 1/15th second. What alters is the depth of field and the relative degree of that in these examples would depend on sensor/film size. This other variable is why we refer to crop factors compared to the old film size “full frame” 35mm standard (so that those of us set in our ways can get a handle on the perspective generated by a given focal length) and perspective is relative, he wrote with entirely deliberate ambiguity.
As we have been plugging the last few weeks rather heavily – and in every blog published for the club, regardless of author – the issue of absolute prime importance is composition. Yes we have to get the mechanicals “right” for the image we have visualised but that will not arrest the attention of our viewer nearly as much as the arrangement of the elements in the frame. The legendary crime/street photographer Weegee, coined the phrase “F8 and be there” when asked what was the secret to success in his photography. Weege used a Speed Graphic 4 x 5 inch camera and a flash bulb for illumination. The point is, know our equipment and how it gets us the results we visualised. To be fare some people ascribe the quote to Robert Kappa but the point remains the same. Being there means we get the chance to get the picture the f stop is only of relevance If you have the camera with you.
Now, we can argue what being there actually implies. and the list would probably be quite lengthy. Most photography to do lists seem to end up that way. Some people even write books about it. Reading photography books is a very good idea, but putting the ideas we draw from them to use is even more productive. Knowing what camera settings other people use can be informative, knowing the performance limitations of our own camera gives us the confidence to experiment. In fact, it could be argued, there are two sorts of photographers who are happy about using Auto/Programme settings. Those who are just starting out and those who are confident enough in their use of the camera to know what it is going to do and when and under what conditions we might have to over ride or compensate. And that leaves us to concentrate on visualisation and composition, which is where the art is coming from.
Most photographers, however, set their cameras to aperture priority and leave them there to control the depth of field. Which is fine. So is shutter priority to control blur. So is manual to control everything, though as a permanent setting does rather slow things down – which can be the point. Auto/Programme is fine. Find one that works for you and use the others to play to their strengths.
Following on from the table top week this session was a results one. These are important sessions to us as photographers even if we are looking at the same subjects we are not looking at the same interpretations and as we looked at in the last blog, these are a really good place to practice the basics in situations where we can control pretty much everything, cheaply and enjoyably.
Photography, for anyone who takes it at least a little bit seriously, is a problem solving exercise. How do we get others to see what it is that we see that bears recording? The author Flannery O’Connor is quoted as saying ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’ Substitute “write” for “photograph” and “read” for “frame” and “say” for “see” then I think a lot of us would recognise the feeling. There is a whole craft of difference between “There is something interesting” as opposed to “There should be something in that”. Don McCullin feels that “Photography … is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures,” Hence, in search of what our mind’s eye sees (visualisation) we can apply the principle of “Working the scene” as a method of seeing what we are feeling.
Worth revisiting, before we expand this, are previous considerations on rules – which those of you have persevered with this blog will remember as “Tools” – which are all about organising lines, curves, triangles and shapes for effect. There is an elemental value to thirds, leading lines, filling the frame, repeating patterns etc. etc. but not of their own. We are the difference that focuses all these things into a frame, the ultimate lens.
First off let us consider the notion of the position the camera is in when viewing a scene aka Point of View (POV). Rarely is eye-level when standing, unless you are exceptionally tall or exceptionally small, the best to be had POV. I am not sure what percentage of the images are taken from this rather inflexible POV but willing to bet it is in the high nineties. That is not to totally to dismiss it, it gives us an as seen perspective after all but it shouldn’t be left at that.
Moving, zooming with our feet changes the perspective of foreground to background. Zooming with a lens alters the compression between foreground and background by optically cropping. Then there is the low angle and high angle perspectives and we can combine these POV’s with the tool of thirds to place objects around in different parts of the frame, and / or vary the depth of field.
All these are interactions with the thing that we saw in the first place, the thing that gave us pause. We use the frame of the viewfinder to exclude those things that get in the way of that vision and we use the principles and tools of composition to work the scene in order to explore those things that are particular about it out of which we make a story. It is worth putting in the effort to make sure we have all the angles covered, to have the material to choose from that gives us the best chance of getting on file what we saw in the first instance.
Can’t this be done in post? Technically some of it can, but, the in camera images are the raw materials, not the finished item. Indeed, it could be argued that, as pictures, this data does not exist as an image until it is printed. It is everything we can work with but it’s not everything on offer. Remember, that the camera is a tool for excluding detail from the capture of what we have visualised.
Culling the images should be the left to the start of post production. It is basically a waste of time and battery to keep on chimping (taking the photograph and then looking into the live view and going ooh,ah) and breaks the work flow when working the scene. All things at the proper time is the basis of an effective work flow.
Time spent in capture, getting it right in camera, saves on time staring at a computer screen trying to put things right. Experience tells us that we will, with the luxury of time, squander it fiddling with lifeless images, often trying to hide deformities beyond masks and filters and effects. It is the joy of being an amateur that we can do this to our heart’s content. It is death as far as anyone getting paid for it is concerned.
To get through a lot of images it is a good thing to apply the 2 second rule. Any image that does not hold your attention for longer than 2 seconds delete. No ifs’ no buts’ no maybes’. Two seconds, it appears, is about 4 times longer than it takes to form an opinion of a photograph. Anything longer is not going to make an image any better.
Then we can start working on those that are left. There are a number of different ways of doing this and everyone develops their own, but there has to be a reason for making each decision. I am doing this because … It is always because, as, as far as learning goes, there is no more powerful word in the English language than because.
So, at this point, grab the camera and off we go ….
Happy New Year and we celebrated our return with a well attended evening of table top photography – next week we show the results. This is a good entry point to the year, it’s practical so we get to see and do with others and exchange ideas, but also it is something that we can exercise (more or less) total control over. Yes it might not be our “thing”, yes in the hall we are at the mercy of the overhead lighting and others waiting their turn (on occasion) but the opportunity is the thing.
The fact is we can, with very little resource, replicate these moments and use them to our advantage. Find an object – betting the house is full of them. It doesn’t matter what particularly, but, to start with, one that isn’t too shiny, so as we avoid bright spots (specularity) where light sources are reflected in the objects surfaces and not too big – it’s called table top for a reason. This can be controlled but we will come back to that presently.
For lights we have torches, they don’t have to be big and powerful (actually something of a disadvantage at close quarters). Some wire twists and something that will be stable when we attach the torch(es) to it as a light stand (or co-opt a friend or relative). Some plain paper to use as a diffuser and Christmas having just passed some coloured sweet wrappers for gels. If we want we can construct yourself a makeshift light box out of an old cardboard box and some grease proof paper, though there are even more minimalist options we can take. We can use tin foil and black card for reflectors and flags. Ladies and gentlemen I give you your complete photographic studio in miniature!
So it’s an entertaining way to pass an evening, useful if we are selling small things on line and we can learn quite a bit about product shots in the process. But it also has other, practical, training uses. It doesn’t make a difference how experienced we are there is always a value to practicing, especially if it is on a subject we don’t usually do. Photography, as David Bailey once pointed out, involves dealing with what is there, photographers don’t enjoy the luxury fine artists have in that anything inconvenient in the scene just doesn’t make it onto the canvas.
We have to deal with what is in front of us. The studio is the closest we will ever get to that situation, in miniature or otherwise, being places we put things in rather than take things out. Being a photographer is about having an idea of an image and working with tools we have or can find to work towards what we visualised. Yes I know, that doesn’t really apply to street (actually is does but that is for another time) or at least some forms of street photography. Oh, OK, spray and pray, but like I said, that is for another time.
Perhaps the greatest part of this is that we can go through the whole process from visualisation to capturing an image effectively and quickly. And then we can go through the variations of the set up in order to experiment and learn. Starting with a blank canvas, the light tent is exactly that, we can populate, arrange and light our little stories from scratch. It is a great way to practice basic lighting skills, pretty much for free. In fact thinking of the exercise of placing shapes in relation to each other in a way that gets the attention and lighting it is pretty much the basic definition of photography. Everything we do in these little vignettes can be scaled up. They are good fun and good practise.
There is more good practice to be had in controlling light angles too. We mentioned specularity above, basically unwanted reflections. The solutions are straight forward enough and apply to other photographic situations too. Basic rule of reflections is that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. What that means for us is that to avoid glare from a shiny object we don’t need the light source and the camera to be facing the same way. Frame with the camera and then move the light around till the glare disappears. Start at 45 degrees to the camera, you should be plumb in what is known as the family of angles.
Constant lights are more convenient here but if we use flash and have triggers so we can use them off camera and using test frames and, of course, knowing the rule of reflection, we know where not to place the lighting in relation to the camera, so that is a start. You don’t necessarily have to have triggers though. The rest of the solution isn’t complicated and if we use a “big” light source, say from a large soft box then the problem goes away. Don’t have a soft box? A light tent is one answer (basically a multidirectional diffuser). No? A piece of white card to use as a reflector, shoot with the camera facing the card, that will effectively diffuse the light.
Finally shadows are just as interesting, if not more so on occasion, and balancing out light and shadow is the root of generating mood in a shot. This is done with what are known as flags. They are used a lot in cinematography and videography. They are also used in product photography. Using them in a table top situation means that DIY options are easily available.
So, on these cold and dark evenings there is something to try out.