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.
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?
Our thanks to Gerry Painter for a very informative evening, using his photography to show how to play light and dark using a basic home studio. Gerry showed us how to get great results using a sound grasp of how light and flash work, and the basics of posing your subjects for effect.
And it doesn’t have to demand a big budget. There are hacks you can take in order to get the look you want without, necessarily, spending a fortune. You certainly don’t need a full-time studio so you can use flash for portraiture, but a studio does present the peak of the idea of a controlled photographic space. We have touched on this before this season with club member Steve Dyer when we talked about a basic off camera flash set up, and I would suggest that post is worth a re-read from the point of view of building the hardware side. It also links back to two earlier posts, one covering hard and one covering soft light modifiers.
Photographing people is, quite possibly the major part of photography. Certainly, it makes up a large, perhaps the largest, sector of the professional market. What people are paying for is not, necessarily, a straightforward record, but a record of a connection, one that brings out their personality, a fraction of a life, something which speaks of them and of the moment. Even though we live in the age of the selfie there is still a perception that there is something else to be had from the viewpoint of another.
Even so, the motivations behind the selfie, which love it or loathe it are massively the largest by number photographs posted online, 24 billion 2016 according to Google, are not so simple. The motivations for those so bent on broadcasting their lives to the point of dying of it, more people were killed taking selfies than in shark attacks that year, are not just narcissistic.
Within this huge volume, the data for Instagram alone, and what can be derived from it, is far from trivial, there are, apparently, three categories of motivations : Communication – those who want to inititiate conversation; Autobiography – those who are recording key moments in their lives, not necessarily to bait a response, but as a record they can look back on in a handy format; and the smallest of the groups, the Self publicists – those with a personal or professional need to be “out there” and recognised. “It’s a different kind of photography than we’ve ever experienced before” (Steven Holiday, Brigham Young University) important because it is today’s social history for the future. It can also prove expensive, in more ways than one.
Even so, the basic human form hasn’t changed and that means there are more natural and flattering angles than others, and Gerry took us through some of the basics. First off there is not taking pictures square on, something you can sometimes get away with on male subjects, but almost never seem to work with female ones. And there is a big difference to be had through the simple expedient of shifting the by slightly putting one leg slightly forward, shifting your model’s weight and causing an S-curve. Shifting the weight onto the back leg Leaning forward from the waist and raising the chin smoothes lines around the neck and invites the viewer into the picture. For effect this doesn’t have to be exaggerated, indeed it can look slightly comical if it makes the model look overbalanced. This works for male and female models. As does crossing the arms, which with the other moves described, makes the body look more dynamic.
If the model is sitting then the relative height differences are going to become exaggerated and the crops tend to be much tighter. The leaning forward posture still applies otherwise the model looks like they are backing away. Elbows on knees will tilt someone forward and an accompanying tilt of the head makes things much more personable. In all cases, the eyes are the most important point of focus. If there is one other thing that is universal is the general advice that it is better to have the model angle one shoulder towards the camera.
Gerry packed a lot into one evening not least the need for a connection between the model and the photographer, especially with a model who might not be used to having his/her photograph taken. A lot of people don’t like having their photograph taken. A lot of people buy a camera to make sure they are the comfortable side of the lens. Our job is to put them at their ease. This can be easier said than done and the reasons are pretty hard-wired because the thing we as photographers are looking for is the thing we as individuals do not want to give away.
Experience in other fields leads me to believe that the single biggest factor is the attitude of the photographer towards the person being photographed. Put simply, the attitude you give dictates the attitude you get back. If you are wound up and edgy guess what your model is going to pick up on? Give out a “This is going to be a nightmare” and you get a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s as much to do with what we do before we start shooting as it is during the shoot. It’s about time spent introducing ourselves and what we have in store for our subject. It’s about promoting the shoot as a joint project either side of the lens. It’s about making being the model on a photo-shoot as something enjoyable. You only have to get part of the way to free things up.
On a slightly different note, regular club members will know that Myk Garton last year had a successful exhibition called AS I SEE IT at the Totterdown Canteen (141 Wells Rd Totterdown Bristol BS4 2BU). Myk has got the club a return gig which will be called AS WE SEE IT and photographers within the club have opted to show in the exhibition which will be in May June this year. This is a great opportunity to get and see the club in action. Opening times are 8 a.m. till 3 p.m. seven days a week, More on it as we get closer to the date.
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.
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. A bourgeois concept is one that makes the holder appear self important and materialistic, shallow, pretending to be deep, unsophisticated and generally lacking in true class. He never once won a club competition round thinking like that. He did co-found the rather classy Magnum photo agency though, which he described as “…. A community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Well he would say that, I mean, not even a commended? Obviously a case of if you can’t join them beat them.
Our last session on the endlessly fascinating light painting and the impromptu follow up at Abbots Pool on Sunday techniques set me to thinking about this. Not particularly to bourgeois concepts, you understand, but how the technique generally requires stripping the camera electronics to the basics, especially when not combining any ambient light. Full manual set on a tripod and long exposures, at least we can sympathise with a William Fox-Talbot or a Roger Fenton, though we still have it a lot easier. Equipment is smaller and lighter, we can get, with digital at least, instant review and no messing about with chemicals – though that is a different kind of fun in itself.
We are still paying attention to the same basics then. Pre-focussing the lens in the general area of the soon to be action is more guess work than we are used to with auto-focus but we still have to maintain a level of sharpness. What we don’t want is our lenses hunting for a spot with sufficient contrast to lock on to. Most of the time it’s not going to find one in the dark. So, manual focus it is on two grounds. Most people at Abbots Pool seemed to be shooting towards the end at F10, yours truly, different as ever at F8 (actually from aquick excif check it was F8 all night), but that might be the difference in using an SLT camera as opposed to a DSLR. We want our images to retain the lines and patterns in what is technically known as an acceptable circle of confusion. Basically a zone of focus we register as “sharp”.
Shutter speed. Bulb is the order of the day with light painting, at least in the conditions we were shooting in at club and at Abbots Pool. If we are shooting traffic in town in order to capture the light trails then we are probably looking at somewhere between 6 to 10 seconds as a start point (again at F8, maybe F11) but that is just to find a base line. Similarly we would want to keep a constant aperture and most likely exposure time if we were painting a large object with a single light source (and that would be across frames).
The usual advice for a sharp picture is to use the reciprocal of the focal length, so a 50mm lens would suggest 1/50th of second minimum, a 210mm lens 1/250th. Theoretically at least. However this rule of thumb (tool) has been around a long time. Certainly on a full frame 35mm camera with no vibration reduction then it’s no bad way to go. However, should we lengthen the time by 1.5x or 1.6x to account for an APS-C lens? 2x for a Micro Four Thirds? And how much do we need with VR built in and turned on? Firstly that full frame thing is a bit of a false lead. As magnification increases the degree of movement needed to register as blur decreases. Magnification does not change with sensor size, the field (and depth) of view does (and low light capabilities and quality given the same number of photo-sites – or pixels as they are commonly called – and the relative numbers on the exposure triangle).Think of it as Width not depth, you won’t go far wrong. Practically, by the way, if it’s too big to see in the viewfinder, it aint gonna fit on the sensor. Secondly VR does allow us to lower shutter speed but how much depends upon the individual and the situation.
But hey, we are on bulb (shutter stays open as long as the shutter mechanism is activated), so all that doesn’t matter. And if we are on bulb then we are on a tripod or the camera is stabilised by some other means like a bean bag or a wall etc. The bulb by the way comes from the history of photography as it was a rubber bulb shaped object used to fire the trigger. As long as it was depressed (squeezed) the shutter mechanism remained open. Sound familiar? There is some question as to whether the VR should be turned off on tripod, I have never had to and I have VR on both my camera body and my main lens. Other people have and it has made a difference. Test it and find out for your camera. Then move on.
Shooting RAW or JPEG is a personal choice, get those things above right then it doesn’t matter. If you want or need to do a lot of playing around with colour channels, contrast etc then RAW is better. Otherwise do not fret. Fretting about RAW or JPEG is probably a bourgeois concept. Arguing about it rather than taking pictures is definitely a bourgeois concept. Move on.
Composition still counts. When in doubt about the area that is going to be used to complete the picture go wide and crop in post. You can take things out, you can’t put things in that you haven’t got a record for. Generally with the sort of light painting we were doing then going wide was not a bad strategy.
Post production is certainly a matter of personal taste. It can be fun to play around with effects and balances but, by and large, we don’t want it to look over processed. Unless we do. That’s why it’s a matter of personal taste. Printing your results though means that we are going to want as much colour space as we can get to reproduce the tones and subtleties of colour. sRGB is best for monitors, so we need to make allowances for this.
It doesn’t have to be complex, it gets better with practice and it is fun. Get out there and try some.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Speaker – Welcome to my outdoor office – Stephen Spraggon
It’s all about the light. Not sure how many times I have written that here but it is but a small fraction of the times that I have read it everywhere else. It is also right and not quite all. It does assume that the thing you have taken the time and effort to point your camera at has a semblance of interest to someone else and that the tools of composition have been suitably employed or ignored-to-particular-effect to create something for the light to fall on, isolate, enhance and otherwise make your efforts worthy.
Our next session is light painting, which is always very well attended and makes the light more obvious by reducing the size, direction, angle, distance, shape and colour. These are the six things that we need to control in order to be in command of the result of the single most important element in making an image. Please making, because there is a point to be made that the camera takes the image we make. Viewed from there you can see why a little deeper understanding of light might be useful as we have identified it as the most important element.
OK so light without shadow is nothing and we could equally be talking about controlling shadow, in fact that is a useful starting point in itself. It is probably this fact that makes the number one accessory to buy when launching out on this path of painting with light to go with your bright and shiny new camera and lens combination is a five-in-one reflector, though there are pros and cons in using it which need to be mastered.
So there are a number of general rules that apply that are useful to carry around in your head, or written down in a note book – what do you mean you don’t carry a notebook? How are you going to keep a record of what works and what doesn’t; or things to try at a later date; or quick calculations of the effects of filters on shutter/aperture? – more importantly to use. So let’s use this blog to investigate the position of the light relative to the camera – just to give that notebook a nudge.
Think of a clock face with our camera at 6 and our subject in the centre where the hands (yes it’s analogue) meet. The light positioned anywhere between 10 and 2 o’clock is going to produce a silhouette and a light coming from behind the subject we would normally treat as a secondary light. We always have to add a source of light, called a fill light because it fills the shadow in, and that can be either a reflector or a flash or a continuous light source. This fill light usually comes from anywhere between 4 and 8 on our imaginary Rolex. Creatively a light coming from behind can help create a halo that separates our subject from a dark background but we always have to be careful to light the subject sufficiently. Spot metering can help give you an accurate reading (a separate light meter also has its uses and if we intend to do a lot of studio work or outdoor portraiture, then definitely worth putting on the equipment list, especially if working with flash).
When we position the light source(s) directly from the sides, 3 or 9 o’clock, we get a very dramatic effect characterised by extreme contrast. Unless there is a fill light/reflector on the other side of the subject, the camera will record the subject as being lit on one side with a dark shadow on the opposite. This can be good if you want to create a headshot with a hint of secrecy or ambiguity, less so if you want to convey glamour or a full engagement with the subject.
When shooting with light between 4 and 8 o’clock, I’ll come back to 6 o’clock – the camera position – in a moment, this means that the light is coming straight over your shoulders . This has a tendency to produce a flat light lacking significant shadow. Images with flat light often feel like they lack depth and never quite seem to be as we remember the scene being or intended. Basically light and shadow often require further manipulation using diffusers, scrims or in-fills.
The six o’clock position is where the camera is and light is at its flattest. That’s why so many on camera/inbuilt flash photographs look so unflattering. Either side of the camera, shadows are created, and shape/texture become more obvious. The width of the shadows increases as the direction of the light moves from the camera towards the side, which is why we see so many lighting set ups set between 4 and 5 o’clock or 7 and 8 – basically 45° to the camera. As a start or a go to you can’t really do better, especially if working out what is going to work best or working a number of angles.
And talking of angles, there are three basic ones between camera and subject, two of which are frequently ignored: that is low, eye level and high angles. By far the most photographs are taken from the eye level, which is fine but there are opportunities to mix things up a bit and which will alter the balance of light and shadow too. Easy opportunities not always taken.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Bring your cameras and tripods – 3D light painting