A practical in three parts using local models Ashley Claire, Steph Kiddle and Paul Walker, who were brilliant (as usual) and four lighting stations (the fourth being occupied by a mannequin’s head) run by club members, Richard Clayton, Steve Dyer, Gerry Painter and Myk Garton.
Again, I am glad to report, there was much discussion and sharing of knowledge and practice between members and it just underlines the wide range of experience there is in the club and a shared willingness to develop as photographers together.
Using lights/flash/combination thereof we can, as was amply illustrated, create a wide range of lighting effects. All are about the light, of course and when we say light we also mean shadow. In fact without at least a hint of shadow we aren’t going to have an image. There has to be a minimum of contrast.
There are two sorts of contrast, colour and tonal. Colour contrast (a.k.a. luminance or luminance contrast) is the difference in the colour and brightness of the object and other objects within the same field of view (or frame). Tonal contrast is created when light tones and dark tones lie alongside each other.
This weeks blog is going to concentrate on tonal contrast, easiest when referring to monochrome, more specifically black and white (there are other colour combinations, for example cyanotypes). Luckily there was a station using Film Noir as its inspiration, run by Richard.
Although the noir refers to the darkness at the heart of the story line, hard contrast lighting was, in turn, at the heart of its cinema photography especially in its mood setting scenes.
Although this can be accessed using natural light, by far the best technique is to choose the background first and then place the subject in it. That applies to nearly all photographs, one way or another, but, given the inflexibility of natural daylight at any given time, it is a pretty sound rule of thumb.
And keep it simple.
But we were talking about studio (at least indoor) photography, being by far the easiest for the amateur photographer to control. It is quite straight forward but takes application to master. Like any other skill it needs to be practised.
The nature of our cameras’ sensors is that, at least at the current time, they can “see” a lesser range of dark to light than can our eyes. This means that certain decisions have to be made and introduces us to a rule of thumb known as “Exposing to the right” or ETTR. It applies to monochrome and full colour. It’s also a strategy known as “Protecting the highlights”.
The right referred to is the right hand of an exposure histogram. Most CSC/DSLR cameras produce one of these for each shot. The right hand side plots the brightest part of the picture. If not accounted for – if the end of the graph shows a big spike – then areas of our image will be burnt out – just white with no detail.
Generally we try and avoid this by exposing for these highlights. Shadows also hold a lot of detail and it is easier to get this back into the final image than detail in the highlights. We want to try and avoid a spike (the spike is evidence of something called “Clipping”) to the left too, where everything is too dark to see detail, but, normally, shadows are more forgiving.
The reason that black and white is a good way to do this is that it takes the distractions of colour out of our equation. The results are a little more obvious and black and white has an aesthetic all of its own, particularly boosting the effect of shape and line.
Metering in general tends to be something that first timers, in particular, can find a little difficult. Yes we can buy flash meters, but they are not cheap. They do make things go a little quicker. However, good old fashioned practice will soon determine what is right using test shots.
The guide number for our flash gun is the how far that unit will project light at theoretical f1.0. This will be a GN xx and is usually printed on the unit or it can be found in the handbook. It is calculated thus: Distance x Aperture = Guide Number. So my Amazon Basics flash unit has a GN of 33 (Meters) on full power. So if I want to use an aperture of f8 my optimum distance to set the flash is 4.125 meters (13 feet 6 inches) calculated GN/Aperture=Distance or 33/8=4.125.
In reality I would probably set the unit to ¼ power and put the flash between 3 and 4 foot way. It would be a start because ambient light will play a part and whether the flash gun is the soul light source (rare for me) or balancing out ambient light. Again practice is the key and this is one instance where chimping is a desirable technique. Trial and error is a good teacher.
Thus far thus technical. But, and when shooting models it is a big one, by far the most important thing it is talking to not at or down to our model. If they are experienced they probably know a lot more about this process than we do.
Lighting the Portrait – by Richard Clayton.
How many lights does it take to successfully light a portrait, two, three, five? In reality, it only takes one light to make a successful portrait – and the best way to start, is to learn with one light. Look at the shadows it creates, lighting a portrait is as much about shadows as it is about highlights.
Add a modifier and see how that affects the quality of the light.
So what light should we use? The answer is any light will do, from a desk lamp all the way to an expensive pro level strobe, but don’t forget that abundance of free light that comes through a window.
Whatever light source we use, we can modify it in much the same way. A soft box for a strobe or some heavy net curtain for a window. Why not a soft box for a window? Well, one of the jobs of a soft box is to make a small light source bigger, with a window, we already have a large light, we just might want to diffuse it a little.
If outside, and wanting to use the free light in the sky, AKA the Sun, our best bet is to find some open shade, this will act like a large soft box in the fact that the light will be softer and less contrasty, we won’t get uneven highlights and shadows on the skin.
There are many options for a single light source that will make a great portrait. Mastering one light, gives us more confidence to add another. Recreate this video, it doesn’t matter what light source, and black and white is as good as colour.
Morag McDonald was our guest last meeting and she addressed a lot over a short time. Interesting history and a combination of the academic and the practical. There was a lot of talk after the meeting about cropping and composition so it was to the latter that we address ourselves in this post and will look at colour next week – which is also editing part ii so bring your laptops.
Composition, or getting the stuff you are looking at in the right place in the right proportion to tell our story most effectively is going to be part of any successful photograph. It is the grammar that supports the plot that tells the story that grips the reader. Rules are often talked about, but talked about as rules, “Authoritative, prescribed directions for conduct, especially ones of the regulation governing procedure …” are not at all helpful to the developing photographer. We need to learn to look for stories first then compose, rather than look for structure then find a story. Rules are designed, applied and enforced to reproduce a stable set of circumstances. We must do it this way in order to ape the greats and get an acceptable photograph. Logically, then, all photographs should look the same, should comply to a half dozen, or less, formats and nothing of any worth happened after Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was classically trained and used it to great artistic effect.
Tools, on the other hand, anything used as a means of performing an operation or achieving an end, are very useful. Cameras are tools. Lenses are tools. Flash guns and strobes are tools. Light modifiers are tools. Filters are tools. These are the ones we to tend to think of as tools because they come at a cost to our bank balances and credit ratings. They are the tools of capture. The most effective tools we have to tell our stories, on the other hand, are free, easily accessed and well known. They are the tools of composition.
The composition of an image has three parts to it. The focal element, the structure and the balance. We will look at each of these in turn, starting with the biggest culprit in dulling the impact of an image, the focal element. Without a focal element, or with too many focal elements, the eye goes on a hunting trip for something to focus on. The eye isn’t really the problem here it is the brain, of course, and our brains work on the principle of rapid summation of our environment and the ordering of threats in it. Basically that has not changed since we all lived in caves, in Africa and shared the name Ug. What’s the point? That is the first thing the brain looks at when it surveys a scene. What’s going on? It needs limited information to form an initial judgement which will be refined as other information adds to this judgment or detracts from it to the point it becomes redundant. We constantly reconcile what we see with what we think we know.
The sort of things our eyes will latch on to the focal elements that show high contrast, high saturation, sharpest focus, motion, faces and or figures. These in turn will be influenced by items such as leading lines, framing and geometry.
Structure is probably what we think of first (and that might be part of the problem) and certainly it’s where the idea of rules in composition is seated. We are talking about such items as the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, pyramids and triangles, symmetry and filling the frame. They are all sound under the circumstances that tell the story best for that structure. Think of them as plot devices.
The rule of thirds has four points, known as eyes, of importance and the idea of these is to put something of importance at the intersection one of these points a third or two thirds across the frame and a third or two thirds down it. A second element can be place on one of the adjoining thirds to provide balance (diagonals seem to work best by adding depth in 3D in a 2D environment, but that might just be a personal preference). It has to be said that these points are not absolute (it’s a tool remember) and that objects placed in proximity work just as well or good enough depending on your aesthetic. Of course not everyone is a fan of it.
The Golden Ratio is everywhere we look it seems. It also explains why all those classical Greco-Roman statues are beholding grapes at odd angles. The Rule of Thirds is often referred to as a simplified Golden Ratio, but when it comes to classical composition the Golden Ratio is king. It is found commonly in nature and can be expressed through the Fibonacci Sequence. Now whether it is there and we impose it or we find it because it is there is always open (this link explores in detail). It is also a tricky blighter to get right and its mere presence is no guarantee of the perfect image – plenty of images to be found that are technically proficient but subject deficient. There is no denying that it is fascinating and when it works it works, but remember to the viewer it is an explanation of why this image works not the point of it.
Pyramid Composition, aka triangle composition, is really a matter of converging lines. Converging lines are more usually associated with wide angle lenses because they are more obvious in those perspectives and indeed, we spend time in post “correcting” them. Really we are imposing order on physics because we want our vertical lines vertical not curved (unless shooting with a fisheye lens of course) nor angled at anything but the perpendicular. As we are talking composition we are talking about deliberately converging lines not incidental ones. Leading lines are the most frequently encountered pyramidal tool in the advice given. They converge on a point, our eyes naturally follow that conversion so we need to make certain that our focal point sits at the point of conversion. If the lines within that pyramid follow its boundary lines then the effects are reinforced. It’s a matter of our next tool, symmetry.
Symmetry is repetition of a pattern on both sides of an axis. We associate it with power and beauty. It is explained in Gestalt psychology but we have already touched upon this when we talked about the brains need for patterns and conforming details. Basically our brains crave patterns and if we can find them and use them to concentrate the viewers imagination in the frame we present them then we are on the way, given a sufficiently compelling subject, to making a successful photograph.
Last but not least of our little selection of tools and before we go to our third element, balance, we are back with the oft quoted (here at least) Frank Capa: If our photograph isn’t good enough it’s because we are not close enough. We are moving beyond Capa’s original intent here, which was about connection with your subject. Basically, fill the frame. Essentially you use a single element, like the details in a face, to take up the whole frame. A face is a good example because it has a high degree of symmetry to it and so fits in a frame quite balanced along the central vertical axis. Doesn’t have to be a face, of course, but it should be minimal in the number of subjects In the frame, that is, one image in the frame.
Is there any order to these? No. These are just a very few of the design principles, tools, we can use. we need to learn to decide what tool we are going to use in order to get the result we want. Advice for the beginner would be to start by ensuring you fill the frame and try the rule of thirds. When you have mastered these tools then expand your tool kit, deliberately, by which I mean we go out to deliberately shoot x number of frames in a session based on tool y. Take notes.
So the third element of this composition monster is a thing called visual balance. Basically everything you capture in a frame has an effect a weight in relation to the rest of the frame and the other things in it. Things that can affect the visual weight of an object in a frame include relative sizes, shape, number, high contrast, saturation, brightness, faces, figures etc. They need to be played off so everything seems to part of the whole and those things have a harmony to them. There are a Of course disharmony has a place too, but let’s get the basics right before we start to get cocky.
So, this composition thing in a nutshell: One clear element arranged within a structure to make a point in a scene that is balanced. Simples. Maybe …..