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.
Round 2 of the club competition last meeting and I shall link to the club website here where the winning entries will be posted in due course. Club thanks to our returning judge Roger Mallinson who got though 21 prints and 58 Digital entries in a prompt and informative fashion.
This week we are going to return to the studio as it were, and start to investigate light modifiers as previously promised. So, starting with the obvious, just what is a light modifier? Yeah, ok, it’s something that modifies light, a true but otherwise unenlightening answer which we need to look at in a little more detail. If we take the word modify we can use it in two senses:
- To change in form or character; alter.
- To make less extreme, severe, or strong.
With light the second meaning is a consequence of the first, it is also an inescapable consequence and though a tad obvious to some the conclusion is the same as the one that Mark and Rob gave us a couple of weeks back, that if you are going to do a lot of this then it is best to buy yourself a light meter. The reasoning is thus, every time you make an adjustment in intensity or distance (one and the same thing often times) then you are going to effect the elements of the exposure triangle and using the old saying: two measures to one cut as a guide, okay two measures to one slick in this case, means a lot of time effort and battery can be spared. For the occasional user then it is a case of trial and error. Eventually you will get to know your kit well enough to be reasonably accurate in your estimations.
There are basically two kinds of light modifiers which we can divide into soft light and hard light. Flash is the most likely entry point for a hobbyist into controlled off camera lighting. With flash we tend to use more of the hard modifiers, that is we use them more of the time, but both categories need considering.
The thing to remember, that is the thing not to get carried away with, is we modify light to enhance the subject. It is always about the subject, he, she or it, not about the modifier. Unless you are writing about modifiers I suppose. Still, that false conundrum aside we choose the modifier to light the subject, not the subject to show off the mod as a general rule. The subject is the thing. Always.
So this week we will start with soft modifiers. Another term for light diffuser, because diffused light gives soft shadows, that is the differences between light and dark look more a gentle grey than a stark black. Make no mistake we are using the light to create shadow. Shadow is the form of the statement we are making and without light there is no shadow.
So a soft modifier spreads the available light over a larger surface, that is, larger than the source itself . Smoothing the transition from light to dark on your subject the main use of soft modifiers is for key lighting in portraiture. The key light is usually the primary light source, the brightest and most important.
The two most frequently used soft modifiers are softboxes and umbrellas. Softboxes are normally vaguely pyramidal and lined with a silver, highly reflective material. They come in a variety of sizes and those sizes relate to how soft the light is, not how wide spread the light is. Yes, you are right, those two things are directly related. Most softboxes and umbrellas are used at a distance of two meters or less from the subject. Though there will be differences in the areas lit between any two given sizes, at these sort of distances they are minimal and really, really not the point. The point is how diffuse the light is, how soft the shadows are.
Softboxes are a studio staple but they can be very bulky, heavy, require more than one stand and generally take up a lot of space even when not being used and can take quite a time to set up. They are good for using with other modifiers though and also good at controlling light spill (basically light coming through at unintended angles which may or may not intrude on your desired effect).
A subdivision of the softbox is known as an Octa, octabox, octadome or octa softbox/dome . Octas, as we will call them, come either as an octagonal shaped softbox or as a hybrid softbox and umbrella. The angle and amount of light fall off is different to a softbox, but they do tend to be a lot more expensive and as bulky as softboxes.
There are further modifiers than can be fitted to a softbox or and octa. You can add grids (to give direction), flags (put shadows in), filters (control colour and intensity) to give you a greater control.
In case you are thinking, “Hey, I can make my own softbox” then I have to say, yes you can. The difference is in the quality control and the length of time that it is likely to last, but there is no reason why you can’t use tin foil and a cardboard box to put over your light source (flash gun rather than bare bulb, depending on the quality and exclusions of your house insurance and fire damage claims) and a plain shower curtain works wonders (make sure it doesn’t have blue tinge if made of plastic and yes it will melt over a hot bulb). Go ask YouTube, there are many different videos covering this.
Essentially umbrellas for modifying light as, opposed to keeping the rain off, come in two varieties: Shoot through and reflective. They are a little more untidy in the way that they deal with light, it will spill round the open edges. They are also prone to having a hot spot which may or may not prove a small problem. They are usually a lot cheaper than softboxes or Octas.
A shoot through acts like a lampshade, softening the light simply by putting a semi transparent material between light source and subject. A reflective umbrella is opaque, black on the outside with a highly reflective, usually silver, sometimes gold or maybe white interior. These are pointed at the subject so that the open side of the brolly is facing the subject and the flash unit faces the inside, away from the subject, to bounce light from all round the internal reflective surface from every attainable angle.
Umbrellas come in a range of sizes from small to huge (10 feet or more) and they are a low price, effective, portable light modifier. This makes them very popular. As already mentioned their biggest disadvantage is their tendency to spill light around the sides. Not a huge problem, normally, but one which does need to be attended to. Unlike softboxes there really aren’t any effective DIY options, but they can be bought pretty cheaply and so even if there was a DIY alternative the cost advantage would probably be very low.
Next week we will be looking at hard light modifiers and it is the club social, see website and or Facebook for details and Rob is doing a Bokeh session to boot.
Two propositions to start with this week. Firstly, light travels in straight lines in a single direction until it hits a surface that changes its direction or other properties. Secondly, there are, in nature, three basic shapes: the sphere; the cube and the cylinder. Simple as that. Everything, I am reliably informed, is made up of those three shapes, and light travels in straight lines.
So to become a studio photographer: (A) Point your light at one or all of the above shapes and (B) press the shutter. And off we go. Shortest blog post ever ….
Er, no. These are three dimensional shapes and we, nearly exclusively in photography, work in a two dimensional world we spend a lot of time and more or less conscious effort to make the third dimension appear. Also this is, as was pointed out at the beginning of the evening, as much about shadow as it is light.
Surely that doesn’t apply to people, though?
Yes it does. When learning lighting it is normal to start by learning to light these three basic shapes. Cones you can make out of a sheet of paper. For cubes a box will do (doesn’t need to be particularly cuboid just represent a square in three dimensions, so a cereal box will do). A ball or even an egg will do for the sphere.
When you understand those and how light and shadow work on them thoroughly (many, many, many hours later) the rest is a mixture of experience, knowledge and imagination. And lighting, of course.
Starting as ever, with the rule of KISS (polite version: Keep It Short and Simple), members Rob Heslop and Mark O’Grady took us through a basic use of lights and reflector in the pursuit of some classic look portraits, not forgetting our model for the evening, Summer. Summer, her working name, was rescued from redundancy from a closing Ann Summer’s shop late one Sunday evening, some seven or eight years ago and who has since been kept in a trunk by Mark. Summer, I should point out, is a mannequin. We don’t say shop window dummy any more, that would just be rude. However, it is still legal to keep her in a trunk. In two parts. If Burke and Hare, sorry, Mark and Rob, are to be believed.
Yes, well, we shall move on.
This is one of those areas of photography, and there are a few, where the general mantra of practice, practice, practice, is especially pertinent. It is also one of a very few where control is total (in a studio) and thus results easily replicated. So are mistakes. It is something worth taking a little time over (and recording, see below) because there is even less excuse than usual for saying “I’ll fix it in post”. If you have ever tried it and wondered why it never came out right it could be that you haven’t had enough practice yet. Or you’re not thinking in such a way as to develop your practice. Enter the sketchbook, a pre-photography art idea that really helps individual progression. The basics are fairly straight forward and this can be a process of getting to know your kit as much as it is getting to know the techniques. I really cannot overstate how useful a sketchbook is in purposeful development.
Mark and Rob produced a set of low key portraits (members see the club Facebook Page) using first one then two lights and a reflector. The key element to remember is that an image is a balance of light and dark. Light is what we control as an input, but dark is where the story is told, rather the interplay of light and dark is where the story gets told. There is nothing in the light without shadow. No depth and without depth a flat, unflattering, uninteresting picture.
One important thing that came across was that you have to remain aware that there are two elements in the setup that are or can be mobile. The model and the equipment. Most of a shoot can be taken up just changing the lighting positions, or adding light modifiers or changing the angle the photograph is taken from and it is quite surprising how relatively minor changes can make for quite large differences. Similarly slight changes in posture can radically alter the mood of a photograph – I refer you to Gerry Painter’s session last year on posing.
Ambient light is also an important factor, especially with flash. The first thing to note is that the shutter speed you are employing isn’t anywhere near as important in producing the look of your final shot up to the synch speed of your camera. Flash is of very short duration, thousandths of a second, the shutter has to be fully open so that the curtains do not make shadows across the frame. This is the synchronisation speed and is mechanically limited to around 1/250th of a second. Most cameras have a synch speed of either 1/160th or 1/250th. Some top end models have electronic synch where the shutter itself is part of the sensor and electronic. The problem with this can be that it affects the image by being too quick and hence the subject hasn’t been sufficiently bathed in light. The same end as with the mechanical shutter but a completely different reason – the shutter being too quick rather than too slow. Synch speed is about controlling the amount of ambient light the image contains. This is true for film or digital.
It is different with constant light, of course, where the shutter speed can be whatever is compatible with the constant provided by the exposure triangle and your processor. There are other considerations with constant light v flash, especially in a studio environment, which we don’t really have space for here. Most considerations evolve around compactness, other uses and intensity of light. Layout in terms of initial cost can also be a consideration, especially for the occasional user.
All in all a very informative evening and our thanks go out to Mark and Rob.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Light painting practical.
Quiz Nights. You can’t beat them so we joined ‘em. Thanks to Myk Garton for putting the evening together, I know from first hand experience just how much effort goes into making it look effortless. And of course all participants showed themselves masters of their hobby. This week on the blog we will wrap up two of the three remaining questions from the Week 2 Q by looking at: What is front curtain, rear curtain and slow flash? And what is Back button focus? This week has also been the big European photographic trade show, Photokina, held in Germany, one year I will have sufficient time and money to go …..
Still, daydreaming aside, what is front curtain, rear curtain and slow synch flash? Flash, aka strobes, aka those lighty things, is an area that is both technical and often ignored by the amateur. Yet it is one of the most effective accessories we can purchase. After all most of us have one built into our cameras, even if it does get overlooked most of the time. There is more to this than we will look at here, indeed we will visit this in a future blog, but for now we will explore the question that was put concerning these three often found menu options.
For this specific question we do not have to differentiate between off camera flash (or strobes if you prefer) and on camera (that is pop-up or otherwise built in). The reason behind this is that this is a specific question of the firing order of the flash in relation to the curtain or shutter. Mostly this is done off the position of what is known as the front curtain. The majority of cameras have a two curtain (shutter) set up. This enables faster shutter speeds, the flash synch speed of your camera is actually around about the fastest speed that the whole of the sensor is exposed. Otherwise it is exposed through a slit formed by the front and the rear shutter curtains moving across the sensor plane at a fixed distance apart. The faster the shutter speed the closer the gap.
If you expose using a strobe/flash unit above the flash synchronisation speed you get a dark band of varying width according to the shutter speed as the duration of a flash is extremely short. Because the lens projects things upside down onto the sensor and the shutters move from top to bottom this band will appear from the bottom upwards. Not so much of a problem if you only need light at the top of the frame, but not actually something that is easy to fine control both because of the position of the shutter at any given time and how much darker the rest of the frame is.
So why have a front curtain flash and a rear curtain flash? It’s to do with the motion blur in the frame and where the pulse of light freezes that in time. The least subtle explanation, nonetheless one that actually holds true, is that you use front shutter curtain to freeze the action. You might use your maximum shutter synch speed (often automatically set but that depends upon make and model of your camera body) to give yourself the maximum chance of freezing the action. You use the rear shutter curtain and, usually, a lower shutter speed to freeze the foreground and retain some motion blur in the scene. And slow synch flash? Well that is an automatic camera mode that forces a slower shutter speed and synchronises the flash. You can get some very different looking results from the same scene using these variations. As ever, try it out for yourself.
Back button focusing, once you’ve tried it you will never go back. At least that is what its fans say and there is no denying that it is a very useful tool. We looked at this on the blog last August viz “Back Button Focusing (refer to your manual for the native translation in your Camera’s Brand-Speak) does exactly what it says on the incredibly expensive magnesium alloy tin, or plastic camera body as befits your pockets/needs/delusions of grandeur. It is a button on the back of your camera body that activates the camera’s focusing system in isolation from the shutter release. When you operate via the shutter release a half pressure triggers the autofocusing system (assuming you are not mounting a manual lens) and a full depress activates the shutter release. Usually the shutter will not fire until the camera processor detects all the algorithms are in place to produce a point of focus and an acceptable circle of confusion (i.e. something is in focus …). The button itself is usually marked AF or a version thereof and is normally accessible with the right thumb (I’ve never seen one on the left but then I haven’t conducted a survey in any depth). And it’s on the back of the camera.”
Yeah, that is what it is but what use is it? Well first off there is the fact that, whilst depressed, the AF button means that you hold whatever it is you have focused on. In the automatic modes focus shifts when you shift what you are looking at, which can be time consuming. In order to keep the focusing, for instance if you want to shift the main point of focus to the edge of the frame and blur the background. You might want to add to that you can use the continuous mode (AF-C or AF-Servo depending on your camera body manufacturer) of focusing on your camera when following action and use the AF button to freeze the most advantageous point (takes some practice but worth the effort with a high degree of movement in the frame). Or basically no more having to focus every time you let go of the shutter which takes time and can mean that you loose your shot. Annoying when it was already in focus the last time you half depressed the shutter.
So now you know. Next meeting is Table Top photography, a practical so bring your cameras and tripods. Maybe your flashes too!