Category: Technical

Light and the human face

February 20th, 2012 — 8:22am

The human face is remarkable in its ability to express emotions. Sometimes a slight change in a muscle  takes the face from inescrutable to open and friendly. We people photographers are in the business of externally describing a person’s uniqueness. To do that we use several different approaches: eliciting different facial expressions, placing our subjects in a location that says something about them, and sometimes we simply use light to help us define personality and character.  Neither one of which is normally visible, but can be brought to the surface by the power of light to define moods.  Mood is not the same as personality, of course, but when we create a mood with light and other photographic symbols, the viewer infers something about the sitter’s personality from visual cues.

Consider this portrait that i created today:

Dramatic headshot

Dramatic headshot

Here the light, black and white finishing, and, of course, the serious expression, combine to create a more dramatic, theatrical headshot.  This is not a portrait of a pretty face, but an actor’s face showing character.   The light creates darks shadows on the face while chiseling it with highlights.

A completely different headshot is presented here below:

Sensitive headshot

Sensitive headshot

I use the word “sensitive” with this headshot because the drama and strong character present in the previous photo are gone; here we have a color headshot, using softer light and in color.  Plus the orientation is horizontal instead of vertical.  The subject is here presenting a softer, more sensitive side.

When I work on a portrait or headshot for an actor, we discuss ahead of time the type of images we want to create, to make sure we’re both on the same page as to the concept and what’s required to bring it to life.

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Finding and making light

February 19th, 2012 — 2:40pm

My apologies to my poor blog, I have neglected you for almost a year.  And I didn’t even make a New Year’s resolution to keep you up to date! But I found some time today waiting for a shoot and decided to update it with a short entry.  This will make it psychologically easier to add more interesting entries.

As a photographer my raw material is light.  Light falls on my subjects and is reflected by them in interesting ways… it is this reflected light that is captured by my camera’s sensor and creates an image.  Some subjects are greedy and keep the light they receive - black surfaces are the worst.  Some subjects are very generous and give back most of the light that falls on them… blinding snow is an example of such a surface.   People as subjects are somewhere in between,  reflecting a percentage of the light they receive.  It is up the photographer to use light in a way that says something about his or her subjects.

I divide light into two categories based on how this light happens.  The first category is what I call “found” light - it’s light that is out there, free for me to choose and use.  Found light is all around us - the photographer’s job is to keep his eyes open to find it and then use it well.  Found light is a gift, and my most favorite type of light! One of the reasons I like it is that I don’t need to carry any type of lighting equipment, just my eyes and my camera.   Found light can also be weak, or hard to get to…. it can be beautiful but with the wrong direction for what we need… so… it’s often the case that found light can be tricky to harness.

The other category of light is manufactured light.  This is the light that we create or bend for our purposes.  Found light can be transformed into manufactured light using light modifiers - for example a mirror manufactures light by reflecting the sun in a very concentrated and intense way.  Or a studio lamp simply creates light when there is no sun, using electricity as its power source.   Photographers tend to either love manufactured light or despise it.  How come?  Manufactured light in the hands of a competent photographer allows creating a vast range of options and feelings - from low key drama to high key energy.  On the other hand, when the photographer hasn’t mastered the principles of light, flash can be a frustrating experience and horrid pictures.   It really pays to learn to manufacture light and doing it helps us tell our stories.

Photographers don’t need to limit themselves to either type of light - in some cases we use both at the same time - we find nice light, but we add to it, or change it to suit our purposes.   This is one of the areas of photographic lighting I really enjoy - working on location with available light but imparting my personality and vision to the subject by incorporating manufacturing light as well.

In this blog entry I give an example of found light and another of manufactured light.  Then I offer a third example of mixed found and manufactured light.

Found light at the gym

Found light at the gym

This example above shows a location image lit only by a row of windows in front of the stationary exercise bikes.  The light on the older gentleman is beautiful and, with the camera focus, helps make him the main subject of the image.  The other subject is the gym and people using it - this subject is the environment where the main subject is placed.  The light here is protagonist and a key ingredient of the story - it highlights, pardon the pun, our subject.

Dramatic studio light

And here above is an example of studio lighting, all of it is manufactured. The studio flashes are carefully positioned to create a style that reminds us of TV from the 1950’s.  Also, the quality of the light, with darker shadows helps create a ’studio’ feel,  as opposed to a normal, naturally lit space.

Manufactured light mixed with found light

This third and final image is an example of a hybrid lighting approach.  The light hitting the skyscrapers, the flag, the streets is sunlight, either direct sun or in the shade.  But the light that makes the model stand out is a flash positioned to camera light; it is the light that creates the catchlights on her sunglasses, pretending to be the direct sun - she was actually in the blueish shade, but the flash makes her stand out.

There you have it, different types of lights for different uses.

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The bayblade warrior

March 20th, 2011 — 9:12pm

The bayblade warrior

If you have a boy in elementary school you probably know about this latest craze, bayblade tournaments played at a small plastic stadium. Bayblades are spinners made of different materials and styles that compete against each other until one or both run out of stamina. It’s quite fun.

My boy asked me to take a cool photo of him playing bayblades, after our trip to Target to get one. His stadium is bright orange and semi translucent, so that gave me the idea of making a picture with an orange theme. Here is the result, and details on the lighting follow:

This image was created using four portable flashes:

  1. The key light is an old SB-24 with a home made snoot made out of cinema foil pointing down at him from camera left. That’s creating the light on his face and his right hand. It’s harsh light hence the dark nose shadow.
  2. There is a background light, another SB-24 with a Roscolux orange filter pointing up and towards the black foam core background about three feet behind Pablo.
  3. The third light is a SB800 actually under the stadium shining thru it. To make this happen I have the stadium resting on a large cardboard box with a circular hole I cut, slightly smaller than the stadium. I have a flash inside the box pointing up and sending light thru a piece a rip stop nylon taped to the hole. This light is creating the glow around the bayblade stadium.
  4. Finally there is another SB800 with a piece of cinema foil as a flat snoot projecting light to illuminate the Bayblade brand name - without this light the light shining from behind would have made the sign quite orange, and I wanted it to be visible.

There you have, a bayblade warrior at play! 

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Emotions and light

January 26th, 2011 — 1:08pm

We as photographers use light as our main ingredient for image making.  Without light there is no photograph, and light plays a very direct role in the emotional response one has to an image.   At the most basic level light is necessary for a correct exposure, but the impact of light and lighting on the making of a photograph goes much the physics of image making and into the message and emotional content of the photo.   Depending on the quality of the light, harsh or soft, shadowless, or dramatic, concentrated or filling, a portrait produces very different impressions on the viewer.

In addition to light at the time of exposure,  color and tonal manipulation as part of digital processing are critical elements in defining the mood of a photograph.   Hard contrast, combined with hard light, creates a raw feeling, whereas soft, low contrast light is soothing and pretty.

I show a couple of examples here from a recent shoot.

Pretty headshot

Pretty headshot

This first image above uses delicately soft light created with a very large octagonal softbox.  Note how shadows are low contrast and soft, while at the same time the light contours the shape of the face and produces a pleasant impression of three-dimensionality or volume.  The message that the simple composition, designer glasses and carefully done makeup send is that of calmness, self-confidency and beauty.



This second image above of the same model is the opposite.  A white background is used, but instead of using soft, gentle light, harsh lights have been used - they generate high contrast shadows projected against the white background.  The shadows are not only very visible, but the upper body shadow is disjointed from the lower body shadow, as two different flash heads were used for this effect.  The gradation of light to shadow on her face is really harsh, almost as an illustration - due to additional contrast added in postprocessing.  The mood here is drama and raw sensuality, as opposed to soft femininity.

The photographer can use light to help define the emotional content of a photograph, not only to create the exposure.   The “quality” of light is decisive in defining the mood of an image.

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Lighting Workshop in Plano

January 20th, 2010 — 9:15am

I am offering my second lighting workshop in Plano at the end of February.  The details are available here.

There are many workshops out there.  There are excellent workshops on studio lighting for portraiture, on using portable flashes, and, of course, on doing weddings and seniors.  My lighting workshop is a bit different in that it’s more focused on the principles of lighting, across both natural and man-made lights,  with practical application to multiple situations, both in the studio and on location.   Light is light, regardless of whether it’s the sun, house lamps, powerful strobes,  ceiling flourescent tubes, or work lights, but each has different attributes - but a proactive photographer that knows how to see and control light will be able to apply a small set of principles to almost any situation to get the results he or she wants.

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Constructing an image from an idea

January 20th, 2010 — 9:06am

An idea came to mind while my daughter was practicing her piano. I envisioned a cozy little space where she’s reading quietly, with a color palette that overlapped cool and warm colors. I wanted to show her as a little person that was almost ready to have her own space.

The problem is that there is no space like that in the house-walls are mostly off white, the furniture in her room is off-white… not exactly what I had in mind. So I challenged myself to construct this cozy, intimate space for her, and then bring her in and make the portrait.

One more thing I wanted to do was to experiment with props in the foreground - I was really impressed with how Mark Robert Halper uses the foreground plane as a creative element - this image is a good example. So I used her blue lava lamp to bring the cool color palette and also the foreground element. I moved her night stand to bring the lava lamp closer to the camera.

In order to achieve the cozy space idea I took a hand-woven orange patterned blanket we just bought in Peru and threw it over her bed’s headboard. Christina was also going to sit on this blanket, which would bring the warm colors to the composition.

The lighting was straightforward. I placed an SB-800 flash with a 20 degree grid on a light stand to camera right, in a near-butterfly position. Because I wasn’t using a modeling light, I instructed my little model to spot correct placement of the grid on her face, and to help me position the light. In order to get the blue very blue, and the orange more saturated, I decided to put 2 cuts of full CTO on the flash. When I adjusted white balance in post, I went for a warm tone that made the blue bluer.

And the only thing left was camera placement to have the lava lamp well present but without dominating the entire frame. It took a few trials - I used a tripod even though I was shooting at 1/160 or so. The lens was 85mm f/1.4.

My little one was an excellent model, patient with light placement. I like the results - hope she does too when she sees her portrait in the morning. I think I got pretty close to the image I previsualized.

Click on the thumbnails below to see a larger image:

Reading moment

Reading moment


Lighting diagram

Lighting diagram

3 comments » | Technical

Working with Siri today

November 21st, 2009 — 11:38pm

Here is an image from today. The key light is produced by a gridded beauty dish, which produces this beautiful shadow around her neck and doesn’t spill light all over the model. The other interesting aspect is the use of rim lights on each side, as I wanted to have some control of where the rim highlights would be. So lots of lights, but the effect is pretty simple, and hopefully does not appear over-lit.

Lovely Siri and her attitude

Lovely Siri and her attitude

1 comment » | Technical

Old Hollywood lights

November 1st, 2009 — 1:01am

This evening I spent some time photographing an old-style 10 inch Bardwell-McAlister fresnel light. I am doing some old Hollywood glamour work with it and wanted to photograph it for a promotional card and also because it’s beautiful in its old fashioned way. This instrument was converted into a 2000 ws flash head by Norman years ago.

Here is how I photographed the fresnel. First, I turned the fresnel’s modeling light on to maximum power. Then I used two SB800 flashes to illuminate the sides of the fresnel. I had the flashes gelled with full CTO to match the color of the modeling light, just in case I wanted to use the color versions of these images. Since the main purpose was to create black and white images, white balance doesn’t really matter.

On the first image I used an exposure of 1/2 second at f/8. Only one SB800 portable flash is used here, with a 10 degree grid, pointing to the back of the lamp. The fresnel produced the pattern of light on a black 4×8 foam core board. I like the light escaping from the top, bottom and back. I didn’t use any fill on this image.

On this second image I did use two flashes plus the light coming from the fresnel. There is a flash without any modifier about three feet in front of the fresnel, centered on the lens, and pointing to it. This flash illuminates the front of the head. There is another flash with a 10 degree grid positioned behind the head and throwing the rim light you see to camera right. I liked the cinematic effect of having that light rimmed and not pointing directly to the side of the fresnel. Exposure was 1/50s at f/8.

The third image is more conventional and I used two flashes throwing harsh light as for the second one. You can tell where they are placed but looking a the shadows projected on the body of the lamp by the hardware sticking out. The exposure was 1/13 sec at f/8.

It was fun illuminating a light.

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Turn a white background black

October 12th, 2009 — 9:20am

On Saturday I taught a seminar on lighting at my home studio. At the end of the day I did this exercise to show how a photographer can totally change the mood of an image using lighting, and also how the same background can be lit differently to support the mood we want.

Picture #1 - white background illuminated with two bounce umbrellas, one on each side. The model is being lit by a very large softbox to camera left, with the fill being a large white reflector to camera light. The ratio between key and fill was 2/3 of a f-stop. Note how the white background, the open, diffuse lighting and the dress all convey an upbeat mood.

Picture #2 – same WHITE background, but with no light on it. I propped a 4×8 black foam core board on top of two folding doors to prevent the light from bouncing from the white ceiling and giving me a medium gray tone above her head – I wanted a dark, low key image with a certain monumentality created by the position of the camera and the wide ange of the lens. Almost mystical. The key light was a beauty dish with a 40 degree grid on it very close to her face. The fill was a strobe with a 7 in reflector right next to the camera, in front of her – to open the shadows on the black garment. There was also another strobe behind her, low, pointing up to her back, to create a little separation between her and the background.

The exercise shows how to turn a white background into black - simply remove light from falling on it. In order for the beauty dish to not throw light onto the background, I had to position it very close to the model so that I would expose correctly for the light falling on her face, while at the same time, the light falloff was very rapid and hence light didn’t reach the white.

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Using ambient light

March 12th, 2009 — 9:02am

I was asked at a photography forum how to choose and use ambient light for photography - how to make good images with the light that exists on location.  One thing to keep in mind is that “ambient light” and “light control” are not incompatible. As a photographer you can be reactive and use the light as you find it, which is easy, or be proactive and use ambient as the raw material, but not the finished light for your photographs. On the images above I use some light as I found it, and I also controlled it, see below.

  • Natural light can be colored, just like flash light when it’s reflected by a non-white surface - so that’s the first thing to worry about. If the enviroronment is reflecting colored light, getting the white balance right is going to be critical. I always use a gray card as a reference.
  • Northern light has a very beautiful quality - so pay attention to the orientation of the window you’re using, and pick northern light if you can.
  • It’s important to understand the relationship between the value of the background and that of your main subject. By value I mean the brightness. If you place a diffusor between the subject and the source of illumination, you’ll have a subject with a lower value than the background, which means that when you adjust the exposure to be correct on the subject, the background will be lighter. This is great for high key portraits, but not so good if you’re looking for a low key mood. The opposite is true is you use a reflector to raise the value of the subject but not the background.
  • Flat natural light can be a problem - while diffused light will be better than high noon, it can also produce blueish, dead skin tone. There is also the issue of not having hair highlights with flat lighting. There are two solutions to these problems. First, get the white balance right by using a gray card. Second, you can pump some light onto the hair using a mirror. You can even diffuse mirror light usng a diffusor like a light panel. And of course sometimes it’s best to mix ambient and flash. For example if you cannot reflect sunlight on the hair, you can use a portable flash.
  • You have to be aware of a sensor’s ability to capture a range of values, or its dynamic range. Ambient light make look good to your eyes, but the dynamic range of most cameras will not be more than 6 f-stops, which means that you’ll get blown out highlights or really dark areas, depending on how you expose, if the dynamic range is greater than a few f-stops. The solution is to use a long lens if you can to reduce the amount of ambient in the background, or supplement ambient with flash.
  • Most of what I know about controlling light I have learned thru Dean Collins’s teachings. There are some really good DVDs out there if you’re really interested.
  • Ultimately light control is the same whether the light is ambient or created. The tools can be the same, and the ideas are the same. There is no reason why you can’t use butterfly lighting, short lighting, or Rembrandt lighting with natural light. You need to train yourself to see the right as the digital sensor sees it. So a good approach is to use ambient light, but control it as you would studio light. Sometimes you get light and you don’t need to control it.

Edit: I forgot, sometimes I use a 1/4 or 1/2 CTO gel on a portable flash used for fill outdoors. This allows me to compensate for blue color casts under trees, and produces a warm, healthy skin tone. I posted an example of that here.

Edit 2: The three first images would have benefited from using a small, portable plastic mirrr bouncing window light back on her hair. I had someone there that could have held the mirror in place for me. Oh well, I will remember it next time. I keep a log of all my mistakes, and I am very proud of them :-)

One more thing about using ambient light combined with flash - it’s important to decide which is the key light, and which is fill. Then set the exposure for the key light, and set the intensity of fill to be less than the key. Here are a couple of examples.

Case 1 - Sun is key light, flash is fill. This is the most common case in bright days - rely on the camera/flash built-in fill flash capabilities, or do it manually. The advantage of using an advanced flash system like Nikon’s CLS is that you can increase the shutter speed to control depth of field with an open aperture. If you want to do this manually, measure ambient light to decide how bright you want the background, and then measure again with the fill flash set to manual, and set the exposure accordingly. For example.

Ambient light measures at f/16 and 1/125, typical of a sunny day.
Set the flash to 1/2 power for example, and place it close to the subject - let’s assume you get f/16, combined exposure of flash and ambient.
If you want the background to be less dominant, change the shutter speed to 1/250 to darken it, and keep the aperture at f/16.

It’s a good idea to place a warming gel on the flash to achieve more natural skin tones, especially if the day is cloudy or you’r shooting under trees. Note also that if you’re shooting manually, you can’t go over the maximum sync speed provided by your camera/flash, normally 1/250, so apertures are going to be small and you can’t really control the depth of field unless you use neutral density filters.

Case 2-Flash is key, ambient is fill. This case is a bit different, as the flash will produce most of the illumination on the subject, and ambient will illuminate the background. The aperture controls the amount of light falling on the subject, and the shutter speed controls the exposure on the background. Again, you can rely on automatic camera/flash controls, or you can do it manually. For manual operation, measure the ambient first to get an idea of what shutter speed you need, for a certain aperture. Then set the flash to give you that same aperture. For example:

Ambient measures f/5.6 and 1/30 - say a restaurant.
Set the flash to 1/2 power and measure exposure, let’s say it’s f/8. You want shallow DoF, so lower the flash power to 1/4 to get an exposure of f/5.6, then set the shutter speed to 1/30 to capture ambient light.

Case 3 - overpowering the sun. This is the technique where your flash is main, and the sun is fill, but the sun is very bright, brighter than the light produced by a small flash. For example f/16 and 1/125 sunlight, and you want to underexpose by two f-stops, for a dramatic dark blue sky. This means that you need to shoot at f/32 1/125 or f/22 1/250. Let’ say you want three f-stop underexposure on the sun, so you’ll need to shoot at f/32 and 1/250. Now you’ll have to illuminate your main subject with enough flash power to produce f/32 light. This is a lot of light, and you probably need 1000 watt-sec or more, depending on how close the flash is, what light modifiers you use, etc. While you may want to rely on Nikon CLS to do this, remember that the intensity of the flash at 1/2000 is really not that much, but you may be able to do it if the flash is very close to the subject and the aperture quite open.

That’s is, no more technical stuff for a while!

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