Monday, April 25, 2011

Setting the Stage: Lighting Your Subject (Part I)

Light is the most important aspect of photography, hands down. A photographic image is a recording of light, so without it, you won't have any pictures to show for your work. Your choice in lighting can change the mood and message of your images, so it's very important to keep it in mind when you're working.

Always be sure to do tests and check your progress. There's nothing worse than to shoot a long session, and realize that the lighting was inadequate or simply wrong.

In this particular post, I will address the basics of some of the most common kinds of light that you have available when shooting photos.

Bright lighting fixtures can create halos if you don't pay attention!
Environmental Light
Whether you're indoors or out, chances are you have a light source already on hand. Work with what you have, and augment from there. If you're shooting outside, try to avoid doing so during the dead middle of the day, as that is when the harshest shadows are created. There are many methods of countering these shadows, including fill flash and reflectors, which we will get to in short order. However, for the simplest set-up, it's best to avoid mid-day photos.

Taking portrait photos on an overcast day is ideal, as it diffuses the light and keeps your model from having harsh shadows anywhere on her (or his!) face. If you want to maximize interesting shadows, try to aim for shooting towards the early morning or near dusk. These are the times of day when shadows are "longest", and you get a wider spectrum of color. There's a reason sunset and sunrise imagery is so popular in photography!

Another thing to remember, similar to avoiding mid-day lighting, is to try not to shoot with direct overhead fixtures. Light that shines straight down from above shadows the eyes of your subject, creates a harsher nose, and hides the lips. It can also create very dark, unflattering shadows under the jaw and chin. To counter these shadows, again, you can utilizes reflectors or fill flashes. You can also turn off overhead fixtures in favor of ones set off to the side.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you want to show the details of your model's face or attire, try to avoid back-lighting without the assistance of reflectors or fill flash. A back-lit subject can make for an interesting silhouette, but you run the risk of having severe archiving and overexposure of your background if you try to bring the figure into the light.

A hot shoe flash can also be converted to
a remote flash if necessary.
Shooting with a Flash
There are many different kinds of flashes available to you for use, but the most common on basic digital camera is the in-built flash. On point-and-click cameras, the flash usually is built flush the body of the camera and is visible whether or not you're using it. On DSLR models, the flash is generally directly above the lens and remains folded down in front of the hot shoe unless in use.

These types of built-in flash can give you a bit of a hand in dark areas as a fill, but tend to create very sharp shadows and also can cause red-eye in portraits. For formal shots, they're not really your best friend. There are alternatives to these devices and ways to make them work for you, however.

One way to get around using the built-in flash (for DSLR users anyway) is to get a hot shoe mounted flash. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be adjusted and directed in different ways depending on the model. Generally, you can tilt and swivel the flash as you need. These flashes are great for use as fill flash.

A fill flash is an effect rather than an actual item. The way it works is that when you have a subject which is strongly back-lit, you fire the flash to brighten them up in front. You can use a direct flash (which often creates harsh shadows), or bounce the flash off of something else (such as a wall, ceiling or reflector). It allows you to get a brighter shot of your subject's face (meaning the surface facing the camera) without overexposing your background too heavily.

If you can't avoid using your built-in flash, you can have your model look away from the camera entirely, or else to look a few millimeters away from the lens, which will help avoid red eye. The slight shift in angle helps avoid capturing the reflection of the flash on the retina. Remember too that some cameras have red eye reduction functions and you can always edit the issue later if necessary.

Studio flash stock photo by Edwin Stemp (estemp).
Studio Lighting
The most common type of studio light that people think of is a strobe. They're the ones that do just what their name says they do: flash very fast. There are different ways to set off a studio strobe, but the least expensive ones which you see used by photographers "remote" or "slave" lights, which are set off by using a "master" or "commander" flash. The commander flash can either be mounted to the camera on the hot shoe, built into the camera itself or tethered with a control wire.

Sometimes, all remote flashes will be wire tethered, which helps reduce timing inconsistencies and allows for more accurate metering.

There are two types of strobes: the first is basically the same kind of flash that you mount on your camera (a hot shoe flash), but when mounted on a lighting stand, they have a different effect due to positioning. The second type is larger, and more powerful.

The other kind of light commonly used in a studio is called a "hot light". They're called that because, quite simply, they get hot while in use. They're sort of like spot lights in that they provide a consistent, constantly available illumination, so that you can see how the shadows affect your subject right off the bat. In general, hot lights are not quite as bright as strobes.

Both types of studio lights have a variety of attachments that you can use to alter the way that they hit your subject. These include (but are not limited to) colored gels, soft boxes, relfectors and umbrellas.

Reflector booms allow you to position
reflectors without extra assistance.
A reflector is any object that you use to bounce light.

More specifically, reflectors in photography are tools that allow you to bring more light into your photo to balance dark spots. They are your secondary light source. Reflectors come in many sizes, shapes and styles. Most commercial reflectors are collapsible for easy transport.

Most commonly, reflectors come in three shapes: triangular reflectors which are easy to hold one handed and square or round reflectors which require an assistant or a boom and lighting stand to hold them. Generally reflectors are either "polished" (they reflect more direct rays, which create bolder highlights) or matte (these break up and scatter the light, resulting in softer highlights). They also come in a variety of colors.

Each color has different purposes and is appropriate for different types of light:
  • Gold reflectors create a warm tone.
  • White and silver create a neutral tone: white is more frequently matt than polished. A"diffuser reflector", made of a thinner material which allows light to filter through. These are a white reflector that is semi translucent; these create the softest reflections.
  • Blue reflectors create a cool tone. 
  • Black reflectors absorb light, and allow for rich shadows with subtle highlights.
Typically, reflectors are at their most effective when used outside to help break up harsh shadows caused by bright, direct light on your subject's face or figure. They're used in studio settings as well as natural lighting and prevent your black areas from loosing detail.

It takes practice, but it really helps to use the reflectors to break up dark areas on your subject's face. Move the reflectors around to see how the changes affect your metering and the composition of the image. Don't be afraid to get in close with the reflectors, either. If you're shooting a portrait and getting in close with the camera, try bringing the reflector in closer as well. For those tight shots, smaller, triangular reflectors are ideal as they're easier to handle.

You can find reflectors online or in just about any photography store. You can also purchase kits which include reflector sets (typically a 3-in-1 or 5-in-1 reflector, lighting stand and reflector boom). 

Photo Equipment Dealers:
If you're interested in purchasing any of the formal equipment discussed in this post, check out B&H, Adorama, Calumet Photo, and Pro Studio Supply. Of these four, I highly recommend B&H and Adorama. They regularly have sales and specials and also have specialty lighting kits for all levels of experience.

You can also check your area for photography shops to get more information in person. Sometimes, handling the equipment will give you a better idea of what you want, or even result in more questions. Just don't be shy about asking for help, the staff are there to lend a hand!



I've looked at equipment on eBay and it looks cheaper, but it also looks really risky x_X

focusing the lens

@ Ada: There are a few shops on eBay I've been really tempted to try out! I've had some good luck with Amazon on small things (filters and a remote), so that may be a good place to start if eBay has you leery!

Miss Lumpy

This was an excellent post! I've been wanting to learn more about lighting for photography for a very long time, so I'm definitely going to keep this article bookmarked for when I can invest in some equipment.

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