Sunday, 30 December 2012

Types of light

So, to start things off again, not really a practical post here... more of a thought post.

Have you ever really thought about the different types of light? I don't mean tungsten, daylight etc. Rather, more generally, the broad forms of lighting which can result in a final image?

It's obvious, but I think it still bears thinking about:

1. Ambient light
2. Ambient minus Controllable Ambient
3. Ambient minus Controllable Ambient plus Flash
4. Flash alone (which is really just a version of the one above)

1. Ambient light

In any non-studio situation, I'll always look to make the ambient light do the heavy lifting for the lighting of an image. If you want to light with ambient though, you've got to start thinking in terms of direction and quality of light. Positioning a model next to a window is the classic example of doing this. This step, when done well, is the first step to rising above the everyday photographer who just clicks a photo of what is in front of him or her, without thought about how to improve the quality and direction of the light.

2. Ambient minus Controllable Ambient

The next stage is thinking about how you can control your ambient. This can give you a touch more flexibility than purely the idea of moving into good light. So what can this mean? Example might be to switch off lights and purely use daylight through a window. It might be equally to close a window, and purely use internal lighting. Similarly, using a diffuser in front of a window which is streaming direct sunlight into a building would be another example. I'd also include the use of a reflector in this, where the reflector is reflecting ambient light. This step is the first step to moving on from being a basic ambient light photographer, to being someone who crafts and controls the light around them. This is a fundamental step to great photography.

3. Ambient minus Controllable Ambient plus Flash

This further stage is where it really starts to get interesting. You now have the power to control ambient light almost completely, subject to having sufficiently powerful lighting. Subtlety is the absolute key here though, and it should always be your approach to work through step 1 and step 2 before coming to step 3, although I do have a habit of jumping to step 3 then working backwards when speed is important. I've called step 3 the addition of "Flash" but it's any light source. For most photographers now, that'll mean flash, but for many it can mean constant sources of light such as Tungsten, Halogen, HMI, Fluorescent etc.

The fundamental point to step 3 is the fact that suddenly you're adding new light that wasn't there when you walked onto the location. This can be immensely subtle, such as a small hair light or background light just to bring a subject out, although they're still lit by ambient light in the main.

But sometimes subtlety isn't what you're after, and that's the exciting thing about adding your own light. Suddenly you have the opportunity to build light on top of ambient light, and by doing so, you're controlling the level of ambient. I've found people seem to have trouble with this, so I thought I'd try the approach of this bar graph:

Think of the height of the graph as your overall exposure. If you underexpose, your bars wouldn't reach the top of the graph, and if you overexposed, the bars would go right over the top of the graph. This graph simply assumes there is a correct desired exposure of some form which is indicated when the bars accurately touch the very top of the graph.

So as you can see, if you're only using ambient light such as on the left bar, then it's contributing 100% to your exposure. However, as you add flash power progressively, you can see that the level of contribution from the ambient is decreased. The reality is that you're adding flash power then adjusting the camera to correct for it, which is thereby reducing the ambient light taken in.

You should now see that there is a fantastic opportunity to use a flash light as key and ambient as fill. If you want subtle flash effects, you only slightly overpower the ambient light and it should have a "clean ambient" feel to it, while if you want a contrasty and dark feel, then you significantly overpower the ambient light with flash. Another way to think of it is that you have absolute control of the contrast ratio between your flash and the ambient, right up to the available power of your flash. The more contrasty you want the scene, the more you overpower the ambient, and thereby reduce the fill light coming from ambient.

4. Flash alone

Flash alone is slightly a myth. If you had enough light to focus your camera, then there is likely some form of ambient. Essentially though, this would be studio photography, where you're working in a dark room with ambient heavily overpowered by studio flashes. Why is there a distinct difference here? Well it's a whole different ballgame, because you're suddenly in the position of doing all the work with no ambient to do the heavy lifting. As such, it becomes more about light modifiers, reflectors, diffusers etc.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Pocket Wizard Webinar

For anyone interested in Multiple Off-Camera Flash using the new TTL Pocket Wizard system, there's a webinar on in 30 minutes from when this is posted (for anyone who happens to read this soon enough!)

Monday, 5 December 2011

Ambient vs. Lit

I'm very much a photographer of the lighting orthodox. I come prepared with a vehicle full of gear, lug what I need to where I'm taking a photo, and then spend the next 20+ mins getting set up for the shot. That's what I do, and that's how I get the results that I get.

But sometimes you have limited or no ability to carry large amounts of gear. Perhaps you have a very rushed job which allows you only a few minutes to "get the shot" or perhaps you are travelling and are living out a couple of bags, one of which has to travel on your back with ALL your gear in it?

Well I recently did a shoot where I had limited gear because of the hike to get to the place on foot. I took my standard camera backpack, a light stand, a brolly and a reflector.

Of course, being me, I started out with the light stand and a flashgun on it. Taking control of ambient light and pushing it down into submission as subtle fill, and I got this image:

You can see that the flash is providing the harsh light from the left of camera, with distinct shadows (under her chin etc.), while ambient light is providing a little gentle fill. Don't get me wrong, it isn't a "bad" image, but it doesn't really inspire me.

So I decided that I could either flog the dead horse, or try changing things up a little. This is normally where I'd hit the kit bag and drag out some more gear and play in ever more intricate ways, but in this case, I was out of gear! You'll note I was in a woodland area, so I decided to make more use of ambient light for the shot, so I turned her round about 90 degrees, and brought her more into an open area, to take this shot. Still a harsh light hitting her hair to bring out colour and texture, but a very soft skylight to give nice light on her face. Suddenly we've gone from the flash doing all the hard work to ambient doing all the hard work, and flash just adding a detail of light.

Now, things were improved significantly in the look of the image, but I still wasn't that taken with the smoothness of the light on her face, aside from the glaring issue of an overexposed flash on camera left.

So basically, I had an ambient light large softbox "on a sky hook boom arm" above the model and slightly to the right and a hard kicker light on camera left. So thinking on those terms, I could move the kicker light, move the model, but couldn't move the softbox (not being god and all), so I opted to move the only two things I could. I wanted the "softbox" above and behind me for a nice soft full look, and I wanted the kicker to be more of a high hairlight. So I got the model to crouch down and look up towards the sky, and positioned the flash to the left and behind her, to become effectively a hair light. This was the result:

Beautiful soft catchlights bringing out her awesome eyes and a nice little kick of flash to bring out the tones and texture in her hair. Sorted!

So moral of the story I guess is to think about what is around you - windows, open areas with trees and any limited area of soft light can be a great softbox, while sunlight can be a great kicker light or hair light when working with ambient light. Sometimes you have to control it, and sometimes you can mix it up with flash, but have a good basic understanding of handling ambient light is just as important as knowing how to light things with your own gear!

Take a look at Mitchell Kanashkevich's work for example - just sit and study the images slideshow on the front of his website:

Think about how he's using limited gear and a lot of understanding of ambient light in order to create these stunning images, even using a fire torch as a keylight in one image. Control of light that you'd be proud of if you set up the lighting gear yourself, but showing great understanding of his surroundings and light sources "to hand" to make these images.

You'll notice he has some ebooks - one of these "Seeing the Light" which I haven't read yet, but from the information provided about it, has some beautiful images and explanations on how he gets his results.

If you want to save a couple of dollars and get another ebook free ("Understanding Post-Processing"), sign up here:

I've also heard from Kevin at that there are some great bargains in the pipeline, so might be worth signing up for the email to see what comes up! It's basically a groupon for photographers.

Monday, 30 May 2011

When does a photographer become a blogger/workshopper?

With the uber-elite of photographic blogging becoming ever more attractive to the legions of fans, it got me thinking, are they in danger of losing what their initial appeal was? Lets face it, would anyone listen to them if they hadn't done their fair share of pounding the beat of commercial/journalistic photography?

I've actually just come back to my feedlist after a few days away, and was just a little dismayed to see a person, who's blog used to really be enjoyable, now filling his blog with a line of endless adverts for his workshops. In other words, he's no longer giving details about his photographic jobs. He's moved fully to the other side and, to be frank, is looking to no longer be a photographer any more. He's a workshopper.

Not that I'm getting at them for doing this - everyone needs to find their niche to earn a crust - but just that I think there's a danger that if you stop being a photographer, your blog and your brand can start to go stale. Then again, it could be worse - you could be too busy being a photographer and your blog be as slow as mine! Anyhow...

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Appropriateness of imagery

Just been having a gander at the strobist site (this entry in particular) and it got me thinking about appropriateness of images.

Note: The following two comments have since disappeared from the site, but they still raise an interesting point

Someone called David (not Hobby) said:

"I think this shot is just awful.

The lighting is far too clever by half and the man looks positively shifty and untrustworthy. It is neither flattering nor interesting

I know it is sacriledge to criticise the sainted strobist, but this is just pants and someone should say so."

This got a highly defensive and sarcastic response from the site author David Hobby:

"Wow, your own work must be TRULY amazing to allow license for that kind of condescending comment. Your photos must make me laugh and cry at the same time. They must speak in several languages at once. I cannot wait to see them."

I find that sometimes photographers, especially those of a strobist persuasion who like to light things, tend to get overly excited about the lighting.

When I personally approach a job, one of my first thoughts is about what the images are trying to say. For example, if I'm shooting a politician, is the end result meant to say that he/she is powerful, strong-willed and in for the long run, or perhaps saying that he/she is welcoming, caring, compassionate and trustworthy?

Having figured out what I'm after, I'll then look at the location, lighting and general styling of the shot to work out how I'm going to shoot it. This is where appropriateness comes in. If I'm after the first option, I might shoot in a dramatic location, make the lighting and post-processing very contrasty, perhaps shoot a lower angle etc. etc.

For the second option, it might be a very much lighter and softer feel, perhaps a shallower depth of field, overall lower contrast feel.

With this in mind, I'm not really saying much about my personal thoughts on the image linked on strobist, but I do feel that the photographer discussing that he wanted to try out a cool idea for lighting and the job allowed him to do so, is somewhat the reverse of the way it should be done.

If anything, I personally think the gridded key light gave a less "holy" feel and a more sinister creepy feel. This isn't to say I dislike the image at all, but I do question the appropriateness of it given this was intended for a local magazine talking about local hospital Chaplains. I'm not so sure that these images would have been a hit with the Chaplains themselves, portraying them in such a dark and moody way.

And as for very defensive photographers, I think we all need to remember that the majority of people who like, or even love our images, are non-photographers, so to suggest that someone who criticises the image must be able to demonstrate their ability to light or photograph better is a bit much. That's like saying that film critics should be able to direct a movie well before they criticise a movie. There may be an argument there, but it certainly doesn't necessarily follow.

Two things that I do agree should be taken from the On Assignment entry though: first that you should always try to come up with a creative and interesting approach to images, no matter how boring the subject, and secondly that testing an idea is very important if you're going to do something a bit off-beat. You don't want to be fiddling trying to get the idea to work while you're on the shoot!