Saturday, 19 September 2009

Victorian Photography

I had an interesting brief for a shoot a little while back. As part of a makeup course, a student was required to do a theme based around victorian times. The initial thought was sepia toned, semi-blurry images which looked really authentic, but I felt that wasn't going to show the makeup off particularly well, and as you may have guessed, I'm a bit of a colour junkie, so it wasn't happening.

So I suggested an alternative look with a 16:9 format of image to look like film or television drama, and an overall feel to the image to go with that. Well, the idea got the go ahead, and after a little discussion we came up with a good location for the shoot in the grounds of a victorian house.

I decided as a bit of a change to do something more in the way a victorian photographer would have worked. Luckily I didn't have a half tonne victorian camera so I had to be a bit limited in my victorian approach, but I wanted to try my best to be otherwise consistent. The main option available to victorian photographers was controlled available light. In fact, very little has changed in the way that reflectors are used nowadays. I gained a lot of insight from the image of a studio contained in this page (external link).

So having decided I was going to work only with reflectors, we then found a spot at a small gateway on the grounds of the house.

I placed two reflectors out on the grass in front of the gate reflecting the sunlight (which was coming from above/behind the gate) back towards the gate.

This first image is from behind the gate with roughly the view the model would have, albeit from in front of the gate.

This second image shows the reflectors more clearly.

This was the resulting shot. You can see the reflectors have balanced the light reasonably on the model's face and zoomed in it's possible to see she has nice catchlights too.

The downside of the shot is that she has very harsh sunlight on her very light hair and white dress. My first option was to move her a little further back towards the gate, so she was more in the shade of the trees. This worked to an extent, but there were still spots of light filtering through the trees and giving her very bright hotspots.

I decided the only option was to block the direct sunlight, so I moved the reflector which was further away and only lit her with the closest reflector. This meant a slightly more directional light source with more contrast across her face, but still with plenty of ambient fill from the rest of the sky. With the second reflector, I removed its cover meaning it became a translucent disc. I stuck it fully up on the stand to about 12 feet and got the makeup artist to support it at an angle so it could block the sunlight and stay out of the shot. Having people about saves a lot of hassle with boom arms and large amounts of ballast!

You can see in the following image that the light is now much more balanced, with soft light on her hair through the translucent disc above and behind her, and reflected light from the reflector out in front.

It was a bit of an interesting experiment to work purely with reflectors for a day, because I'm usually putting together large lighting setups. There are some limitations of the approach though.

The first is sunlight. Depending on where you live, it's not exactly something you can rely on. Reflectors act like a great light source on a bright sunny day, but are extremely subtle on a dull day. If you need great light no matter what the weather, reflectors aren't the solution.

The second is squinting models. You turn two of these reflectors (even just a white one) towards a model on a very hot sunny day and you get a reaction similar to a vampire trying to escape the burning light. Flash happens so quickly that models don't suffer too much for the art, so there's no squinting or running eyes.

One advantage on the other hand is that you never run out of power to compete with sunlight. The brighter the day gets, the brighter your reflectors become as a light source.

Another advantage (and conceivably disadvantage) is weight. You get a nice big light source without having a back breaking amount of kit. The downside is that being big and lightweight, they have a fantastic ability to go wind-powered wanders, so if there's much wind at all you'll need ballast or humans to hold them in place. That said, if you have a calm day and get a sudden gust, you're not having to worry about hundreds of pounds worth of lighting equipment falling over and being damaged.