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.

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