The end of the week and some thoughts about lighting

Sarah. Post swim, in the studio.

I love the control that knowing how to light gives to photographers. The character of light is a big part of the success or failure of an image. But in the same way that cameras have evolved, and styles of shooting have evolved, the way we light is changing and moving forward from project to project. 

For the assignment I wrapped shooting on today I talked an ad agency out of the "easy" way of doing portraits and set myself up for a lot more intense work instead. They had come to me with the idea of making portraits of 30 attorneys in front of a gray background; or something similar to that. The idea was that we'd set up a standard background, maybe three flash units (main light in a big box, an accent light and a background light) and we'd dutifully stand in a naked and boring conference room waiting for a cattle call line of subjects to arrive, smile at the camera, and then leave.  And we would do this over and over again on the first day and then repeat the whole exercise on the second day. 

I'm sorry but I have to say that I think the factory approach to shooting innocuous and unchallenging portraits has seen its day. We can do better than that. We can light better than that. And even though we may work harder getting there, the ride will be much more fun. 

I asked a few weeks back, just after we sat down to estimate the project, if we could do a quick scout. The folks at the law firm were happy to have me look around their space and the firm's contact person (also an ardent photographer) was more than open to the idea of shooting an available light style and doing the set-ups in different locations around the offices. They have brand new
offices with lots of translucent glass walls and really great furniture. It turned out to be a lovely place to shoot.

BUT... when I say we shot in an available light style the emphasis is on the word, "style." No working space, with mixed lighting coming down from the ceilings and ample amounts of daylight coming in from floor to ceiling windows, can actually be shot in with good results without modifying or remediating the existing light and adding in prettier light to boot. Portraiture wants angular light that does a good job modeling faces, while providing soft transitions between tones.  Recessed compact fluorescent lights in the ceiling just don't have the same---character, even if they are supplemented with artfully enclosed, long tube, fluorescent fixtures running across parts of the ceiling. 

My idea was to look for areas of bright, daylight lit background features that would look good as patterns when they are rendered almost totally out of focus. I'd put the portrait subjects in a spot that would give me the compression and composition I wanted for the background and then I would light the person for a flattering effect, all the while working toward a consistency in my subject lighting and a consistency in the treatment of the backgrounds. We ended up moving into with different positions over the course of two half days (one afternoon --- for the night owls---and one morning, for all the peppy, caffeine infused "morning" people). 

I would shoot three or four people in a location and then move on to the next spot we had pre-scouted. I'd modify the local light, balance for the daylight and then add my light. But the thing that was different about my light this time around is that I tried to emulate the lighting I see all the time in my favorite movies. Just enough added light to make the effect work but not so much that I overpower everything else. 

We've been a bit slow to change lighting styles over the years and part of that the result of ad agencies asking for the same thing, over and over again, because they fear their clients will be resistant to change. But, of course, regarding the hesitancy of the clients, nothing could be further from the truth. The clients see the same movies and television shows we do and have the same cultural understanding of visual styles across genres. 

One defining part of our photos this time around is that we tried not to stop down past f2.8 if I could help it. I wanted narrow, narrow depth of field. I tried to make sure that backgrounds were as far away as I could make them. My favorite location was shooting down a long hallway that had a bright door at the end, with the wall on one side infused with daylight, glowing through a pale, bluish-green translucent glass wall. Forty feet of sparkling light framed by wood accents and stark whites. When blended together in de-focusland it was a wonderful backdrop for well posed people. 

To control the native lighting I brought along a set of three Chimera 4x4 portable panels. I can use these with diffusion cloth, black subtractive nets, or black flags, or white reflectors. The idea is to cut and control the light you don't like while adding back in a quality of light that you do. In almost every situation I used a black, opaque flag on a panel placed directly over the top of the subject's head. This killed the overhead, direct lighting and saved me from having cross coloration on the subjects' skin, hair and jackets. It also did away with any hard, direct lighting that can be most unflattering. 

Since the environment was relatively bright, and light was coming in from hither and yon, I used a second panel with two stops of black net on it to subtract light from the "fill" side of peoples' faces ---which also kept bouncing, "wrong" colored light, off their faces. The final two steps were more conventional. I used a 4x4 foot frame with two layers of 2/3rd stop, white diffusion from above chin level, and over to one side, to create soft and effective short lighting for my main light position. This light set up was generally powered by pushing through the light from my two, new, RPS LED fixtures. One is a 100 watt unit and the second a 50 watt unit (the equivalent of  500 and 250 watt tungsten fixtures) and together they were a stop hotter than the surrounding light in the rooms but slightly less powerful (by half a stop or so) that the diffuse lighting that was flooding through the building's tinted windows from outdoors. 

Finally, I used the Fiilex P360 LED light I have to backlight each subject. Not to show an edge or a halo but to clean up the light from the back and make it a bit more uniform in color. The effect to the eye is minimal but you can tell when looking in post production that the whole frame just looks "cleaner."

This is the kind of lighting I like to use when using lenses near wide open. It looks good and feels good and because it's constant it's quicker to set up and evaluate. The critical thing to remember when shooting with all these mixed sources is to designate which one will be dominant and to custom white balance right at the subject position. I know you can fix things in post but you can also drive yourself crazy trying to zero in on the most effective color balance. If you always do a custom white balance as you move from set up to set up you'll find yourself 85% of the way to a good overall balance and you can fine tune from a position of relative power. Much nicer way to operate. 

My collection of LED lights continues to transform the way I see jobs and the way I light them. There is still a need for flash and situational light dominance but it's shifting and it's good to know what the hell you are doing in every facet of your photographic creation.

Notes: Wyatt McSpadden's presentation last night was great. The room was packed, the energy was good and we all felt the love of BBQ. 

I start a four day corporate job on Sunday evening and the blog might slow down a bit as a result. I shoot all day through out the first three days of the week but Tues. I will also be running off at 6:30 pm to shoot the dress rehearsal of "Evita" for Zach Theatre for the rest of the evening and then turn the files around till the wee hours of the morning. I wouldn't be looking for blog content the next morning. .. By Wednesday evening I'll probably be back to normal but I thought you'd want to know. 

Now.... A few ads.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sorry that that production line portraiture is on the wane. I've had enough of seeing gloomy faces (or rictus grins) devoid of context.

Fred said...

I really enjoy this type of post. Now I want to diagram the setup so I understand it better. This is more relevant than the brand of camera and lens.
I have seen the light!

Ken said...

Kirk, it would be great if you could do a follow-up to this with a few samples so we can see the end results. Sounds very interesting and I'd like to see the mix of natural, LED light and modifiers. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Most people document portrait subjects. You reveal them. Bravo.