Playing with light in the studio. Big soft sources.

I once read that Leonardo da Vinci had an interesting technique for lighting subjects for his paintings and portrait studies. He had studio with a big center courtyard and he would place his model in the courtyard and then cover the open space above with white cloth. A huge diffusion modifier placed up and over his subject, covering them completely in soft light from above.

After reading this I started to see variations of this technique used in expansive street scenes in movies. One afternoon I had a friend (above) come by and help me with a few lighting experiments. I was constrained by weather, etc. to shoot indoors and that also played into my need for finding repeatable methods. 

I placed a six foot by six foot diffusion panel on an aluminum frame directly above the model. the rear of the panels ended just behind her head. This allowed for almost all of the six feet of soft light to fall in front of her. Habit moves us to center things and centering the diffusion above her would have wasted half the value of the light. 

I got my tallest light stand and extended it as far up as I could with the light pointing down toward the diffusion surface. My goal was, more or less, complete and even coverage of the scrim but without much spill into the background. My mistake with this particular example was my chickening out about contrast and putting a fill card to bounce light back under her chin, just out of frame. Had I forgone the fill card I think a stronger shadow under the model's nose and chin would have made the portrait much more interesting. This is how I learn though. If everything turned out just right on every try this would be a pretty boring avocation. 

I included a favorite portrait below which was done in my favorite, "go-to" lighting. It shows me the importance of shadow and highlight differentiation. Somehow, this is the way I think portraits look best. But my interest in "Da Vinci" lighting has resurfaced and I'm looking for another model to test out some fine-tuning upon. It's easier to experiment with digital. I don't have to wait for the film to come back to see what I should have done better....


Mark the tog said...

I rather like the light on the first image.

It reminds me of my unwitting success in high school with a photograph of a girl I rather liked. We were outside on an overcast day with about a foot of snow on the ground. I had a 50mm lens on my trusty Pentax H3v set at my usual 5.6 aperture (SS unrecorded or remembered). The soft overhead light coupled with the bounce off the snow rendered her skin a lovely alabaster tone.

She loved the photo but was uninterested in talking to me so that was that.

I wondered for many years why I could not replicate that lighting and it was not until much later that I learned to reverse engineer lighting patterns and actually make light do what I want.

I currently live in the desert where soft light is scarce but have learned a number of ways to make soft happen.

As I am moving to Seattle next month I guess I will have a ton of easy soft light.

Ronman said...

Both are terrific, Kirk. I probably prefer the second, but as Mark says I also like the lighting in the first. Perhaps it's because the model is so striking, but a terrific composition regardless. Lighting design and layout is another rabbit hole, and like so many a very entertaining one to pursue. I enjoy seeing your work because I never mastered it in any measure, but in my early days of photography spent more time playing with various layouts than I did actually shooting photos and portraiture. Anyone and anything not quick enough was fair game. One of the best lighting layouts I ever put together was for a bundle of cigars, all lit and standing vertically on-end. Like that photo, some of my favorite photos are those where I best managed the lighting. It's fun stuff, and very rewarding, perhaps because in some measure you're creating what otherwise would not exist.

Jon Maxim said...

I think you are being to hard on yourself on the first one Kirk. Before reading the post I was immediately entranced by the soft tones and loved the low contrast that just seems to make her skin glow somehow. Also liked the second one. But I keep coming back to the first and feel that the shadows are "just right" for this kind of an almost high-key image. Of course, if that was not the effect you were going for I can understand you would be disappointed. But I'm still blown away.

The other thing that I love is her almost wistful look that is hard to describe. Speaks volumes about the skill of the photographer who managed to coax that look.

Just lovely.

amolitor said...

I happened to be down in one of our on-the-water parks on Prom Night, and the place was infested with glittering gowns and tuxedos, standing in the golden light to be photographed. I wanted very much to have a large scrim that I could rush over with.

My wife informs me that, yes, it would be weird to construct a giant scrim and then lurk in the park on Prom Night. But it would make the pictures so much better.