What Not to Light

If you want to make something more interesting, it's important to know what not to light. I know that a great photographer said something like that, but I cannot remember who that was or what his or her exact words were. It's a phrase that I think about constantly though. One of my new favorite shadow creator combinations is a beauty dish with a grid. Soft, fairly large, but most of all, very constrained. I would say it is easily disciplined.

Here are a couple of my favorites from a shoot that my friend and client Ed and I did earlier this week. Ed is a retired accounting professor and an up-and-coming actor and singer. We created hundreds of actor headshots, but once those were in the can, we worked on some additional dramatic, less traditional shots.

Starting with One Light

I often go into an environmental portrait shoot with a bunch of great ideas. Within the first 15 minutes or so you can often find them on the floor around where we are shooting. There's a tension between being prepared and ending up being too rigid in my approach. So I like to show up with a bunch of things that I have thought through, which I try to use as a guide as we shoot, but it's also important to just follow where things naturally lead.

When photographing one person though, I tend to start out thinking about how I can do so using one light. It's really important to consider available light too. One habit (not sure whether it is a bad or good one) that photographers who use flash have can be to simply assume that flash is always necessary. When shooting a particular kind of work, it is difficult to imagine shooting it with only available light. The real issue there is, if you are expected to get the shot and it needs to be of a certain style and technical quality, it's crazy to hope that available light will be your friend when you arrive at a location. On the other hand though, it is important not to discount the possibility of unbelievably good available light, and only that. I know, current digital cameras have unheard of high ISO functionality, and that is a great tool. But that table lamp is not always casting the best light on your subject, or that fluorescent fixture on the ceiling may not be the look that the commercial client is going after. So I bring lights.

Last week I photographed an excellent musician, Alex Prezzano, both in my studio and in a few locations around the building. He was great! Alex wanted me to create and had no interest in dictating a style to me. So we walked around the mill where my studio is located and did some setups. My goal was to have the shots look as natural as possible. The available light was not always what I needed, so I used one light. The little secret is that moving around a location like this with a speedlight on a stand makes things much less nuts too.

Alex Prezzano

A lot of people are put off by any shadow on the wall. I love the look of one light with an simple reflecting umbrella. If there's a shadow, well, there's a shadow. Light makes shadows where it cannot fall. Rembrandt was partial to that look too, as I recall. No, I didn't know him personally...he lived in Europe.

After taking the photo walk around my building, we landed back in my studio. If a client wants a traditional look for a headshot, I use at least two lights and one or two reflectors. But here we were still going for a more dramatic look, so my default starting point is always that single light source. Here I did break out the 24x36 inch softbox, but used it at almost 90 degrees to camera right to give him a very dramatic effect.

Alex liked some work that I had done with a grid spot from the back hitting a gold reflector in front. This is a very cool effect because there is no light in front of the subject, and it is so soft and warm.

Adding a second light, finally, from the back as well, creates a really interesting effect too.

Check out Alex Prezzano's work here:

Me and My Shadow

I am constantly learning, or trying to. I don't have all of the answers. In fact, some days I could stand to buy a vowel... But sometimes I see photos that really leave me wanting less. I'm not really a fan of HDR, or that toasted look that is so readily available with Photoshop, but that isn't what I mean. I am thinking of the more basic concepts of light and shadow, and the seemingly irresistible urge to get light into all of those shadows, leaving nothing for the imagination.

Controlling the light that falls on your subject and everything else in the shot, whatever your subject might be, is fundamental to creating a good image. That goes for whatever type of light you're employing; I am referring to available light too. Creating a good photo does require controlling the light, even if the light source is the sun. If you do landscapes, then controlling the light means being where you want to be when the light is "right". Scout out your location and be there when the sun is exactly as you want it. If that means showing up at nautical twilight, then you are controlling your light by choosing when it is right. If you photograph people or objects, then trees, windows, curtains, almost anything can be used to control available light.

Boothbay at DawnSummer MorningMy point is, use the shadows too! People photographers who use strobes and hot lights sometimes have the urge to "open up the shadows". Fine. But sometimes, those shadows are what make the image interesting. Even totally black areas do that. Use them! Shadow creates depth, texture and contour for your subject. Shadows in the non-subject areas of an image cause the viewer's attention to be drawn first to the subject, and then provide some interest and maybe even mystery to the subject's surroundings.

The next two shots were available light with a fill, and available light with a gold reflector only, respectively.

JustinTosh FarrellI like to read blogs and articles in which the technical aspects of the shots are detailed, and sometimes the number and types of lights that are used are pretty surprising. I read one the other day in which a single person was under 5 lights! If I use more than two strobes for anything, it's very unusual. And usually my second strobe is for an accent, a streak of light on the background, or something shot through a "cookaloris" (something put between a light and a subject to create a pattern), such as a window, a window blind, etc.  This is a matter of personal preference though. I also tend to use my lights at the lowest power, sometimes inches from my subject. But that's the look that I am going for most of the time. Your mileage may vary...

The next three shots were done with one light. The first incorporated florescent ambient light. And "Melissa with Sweater" has no light in the front! A gridded light behind her is refecting off a gold reflector in front of her face.

Dug NorthMelissa with SweaterKerry
I am most definitely not showing my images in this post as the best examples of what I am trying to say, but I obviously can't illustrate that with other photographer's images without their permissions. I would however, encourage you to check out the images of other photographers who are masters of light and shadow. Here is a tiny list of my favorites for you to Google. Some are from another era, some from today, neither set in any particular order:

Irving Penn
Richard Avedon
Yousuf Karsh
Arnold Newman
Philippe Halsman

Joe McNally
Annie Leibowitz
Tracy Powell
Marty Umans
Zack Arias