Friday, December 11, 2009

Studio Lighting Basics: Part 1 "Feel the Light"

In college one of my more ego maniacal  instructors (keep in mind they ALL fit into this category) brought in a single light head on a stand with a soft-box to class. He had the entire group stand with arms out in front of it repeating "I feel the light!" as if we were impersonating a gospel choir. His point? At a certain level you need to act instinctively about how you use light. Studio photography is the best example since you have complete control over every light source and direction. So I want to take the next few days and go over some of the basics about how to light in a studio and why the classics work so well. Then I want to talk about breaking out of the box and doing things differently. That's where the whole "Feeling the Light" really matters. So please to anyone reading, take what you see here, and apply these techniques creatively; by all means make it your own! That's what art is all about, yes? I'll provide the method you're responsible for the mood.

First thing first, think of light as your most basic tool. Keep in mind how changing light alters the emotion of an image and where it's placed is the key to telling a subject's story. And everything has a story. How interesting it is, well, that's up to you.

So let's start with some lingo.

Key (or main) Light: Just what it sounds like. This is normally the brightest light in the set up. Often times it's that big glowing ball in the sky.

Fill Light: This is the light, or sometimes a reflector that fills in the shadows to help reduce contrast or illiminate shadows all together.

Background Light: The light that illumniates the background.

Hair Light or Rim Light: A light positioned behind the subject and sometimes what helps to separate the subject and background from one another.

Monolight: Flash unit that is self contained and uses AC power.

Lens Flair: Light that is reflected back into the camera lens. Not fun to try to remove in post processing.

Lighting ratio: A mathematical way of describing how bright the main light is compared to the fill light.

Wireless Remote: Sounds redundant I know, but these little guys, AKA radio transmitters, signal flash units from the camera so all units fire simultaneously.

Diffuser: A device used to disperse light and soften shadows. A few popular ones are: softboxes, unbrellas (reflective and translucent) a beauty dish and diffusion sock, etc.

Specular Highlight: A bright spot of light that appears in shiny objects. Often called catch lights when observed in portraits, this is the glow you see in people's eyes. It is also the easiest way to determine how a photograph was lit. I simply look for the reflection in the subject's eyes to tell me how to recreate the same shot.

Reflector: A surface that reflects light. (Obvious I know) They come in many varieties. Gold and silver reflectors add either a warm or cool tone to an image where white stays color neutral. The bigger the reflector, the more diffused the light. The closer the reflector is to the light source the greater the intensity of the reflected light. 

Okay let's start off small. Let's talk about lighting with just a key light and go from there.

All you Anne Geddes fans here's a knock off for you. This image used a single key light and my husband draped in black fabric. I know what you're thinking, and no he won't wax his arms for a re-shoot. This kind of image is very popular (can't quite figure out why) and easy to do. My key light was a single unit pointed towards the ceiling at a 45 degree angle to give it some direction and its positioned a little bit off of camera right. By pointing the light up it filled the whole room and broadly lit both baby and my toga wearing husband. ( I should have gotten a photo of him to show you. Especially since the whole thing was held on by a few "A" clamps in the back. Pretty hilarious actually.) Here's a diagram to help illustrate. I used an umbrella since it was already on the light-stand and any extra diffusion is okay with me, but the ceiling is really what did the work. As I said before, the larger the area light can reflect off of, the more dispersed it will be. Nine foot ceilings painted white are a portrait photographer's best friend when on location. Luckily for me the same trick works in my studio as well.
One thing I do need to mention here is that this lighting method (sometimes referred to as a broad lighting pattern) means that in the original image there was a good amount of detail visible in the black material around Caleb's body. There are two ways to correct this:
  1. GOBO the light. This stands for "GOes Before Optics" and is basically anything that is dark that will be put in front of a light source to change how it looks. Black matt board is a cheep and easy solution. Hang a few of these from light stands or have an assistant hold them in place so as to remove light that was falling on spots it shouldn't be.
  2. Use the Dodge and Burn tool in Photoshop. 
I'll admit I chose option two since it was more convenient at the time, but GOBO's are  especially useful and something no photographer should be without. The best part is how creative you can get with one. Anything can be a GOBO. Just as long as it casts a shadow. Scrims are similar to GOBO's but they are translucent and they are used more as a diffuser then a light blocker. I have a 7' by 10' collapsible scrim but I've seen other photographers use white sheets, shower curtains, etc.

One thing you have be careful of when using one light source is separation. Does the shadow areas on your subject blend into the background? This mistake is most commonly made when the subject has dark hair and the background is black or they have on dark clothing. It creates what I like to call FHS or Floating Head Syndrome. Again this reinforces the point I made earlier, you must "Feel the Light" and that means controlling it! When one light won't do, you add another, or a reflector, until you've correctly lit your subject in a way that is pleasing and distinguishable.
Tomorrow we'll expand on this same idea and move up to two lights sources.

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