Simplify And Clarify; Taking The Mystery Out Of Lighting
Monte Zucker• Posted Oct 1, 2005
Isn't it time that we simplify and clarify what portrait lighting is about? I think so! Many photographers are afraid to photograph indoors, because they don't know what to do with light. Others go outdoors and take snapshots, because they don't know how to control light.
I was fortunate enough to learn one simple lighting pattern that works for everything I do--whether it's portraits or landscapes. Whatever my source of light might be, I'm always going for light that creates a three-dimensional appearance on my subject matter. For portraits it's a light that comes from slightly above the subject's eyes and just a little to one side. I'm looking for light in the subject's eyes and a shadow on the side of the nose that comes just to the base of the nose.
Here's a typical setup for my classic portraiture that works every time for every subject. My main light creates the lighting pattern. With digital photography I'm exposing for the main light, so that I don't overexpose the highlights. A fill light behind the camera is 2 f/stops less than the main light. When I'm working with a full set of lights (as I'm doing here with my Photogenic lighting setup) I also use a hairlight, being careful that it doesn't spill over onto the face. Another light is opening up detail in the background. I can lighten or darken the background by putting more or less light on the background than on the face.
The exposure was set by letting the camera do its thing. I set the camera on Aperture Priority, allowing the automated sensor to select the shutter speed for the background. I then set the camera manually to the exposure that the camera had selected and let the digital sensor of the flash do the rest. Quantum has a sensor that can be mounted on top of the camera that can set the balance of flash-to-ambient light anywhere from 3 f/stops below the ambient light to 3 f/stops above the ambient light. I've found that for a very natural look I like to have the flash 11/2 stops below. If you look carefully you can see the shadow from my flash on the floor behind Charlie.
To have the color of the flash match the color of the ambient light I create a blank layer on top of the picture by setting the mode to "overlay." Then, I select a color from the background and fill the top layer with that color. Finally, I bring the opacity of the overlay down to around 8 or 10 percent, or to where it looks most natural.
The flash is off to my left side by means of an extension cord between the flash and the camera. I placed the flash to where I would achieve the same exact lighting pattern as I always use on my subjects.
The white balance for all the pictures in this series was set by pointing the camera's lens toward the light source with an ExpoDisc covering the lens. Then, I told the camera to set the white balance according to the exposure that I made with the disc covering my lens. It takes only a few seconds to achieve a near-perfect white balance. Worth the effort? I would say so!
The way I've posed the two of them together by window light is creating a slightly different lighting situation from the previous window light picture. Still, the lighting pattern is very similar. I've posed them so that they both are getting light on the left side of their faces. In order to achieve that I've had to position Charlie slightly ahead of Toby, allowing the light onto his left cheek.
Now, with no light in their eyes and only lighting one side of their faces with the window light, I've placed my silver reflector camera-right. I've turned it toward the window to pick up the light and then angled it much like a mirror from my right side to reflect the same light pattern onto the shadowed side of their faces.
Here in mid-afternoon direct sunlight I've positioned them similarly to the way I posed them by window light. I have direct sunshine falling on both of their faces. Then, I placed a strong, direct Quantum flash to my right to create the light on the front of their faces. I set the flash to be 1 f/stop over the ambient light this time. The results are totally natural looking. The strong sunlight is still overpowering the flash, but with the flash added you can see detail in their eyes and throughout the shadowed areas of their faces.
By turning their faces toward the broad light source I was again able to attain the exact same lighting pattern on their faces as I have been using all along. The sandy beach was my reflector fill. When they were posed by the panel you could see the lighting pattern on both profiles before I snapped the shutter. I still had my camera set for Aperture Priority. With all that white coming into the lens I had to override the camera's setting by 1 or 2 f/stops to keep the faces from going too dark.
From an extremely low camera height I was able to place this 2/3 view of Toby against the sky to create a high-key study of her. I simply turned her face to the light and positioned my lens on the shadowed side of her face, looking up toward the sky. It took me one or two exposures to get the proper exposure, much the same as it did when I photographed the two of them together against the translucent background.
Notice anything different about the light pattern on Toby's face here? Of course not! It's one and the same--all natural light!
I told Charlie which direction to face, so that I could photograph into the shadowed side of his face. Look, there's that same lighting pattern on him, just as if I had planned it that way. Smiles. Then, I just let them play, and you see the results here! For this picture I used Shutter Priority to stop the movement.
The final double profile of the two of them still shows that same lighting pattern.
In a way it's comparable to creating a lot of different sentences, all constructed using a subject and a verb. We all speak the same language, but at the same time we're each able to express our own feelings differently. The sentence structure doesn't change, only the message changes. Are you getting my message? Keeping the lighting similar in all of these pictures is a way of expressing one's feelings. If you aren't worried about the grammar (lighting), you can say just about anything you want in your photographs!
Toby and Charlie, by the way, will be posing for my November class in Hollywood, Florida, and also for my Las Vegas class just before the WPPI convention. Hope to see some of you there.