Less light is sometimes better

Actually made some portraits late last week, business images to be used as needed for online and magazine articles.  Straightforward lighting and poses to result in a basic professional appearance.  It got me to thinking about non-traditional portraits, such as Weston’s famous bell peppers.  How would I make fruit look dramatic?

I’m starting with the most basic thing I saw at the store – kiwi.  It’s got a nice surface texture, pretty uniform color and a classic shape.  Importantly, it’s not shiny!

First, the standard portrait lighting:

Gives a little dimension to the rounded surface, a highlight here and there, with a lighter background to help the subject stand out in the image.  Not very exciting, though.

I moved the light around a bit but just wasn’t getting the contrast I wanted.  Since I don’t do much studio work I’ve never invested in the bevy of light modifiers available to broaden or narrow the lights.  Also, although I wanted drama I really didn’t know what I was looking for so playing around with light position and intensity was interesting but not goal-oriented.  So, instead of a lot of light, how about just the right amount.

Lightpainting consists of turning off the flash units and using a penlight and long exposure to essentially put light right where you want it.  The camera only “sees” the light you provide at the spot you put it.  Granted there’s lots of trial and error in a dark room but the results can be much different from manipulating strobes.  And it’s not just light on the subject that works – light elsewhere can be important as well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALiterally, you paint your image with light.  Subject, background, shapes, key lighting – anything you want to highlight as a way of making a dramatic presentation.  And once I see something like this, I realize it’s the look I was searching for.  Now I know one way to reach this composition.  Maybe I’ll tackle bell peppers soon….

Return to the basics

I finally gathered up all the exposed film sitting around in the freezer and took it over to the local studio/lab I found on the web.  Haven’t had to send my sheet film off to a distant lab so far after these few years learning how to use it so I was very happy to find someone in town who processes it.  My first round turned out very nice (they even processed my 5×7 Velvia, an unusual size) so I expect to finally get back to film this year.

Didn’t really know what these images were – been too long ago since I made them – so it was a nice surprise to see what I’d done.  Looks like I was trying to learn how to use flash with my view camera, tricky because there is no trigger for a flash on such an old camera.  Apparently I set up my scene, turned off the lights, opened the shutter and then fired the flash manually.  I must be getting good with a light meter because these really turned out better than I expected.

Kodak Ektachrome 100G, 4×5″ slide

Kodak Ektachrome 100g, 4×5″ slide

Fuji Velvia 50, 5×7″ slide

What’s not there is important, too.

We have a piece of art by a South African artist, a portrait of a black leopard, very close-up of its face as if it’s looking you over as a possible morsel.  What attracted us is the effect created by the means she create the piece.  She blackened a canvas and then took a fine spatula (or some sort of tool) and scratched away the black, revealing the white underneath.  The lines are simple and sparse, yet the image of the cat jumps off the background seemingly in greater detail than is actually present.

I’ve played around with photographic effects trying to duplicate this appearance with images, but usually end up trying to get too much detail in the picture and spoiling the final composition.  The other night I tried again and this time I feel the result is closer to what I want to portray.

The eye/brain system is such a great pattern recognition and completion tool you really don’t need as much detail as you think to quickly identify an object, adding the missing parts and clarifying for yourself what you’re seeing.

What I like about this image is how the single light (a small strobe to the upper left of the flashlight) ends up in different aspects on the surface.  Where there is a truly smooth surface there’s the expected reflection yet where there is a matte surface the line of light is darkened and goes from white to grey.  And where the surface is jagged, the central reflection of light is broken into two halves, each running down the edge of the round surface.  Very cool.  Very noire.

I left the light on to show the bright spot at the front and the beam across the tabletop, helpful clues this is a flashlight and not just a finely milled steel rod.  A more traditional ‘catalog’ image would show a much brighter version of the object so you could see all the details but I feel this darker version does a better job of capturing the function of a flashlight.  A way to see in the dark.

Bring your own sunlight

The perfect snow day for photographers has to be where the clouds are high and thin, making a huge softbox for the sun to evenly illuminate the ground.  I usually am looking for medium soft shadows where you can easily see details in them.  The clear blue sky typical of winter results in stark shadows cast by the untempered sun, with extreme contrasts between the snow in the sun and snow in the shade.  Alternatively, the other typical winter days of overcast result in no shadows at all, just an even grey cast over the whole landscape.  What’s a person to do when the itch to photograph a landscape turns up?

Well, on a cloudy day you can bring your own sunshine and make your own shadows.  Off-camera flash units are perfect for this sort of light manipulation.  You put them where you want light, attach a light modifier of some sort and adjust to give the amount of light you want.  These are fill lights only – you aren’t going to be able to illuminate acres of ground.  No, this is like big light painting – you put light where you want and use composition to create the total image.

Here’s a before and after of what I’m talking about:

ISO 100, 24mm, 1/20 sec., f/7.1 - no flash

ISO 100, 24mm, 1/20 sec., f/7.1 – no flash

ISO 100, 24mm, 1/20 sec., f/7.1 - flash applied

ISO 100, 24mm, 1/20 sec., f/7.1 – flash applied

Sometimes you just need a little extra light to bring more interest to the image.  I used three flash units in the “after” image:  one between the first and second tree on the left, one between the second and third tree on the left and one behind the distant tree on the right.  The first two have a softbox and white reflector attached, respectively.  The third one is just a bare flash.  Each one is attached to a PocketWizard radio trigger so they all fire when the shutter is released.  I like the PocketWizard because the range is well over 1000′ so I can place the flash units where ever I want.  I do wish the Olympus system had a wireless flash adjustment, though, so I wouldn’t have to run around to all the units to adjust the power levels between shots.

Obviously this is more than the on-camera flash built into the camera body, and all those flash units and transmitters do cost extra.  I use mine for multiple purposes, including the rare portrait or group image, so I could justify the purchase.  I like taking the sun around with me for when I need it but it’s more gear to buy and haul around so it might not be for everyone.

Others were using the late evening light as well.  The local deer are able to reach grass under the snow now that it has melted a bit.  It’s amazing to think how an animal of this size finds enough food to stay alive in the cold.  There was still some green grass under the trees, however, and the last snow came down heavy enough to insulate it from the bitter cold of the last week.  Deer will paw away snow to find food and I caught this one in the act.

ISO 100, 100mm, 1/250 sec., f/4.5

ISO 100, 100mm, 1/250 sec., f/4.5

They have put on a nice winter coat this year and don’t appear to be too thin.  Talking with one of the park supervisors I learned they get feed supplements as well, placed at various places around the park away from where people will disturb them.  Must be working for them otherwise I think they would hang out around the road begging for handouts.

ISO 100, 100mm, 1/80 sec., f/4.5

ISO 100, 100mm, 1/80 sec., f/4.5

Today they were moving around in groups, some feeding and some just lying around.  I’ve read their winter coat is so well insulated they can lay down on the snow and not melt it.  Has to do with the hollow hairs of the outer layer of their coat.  Sometimes you can see them walking around with snow on their back that isn’t melting either.

ISO 100, 100mm, 1/100 sec., f/4.5

ISO 100, 100mm, 1/100 sec., f/4.5

They see a lot of car traffic through the park, most of it looking for them.  As a result they usually ignore vehicles passing by but every once in a while something will catch their attention and then everyone has to look up and see what’s happening.

I could have used one of the flash units to put a small catch light in their eyes – I don’t think it would have bothered them.  My lens was resting on the window and I was about 50 feet away so I’m pretty sure my best flash would have reached.  Perhaps next time I’ll plan on that and have all the gear ready to go.  For today I was happy to bring some light to the trees and photograph the deer au naturale.

The sun is really starting to set early now that we’re off the contrived “daylight savings time.”  At this latitude the sun is getting pretty low in the sky, which means it’s reaching places usually in shadow in the late afternoon.  I took advantage of this to try some lighting adjustments for outdoor photography.

I started with a couple of strobes set up to add some fill light to a scene, reducing the range from lightest to darkest regions in the image.

ISO 100, 17mm, 1/125 sec., f/7.1

In this scene there’s a strobe to the left hitting the decking and rail, and another to the right doing the same thing.  The left one is slightly brighter than the right one.  I wanted to bring out some detail in the decking while keeping the bright sun as the primary light on the sign and trees.  Worked on this type of lighting for about a half  hour but never really saw anything that got me excited.  Perhaps next time a third strobe way back on the left to brighten up that big shadow and bring a little depth to the image.

So, giving up on that approach I chose to work on some HDR images.  With all the high contrast areas the opportunities were numerous, especially for areas where I couldn’t put a strobe (they don’t float).  I pushed the processing beyond “natural” to get some deep textures and drama in the scenes.

ISO 100, 32mm, f/8, 17 image composite of various shutter speeds

This seemed to be going well so I tried inserting some curved leading lines into the composition along with highlighted regions to draw the viewer’s attention.

ISO 100, 14mm, f/8, HDR composite of 6 images varying shutter speed

The reflections were looking very nice; why not an HDR of nothing but reflections?  Besides, the water’s surface acts as a nice polarizing filter to darken and emphasize the sky.

ISO 100, 24mm, f/8, HDR composite of 5 images varying shutter speed

The sky was radiating so much light as the sun set further down I used that as a source for the details in a grungy HDR composition of angled leading lines.

ISO 100, 14mm, f/8, HDR composite of 5 images varying shutter speed

There is a lot of learning yet on using strobes outdoors so I’ll be returning to that again as winter sets in.  Feeling pretty good about seeing HDR opportunities, though, and applying the post-processing effectively to get the look I want.  As with most things, some compositions work well with this technique and some just don’t but only experience with it will enable me to make those choices prior to hitting the shutter.

Lighting addition

Great sunset today after a gloomy, cloudy start.  Really felt like an attempt by nature to warm up the rapidly coming coldness soon to envelop us for several weeks.  Thought I’d practice a bit using my off-camera flash to lighten up the harsh shadows created by the strong sunlight, and see how all that would process out as black and white.  Have to work faster now; as the sun approaches the horizon it quickly sets within just a few minutes.  Not like the summer sun that takes its own sweet time sliding below the sky’s edge.

Just a dab of color makes an emotional difference

As I’ve been told in the past, it’s easy to be seduced by color in photography, to end up making images that are full of colors but not meaning.  Autumn is my nemesis – I see all the warm colors and go crazy pointing my camera here and there only to find so few images actually have any composition to them.  From what I read it’s the “fear” of color that drives fine art photographers to black and white.  And by fear I mean the lack of control, the mostly mysterious way color is processed into the developing of film or digital files.  Great color is awesome – slightly not-so-great color is a train wreak.

But does this mean a wholesale fleeing from color in photographs?  Not for me, in spite of my autumn insanity.  Actually a little color added to images can be a great way to alter the mood of an image or bring attention to an element that might other wise be ignored or relegated to secondary status by the viewer.

As an example, an ordinary still life image:

One flash to the left of the subject and a piece of white foamboard to the right to reflect some light back subject.  I altered the lighting ratio (the difference between the brightest and darkest part of the light reaching the subject) in order to give it as much dimensionality as possible.  Nothing fancy and pretty bland.

What could the addition of color do for this?

Same setup as the first image but here I draped a piece of red cloth over the foamboard on the right so the flash would reflect that color back onto the subject.  This image feels a little more mysterious – where could it be setting right now? – probably because this is a movie effect we’re used to seeing in horror flicks.

This is a simple effect to create once you realize the light from a flash will reflect the color of the surface it hits.   A lot of time portrait photographers doing outdoor shoots find this more of a problem than a help, as clothes, trees, or buildings near their subject will reflect the sunlight or flash back onto their subject’s face, giving it a color cast that can look unnatural.  Usually this is solved by merely moving the subject else where but sometimes a white reflector has to be inserted between the subject and the troublesome reflection to correct the problem.

Once you start playing around with this idea it’s fun to see just what colors will have what impact on a subject.  Here’s another simply still life:

Here I’ve added a second flash to the right instead of a white reflector so I could control the amount of light on that side.  The more powerful flash is still coming from the left and the shadows it’s casting on the surface of the fossil as well as on the table to the right really help bring out the dimensionality of the piece.  For this I experimented with different color gels put in front of the flash on the right, just to see what changing the color of the darker side of the piece would do for the overall tone of the image.  Here are some examples:

Some of these look artificial while some look pretty natural.  Warmer tones portray less ominous images than cooler tones, although that’s probably a personal perspective rather than a general one.  Each does, however, feel different from the ordinary first image of this subject.

One lesson the Impressionists taught is that shadows are not always black, nor should they be portrayed that way.  Look in the shade of their trees or the shadow of their subjects and you’ll find many colors all placed there to elicit a sense of that particular shadow.  They recognized how light reflects into shadows from other sources and how the color of those sources influences how the shadows appear.

Watch movies carefully and you’ll see many shadows have color in them.  This isn’t a mistake in post-processing – the lighting director puts gels in front of lights just as I have in order to create spots of color in the overall scene, even where you don’t expect color to exist.  One problem with playing around with photographic lighting is you start to pay more attention to details in the movies and not so much to the plot!

A great thing about this technique is you can apply it to macro images of tiny things up to portraits of people (you may need some help with bigger reflectors, especially on a windy day).  My first photography instructor showed how to warm up images of flowers by simply holding a gold surface reflector near them and letting the sun bounce off it onto the flowers.  Really brings out the saturation and helps them stand out from the background.

You don’t need fancy “professional” gear for this – grab some cloth or poster board in your favorite color and give it a try!