Inside photography – lightpainting

I treated myself to a subscription to LensWork, a well-crafted pamphlet about “…the path of creative photography.”  The first edition arrived and the initial article surprised me – the images were in color.  The few times I’d looked through LensWork all the images were in B&W, beautifully toned and printed.  After reading the article and looking over the images I realized this really had to be portrayed in color to fully appreciate the work.

The author is Harold Ross who does great work with lightpainting.  You can see his images at www.haroldrossfineart.com and get an idea of what can be done once you get control of light.  And appreciate why any article on his work has to be in color.

I learned the fundamentals of lightpainting at a workshop a few years back, and played around with it for a bit.  What intrigued me about Ross’ work, and compelled me to return to this technique, was the way his soft light brings out the texture and dimensions of his subjects.  The images are like Vemeer paintings – almost real enough to reach out and grasp the subjects.  Since this type of realism is an attribute I want in much of my photography I decided to work more with this technique.

Starting out with something simple, of course.

Lightpainting, onion in three layers

Lightpainting, onion in three layers

What intrigued me about Ross’ method was to use Photoshop to merge multiple images into one scene.  Whereas my prior instruction was to use long exposures and “paint” all in one capture, Ross carefully segregates the areas he wants to portray into separate images.  These are processed individually and then merged into the final image.  With a sturdy tripod locking down any movement, you can make many attempts at the look you want for each area in the image and then put together the ones that result in the best composition.

For example, the above image is made from combining three separate images.  One is the overall front lighting, two is the spotlight on the background, and three is the highlighted ends.  Using layer masks I revealed the areas I wanted in the final image while removing those that didn’t enhance the scene.  This image took about 20 minutes to make and shows a start at bringing out the dimensionality of the subject.  I’m sure it can be portrayed as more dramatic with more time on the image capture and post-processing.

The sun is setting around here earlier and earlier so I’m looking for inspiration that doesn’t require me chasing the last lingering winter light.  This processing method opens new opportunities to improve my “seeing” what light can do when controlled.

Where do I put this light?

We were fortunate out west to have a day or so with clouds in the sky.  Not only do they break up the monotony of a bright blue sky in landscape images, but they also act as dodging tools for the sun.  A uniformly lit landscape can be pretty boring since we use light and dark areas to recognize depth and dimension.  So having clouds move across the sky and alternately shade and open the scene can make more interesting images.

At Mono Lake some of the tufa formations are on dry land, left behind as the lake level dropped.  I stood in front of one formation watching the sun move across the scene as the clouds blew through.  In the series below are examples of intentional placement of light and shade, making the “tone” of the images different.

To me where everything is in shade or sun the image is fairly flat, no sense of distance or texture.  Where there’s a difference in light front to back or vice versa, there’s a sense of looking away into a distance.  My favorite is where the foreground is in shade and the subject in sun.  I immediately am drawn to the tufa formation but realize from the grass they are in the distance and pretty good sized.

What do you get from these images?

Foreground and most of subject in shade

Foreground and most of subject in shade

Foreground in sun, subject in shade

Foreground in sun, some of subject in shade

Foreground in shade, subject in sun

Foreground in shade, subject in sun

Foreground in sun, subject in light shade

Foreground in sun, subject in light shade

Foreground in shade, subject in sun

Foreground in shade, subject in sun

Foreground and front of subject in shade, back of subject in sun

Foreground and front of subject in shade, back of subject in sun

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….

Just looking around

Sometimes there’s an image right there on the wall – all you have to do is look up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASimply the afternoon sun shining through glass blocks in the basement onto some wallpaper.  Love the contrast of abstract and linear.  Reflects the polar ends of my approach to photography……

Macro study

Been playing around with tabletop compositions (much warmer inside than out in Wisconsin these days).  It’s fun to work on different distances to see what close vs far does for the subject.  I wonder if there isn’t a sweet spot for any subject, be it tiny objects, beautiful models or grand landscapes, and one objective for the photographer is to tap into that as part of the creative process.

I guess the distance is a function of the story you want the subject to be telling.  Close gives an intimate sense of being a part of the scene, a look into a world that resides right under our noses but is usually passed over in lieu of the more macro world.  Backing up some to see that larger scene gives a sense of place, a context for the subject to reside in and on.  Pulling back more to see the whole object reveals what it is and some of what its function may be at the time.

Part of this study was to simply use a different background.  I usually place objects on a black cloth but have been wanting to work on shadows.  Hard to reverse out shadows (wouldn’t that be cool, though; white shadows on a black background) so I got a white cloth instead.  Now I can use my light modifiers in a greater way, to control light on the subject and shadow.

 

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.

Ready for my close up

ISO 100, 54mm, 1/100 sec., f/3.5

Summer colors are starting to fade in the woods.  The dry weather is merely hastening the process and the recent, small amount of rain just isn’t going to revive the foliage.  We’re surrounded by a sea of green for months, so much that it disappears from our sight until suddenly it’s gone and we’re left wondering where the green went as the fall colors explode into our senses.

Light dappling through a forest is like your personal studio for close-ups of objects.  Pick the background you want, the highlight on the subject, the aperture for a short depth of field and you’ve created a natural portrait.