Leonardo’s Lighting: Renaissance Influence in the 21st Century

Leonardo Light Photoflex Lesson 1 590 465

Equipment:

The Renaissance has influenced my photography. Yes this is a powerful statement. One person from that time period actually made some very powerful statements that hold true in today’s photography. The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci published in 1955 gives us some insight into his thinking, understanding his work affects my photography today.

The first statement “A painter should begin a canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by light.” The literal view of this dictates that I use a black background, positioning the key light in a way as to only expose the subject and eliminate light spill into other areas of the frame.

Regarding the quality of light, DaVinci says: “A broad light high up and not too strong will render the details of objects very agreeable”. In my first analysis of this statement, I simply moved the light higher up than the eye level of my subject. To create a broad light, I used a Photoflex 72” White Shoot-Through Umbrella.

Further reading gave me this insight; “The light for drawing from nature should come from the North in order that it may not vary. And if you have it from the South, keep the window screened with cloth, so that with the sun shining the whole day the light may not vary. The height of the light should be so arranged as that every object shall cast a shadow on the ground of the same length as itself." This statement dictates that I use a 45 degree angle above the subject’s eyeline to create a shadow that is as long as the subject is tall and to turn the key light away from the subject instead of shooting through the umbrella.

DaVinci later said “An object will display the greatest difference of light and shade when it is seen in the strongest light, as by sunlight, or, at night, by the light of a fire. But this should not be much used in painting because the works remain crude and ungraceful”. “An object seen in a moderate light displays little difference in the light and shade; and this is the case towards evening or when the day is cloudy, and works then painted are tender and every kind of face becomes graceful. Thus, in everything extremes are to be avoided: too much light gives crudeness; too little prevents our seeing. The medium is best”. This confirms the use of a umbrellas and diffusers in my work.

"Leonardo Light", as I call it, uses only one key light with a black or grey background. I do also add a reflector, typically the Photoflex LiteDisc Oval, to fill in some areas opposite the light.

Step 1 Before call time (scheduled start of the photo session), you should be completely set up with stingers (extension cords) taped down to avoid them being a trip hazard. Being organized and ready will build confidence with your model. Know the aperture you are going to shoot with, the ISO and the shutter speed and set your camera ahead of time. ideally in flash work, we should shoot at ISO100 as this is where your flash’s guide number is calibrated. The less time spent changing settings, the more at ease your model will be.

For this shoot, I began with the Photoflex FlexFlash 200W with a 7” reflector on a LiteStand: Medium placed at about a 45 degree angle from my subject. The height of the light itself is not set until the subject arrives on location or in the studio as "Leonardo Light" is dictated by the model’s height. The light is kept at a 45° above the model as well. This produces a shadow that is as long as the model is tall, just as Davinci describes in his notebooks.

Davinci also stated: “A broad light high up and not too strong will render the details of objects very agreeable”. The reflector on the strobe is 7 inches, creating a small specular light source. Once the light is at 45° above the model, the head is turned away and a 72” shoot through umbrella is added. This broadens the light source ten-fold creating a very soft wrap around lighting effect. Using a shoot-through umbrella means that not all of the light is reflected back on the model. Some light is lost passing through the umbrella, which further softens the light.

Using only one light and having a featureless background, my aperture selection is different than shooting outdoors with a busy background. In order to minimize distractions within the image, large apertures (f4 and larger) create a much shallower depth of field to separate the subject from distracting background elements. Working with a black (or any color) background removes it from competition with the model and allows me to use a smaller aperture. My reasoning for this is to allow the model greater freedom in posing. The smaller aperture provides me with a deeper depth of field. This is very important for my model as Katelyn will change her pose every three seconds (or each time the flash is fired) unless I direct her otherwise. The deeper depth of field brought on by f8 and smaller apertures allows her to now shift weight from her front to back foot, changing the distance she is from the camera. Using a shallow depth of field from an aperture of f4 and larger has a much greater likelihood of yielding an out of focus shot by slightly changing the distance she is from the camera.

When setting up my lights I also pay attention to the models clothing and hair color. Katelyn has dark hair and would be wearing a medium green shirt. I consider how these colors will contrast or stand out from the background selected. This session would be captured in black and white, so my first thoughts are directed at tone more than color. Colors close to one another on the color wheel render in a similar way, creating little contrast and flattening out in the image. By selecting colors that are opposite each other, dramatic contrasts can be achieved. On the menu of my Nikon camera I select the monochrome option.

Step 2 I began with Katelyn standing for this session. I have worked with Katelyn, as a model, numerous times before this session. She knows what to expect and how I work. This creates a smooth flow to our work together.

I knew my model Katelyn was 5’-0” tall and was able to set my LiteStand ahead of time to be about 45° above her eye level, when standing. The LiteStand was positioned about 45° to her left as she faced me. Either side worksand comes down to personal preferrence. When I first used this light set up, it was called the “Double 45”. Once I discovered DaVinci’s writing, it became more sensible to call it "Leonardo’s Light".

At this point with Katelyn in position, I turned down the house lights – for no other reason than it is easier to see the image on my LCD screen. I then turned on the modeling lamp so that my camera would have enough light to focus. The strobe has a modeling light that illustrates how the light will fall on the subject. With this approach you will see both the shadows and the highlights. This is where you begin to fine tune your light’s position. In the case of "Leonardo’s Light", Katelyn looked straight forward at me through the light. The shadow created on the floor was about 5’-0” long matching her height. I did not pull a tape measure to verify – “eyeball measuring” worked just fine – photography is more art than science. My adjustment to the light was varying the 45° horizontal direction to get the light to fall correctly.

Step 3 The only thing left to do now is determining the proper aperture. The 45° above the model’s eye dictates a specific distance between her and the flash. It is also important to remember that flash is controlled by aperture (f). Shutter speed or sync speed controls whether or not the shutter is fully open at the time the flash fires.

Referring to the flash exposure circle helps us determine the distance for setting the flash.

I had previously determined that the guide number for the FlexFlash 200W is 100 at ISO 100 (see previous LiteBlog article). My shooting preference with a solid background is an aperture between f11 to f16. I will use a shutter speed of 160, which is below my camera’s sync. speed of 1/250. Again, shutter speed only ensures the shutter is fully open when the flash is fired.

Using the exposure circle above, I can quickly see the equation I need is aperture = guide number/ distance. The light is a fixed distance from Katelyn to achieve the proper shadow length and the fash guide number is constant. My only variable is aperture. With the flash pointed away from Katelyn into the 72” umbrella, I must determine the distance the light wall travel. Katelyn is 6’ feet from the light itself with the inside of the umbrella 12" from the flash. Light will travel out to the umbrella and then back towards Katelyn. This means I have an overall distance of 8’.

Doing the math (guide number is 100/ distance 8’- 0” = aperture), I know that at full power the aperture needs to be f12.5. This aperture f12.5 is not available on my lens, but f12 is. I now add an orange filter in front of my lens. The orange contrast filter softens and evens skin tones, especially when capturing in B&W. This also darkened the exposure by ½ stop making f12 work perfectly. As stated earlier, f12 yields a good depth of field, but the featureless black background does not create a visual distraction for the image. The depth of field rendered allows Katelyn a bit more freedom of movement without the fear of blurring in the image.

Step 4 Make the shot. Katelyn is positioned between the strobe and a LiteDisc Oval 41x74 SunLite reflector. The reflector acts as a secondary light source filling in the shadows created by the strobe as light passed in front of Katelyn.

Evaluating the first shot shows a well exposed image, soft wrap around light created by the 72” umbrella, but demonstrates a need for some additional fill light at her boots.

Step 5 My next task is to open the shadows near her feet. I placed a a Photoflex MultiDisc 5-in-1 Reflector with the gold side reflecting light on the floor in front of Katelyn. My choice of the gold side of the reflector was decided by testing reflectivity before Katelyn got to the session. White did not supply enough light and silver was too harsh. Placing it on the floor would catch a small amount of light coming out of the umbrella and bounce it just below her knees.

In each shot of Katelyn, I have turned her shoulders towards the camera. This has a slight slimming effect, but in the image I have her facing me still. The key element to my style of shooting is to keep the model, in this case Katelyn, moving. Holding a pose for no longer than three seconds or changing each time the flash fires involves them in the shooting process and makes them a collaborative partner in the session. Explaining the type of lighting I am using and the importance of a specific shadow or light pattern will help your model be successful in helping you create great images. In this case Katelyn knew it was the length of the shadow was most important. She was able to create a number of poses in a small defined area to keep the light angle constant and the resulting shadows properly aligned.

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Written and photographed by George Wilson.

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