Have you ever envisioned a portrait in your mind and set out to create that image and mood through photographic means? If so, you no doubt have encountered the task of negotiating the lighting of the shot. After all, the lighting directly affects the mood and feel of an image, and knowing how to capture and/or create that light is paramount to communicating your vision.
When a painter goes about creating mood and controlling contrast and light quality, he or she relies on a selection of paints and the method by which they are applied to the canvas. A photographer, on the other hand, is limited to the lighting conditions of a given scene to convey vision and emotion. The more a photographer knows about light and how to capture, control, or modify it, the more effective he or she will be in actualizing the image they envision.
This lesson explores the use of some very simple, easy-to-use, inexpensive lighting tools that can have a profound effect on your portrait-making abilities.
- The Pitfalls of Built-in Flash
- The Reflective Umbrella
- The Diffusive Umbrella
- Boosting Tonal Gradations
- Preventing Light Spill
- The Background Light
- The Versatility of the RUT
For this portrait, we envisioned an intimate, soft-lit scene in which a painter is taking a break from working on her latest piece. After considering a few locations, we decided to photograph our subject in the corner of an upstairs painting studio in front of her easel. Prior to setting up our lights, we first took a shot of her for comparison purposes with the camera set to Auto and the built-in flash activated.
The Pitfalls of Built-in Flash
This is precisely the moment where people new to photography get frustrated. What they’ve seen through the lens is not at all what they’re now seeing in the playback of their camera, and now they want to throw their arms up in the air and give up. (Or buy a more expensive camera, which still won’t resolve the issue.) Most of the time, it’s the built-in flash that’s responsible for unnatural looking photos, and then the compulsion to say, “I’m just no good at taking pictures.”
So let’s take a look at this built-in flash result. Although the resulting exposure is rendered well, the quality of light is simply unnatural. You would not experience this type of light in real life unless you had a small flashlight attached to the top of your head. And look at the quality of this light. Do you see how the built-in flash flattens out the scene with respect to dimension and casts hard, unnatural looking shadows along the wall and ceiling?
The Reflective Umbrella
Enough said. So to improve the light quality, we deactivated the flash, brought in a LiteStand-mounted FirstStar light, and attached an ADH (silver, reflective) umbrella to it. This light and umbrella are included in the First Studio Portrait Kit and work wonderfully to transform the high-contrast light from the light head into broad, soft, natural-looking light.
To improve the lighting, we deactivated the flash and brought in a LiteStand-mounted FirstStar light and attached an ADH umbrella (silver, reflective) to it. This umbrella is included in the kit and works wonderfully to transform the high-contrast light from the light head into broad, soft light.
In the result shot, notice how this single light source has dramatically improved the overall lighting. The shadows cast along the walls and floor are much softer now and because the light is both larger than the flash and off to the side, the image has a much more three-dimensional quality to it.
The Diffusive Umbrella
While the ADH umbrella is great at reflecting and softening hard light, there is another umbrella that can render even softer light — the RUT (capable of reflecting or diffusing light). To illustrate, we removed the ADH umbrella and substituted it with an RUT umbrella.
The RUT is comprised of two fabrics: a white translucent fabric that is sewn to the steel ribs, and a removable black cover that fits snugly over this diffusion material.
With the black cover attached, you can use the umbrella in the traditional way of reflecting light back onto your subject. With the black cover removed, however, you can simply project the light through the diffusion material onto your subject, similar to lighting with a soft box.
There are two main advantages to projecting the light through the diffusion material. The first is that the light is even softer (more diffused) than it is when it’s reflected, and secondly, it is more efficient with respect to light output by almost a full stop of light.
In this set-up shot, you can see the coverless RUT positioned the same way a soft box would be used, with the diffusion material illuminated and facing the subject.
After closing down a stop on the camera to adjust for exposure, we took another shot. [figure 7] Below, you can see the differences between the two umbrellas. In the RUT result [figure 7], notice how the overall contrast is lower and that the shadows cast from the chair, easel, and even the paintbrushes in the background are noticeably softer than they are in the ADH result.
Boosting Tonal Gradations
This main light was a nice start, but now we wanted to add some mood to the shot. So we decided to add another First Studio light just beyond the main light to serve as a side/rim light. In this case, we wanted to direct the light so that it only illuminated our subject, so we opted to use the ADH umbrella, as this would be more directional than a diffused umbrella.
The result shows that this second light has helped to create a nice level of wrap-around light on our subject. However, it also made the background significantly brighter as well, and seemed to adversely affect the overall mood of the shot.
Preventing Light Spill
To prevent this second light from brightening the background, we simply angled the umbrella away from the wall and took another shot.
As you can see from the result, the lighting is much more dynamic after this subtle repositioning. Our second light does a great job of softly illuminating our subject, while keeping the background at a lower tonal level. The effect creates a sense of separation between the subject and background, adds even further depth to the shot, and enhances the mood of the shot.
Since this last pose is very similar to that in the first shot with the built-in flash, we thought it would be interesting to compare the two results side-by-side. As you can see from this comparison, it’s the lighting that makes a world of difference.
The Background Light
Next, we decided to add another light off to the right to illuminate the lower right area of the frame. We set up another First Studio light and attached an RUT umbrella to it to maximize the level of diffused light it would throw.
The result shows that this area of the frame is now brighter, but it was also spilling onto our subject more than we wanted, and was doing away with the smooth gradation of light we had achieved in the previous shot. And again, it was also detracting from the mood of the shot.
The Versatility of the RUT
To try and cut down the amount of light somewhat from this third light and keep it off our subject, we attached the black cover to the umbrella and folded it over so that only half of the light would be transmitted. The other half, closest to our subject, would be blocked off by the black cover.
This modification helped to cut down the light and keep it off our model. Notice how the edge of the subject’s arm is not as bright as it was in the previous shot.
While the shot seemed fairly balanced now with this third light, it still had the effect of flattening out the depth of the shot somewhat, and it just wasn’t as compelling with respect to mood. So, we decided not to use it for the final shot and turned it off.
NOTE: Had this been a darker room or had we been shooting in a larger space, this third light may well have helped to balance out the shot. But here, it seemed to be a little overkill. Each situation will require a slightly different treatment, depending on the look you’re going for, and it really pays to try out some variations with your lighting before committing to one final configuration.
With our final lighting configuration in place, we then took a series of shots. About halfway through shooting, a little feline friend entered the frame and made himself comfortable behind the chair. This shot rally captured the mood we were going for and ended up being the favorite of the bunch.
Keep in mind when viewing any of this or other lessons that your lighting treatment may need to be modified to what’s been demonstrated, depending on your subject and the scene. Different scenarios require different lighting approaches. But that’s the beauty of it. Remember, there is no “right way” to light a portrait, and portraiture would be pretty boring if there was.
As always, remember to experiment with your lights and have fun!