Lighting for texture is a very important part of what we do.
Lighting Basics, Class Three
I am often asked what do I decide first when making a photograph. The answer is easy… aperture. Aperture changes the way my photographs work more than any other thing. It is important to note that I am not an ‘action’ shooter or sports shooter, for whom shutter speed may be the most important decision you need to make. Shooting action means knowing what shutter speed is needed to make it as sharp as you want it to be.
My work is not shutter speed centric, if that is a term that we can agree on. Aperture controls depth of field, and that is the first thing I look at when deciding what kind of photograph I am going to make, or what kind of look the photograph will have in relationship to the focus of subject / background.
We know that at f-16 things are more in focus in the background than if we shoot the same shot at a ‘wider’ aperture like f-4. Additional situations that can create or diminish the DOF blur is the distance of the subject from the background and how close the subject is to the lens.
Add to that, what the lens is… wide/normal/telephoto and we see there are lots of things to think about along with the aperture itself. The shot below was shot on an 80-200MM f2.8L lens and it is zoomed to 200MM. I shot this image at f2.8 so that I could maximize the blur behind her, and distinctly show her face in detail. As you can see, the DOF is so shallow that the back of her head is falling out of focus. Exactly what I wanted, so aperture first was the most important decision. The background was a house and bushes probably 30 feet behind her.
The same lens was used in the studio before, but I wanted all of the subject in focus. Front of the nose to the back of the hair. The crispness was what I was seeking. I chose f-11 for this shot so that the DOF would be deep enough with the lens being as long as it was and as close as it was.
The image below was taken in Florida and the first thing I determined was that with my 200MM lens at f2.8, I would not be able to get all of her face in focus. Knowing that the background was simply sky and clouds as far behind her as possible, I could grab a little more depth of field and still have the feeling of a very shallow photograph. I chose f-5 for this shot and kept both of her eyes in focus as well as most of her hair. The background seems to be as blurred as the background in the first shot because it is so far behind her.
We know that lens length can affect DOF as well. Below is a photograph taken in Bermuda. I used my 20-35MM f2.8 L Canon for the shot, and I was set at f-4. Look at how much more the background is in focus behind her. At this distance, the wide angle lens has much more DOF than a telephoto making the same image. (Part of your assignment for next time.)
A wide angle lens used at maximum aperture (f22) was able to keep the subject in the foreground AND the windmill in the background in very sharp focus. This shot, taken in a Minnesota corn field, was done with the 20-35MM zoom at 20MM. The resulting image has full depth of field.
In order to do this in a reasonable amount of deliberation, it is important to understand our reciprocals… the relationship of shutter speed to aperture to ISO needed for exposure.
f-2.0 @ 1/4000
f-2.8 @ 1/2000
f-4 @ 1/1000
f-5.6 @ 1/500
F-8 @ 1/250
f-11 @ 1/125
f-16 @ 1/60
f-22 @ 1/30
As the aperture becomes smaller, the shutter speed gets longer. The same amount of light is coming in based on brightness (aperture) and time duration (shutterspeed), but it is rendered much differently on the film or sensor. F-2 has far less DOF than f-8 with the same lens at the same distance.
I do everything at ISO 100 to start. That is my base and I can make simple decisions faster if I have the same base for each situation. NOTE that I do not necessarily SHOOT at ISO all the time, I just use it for a simple base. So if I know that we are shooting at ISO 100, and the meter says f-8 @ 1/250 I can make a decision rather quickly… I want to shoot the picture for minimal DOF and that means f2.8 or f-2, right?
So I simply open up the aperture three stops (5.6 to 4 to 2.8) and shorten the shutter speed the same equivalence of three stops as well… 500 to 1000 to 2000. The exposure of f2.8 @ 1/2000 is the same as f-8 @ 1/500 but the image has less DOF.
Knowing how to use reciprocals, and working with them on every shoot will help you understand the choices YOU must make for your own imagery.
In the shot below, I was using a Canon 50MM f-1.4 lens. I knew how much DOF I needed to keep the three subjects in focus, and set the camera settings for EXACTLY that setting – f2.8 to be exact. At a wider aperture (f2 for example) one of the two ladies would have been out of focus. Being able to take a meter reading and make the reciprocal changes in my head meant that I was able to catch the shot as the light began to play in and out of the clouds.
Tutorials from YouTube:
Telefoto or Zoom Lens:
1. Frame a subject at the longest length you have on your zoom. A tightly cropped headshot or similar. Shoot a set of reciprocals for your test. Start at f-16 and end up at the widest aperture you have. Meter for f-16, then adjust by quickening the shutterspeed for each adjustment wider on the lens.
f-16 @ 1/125
f-11 @ 1/250
f-8 @ 1/500
f-5.6 @ 1/1000
f-4 @ 1/2000
f-2.8 @ 1/4000
2. Leaving the zoom at it’s longest setting walk backwards to get a full length shot of the subject. Do the same exposure range as you did before.
3. Now use your normal lens, or zoom back on your zoom and make the same set of exposures at the same crop… so you will now be closer to your subject with a bit of a wider lens (50MM / 70MM on the big zooms).
4. Put on a wide angle lens and come in close to approximately the same distance. Do the same exposure exercise as above. Pull all the images into Lightroom or Bridge and compare. Notice how the exposures are the same, for each series – in fact they should all match exposure wise, but how wildly different they look with the different lenses, and the different apertures.
This is a great exercise to do to get familiar with WHY you make the choices you do and how those choices affect the way the final image looks.
The Lighting Angle: Part One
Now that we are starting to understand the metering a bit better, we are going to look at how the angle of the light can create different presentations – AND different exposure situations.
The camera is a fixed position. It is where the Point of View is coming from, and it always presents one leg of our triangle. There is a straight line drawn from camera to subject when looking through the lens.
We call this the “Axis” of the camera to the subject. Since the subject is always what is in front of our lens, this is a fixed angle.
Shifting the light from front to side to back creates all sorts of interesting changes in our subject. These changes are brought about by contrast, shadows, angles of shadows, and can be used to reveal or hide texture.
Front light is coming from on axis of the camera or very near the axis of the camera. Angled light (45 degrees) can actually be anywhere from slightly off camera axis to the point where it becomes side light.
Once we move the light back behind the model any distance back from the 90 degree side light, it would be considered backlight. And something other than that light source would become the ‘main’ light even if it was not as bright as the backlight.
Front Light Example:
Briana is lit from the sun which is over my shoulders. Notice the ‘flat presentation’ of skin and the shape of her arms and legs. Dimension is not presented well, and that is the point of front light. It flattens and contains dimension. Front light can be a particular favorite of some fashion shooters as it creates something akin to studio lighting, and alleviates many distresses on the skin.
Meter from the skin at the same axis as the camera. Using your in camera meter, choose any middle gray reflectance you wish, or by understanding the exposure (see class one) you can “place” the exposure where you want it to be.
Side Light Example:
In this shot of a man I met in Superior, Arizona, I used the sunlight from a side position to give texture to his face, hair and denim clothes. Light from the side meant that I had two areas of light on his face… the direct light, and the shadow (ambient) to base my metering on. I was very careful to use the dome of my meter right in front of him with the light striking the dome the same way it was striking him… half with directional light, and half with the ‘shadow’ or ambient light.
The resulting exposure indication would be very close to what I needed, and I double checked it through my in camera meter by placing the spot meter on the white t-shirt in the sun and opening up two stops (from middle gray, the reflection that gave me the reading – to the actual placement of the white shirt at a point that would still be white, with texture; two stops brighter than the indicated exposure reading.
See the Using a Photographic Light Meter on UDEMY (Assignment One). This class is free for all photographers.
Side / Back Light Example
In this shot the light is coming from the side and slightly back. This is a ‘rim light’ use, and can be thought of as a “special”. The sun is indeed the main illumination tool here, but the “Main Light” that is providing the light on Briana is the ambient light of the sky above her and behind the camera. The sun is adding the rim affect, and is brighter than the main light.
Notice that the sun still lights up part of Briana’s hands, chest, vest and hair. Notice that these areas are brighter than she is – as they should be. Basing (or placing) the exposure on her face presents us with a slightly brighter side light. This is more natural than if we had based the exposure on the side light on her chest or hands which would have rendered the image much darker.
Back Light Example:
The sun is coming from behind Briana, and I based the exposure totally on her face. The sun then becomes quite bright and even provides nearly overexposed skin on her shoulder and arm. By placing the exposure on her face, we keep the skin tones of the subject area correct.
I used a handheld Minolta meter for each of these shots. With the ambient exposure dome pointed at the camera, I was very careful to keep all direct light (like the sun) from spilling over on the ambient dome so it would ONLY measure the light as it was presented to the subject – and therefor back to the camera.
In all examples I point the dome directly AT the camera and on the axis line.
Alternatives would be to come in close with the camera filling the frame with the subjects face and taking the reading from the camera. Making sure that all I was reading was the face or cheeks, and that there was no extraneous bright areas or flare from a backlight, I would take the exposure meter reading (thus finding the exposure for middle gray) and open up by one stop to “place” that skin tone at the proper reflectance. (For Caucasion skin I open one stop. For Hispanic or Latin skin, I keep the exposure and for dark, African skin I stop down one stop. These are my rules of thumb and I use them as guidelines to make sure that the reflectance levels remain true to the values I want to portray in the image.
Keep working on the first nine chapters of the Udemy course linked on assignment one. (This is a free course.)
Shoot a person in full on sun, but not “noon” sun from above. Either early in the morning or later in the afternoon so the sun is coming more at an angle to the subject. How much of an angle is up to you, but I like to work with a shallow shadow under the chin. If the shadow under the chin goes all the way to the neckbones, the sun is still too high. This is done with the subject looking at the sun.
Shoot them in the same position but keep taking two steps to your left or right. No farther from them and keep them the same size in the viewfinder, but keep stepping away from the sun on axis until you reach a spot where the sun is slightly behind the subject. The subject turns in place to keep looking straight at you.
This will take you from front light to angled light to side light to slightly back side light.
You may keep on turning if you want to go all the way to full backlight.
IMPORTANT: DO THIS TWICE.
The first time take the reading of the full on axis sun, and leave that setting as you continue around your arc.
The second time, use either the handheld meter or the one in your camera to make exposures come out correctly to your taste as you go around.
(HINT: a gray card should remain the same exposure as you work your way around the second time. Have your subject hold that card and base exposure on that as you go around the arc.)
Bret Doss is a photographer and an engineer in Seattle, Washington. He and I have traveled the PNW together on occasion and he was my assistant on the Creative LIVE workshops.
He is a talented photographer with a wide range of interests. From fashionable portraiture to environments and still life, Bret brings a unique view to what he shoots.
In this recent “Improvisation” Bret turned his lens on leaves that fell on or near his porch. The images bring a subtle dynamic, and a visual twist, to something we have all seen… leaves.
Bret offers no explanation for these images, and I agree they need none. Fall is one of my favorite times of the year for photography, and shots like this are one reason.
I spent a couple of days in the forests and mountains around Seattle a few weeks ago. I hope to go again.
I am a desert guy. Lived in the deserts most of my life, and I find them fascinating – maybe due to my design predilection for minimalism. Not sure really, but the ability to see hundreds of miles from the Vermilion Cliffs, or to watch a the sun set over vast distances of open earth is something of a wonder to me.
I also find that deserts are hard to photograph. Well, at least hard to photograph well.
Some have been able to make astounding photographs of the desert southwest, but I am still working on it.
So get me in an area where you cannot see more than a couple dozen yards through thick, dark, and somewhat mysterious forest, and it is a whole new ballgame.
We took the “Mountain Loop” road out of Granite Falls, WA, and set out to just be three guys with cameras having fun. And we did. Charles, Bret and I spent a good long time not saying much, just taking in the wonderful environment.
And the quiet. The incredible quiet.
It was a semi-cloudy day, and I was struck by how little light made it through to the ground. I had to bump some ISO as I looked for some interesting things to photograph.
I didn’t really have to look that far, but I did have to think about the light. Lots of contrast in the scenes. With the sun being nearly full on, and the dark backgrounds that were naturally occurring, I did have to think closely about exposure and processing.
The silence of the area was punctuated by the sounds of birds and rushing water. Everywhere there were small creeks leading to larger ones with waterfalls. Below us was a river that flowed with abandon with rapids seemingly at every turn.
Rivers with water in them… coming from Phoenix, I can tell you how rare that is there. LOL.
I was also in love with the forest floor. So many colors of green mixed with the light that would fight its way through.
There are places where thoughts run to change, and the patterns of a fast moving world. And there are places that give us pause to consider that not everything moves at that pace. Some things take their time.
Time. One of the most misunderstood values of our lives.
I see people wasting it, taking it for granted, and ignoring its value all around me.
I see it in myself.
The forest floor takes its time. Things happen slowly there, and with great purpose. And while that purpose may be not totally revealed to me, or you, it is still the guiding hand.
The image as metaphor? The image as an allegory, as Minor White suggested?
Yes, I think so… but I also know that the allegories can have different meanings for each that view. Perhaps the underlying basis is there, but the stories we tell ourselves are different from each other.
As similar as the leaves in the above photograph, but upon close inspection no two leaves will be an exact match – and that is where the true understanding of the allegory comes into focus.
I have no idea what your story will be when you see my photographs. I only want to make photographs that are capable of creating a story inside you.
One last image and I am off to a busy Saturday.
Yes, I kind of fell in infatuation with the forests and mountains of Washington State. It would remain to be seen if I could actually go from the wide open spaces to something so nearly claustrophobic as these mighty forests.
I don’t know. My affinity for the desert, its dry wind and open skies is pretty deep.
But I do love the forests, I do.
I was recently on creativeLIVE and have received some rave reviews of the workshop. If you are interested in taking a look at the workshop, you can find it on creativeLIVE’s web site here. I think it is a tremendous value and if you are unable to attend any of my workshops, this may give you a ton of information you will want to have to push your photography to the next level.
I am working on a big project with the Phoenix Children’s Choir, and need to get some new shots of the kids and the choirs and the performances. So when last weekend’s final concert came along, I knew I had to get some shots.
The venue was amazing, and I checked it out for lighting. There was so much wonderful natural light in the church main room, that lights were not needed. I was pretty pleased with that, as trying to light 300+ chorus members in a 5 minute window with strobes was going to be a bit of a challenge.
The test shots looked good and the huge pipe organ pipes made a very cool background.
We were set… camera at the ready, tests made, images double checked and ISO/aperture/shutter speed nailed down.
“Hey, I have an idea…”, I heard from behind me.
“All the choirs have shots taken in these kinds of halls, let’s do ours in the courtyard.”
At 3:30 in the afternoon?
“Sure, let’s see if it can work…”
Outside in the mid-day sun.
No strobes, no scrims, very little shade.
Did I mention it was outside – in the crappy part of the day?