Just a Camera and a Subject. Simplicity Can Be Fun.

Recently there was a discussion on whether natural light shooters would be able to compete with the strobe-heavy photographers and those deep into the Photoshop illustrative techniques. And before we begin it must be stressed that I love all kinds of photography. This is not ‘against’ any style that you may enjoy, it is only a look at some simple, and entirely wonderful ways of shooting.

Photography embraces all types of imagery. From the heavily illustrated work of Dave Hill and Tim Tadder, to the Photojournalist with a camera in a war zone, to a wedding shooter with a speedlight – and more. We love it all. I hope that when you look at a photograph you don’t measure it by whether it was ‘hard to do’ but whether it speaks to you and makes its way into your inner vision. The image is what is important.

The discussion was at Heather Morton’s excellent blog. Jaimie said:

“The other post I wanted to mention was the ‘To Gear or Not To Gear’ article where there was a discussion about exactly that. I think this was actually the first compliment I think I’ve received from someone in the industry in regards to my natural light stuff. I guess I’m curious to know why it’s seen as such a bad thing. I completely understand that in the advertising world it’s all about control and customization as well as being a little over the top in many cases. What I don’t understand is why working with natural light seems to be frowned upon and/or viewed as being amateur and simplistic, or something that wasn’t thought out. Seriously, I don’t think either Grant or I or any other shooter that uses a lot of available light (Chris Wahl anybody?) are just taking our cameras outside and hoping for the best when we shoot.”

I think that is something that a lot of people who first get interested in photography through the internets think. Unfortunately. And of course the marketers abound with gear gear gear to a point where some would wonder if were even possible to create images without a ton of lights. And of course it is. And shooters like Frank Hoedle use a lot of gear to achieve a look that seems more natural than not. And this is NOT a gear discussion…

This is a possibilities discussion. I have no dog in the hunt as they say. I could care less what anyone shoots with or without… just show me the pictures. Do they move me? Good.

My post today is on simplistic shooting… just a camera and a subject. The images above were taken 25 years ago. (Natural light, Nikon F3, 180MM f2.8 Nikkor @ 2.8, on Tri-X at ISO200 and pushed 15% in D76.) They were taken in Scottsdale, AZ on a bright, sunny day. There are no fill cards or any other lighting gear used. I think they work.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter to the image. The subject connects with you instantly. The light is subtle and soft and inviting. Was it ‘easy’? I don’t remember most anything being ‘easy’. The location has to work, and then there are considerations to be made. Will the light ‘work’ or will it just be exposure light? Can I sculpt the subject a bit and separate her and emphasize the line and shape and flow? What exposure compensations may I have to make to create on the film or capture, the look I see in my head? The only thing that is easy is that I only had to carry my bag to the shoot.

In the shot on the right we were in a closed in patio with a large window facing south. The light coming in that window was shaded from direct sun by an overhang, so the light was soft and wide. Placing the subject into that light and then making sure the walls were lit enough to provide the soft edge lighting was the goal. We had to move some furniture to get it right, but we did. Same location for the shot in the middle, and as the sun went behind a mountain and left us in shade, we did the shot on the little gravel driveway.

I shoot to the right and process to the left. What that means is I would more likely over expose the image and process to the shadows than I would underexpose. I like brighter skin tones and I like a neg or capture that has some contrast to it. Digital is so flat compared to film. So I shot the film to the regular ISO200 that I usually did (Tri-X was rated at ISO 400… yeah, and I am the king of prussia) and pushed the film (over developed it) to get a bit more contrast. Digital to follow after the jump.


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Recharging the Soul with Personal Projects

Recharging the Soul: Personal Projects and Private Moments

This is kind of a personal post for me. There are challenges that I face as an artist and writer. And photographer. And sometimes those challenges can take its toll on me, and us. Creativity, for me, takes nurturing and constant practice.

I have always felt that photography, was more than what I could do. It was a big part of what makes me. In my DNA so to speak. It partly defines me more than any other endeavor that I involve myself in.

I came to photography the usual way. My dad was a photographer / writer and his enthusiasm was contagious. I would go into the field with him and he would photograph fishing ‘flies’ and how to sight in a rifle and such. I would be his note taker, and he would talk to me as he was working and I would write down the distances or the exposures. He wrote and illustrated magazine articles for outdoor magazines. I miss my dad.

When I was a kid I would wait every Wednesday by our little mailbox to get the issues of Life and Saturday Evening Post. Cover to cover by nightfall. I cut out images and stuck them in a little box. Names like Eisentaedt and Margaret Bourke White started to become recognizable.

The images were so beautiful, and sparked such interest… I would go back again and again to look at the photographs. Moments in time caught forever in a frozen tableaux… to be shared and remembered. Film (movies) doesn’t do that for me. I rarely want to sit and watch a movie again and again. But I can pick up my copy of Ansel Adams Monographs, a Minor White collection, or my old dog eared Cheyco Liedmann book and enjoy a few quite moments.

There has also been some stuff online recently that lets me know that other photographers are talking about and thinking about this stuff as well. Chase Jarvis, Zack Arias, Scott Bourne, Jack Hollingsworth, Kirk Tuck, and others have posted on creativity.

I have been feeling the burn of captivity lately. Seems like I am tied to a desk as I am working on two books, redoing the curriculum for the workshops and editing/post processing images for clients.

So I wanted to go out and do something that spoke to how I was feeling. I generally don’t try to make ‘pretty’ pictures, others do that very well. I like environments that show themselves to be involved in life. From decay to renew, old contrasted with new, and the mark of man on the environment.

Since I am feeling a little isolated and in need of a recharge, I decided to take an afternoon and do something photographically that made sense to me. At this moment… where I am and what I am feeling now.

More after the jump below. I just wanted to remind you that our new feature “Rants and Raves” are shorter form articles that are just that… rants and raves. I have the first few months of the schedule up at Learn to Light, so if you are considering a workshop this year, check the schedule out. I think my workshop is one that will change your lighting and photography for the better.


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Using a Lightmeter and “Placing” the Photographic Exposure

Meters. Some people hate ‘em. Some people love ‘em. But a lot of people don’t know what they do or why they should have one. Well the gloves come off on this one. At Lighting Essentials, we LOVE light meters… they give us control that no chimpin’ can… and we can use the knowledge they give us to tame even the most difficult lighting challenge.

We will have a lot to say about meters in this post, so grab a cold one (or for my Toronto, Detroit, Boise and Pittsburgh friends… a warm one) and get ready. We are gonna talk about meters and how to use them for repeatable and perfect exposures. More after the jump… lots more.

I received a note from one of the workshop folks from earlier in the year. He was employed when he took the workshop, but a few weeks later found himself able to ‘pursue other interests…” Beng laid off suddenly can be a real wakeup for most people. “Without taking your workshop, I wouldn’t have known where to start. But having the information you taught me made me confident enough to go out on my own. It isn’t easy… but we are doing better than we thought we would have a year ago. I will match my old salary within a year if things keep going as they are. Thanks for the information and encouragement to just go for what I wanted to do all along.”

OK… that really made my day… hell, it made a lot of my days.

Be sure to catch the “Going Pro” section for more information on making that jump. Check out Briana’s “Model Behavior” for insights into the world of being on the other end of the lens, and be sure you hit the “Archives” as there are tons of articles on this site. Maybe enough for a book… ya know.

Anyway… let’s hit the road with this meter thing. I love my beat-up old Minolta Meter and wouldn’t leave home without it. Here’s why…

Meters have been the subject of many discussions pro and con recently. I offer my assistance whenever I can, but lately the noise about not needing them seems to be quite loud. OK… I can tell you seriously that if you really don’t need one, then by all means don’t bother. If it is working for you, then fine. (However, I will say that 9 out of 10 people who tell me they don’t need them don’t know what they are missing… they never had the power and control a meter can give. Sorry, but there is a hell of a lot a chimp and a histogram wont tell you.)

I like using a meter. I have had many. My current one is a meter I bought a long time ago. The Minolta Flashmeter IV has been with me for nearly three decades now. New juice and a nice place for naps and it is a trusty friend and I-got-that-light-for-you assistant. It has been dropped, left behind, lost, found and sat upon. Spilled drinks nearly killed it one night in LA, and the sands of the Mojave left it with less luster and shine.

But I push the button and it tells me the exposure. Or at least the exposure as it sees it. I determine the final settings based on what it tells me is the ‘mean’.

Someday I will write about how much the Zone System study that I did helps me today, but for now I will only say that understanding what the meters see is so damn important. They see a middle gray – 18% gray to be precise. They have to have something to ‘base’ their exposure on so they choose the middle tone to do it.

Reflective meters DEPEND on something in the scene being middle gray, and they DEPEND on you to know what that middle gray thing is. Wedding dresses become middle gray when exposed ‘to the meter’ with a reflected meter. The meter sees the dress and calculates the correct exposure for it to be middle gray. Guys in black tuxes? No problem says the reflected light meter… shabam… middle gray. That is the job of the reflected light meter… to tell the photographer what exposure to use to render the subject ‘middle gray’.

If you know what to point your meter at, you can then use it to determine your exposure exactly. Let’s look at a scene with middle gray in it… and exposed for that luminance.

This photo of the “George Patton Museum” in California was taken in direct sun. I metered the exposure with the built in meter (reflective) and chose the medium toned rocks as my center-weighted target. They were what I deemed to be middle gray, so I exposed at the camera’s suggested exposure. If I had chosen the lighter band above them, then the image would have that band placed at middle gray and all of the tones below it would move down one… taking the dark grays into black and lowering the light grays into the mid-gray tone.

A scene metered with a reflective meter reading.

If I had conversely chosen the dark gray part of the wall to make my exposure, that area would have been moved to the luminance of the middle gray rock and everything above it would move up… overexposing the highest lights into white and creating a dark gray bottom where black should have been. One stop can do that.

I use a reflective light meter when I am physically in a different light than my subject. For instance… If I am on the Golden Gate bridge and it is currently in the fog, and I look East toward San Francisco – currently bathed in beautiful sun – I use a reflected light meter reading. I look for something in the scene that I want to be middle gray, place my center-weighted meter on that and get my exposure… moving the camera to get my composition. Reflective light meters are subject sensitive… they move all over as you move along the scene so you must choose wisely.

All of a sudden the fog clears and I am standing in the same light as the city. Now, I pull out my trusty Minolta meter and using the ambient setting, I aim the ball at the direction of the camera and take a reading. That’s because the same light that is falling on the city is now falling on me. So I can get a reading of the city by simply getting a reading of the light that is prevailing on both me and the city.

Incident light meters (with the little ball on them – or with the ball in the main position are ambient light meters) measure the light falling on the subject and tell you what the middle gray exposure is even if there is no middle gray in the picture. It is subject neutral. The meter doesn’t vary as you move it around, as long as it is receiving the same light as the subject… it doesn’t care what is in your frame. It is giving you the correct exposure for the scene as it is being rendered by the light. Subject centric photography… I have mentioned that before. How the subject receives the light is the most important aspect of it.

How do you decide where to point the ball of the ambient light meter? It points to the camera for taking the overall exposure. You can use it toward the specific light/shadow when determining the ratio or fall-off of the light. Subjects are three dimensional. The ball is three dimensional. It should receive the light just as the subject receives the light. The angle of incidence will alter the exposure from camera, so keeping the angle of incidence on the ball the same as the subject renders the correct exposure. Or at least the meter’s base line of ‘correctness’.

Notice the placement and angle of the meter for gathering correct information.

Notice the placement and angle of the meter for gathering correct information.

Notice the upper right image. The meter was aimed at the shadow side, receiving no light from the window. So it gives us an exposure to make the shadow side middle gray. That renders the soft window light too bright. But if we meter the window light only, without taking into effect the way the light falls and angles to the camera, then the exposure is to render the window light as middle gray and the entire image is underexposed.

We take the reading from the middle of the face – the ‘transition’ spot of light to dark – and we make sure the ball is aiming right at the camera. (Look… I get really focused here… Right at means RIGHT AT… not a little off or a little down or high… be precise. PRECISE.) This exposure then is right on and renders the image in a pleasing, wide tonality that speaks to the lit and shadow side of the image.

Now you can choose what to do with that information… You can choose to shoot the image dark – ‘placing’ the exposure to the darker side if that is your taste. Or, if you want to expose the image a little lighter – or a lot lighter – you can. That is called placing the exposure.

(A word about exposure. In film days we exposed for the shadows, and developed for the highlights. These days I do something we call “Shoot to the right”. It means I like to shoot a bit brighter with the histogram, not going to the darker. I can pull more from the lighter capture than I can from the darker, muddier version. There is a lot more on this here, and here.)

Let’s look at a few case studies here for some ways the meter has been used to give the information to make the decisions on what to set the exposure.

I chose to let the bright highlights blowout for this shot in Bermuda

I chose to let the bright highlights blowout for this shot in Bermuda

In the image above, taken in Bermuda, you can see the different snips of exposures. I started at what the meter said, but quickly decided that was too dark. I wanted the FEELING of the light I was experiencing in that little roadway. I chose the bright exposure to make the set of images, and used Photoshop to bring a little more detail out of the dress. At this amount of backlight, it becomes a source in itself and I am simply shooting into a ‘flare’ situation. And flare I got. However, it is that flare and bright light that makes it feel so powerful.

A simple photograph of our MUA with late afternoon sun. A simple ambient meter solution.

A simple photograph of our MUA with late afternoon sun. A simple ambient meter solution.

I simply love this late afternoon light. The subject is sitting in the warmth of the sun and wanted to get a nice, simple portrait. By holding the ambient meter with the ball facing the camera, I nailed the exposure with a click. The highlights are still with texture and the shadow side is still delicately lit from the bounce of the pure white gorgeous sand of Anna Maria Island.

I could have chimped it you say? Really? On a bright, white sandy beach in the sun? OK… maybe, but I have found that it is damn difficult for my eyes to adjust to that screen in the middle of what seems like a light source. I didn’t have to chimp it with my trusty Minolta…

Adding a flash to the mix is easy with a meter that gives you the exact information you need... when you need it.

Adding a flash to the mix is easy with a meter that gives you the exact information you need... when you need it.

The metering of the shot of Christina was easy. I took a reading of the sunlight falling on the side of her face just as it fell… with the meter turned to the side and receiving the light from that angle. I then moved the meter to the front of her face and took a reading with the Ranger in a beauty dish. We simply moved the dish in to where we wanted it and dialed the power down till we got to the point where the Elinchrome’s reading was the same as the sun.

You will notice that the light seems brighter from the backlight sun. That is because the angle of the sun presents the light as a specular (angle of incidence – angle of reflection) and as a specular it seems brighter. The reflected light source is pretty cool when you control how it works.

By placing the exposure at 1/3 over the ambient, we can mute the world around our subject just a bit

By placing the exposure at 1/3 over the ambient, we can mute the world around our subject just a bit

I loved this guy! I decided I wanted the ambient world to be a bit muted, so I took a meter reading of the light falling on the beach. I placed it at a point to be 1/3 under-exposed. Then I moved the light into the scene to provide the exposure. It is 1/3 over the ambient, but that is what I used to place the exposure for the image.

Placing the exposure lets me determine where I can put the ambient in regard to the subject. Flash adds the ability to create a source that is not related to the ambient, so it gives the photographer another creative ability to make the image look the they want it to look. Shutter speed is used to control the ambient and the power/distance of the flash is used to determine the exposure for the subject.

Placing the exposure at the middle tones of the shot allowed the face to actually be a little over... and that 'sells' the idea of the light.

Placing the exposure at the middle tones of the shot allowed the face to actually be a little over... and that 'sells' the idea of the light.

This is a really fun shot. The sun is coming in from behind her, and I wanted the feeling of a second light source catching her attention. I metered the shot and got the basic exposure by seeing how much light was coming in from the window and falling on her legs. I checked it with a ‘chimp’ at that exposure and that confirmed that I liked the way it looked.

I added my key light with a speedlight in a bounced 43″ satin white umbrella dialed down to give me f-2.8 at the mid point of her reclining figure. That made the face closer to the light a bit brighter, and that made the shot look real and accessible. If I had placed the exposure to the darker exposure it would have looked more ‘flash-lit’ and not as natural. Placing the exposure to render the tonalities where YOU want them is one of the creative ways you can control your image and make your shots yours.

On the left is a simple natural light exposure and on the right is a more complex three shot reading.

On the left is a simple natural light exposure and on the right is a more complex three shot reading.

A simple headshot of Briana in Chicago with ambient, back lit sun is very easy with a meter. I moved in close and placed the meter under her chin for the reading. I stood way to the side so that there would be no reflection – positive or negative – from me. I wanted the ambient light on her face to be all that the camera would see and of course, kept the ball aimed at the camera position. The extreme backlight blew out some of the hair, but I don’t care. I love the look.

With the shot on the right, I used two shoot-thru umbrellas on each side of Lynn and a medium umbrella to the front of her. I used the meter and one light at a time to make sure the side lights were 1/2 over the front light and even. Simply turning the other lights off let me make each side light perfect, then add the front light. You may have to adjust a little after all three are on, but that is made easier because of the precision of the light settings possible with the meter. Honestly don’t know how precise you can get without a meter, but I sure do know how you can with one. Fast.

I chose to make the exposure based on the main – key light – and let the side lights be brighter by 1/2 stop. Placing the exposure at the key to ‘bring up’ the side lights gives the shot its expressive look.

I hope that I shed a little light on how to use the meter (heh, sorry) and that it gives you some ideas on how to use your meter a bit more, or why you should have one anyway. See you next time, and as always… please let your friends know about this article and site by using the sharing buttons on the top of the right column.

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Natural Light Portraits from Seattle

Natural Light Portraits from Seattle

The Seattle workshop was amazing. We had a great time and made some amazing images. Using the facilities of SPA, we were able to do several setups. And the models, stylists and hair artists were off the chart. Incredible styling, hair that was spectacular and a dozen models a day for the attendees to work with. Seattle simply rocks.

I rarely get a chance to shoot at the workshops as I like to keep all attention on the attendees. And while Seattle was no exception, on Sunday there were moments when the models were waiting for the photographers to get their gear or find a location. I grabbed these 5 talented people and made natural light portraits for fun. I made only a few exposures and didn’t make a lot of variations. I wanted portraits and I wanted them to be accessible… not too overly ‘stylzed’.

If you are thinking about a workshop for this Fall, please take a look at the Learn to Light site and consider a Lighting Essentials workshop. We have added a Friday evening “Business Essentials” for all attendees who want it. In Seattle we ran about 3 hours and it was a hell of a discussion.

Minneapolis, Minnesota, September 12, 13
Phoenix, AZ, September 19, 20
Saint Louis, MO, September 26, 27

October 2009
Mexico (Puerto Penasco)
2, 3, 4, 5 – Special Three Day Workshop
Detroit, Michigan 10, 11
Boston, MA, 17, 18
Boise, ID 24, 25

Thursday, August 20, will find me speaking at the local ASMP chapter. Penny Dolin (ASU) and I are discussing social media, new media and how it can be leveraged into a commercial photographer’s business.

A few from the Archives you may like:

Natural Light for Natural, Subtle Beauty
Using the Sun for A Hairlight: Some Variations
Natural Light Headshots: Keeping it Simple
Serendipitous Light
Deconstructing a Portrait on Location

Now let’s take a look at the 5 portraits from the Seattle workshop… all natural light.


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Thinking about Portraits: 6 Studies in Beauty

Portraiture and Style: How lighting effects the portrait

This post is about portrait lighting and some of the things I think about when shooting a portrait… whether in the studio or on location.

The shot above was done in Mexico at the Workshop in April. Christine had been walking with me and when she turned to talk to me I saw this shot. I pre-visualized the image as being somewhat illustrative… some heavy Photoshop was planned and I wanted the colors to be muted. The feeling was one of mystery, and the color palette and post would show a portrait that was modern, but also seemingly candid.

I liked the symmetry of the background, but also knew that putting her there would rob the image of the candid aspects. I wanted her to be moving into the middle of the poles… not be there already.

The sun was over my right shoulder and when she looked away toward the beach, her face was in shadow. I wanted to light her independently from the background and knew that a split lighting would work to show off the shot.

A handheld 430EX on a tethered cable was aimed right at her face… on the axis of her nose. I wanted no nose shadow or face sculpting at all. (Secretly I wished I had a beauty dish at the time, but – well, I didn’t.) I had Christine look over toward the water – and the light – and carefully framed the shot. She did a great job of posing and looking like she was distracted and NOT being the subject of a photo. I loved the hair coming into the face and we did a dozen or so exposures. The light on her coming from camera left while the backgorund is presented in light that is camera right adds a bit of whimsy or mystery to the shot. Christine’s excellent acting for the camera cinched the look I wanted.

Later in Photoshop I made the shot into what I had seen by adding some texture, muting the colors and presenting it within a very slight vignette.

Before we go ahead, I want to remind everyone that there is a ton of information on this site. Hit the archives button and grab a cold one. You can spend a lot of time here. And please tell your friends about us, we want a ton of people to learn to light and have fun with photography, but most of all we want to help photographers reach their goals. We offer this site as well as workshops all over the country.

See these recent posts for some more cool reading.

Claire Curran Corbett Interview
Eduardo Francis Interview
Our WordPress Themes for Photographers

Now lets look at a few more portraits and discuss the making of them, shall we.

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Using a Location to Full Advantage

One Location with Many Different Images

This is a post from the old site, and I thought I would redo it for the new one. There are many things you can do when you find a great location. When Bri and I stumbled upon this one, I thought it would be fun to work out several different ideas.

We used flash, natural light, natural bounce, strobe and direct sunlight. It was a very cool place… just an empty lot with a graffiti wall and the sun setting in the West. Tucson has a lot of colorful places to shoot, and we just parked the car on the street and set up.

We have opened the Cleveland and Detroit Workshops and are taking enrollments. I have had some interest from Memphis, Little Rock and Modesto (Central Valley, CA). I would love to set those up. Let me know if there is interest there.

Our contest is up and running (info here) and we are seeing some very nice images in the pool. Be sure to enter and get your image up on the site. And please take a moment to visit the sponsors, maybe let them know if you appreciate their stepping up to give you all the awards for winning.

Posts you may enjoy along with this one:
Sometimes The Location is Not As Good As Promised.
Make Your Own Reality to Add Drama
Shooting With Megan and Raymond on Location
On Location: Anatomy of a Shoot
On Location with Gerry, Jim and Christina

And if you haven’t checked out our Tech Sheets, you should grab them and get started on your collection. We have them coming two per month. That will be a really nice collection when you get them printed out and in a notebook.


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