Lessons in lighting

The last week of photography hasn’t been stressful, per se, but it has taught me a lot about photography and has worn me out physically. Although I walk a lot during my daily commute and when Jo and I go out at the weekend, I spend much of my day at the office in front of the computer and so when it comes to a concerted amount of effort, it’s hard work! So I’m very glad to have all but one of the shots I need “in the can”. (The last will be taken with Jo in a few weeks’ time.)

The lessons I’ve learned through a lot of photo sessions in the last week are manifold and I’ll be going into them one at a time, with an article explaining each session. That said, it’s not just been the last week which has taught me a lot about photography, but the past year. I’ve learned a huge amount about lighting and portrait photography, added new techniques to my post processing skills, and generally come on in leaps and bounds in my photography. The last time I made so much progress in such a short space of time was when I switched from a film to a digital camera.

I started out as many do, when trying to come to terms with the technique and technology of using artificial lighting. Dialling down the ambient light, putting lots of light into a picture using flash guns, and blasting away. Once through that process, and satisfying the urge to have massively contrasty photographs, the time came when I calmed down a lot and started moulding the light. Using more natural light again, and only adding artificial light to help or highlight certain aspects of the photos.

Watching a documentary on Annie Leibovitz and studying her lighting setups, as well as reading up a lot on Gregory Crewdson, who I’ve mentioned in articles recently, brought me closer to the photographic style I’ve been searching for. The photoshoot in Zurich at which I took the photo above was a turning point for me. Instead of using hard light and dramatic contrast, I used a lot more diffused light. The shot is clearly dramatic, but the contrast between light and dark is a lot more gradual. The light on the subject is very soft and the daylight, which is coming from behind her, plays a big part in the feel of the image. If I had a larger budget, I would’ve used the biggest softbox I could afford to counter the daylight, as Leibovitz (and many other location photographers) would. As my budget for the portrait shoots over the past few months has been zero, though, I used two large white shoot-through umbrellas instead and combined multiple flashes to create one large light source.

The effect of using such soft light is that the effect is much more subtle and flattering. Instead of the photo being obviously “lit”, the light falling on the subject is a lot more natural. This also allows for a much more precise control of the light balance between dark and light areas of the photo, providing a good base on which to work at the post-processing stage.

Coincidentally, while I was writing this blog post, Joe McNally’s assistant Drew published a post on Joe’s website which touches on the biggest lesson I learned through the course of shooting. That by paying more attention to the environment and lighting when shooting, making a special effort to get the shot as close to perfect as you can on-site, the effort of repairing a photo at the post-processing stage is much reduced. At more recent shoots, this technique has saved me a lot of time in front of the computer and it’s a very satisfying feeling to know that you only have to make minor adjustments to an image before it’s complete.

This photo was the first for which practically no post-processing was required to adjust the colours and tone of the image: the raw file is fairly close to the end result. The only parts of the image for which Photoshop was a better and less time-consuming effort than on-the-spot adjustments were the vignette and the surface of the wooden deck.

Let’s just say that the quay is very popular with birds of the feathered variety.

Paying attention to such details and considering whether they would improve the photo are a key point to making successful images. The devil is in the details, as they say, and by paying attention to them, your pictures will improve noticeably.