Saturday, July 16, 2011

Lighting in Layers

, I don't regularly shoot outside, that is, daylight exteriors. That's not to say I don't ever shoot outside, I do, but more often than not, my clients have me either shooting in a studio or in some practical location's interior.

When I do shoot outdoor exteriors, make that daylight exteriors, and I'm going to use available light rather than mostly overcoming it with artificial lighting -- which is how I prefer working; using available light rather than overcoming it, that is -- my thought process for approaching my lighting is one where I build on what's available. I rarely rely on what's available by itself.

Some photographers do, of course, rely on available light almost exclusively and they're quite talented at doing so. For the most part, I'm not one of those people. As a result, I almost always add to whatever lighting naturally exists, whether I do so with artificial lighting or with reflectors bouncing direct sunlight or reflecting subtle fill courtesy of the existing ambient.

In my ebook, Guerrilla Glamour, I wrote about building on the "one light," i.e., the main source of light. For me, it all starts with a single light source regardless of whether that light source is a strobe, a continuous artificial lighting instrument, or the sun. (Direct sunlight or indirect/ambient, it makes no difference.) My work doesn't usually remain "one-light" work. Mostly, because contemporary glamour photography often dictates using multiple light sources, adding fill and highlights which are designed to add to the model's allure.

Like working with layers in Photoshop, I think of this as working with layers of lighting. One layer is my main or key light. Another is fill. Other layers might include accents and/or highlights. There's no order in which I might approach these layers. I might begin, for instance, with the back light; definitely if or when it's prominent. (As it often might be when you're shooting later in the day and you're using the sun as a back light and that direct sunlight is quite strong and bright.)

Let's break it down: First, I decide which light is my "one light." (As mentioned above, when referring to my ebook.) Whether that "one light" is a strobe or it's direct sunlight or it's exterior daylight ambient, it doesn't really matter. The light I dub my "one light" always creates the foundational lighting for my images and I build the rest of my lighting scheme, or layers, on that single, usually most prominent, light source I've decided is my "one light."

If I'm outside working in daylight, for instance, I pick a spot where I like the lighting that already exists (Assuming my client gives me the leeway to pick a spot of my choosing, which they don't always do.) The already existing natural light, whether it's direct or ambient, becomes, in my mind, my "one light." Then, I ask myself, "How can I make this better? How can I enhance my one light?" Leastwise, better or enhance it in ways that A) accomplishes what I'm trying to accomplish; B) best utilizes what's available, lighting-wise; and C) most effectively features my model, separating her from the environment and making the image "all about her." Remember: I'm strictly talking about lighting, make that glamour lighting, and not other portrait genres or the many other techniques a photographer might utilize to accomplish those things.

Let's say I'm shooting late in the day in and around Golden Hour. Often, although certainly not always, I'll decide to use the sun as my back-light. I love that natural, warm, golden-aura, edge-lighting that's available during that time of day! Course, shooting in those conditions means I'm usually going to need to balance the bright back-light with front-lighting. Otherwise, without the help of front-light, I'll either blow out the background or end up with a silhouette shot. Most often, those kinds of shots aren't what I'm looking to snap.

Basically, I can add front-light one of two ways: either by using reflectors or strobes. (There's other ways to do this by using continuous light instruments, often in the form of HMIs, but they aren't regularly available to me. )

I'm not going to get into which is best, reflectors or strobes. From an aesthetics POV, there is no best. It's an either/or kind of thing or it depends on which tools I expect will yield the kind of aesthetic results I'm looking for. Often enough, my approach includes both. That is, I might use reflectors as well as strobes or various numbers of each. I don't, BTW, have an absolute preference. For me, these decisions most often depend on what seems most practical (while still delivering the results I'm looking for) or what is the easiest or most efficient way to accomplish what I'm trying to accomplish with my images. I'm all about easiest and most practical.

As everyone knows, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line... or the straightest line you can manage. The rule of straight lines (or nearly-straight lines) applies to where you might be physically going as much as it does to things like how to proceed when photographing models. It does for me, at least. I do understand there are exceptions to this rule, just like there are exceptions to most rules. The way they plot the courses of airliners on trans-oceanic routes is a good example: it's often better, make that potentially safer, to fly over land masses as much as possible rather than simply navigating a straight line across the ocean.

As usual, I won't be providing a lighting tutorial or explaining exactly how to accomplish these things. (There's plenty of websites and blogs that do that!) Besides, no one single lighting tutorial or explanation could cover the different conditions I've mentioned in this update. I suppose I'm more about trying to get photographers to think about how they approach this stuff, you know, in their heads, rather than telling them how to do it. I'm simply sharing how my mind works when approaching my lighting, given the many different lighting factors and conditions that might be present.

Bottom line, don't rely near-exclusively on RAW adjustments or on Photoshop or some other image processor to fix things. Do things right when you're capturing your images. Do things in production that are most effective and most efficient. Try your best to capture you vision while you're shooting, rather than later on when you might have to toil at creating a vision, yours or one you've seen some other photographer create. Use post tools to enhance your images, rather than fixing or repairing them or trying to polish a turd.

The pretty girl at the top is Roxanne. I had to utilize my computer's way-back machine to upload it. I think I snapped that one about 7 or more years ago at a location house in the hills. Obviously, it was captured during Golden Hour. A single, large reflector was used for the front-light. I apologize for, what I now consider, heavy-handed processing. (I'm not too keen on the amputated right arm either.) I no longer have the original image and I did the processing back when I was still a little too enamored, and certainly less proficient, with Photoshop... even if, for the most part, I still suck at using PS.

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