Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Three Degrees of Isolation

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The word "degree" has two separate and very different meanings: It can refer to a unit of measurement, e.g.,  degrees of an angle or degrees of temperature, or it can refer to the amount, level, or extent to which something happens or is present.  For this blog update, I'm using that second definition of "degree," the latter one, and I'll probably use it multiple times, each time referring to an amount, a level, or an extent of something, and I'll probably do so with varying levels of success. But hey! I try! Right?

Okay. Let's talk about Three Degrees of Isolation.  (Note: Not to be confused with Six Degrees of Separation, a theory that says everyone is six or fewer steps away, by way of introductions, from any other person in the world. I don't know if I'm a believer in the Six Degrees of Separation theory or not, but I do believe the Three Degrees of Isolation helps make better photographs.)

One of the keys to good model images,  make that most any photos of almost any subject -- and this is a big one --  is a photographer's ability to isolate a photo's main subject from its surroundings.  Photographers accomplish this via varying degrees of creativity and technical skills, doing so with various levels or degrees of success.

You see, our eyes and minds cut through the visual "noise" and clutter of what we see utilizing both physical as well as mental processes. It's an automatic and instinctive ability we humans have. Hell, many animals have the same ability.  We're born able to do this, leastwise once our eyes and brains, soon after birth, develop enough in order to do so.

Not so, however, for cameras and lenses. While it's true our eyes are quite similar to a camera's lens, what cameras don't have is a brain with the ability to mentally process what the eyes (the brain's lenses) see in order to isolate the main subject(s) they're looking at from other things peripheral to the main subject or focus. In other words, what the camera sees doesn't automatically isolate the main subject from its surroundings. (Those surroundings being the visual noise and clutter I mentioned at the start of this paragraph.)  Instead, photographers need to do things in order to isolate their subjects so the resulting photos, often in less than subtle ways, point viewers to those main or key subjects. Once reason photographers should use "isolating" practices is because, for one thing, our eyes see in three dimensions (with our brains processing those three dimensions) while cameras only record two of those dimensions, and the camera does so without a brain able to isolate the key elements or the main subjects of what its lens "sees."

So how do we, as photographers, isolate our key or main subjects from the noise, chaos, and clutter (or lack of it) in a model's surroundings? We do so, for the most part, in three ways by utilizing varying degrees of three, general-but-separate, specific-yet-overall, photographic skills or techniques.

The three skills/techniques for isolating a subject are:

1. Depth of Field (Not to be confused with Depth of Focus which refers to lens optics-- more specifically the placement of the image plane, i.e., the film or sensor plane in a camera, relative to the lens.)

2. Lighting

3. Composition

When I'm shooting a model, one of the first decisions I make is what degree of Depth of Field I plan to record in order for my focus -- that is, where focus generally begins and ends -- to be used to help isolate her from the shooting environment; to varying degrees, that is.  (I say "generally begins and ends" because Depth of Field does not have an exact point where the focus abruptly begins and ends. Rather, those points are subtle and gradual, yet they're still quite noticeable, in a subtle-but-noticeable and gradual way.)

Let's say, for example, I'm shooting a model in front of a plain, uniform, seamless background.  (As many of my clients often have me do.) Depth of Field isn't much of a concern with a model in that environment. But, if/when I'm shooting a model outside in daylight at an exterior location, well, that's a very different matter.  I might, for instance, decide to shoot her in front of a seamless at f/8 or f/11 which delivers a fair amount of Depth of Field. I'll make that choice because, no matter how much Depth of Field my photo produces, the seamless won't seem to be in focus. (Unless it has wrinkles and creases, etc.) 

If I take that same model outside, I may (and I do, often enough) choose to shoot at f/2.8 or f/3.5 in order to shorten the Depth of Field and throw the background (and foreground) out of focus. (Again, to varying degrees depending on how I want the resulting images to appear.) I'll often do that, specifically, to help isolate my model from her surroundings, usually the background, which is something I'm not much concerned about when she's in front of a seamless. 

Three-point or triangular lighting, glam style.
Lighting is my second consideration for isolating my models from their shooting environments. For studio or other interior work, I mostly use a lighting setup that is called "Three-Point" or "Triangular" lighting."  It's old school but then, so am I.  Plus, my clients like it so that's what's most important. 

Three-point or Triangular lighting requires three lights at a minimum: A main or key light plus two back lights (the glam version) or a main or key, a fill light, and a back light. (The original version.) The two back lights (in the glam version) are generally set on either side of the model, from behind, to produce  highlights (or edge or rim lighting) designed to isolate (or separate)  models from the shooting environments. 

Certainly, I can add more lights. And I sometimes do. I can, for instance, decide to separately light the background or seamless. But I don't often do that because, for the most part, especially when shooting with my model in front of a seamless, my clients don't care about the background. Their art departments, most often, will be cutting the model out of the BG for whatever they're using the pics for-- like packaging, posters or slicks (slicks being a small poster), and that sort of stuff.  So, I don't light it. I can also add other lighting, e.g., a fill light or a hair light or some other highlighting light but, again, I don't often do so. I often  add a reflector or two into the mix for some subtle fill, but reflectors don't count as lights, on their own.

Once again, when I'm outside it's a different matter. When shooting in daylight. I still want to isolate my model from the shooting environment to various degrees, and I'll mostly do so using just one artificial light as a main or key light.  Generally, though, I'll place my model with the sun behind her in order to allow the sun, as a light source, to produce edge or rim lighting that is quite similar to what I produce in the studio with back lights. 

Composition is the third technique utilized to help isolate subjects/models, to various degrees, from the visual noise, clutter, or lack of it, whether shooting inside or out.  There are more than a few compositional techniques one can employ to accomplish this. I won't call them "rules" because many photographers are resistant to the notion or mention of "rules." That's cool. But do yourselves a favor: learn the friggin' rules! That way, you can use them if you decide to. (While you're at it, take some time to learn about the Elements of Design as well.) Trust me when I tell you those Rules of Composition, as well as the Elements of Design,  will earn their keep and often come in quite handy. 

BTW, I'm not going to identify all of the techniques/rules of composition you can employ -- once again, to varying degrees -- to help isolate your models from their shooting environment and produce better pictures. Why not? Because this is a blog update, not a chapter in a book or an entire book, and composition is a subject, like lighting, that can encompass whole chapters in books or entire books for that matter. 

So, next time you're shooting a model, consciously think about the Three Degrees of Isolation -- DoF, Lighting, Composition --  and how you can effectively utilize them, to varying degrees of course, to help you make better photos. 

The pretty girl at the top is Ms. Lupe Fuentes. All three degrees of isolation, to varying degrees, are at work in the image to help isolate her and make her, especially her pretty face, quite obviously the main subject of the photo as well as for directing its viewers' attention. Here's another snap of Lupe from the same shoot. 


Phil O'Hagan said...

When I first started shooting, back in the film days, my "normal" lens was an 85mm. I found that this more closely approximated what I was looking at rather than what I was seeing. As a motorcyclist, and the motorcycle instructor, I'm forced to use a wide degree of peripheral vision. This helps on the road but doesn't work as well in my photography.

In fact, I now use a 50mm as my normal lens on my DX format cameras to achieve the same result.

Works for me.

Winston Cooper said...

Jimmy..you have just single handily destroyed all e-instructions sales of "how too" books of how to shoot studio art nudes...including your own. Really,as a hobbyist "Pretty Girl Shooter,,71 yr"...all one really needs is some of your basic three or four light set-ups (I use your 3 light edge light setup], a willing model and a desire to record beauty....Thank you Ca. dude.......

jimmyd said...

Winston: There are no secrets. No secrets of the pros or otherwise. It's all out there if someone is willing to look and learn. Course, my books delve into more than simple lighting techniques. A lot more. But still, yeah, there's more than a modicum of truth in what you said. Thanks for reading!