20 December 2012

Getting into Photo, Part 3... The Light

Shot with a Paul C. Buff  Einstein 640 with a large softbox at about 1/4 power from the right side of the frame
The word Photography can be broken down into 2 parts; Photo, meaning light and graph meaning to write. So basically, Photography is the process of writing with light and that's exactly what you are doing. Your ability to see visible light, funnel it through a lens, and record an image to a medium is what photography is all about. In its most simplest form, all you need is a box with a small hole in it. That tiny hole will project the view in front of that box upside down on the opposite inner wall. If you place a light sensitive medium on that back wall, you can record that projection.

Most beginner photog will either refuse or misuse flash and thereby call themselves a "natural light" photog. What they really mean is that they don't have a flash, can't work monolights, and can only manage the pop-up flash on their cameras. So they stick to ambient light, which is sometimes call available or natural light. Ambient light is the light that is already present, no matter how strong or direct it is. This may be window light, interior light, or sunlight outdoors. Amateurs tend to believe that you don't need flash when you are outdoors and this is because they don't understand the nature of fill flash.

Shot using off-camera Canon 580EX II Speedlite very low power blended with
available sunlight just to add some fill in the face and to bring out color in dress 

So here's the thing. There is no way I can go into great detail about light in just a few paragraphs on this blog.  The intent is not to leave you with full on flash knowledge, but rather encourage you to not fear the light, to get you in the right gear, and send you  in the right direction to learn light. There are some masterful photogs out there who never use flash. You are not one of them. Get to know and master light. Start with ambient and introduce flash. I love available light and use it as my only light source quite often. Know when it works and know when to bring in some artificial light.

Client shoot, available light only
Now here is my pet peeve. I don't light paying a lot of money for light. Light is cheap and I can't understand why manufacturers want to charge me $500+ for their top of the line flash guns. I can understand underwater light costing a dime or two, but I don't like coming out of pocket for an on-camera blaster like that. $300...tops. That being said, I'm gonna say you can do more than just get by on the 2nd tier flash like the Canon 430EX II, or a Nikon SB-700 for under $300 each. I've had top of the line and can't say the extra power was every really warranted. I don't need to attach a battery pack. I'm never shooting from 100 feet away to warrant the full power of a SB-910, and I'm never shooting so friggin' fast that the less than a second recycle time is a great demand. I prefer the lighter, easier to carry, but powerful flashes of the SB-700 and Canon 430EX II. I've used both. They are great. I damn sure ain't dropping the $630 for a Canon 600-RT. That's monolight range. Which is my second point. If you need MORE POWER... get a set of monolights with battery packs that you can take anywhere. I love the Einstein 640 by Paul C. Buff. Paul C. Buff gear is phenomenal. I also rock with a White Lightning X3200 and use the large softbox and the strip soft box. I even use these on location outdoors by plugging them into my Vagabond battery packs.

Then you gotta check out radio triggers. What's the standard? PocketWizard. The Plus III is now the new boss of radio triggers at $150 per. You'll need at least 2, of course. Now ask me what I like. That would be the Yongnuo RF-603. You can get a set of 4 of these for under $70! And they work like nobody's business. I've never had one fail on me. These transeivers (transmitter & receiver in one) are each firing up to 200ft away. I tested them. The only downside is they only sync at 1/200th of a second vs. 1/250th, but I've been able to deal with that. You can too. Get a couple of flashes and a set of 4 of these radio triggers and you are set.

Using low level on-camera flash swiveld left to trigger White Lightning X3200
off to the left side filling in front side details
The thing is, you gotta learn manual mode on these things. But its easy as pie. A few tips to remember is that shutter speed controls ambient light. Aperture controls flash. So when you are balancing flash with ambient light, keep those considerations in mind. Understand the sync speed of your camera, which is usually going to be 1/250th of a second for pro-level and prosumer cameras. You can get by this by utilizing the high-speed sync function on your flash which fires a series of low-powered flashes over the span of a shutter speeds faster than 1/250th of a second instead of just one big flash. Ever get that black band at the bottom of an image when using flash? That's because the shutter is closing before the flash can illuminate the sensor. The black band is the rear curtain closing before the light hits the sensor.

Another thing to consider is modifiers. These are things that MODIFY how the light comes out and hits your subject. Diffusers, of some sort are the most popular type of modifiers. These scatter the light so your subject is hit more evenly instead of the way harsh direct light flattens out an image and creates ugly shadows, maybe under the eyes, nose, and chin. Reflectors are also popular. You can use the sun to just bounce light back into the subject, but this might be a problem if you're bouncing the light of the sun with a silver reflector back into your model's eyes. What do I like? As ugly as it is, I gotta say the Gary Fong Collapsible Lightsphere is the bomb. It may not look like its worth $60, but when it delivers the shot and you get paid, you rethink that notion. Softboxes on monolights are the only other thing that compares.

Nude hiking, available light only
Bounce the light. You can make the ceiling or a wall into a modifier. Try using filters (included w/Nikon flashes) to help balance flash with ambient (so light is the same color temperature). I like a little CTO on my flash when doing fill for sunset shoots. READ the friggin' manual. Learn the functions. Carry the flash everywhere. If you can swing it, get TWO and shoot Off-Camera using the radio triggers. Get creative. Use one for fill and the other as your key light. Have another one to backlight your subject. Search the internet for great tutorials on multi-light set-ups. If you want to go all out, check into the power of the Sun in your camera bag with the Quantum Lights. Maybe I've already said it before, but those things give you the power of the SUN in your camera bag. You can even get softboxes for flashes nowadays. There's no limit to the way you can alter and play with light. Manipulate it to capture the image that is in your head. I've never needed a 57 light setup like some people. 3...maybe 4 is the max I ever need. And then sometimes I flip the off switch on my flash and shoot natural light. There's nothing like natural light, but you should not be afraid to add a little when necessary. The idea is to master light and that means to know when to use it, how to manipulate it, and when to take it away.

Next...The Print.

Here are a few nice Go-To links to follow through on:

1. Strobist - Excellent source for lighting tutorials, articles, and DIY light building.
2. Adorama TV - Tutorial videos. I have this link specifically related to lighting
3. The Top 10 Photography Lighting Facts You Should Know
4. Painting with Light - Google image search
5. Guess the Lighting.com - Excellent blog that illustrates lighting techniques using diagrams
6. Sketching Light - Book by Joe McNally on working with flashes
7. High Speed Sync - Explanation of how it works
8. Mark Wallace on Rear Curtain Sync
9. Mark Wallace on Sync Speed, High Speed Sync, and Radio Triggers
10. Canon Professional Network - Getting the most from your Speedlites
11. Nikon Creative Lighting Systems - In my opinion, Nikon has the edge in lighting
12. Luminous-Landscape - Another top photography blog that talks a lot about lighting


Joanie said...

I'm going to disagree with you on being a natural light photographer. I can use flash and all other manner of lights, modifiers, and the like, but I prefer to use natural/available light as much as possible simply because that's the look *I* prefer when working with clients.

When you understand light and lack of it, you can work it to your advantage. I know you know this, but I also know you're trying to make a different point. Still, not all natural light photographers are noobs who can't work a flash or other types of lighting.

There are plenty of instances when using other lights makes sense and it's even more beneficial to use them, but there are times when it really behooves a photographer to know how to work with what's available via natural sources.

And with that said, Merry Christmas, Terrell! Miss you much!

Photo Anthems.com said...

I'm pretty sure I threw in that caveat acknowledging that some photogs only work with natural light. This is aimed at noobs and the goal is to encourage them to not be afraid of working outside their comfort zone. You know I've worked with a whole lot of beginner togs. I'd say 90% of part-time photogs and below who do natural light do so because they have no clue of anything else. Triggering lights and balancing lights gets daunting and sounds expensive. My goal here is to encourage them to get past those fears and just try it.

As I mentioned regarding my personal work, the majority of it, (again I'd say 90%) is natural light. But the advantage I have is the skill to work in artificial when I think it warrants it. Tell me. How many times have you seen an amateur shot that was missed because they had no fill. I've seen several that stick out like sore thumbs because you can see how they over-brighten the face with the dodge tool. I teach this stuff. And when I teach, I always cover ambient and added.

Joanie said...

You know how to use natural light because you've taken the time to understand light itself. And this is, I know, part of the point of this post. (Every photo you've ever made of me was done with available light and I have no complaints.)

We're sort of talking in circles on this one because I know that you know that I know that you know...you know?

And I think every new photographer should have to learn to work with lights, modifiers, etc. I also think they should start with film because they'd learn oh so much more in the process. I'm very glad to see many photography/art programs emphasizing a start with film so that the basics are learned with some permanence that's lacking in the digital age. It all comes out in the print, which I see you've now covered as well.

Photo Anthems.com said...

Excellent points. I still wish I could dabble in film some more.