Home studio Lighting set-ups for Beginning Photographers      

 

I am always pleased when I know that someone has actually read my articles.

Twice this past week I was visited by different aspiring photographers, that had read my last article on using lights and stopped by to ask advice on setting up home portrait studios.

For them and others that missed my past article on setting up a home studio, here it is again:

In each instance the photographers were quite troubled by the kind of lighting equipment other photographers were advising them to purchase and how much it was going to cost to get large and expensive studio lights.

They complained that they would have to wait till they had the money before a home studio lighting situation could be set up. I believe they were paying attention to those that included expensive manufacturer’s names for their studio type lighting setups.

One might be able to locate used studio lights with a bit of searching online. However, there will be shipping costs, plus there is a chance that they will arrive not working.

There usually isn’t lot of quality studio lights locally, and to confuse new photographers more there will be lots of those cheap, inadequate, constant light kits that were purchased by other unsuspecting beginners for sale.

My opinion is they don’t really need to go to the bank just yet, and would be better starting out with the smaller speedlight type flashes.

With the money they save by not purchasing those big studio type lights they could buy a couple inexpensive light stands, umbrellas and maybe even a softbox and backdrop.

Most small home photography studios are in the basement with equipment stored to the side until the photographer quickly sets up for a portrait session.

And if the room is less than twelve feet high, thirty feet long and only used for children, small groups or single person portraits, those big powerful and expensive studio lights may be overkill, and a real hassle when one wants to soften the background by shooting a wide aperture because there is just too much light power for small spaces.

Photographers intent on setting up small home studios for portraits and small groups don’t need to go to the expense of the brawny, studio type lights. They can easily, and without much initial cost, set up a studio with what I personally use, and call my “portrait kit”.

My portrait kit is four older hotshoe type flashes, each with it’s own wireless receiver and two stands. I can choose a shoot-through umbrella, a reflector umbrella, or once in a while a softbox, and might include a reflector. It’s an inexpensive and easily stored “portrait kit” that I would recommend for most first-time, home studio photographers.

Wireless senders and receivers come in all sorts of inexpensive incarnations, and it’s the same with lightstands and flash to umbrella mounts.

All of this is much less expensive, and a lot easier to store and/or move around than the big studio-type flash units.

Even if there were a wad of cash burning a hole it your pocket, my advice would be to proceed slowly, and learn how use light to best photograph a person first.

I have been using multiple flashes off-camera since the 1970s. I prefer inexpensive used units that I can cheaply replace if they get knocked over or I wear them out.

Hotshoe type speedlights off-camera will be perfect for that educational process, and when they are no longer a good fit with one’s creative growth, the choices as to the next step in lighting equipment will be educated decisions.

Photographing behind the scenes for a movie.

This past week I was again asked by writer and director, Cjay Boisclair if I would be the “stills photographer” for another movie she was directing.

Ms. Boisclair was this year’s winner of the WIDC (Women in the Director’s chair) “short award”. That award allowed her to hire a cast and crew for her latest movie called, “Stood Up”.

When I wrote about my experience as a movie stills photographer last June I said that I drew on my background in Public Relations photography. PR photography is physically active, with never a chance to sit and where one must to constantly be looking for animated subjects to be successful.

So at 7:30AM I was lurking at the edge of the action voyeuristically capturing behind the scenes activity, and documenting the interaction and hard work of the people in that were making that movie happen.

I like tight shots that force the viewer to get involved with the subjects. I also like my subjects to be well lighted. I see no use in wide shots that have dimly lit people in the distance.

The beauty of my full-frame, large mega-pixel, camera is I can shoot wide and decide how the action and subjects are cropped in post-production with out any loss in detail or image noise in my final photograph.

I stay with a 24-70mm lens because I don’t get the edge and corner distortion of wider-angle lenses.

Modern TTL flashes offer the opportunity not only to bounce the light in any direction, and also allow one to increase or decrease flash power depending on the environment and proximity of the subjects.

When I give beginning wedding photographer’s advice on photographing receptions in large low lighting rooms, I always tell them to slow down their shutterspeed to increase the ambient light. Those “deer-in-the-headlight” type photos that are painfully common in beginner’s photos are so easy to correct by just moving the shutter dial to 1/125th or even slower.

Its that technique I used when photographing the behind scenes action. Indoors I would shoot wide with a slow shutter and outside I use the high-speed sync feature to increase the shutterspeed as needed to balance the flash in the daylight.

As with the last time I photographed for the movie’s director, I am after those classic images I have seen in the old newsreels of the Director in action. Pointing, talking to the actors, or working with the cameramen.

Photographing on a movie set is certainly entertaining experience. I have always thought that movie people were a special breed, and again this time, my first hand experience with the actors and the crew as they creatively worked, more than proved that to me.

Outdoors flash photographer’s workshop        

Last August I wrote about setting up an outdoors studio in the meadow on the south side of my home for my friend Joleen McAvany. Readers will remember that Jo wanted to do a “Disney Princess” session with some of her friends.

Jo posted her studio-like photographs from that day online. Her photos were so successful that I decided to offer another how-to workshop.

I limited participation to four interested photographers and Jo easily talked two of her friends into braving the cool October day to be our models.

I like flash and never pass by an opportunity to introduce photographers that normally would only use flash in dimly lighted rooms, to the advantage of employing flash in the daylight.

Jo and I set up both a white canvas backdrop and a painted blue/grey canvas backdrop. I had purchased the painted canvas, but the white canvas was formally a large painters ground cloth spattered with paint that I got for free.

I attached several older 1970 vintage flashes on light stands with umbrellas. All were connected to wireless receivers and I gave a trigger to each photographer.

My lecture was about balancing the light from the flash with the ambient light. The key light (main light) that modeled the features of our ever-patient subjects, Morgan and Cora came from the flashes, not the sun.

Jo gave a posing demo using a 60mm, then a 70-180mm and finally a 400mm lens as she positioned each model in turn. Then after showing everyone how effective the long lenses were, and how easily it is to control the flashes, I positioned each depending on the light.

I then let the attending photographers experiment and learn as I showed them how great their photos could be using flash in the daylight.

Most had seen some of Jo’s “Princess” photos and I reminded them that she had originally asked me, “can I do this out-of-doors and still create flattering studio kind of light portraits?”

Now I have introduced four more photographers to using flash as a creative tool instead of just something that brightens a dimly lighted room or gives a flat light on some subject’s face that is standing in the shade.

I am left wondering if they will start using flash. It is so easy to be lazy and leave the flash at home on a sunny day. However, the resulting photographs where one controls the light and is able to place it to flatter and model a subjects face should be enough to convince any serious photographer.

I would like to think I was successful in convincing those four photographers that adding the light from a flash will make their photographs stand out among photographers that depend on the inconsistent light from the sun.

Note: Photos by Joleen McAvany

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An outdoor studio for photography     

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of weeks ago Jo stopped by to tell me she and 8 friends wanted to do a “Disney Princess” shoot. She came up with that creative idea and posted a call for women that wanted to do modern interpretations of those cartoon characters from the Disney movies.

Her question to me was, “can I do this out-of-doors and still create flattering studio kind of light portraits?”

Absolutely! was my reply. Sure one could go through the expense and trouble of renting a studio, but it’s pretty easy to duplicate the indoor studio type lighting out-of-doors.

Gosh, the movie people have been doing it for years. I jumped at the chance to show Jo how easily it is.

We hadn’t had rain for almost a month so I decided to create an outdoor studio in the meadow on the south side of my home. The “princesses” would be showing up just after noon so I chose a location to set up the backdrop that had shade from several tall fir trees. I also planned to put up a canvas gazebo with a table for the makeup artist to work.

“The best laid plans”.

Actually, those aren’t the words I used as I looked out my bedroom window at the rain the morning of the event. The local weather reporter had suggested there might be some spotty rain in our area, but the pounding deluge outside my window wasn’t what I expected.

However, because of the possibility of rain Jo and I had set up one of my backdrops under my canvas carport the night before.

I got a “good morning I’ll be right over” text from Jo as I sloshed out to set up the lights under the carport. The rain was a hindrance that dampened the yard (and I am sure the spirits of the soon to be princesses) but “Light is Light” and all I had to do was balance my off camera lighting.

The larger backdrop we had set up was for blocking the wind, rain and what limited daylight there was. We then erected a black paper background and I used two lights mounted on stands with umbrellas to model our subjects.

I am sure there are those that would have just upped their camera’s ISO and hoped for the best on that dismal flat day. But I like the modeling, depth and control over a subject’s features a flash adds. Heck, we might as well have been in a dimly lighted room. The ambient light was that good for adding flash.

When Jo’s subjects arrived they turned my house into a makeup and change room. There were costumes and clothing everywhere. I just stayed out of everyone’s way and concerned myself with the outdoor studio except for an occasional quick trip to my kitchen for another coffee.

The rain lightened a bit, but never really stopped all that much. Nevertheless, those excited Princesses were all about creating a modern day reality or personal version of the Disney character they were supposed to be. There was a lot of laughter and running back and forth along the bushy wet path from the carport to the house.

American photographer and author of the Strobist.com blog, David Hobby said,  “…You hear a photographer say, “I’m a strictly available light photographer, I’m a purist.”

He continues to say, ” What I hear is, I’m scared of using light so I’m going to do this instead. Well, for me lighting was a way to start to create interesting pictures in a way that I could do it.”

I will add that I have, personally, always felt that photography is a series of problems to be solved, and rain or shine it’s really the goal of flattering portraiture.

I think that many people viewing the pictures Jo took outside on that rainy day will, unless told, think that the portraits were made inside a well-equipped indoor studio. I guess it doesn’t really matter where they posted for their Disney Princess portraits, only that they are good.

In all the commotion I forgot to begin the day with the words of legendary 1920s filmmaker, D.W. Griffith as Jo pointed her camera on that rainy day, “Lights camera action”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographing a July garden.  

 

I waited all day for the bright harsh sun to dim. It was just after 8PM I was finally able to walk into my garden with camera and flash to photograph the July flowers.

June was, as usual, pretty wet and full of bloom, but I was waiting for the hot summer to present a change in the plants and flowers so I could continue with my photographs of the garden in all seasons.

I am not so much impressed by flowers as I am by the shapes of them. To me the colour is only part of what I want to capture with my camera, and I don’t really care if I am photographing in the spring, the summer, and fall or in the cold of winter. Dry, wet, or covered with snow. It’s the shape and plays of light that intregues me.

I don’t like bright, contrasty sunlight. I prefer overcast or, at the least, the lower light at day’s end.

I wandered out with my camera, macro lens attached, tripod, light-stand and flash fitted with an umbrella in the still bright, but certainly not as glaring as mid-day or early afternoon light.

Regular readers know that I always employ a flash. The flash gives me control over direction and intensity of the light. Some photographers my say they prefer “natural light”. I will just say, “naturally, I add light.”

With digital came high-speed sync. High-speed sync gives me the opportunity to increase my shutter’s speed dramatically when using a flash. Even up to 1/8000th of a second. That increase in shutter speed means I can use a wide aperture even in the direct sun.

It also means that I can control flash exposure with the shutter speed instead of the normal way photographers control their flash power, the aperture.

I choose my well-used old 200mm macro. It’s from the time of manual cameras and doesn’t have the option of auto focus. I like it because I can select any point along its focal length when photographing flowers.

My flash was a big 800w battery powered, wireless off-camera strobe. I use it in manual power mode and, of course, High-Speed sync.

I under exposed the ambient light 4 or 5 stops so the proper illumination would come from my flash.

The garden, designed by my wife when she was alive, continually blooms from spring to fall. It colours, shapes change with the season.

All I have to do is choose what interested me all year long.

I have never talked to my neighbours about all the photography I do in my yard, but I wonder what they must think about the bursts of light coming from my bushy property at all times of the year.

My garden photo session ended as the light dropped at about 9:30, but by that time I had wandered all over and photographed shapes of flowers, some alive and some only memories of their glorious and colourful spring blooms.

The hot, drying July heat is now with us and I wonder what will survive till next spring for me to photograph.

Photographers – modify the light.

 

For some time I’ve been advising photographers to use a flash when they take pictures of people, whether indoors or out.

I understand that those with a few extra dollars in their pocket can purchase expensive cameras that can capture images in low light using a higher ISO, but using additional light is much more flattering for a human subject.

While sitting by the window in a coffee shop some time ago a friend casually snapped a picture of me using an ISO of 9000. I was impressed at the clarity and colour. Actually, it was a bit too clear and colourful for my old face.  Nevertheless, my comment was, “Nice picture, too bad you didn’t have a reflector”, which brings me to my topic this week – light modifiers.

Readers know what harsh sunlight looks like on our subject’s face in a photo, or have winced at the loss of detail caused by the direct light of a camera-mounted flash.  A flattering photograph isn’t just capturing or adding light, but modifying it’s path to the subject.

Modification might be as simple as bouncing the flash off the ceiling, or a wall. The pop-up flash might work at parties, but using a flash off-camera gives more control and pleasing results.

When outdoors without a flash a reflector is an easy to use light modifier. Place the subject out of the direct sun and direct the sun in a controlled way back to the subject using a reflector. Reflectors come in all sizes, shapes, colours and surfaces. Silver is gives cool cast, gold is warm, and white is neutral. I prefer the compact folding reflectors that fit in my camera bag. Reflectors are great outdoors, and are perfect with a bounce flash in that basement studio.

More and more photographers are using wireless flash. A small flash mounted on a stand can be aimed at the ceiling, a wall, or a reflector, for much nicer light than if pointed directly at the subject.  But the wall, ceiling, and reflector only give a broad indirect light. Yes, it is better than a bare flash, but not very controllable.

My choice is umbrellas, softboxes, and other devices that modify and control the light.  I like bouncing and reflecting light in some conditions. However, those I mentioned give more control as they reshape, restyle, alter, modify, and soften the light from a flash.

Umbrellas come in several types. Choose a shoot through or reflective, large or small. The reflective umbrellas are available with different surfaces – silver, gold, white – each has its own way of changing the light. For example, I like the soft broad light reflective umbrellas give when photographing several people or families.

Many portraitists seem to prefer softboxes. Whereas umbrellas give more control than a flat reflector, a softbox directs and defines light much better than an umbrella. Softboxes also come in many sizes and shapes depending on use – rectangle, square, octagon, etc.  When viewers see that soft shadowed “Rembrandt style” lighting in a portrait, they can safely assume the photographer used a softbox.

For photographers that want more luminosity than umbrellas and softboxes there is the beauty dish. A beauty dish provides a glowing kind of light, very directional, easy to control, and when used with diffuser it has an attractive smooth light.  There are, of course, many modifications to each of those I have mentioned. Again, it depends on how a photographer wants to apply light to a subject.

My set up much of the time is a simple flash above and behind me using either a softbox or an umbrella, with a sidelight bounced off a reflector, and backlight directed at the background with only a small dome diffuser covering it.  That’s one quick, effortless setup that I can easily carry in two small bags – one bag for light stands and light modifiers and one for my flash units, camera and lenses.

That gives me light that is more controllable and attractive than a pop-up or on-camera flash, the sun, or relying on a high ISO.

Photographing the garden in the March snow.     

 

Jo McAavany

Jo McAvany

Jo McAvany

This time last March I wrote about flowers as portraits, and discussed my indoor makeshift studio setup using modifiers like reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes to photograph potted plants.

This year I decided to put my winter boots on and wander out in the sub-zero, snow-laden garden out side my front door to see what interesting features I could discover.

As I have written before, I prefer using flash and the waning March light at 7PM was perfect for my off-camera flash equipped with a shoot-thru umbrella.

I really don’t care what time of year or the weather, I like photographing the plants and flowers in my garden. Shrubbery, weeds, and vegetation in general always make for fun subjects.

Plants are so much easier to photograph than people, plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery, and always are happy to wait for me. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

This time my goal was to photograph anything that caught my eye.

It didn’t matter how the late afternoon light was, because I had my key light with me. Relying on ambient light is so troublesome, and I knew that the only way to give my subjects “pop” and reduce deep shadows caused by sunlight was to use flash.

The slowly dimming light was perfect for my sojourn through the garden. I easily metered the ambient light, then under exposed slightly so the flash would become the main light instead of the late afternoon sun. The soft modified light from a shoot-through umbrella was even across the image with a gradual transition from highlights to mid-tones to shadows.

The snow was deep and more than once it filled my boots as I trod off the packed down path. However, there were lots to things photograph I didn’t care.

Branches and sticks poking out of the snow, shadows along the fence, a rusty old wagon wheel, the red leaves of Oregon grape, weathered boards, dead and dried out flowers, and as the sun sunk below the mountains, a light bulb hanging from the snow cover above my car.

I was enjoying myself so much that I texted my friend (Jo lives down in the valley and across the river from me) and suggested she grab her camera and join me.

We took turns holding the stand mounted flash and finally, when it was to dark to see things and we finished our photographic we went inside to load our images on my computer and warmed up with a glass of red wine as we looked over the pictures we had just taken.

As I have written before, I photograph my garden in every season.    I know there are many photographers that only take pictures of plants when they are in bloom and prefer colourful representations. However, spring, summer, fall, winter, snow, rain, sunny, or overcast, my garden is filled with ever changing subjects that always offer something new.

As always, my advise to photographers that think they must wait for inspiring weather before their next garden safari is, there’s always something to photograph no matter the weather or the season, just get up close and look for the small stuff.