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.

One more outdoor lighting workshop.

A. An outdoor studio  B. Workshop participants  C. Adding light  D. Outdoor shooting  E. Softbox by the buggy  F. Thumbs up  G. Outdoor with softbox  H. Ladder and reflector  I. Got it.  J. Portraits in the barn  K. Gold reflector  L. Umbrella in the barn

I’ll begin with a quote from an interview with American photographer, and author of the Strobist.com lighting blog, David Hobby. “…You hear a photographer say, “I’m a strictly available light photographer, I’m a purist…”. 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 wish I had read that interview with Mr. Hobby before I began my series of workshops on off-camera flash. I would have started every class with his quote. With that, I thought I would let readers know about the last day of what became an enjoyable and successful day for everyone, the photographers, our model Danya, and me.

Unlike the last session’s stormy overcast weather, the day this time was warm, sunny, and we didn’t have to contend with a cold, constant breeze. However, I couldn’t have asked for two better learning environments. An overcast day demands different lighting techniques than those that accompany a bright, cloudless day, and all I had to do was present the participants with opportunities specific to each so they could begin experimenting, and learning how to effectively use off-camera flash.

In the first session I introduced the ten participating photographers to basic outdoor portrait photography, and off-camera flash techniques that would help them transform their outdoor portraits into something special.

This time I continued by putting together different lighting setups. In the meadow, I erected a backdrop, and placed a 4×6 foot light diffusion panel with a wireless flash to one side. The second set up was a lean-to that used a 4×6 light diffusion panel. For the third set up, I placed in the barn a softbox and a bare flash on stands. I also left extra wireless flashes on stands and a few reflectors outside the studio, ready for photographers to use when they wanted to select their own location.

My goal was to give participants plenty of options as they put into practice what they had learned about adding flash to natural light.

We positioned the 10×12 foot backdrop, made out of an old painter’s drop cloth, so it blocked the sun and swathed our model in diffused light, and then fired a flash through a diffusion panel placed on the left.

The lean-to was constructed with a diffusion panel on one side. It softened the sunlight, giving a subject a diffused glow that could easily be manipulated with a reflector or flash.

The softbox was perfect for the open shade in the barn. The large metal-sided barn gave lots of room and an interesting patterned backdrop. In that location the softbox, a flash and umbrella, and a reflector were used.

I always use a flash when I am photographing people, inside or out. I can’t control the lights in a large room, or the sun shining on my subject from 93 million miles away. Participants discovered how to control the light they added from small off-camera flashes in the natural ambient light, and by the end of the workshop were using flash effectively, and learning about creating and controlling shadows rather than just filling them.

We live in a time when cameras can almost see in the dark, and the art of adding light to a scene is under-appreciated. Those photographers ready and willing to turn down that ISO dial and learn about off-camera flash are beginning a journey of discovery that will remind them that photography is all about light. And I expect they might finally ask themselves, why not try to have the most perfect light possible…and instead of waiting for that perfect light, learn to control that light by adding flash to make the best of the situation.

I really appreciate comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com