Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Expanding the Lighting Horizons

Mladenka came back on Monday for a followup to our shoot a couple weeks ago. I'm totally spoiled. I don't think I realize that at some point in the future, I won't be retouching photos of a goddess on Earth. Seriously, you mean to tell me that I have to actually go back to shooting regular models in the future? Hahaha you're so funny!

Or I could just quit now and preempt that from ever happening.

Getting back to the subject on hand. I am familiar with lighting. Very familiar with strobes. Pretty bad at using ambient light. Really bad at ONLY using ambient light. So to push myself to learn something new, I made myself use ambient light.

While this is a total "aside", the truth is that I have little respect for photographers that don't light. I'm a strobist. Such are my roots. I have to stick with my "peeps". Seriously though, I am snobby because I have a background in only using ambient light. Before I learned how to light, I only used fast lenses at wide-open apertures to light my subject. Sure they were nice pictures. The Average Joe liked them. However, I was seriously limiting my range with just ambient light. I could not create the punch that I now get with controlled light setups using my SB-800s or my AB800s. Now I look back and scoff at myself from 1 year ago, along with all others that ONLY use ambient light.

Why? Here's my justification. Lighting with ambient light requires no skill. Wait, a second... let me finish. Typically, pictures lit with ambient lighting are merely passive pictures subjected to the intelligence of the metering system within the revolutionary digital machines you hold in your hand (aka your digital camera). These devices are so smart that it has taken a lot of the know-how originally possessed by the photographer and made it a lot easier for Average Joes to take decent pictures.

So let me ask you this question, what part of the process are you responsible for? Holding the camera? A tripod could have done that. Pushing the button? Pretty much any animal with an opposable thumb could have done that. "Vision", you say? What vision? You saw something, took out a machine and pressed a button. I'll find you 1,000 pictures just like yours on flickr. So unless you're metering on your own in Manual mode, really getting down and dirty with the vision/composition, doing something revolutionary/different... then chances are someone else has already done it better than you.

But that won't stop the Average Joe from exclaiming how good your picture is. Why? Because the Average Joe likes that stuff. It's what he/she's familiar with. And what he/she is familiar with, is the "easy" stuff. They are not used to seeing pictures that push the envelope. To them it's "too much". Now I understand why artists don't create stuff for the Average Joe. Artists create for themselves and other artists. If it's easy, it isn't worth anything.

But it isn't really easy.

There's passively shooting ambient and then there's TOTALLY TAKING CONTROL of ambient light... and there's a fine line between the two. To the Average Joe however, they are the same thing because he/she cannot tell the difference. The problem with ambient light is that you can't manipulate it directly. It's just there. As an "elite photographer" however you are equipped with knowledge and perhaps a few useful tools of the trade that provide you an arsenal of ways to indirectly manipulate ambient light. You figure out ways to "manage" ambient light.

For example with 2 reflectors you can increase the exposure on your subject's face up a stop (or more). Furthermore at the proper angles you can create the effect of top-down 45 degree lighting like we normally shoot/setup with our strobes. Thirdly, the added benefit of using fill cards is that you can fill in shadows. Lastly, with this exposure, your background isn't blown out anymore. And for the cherry on top, you've managed to shoot your subject at a razor thin depth-of-field (say f/1.4) and create an effect that you couldn't achieve at f/18 (because of your 1/250th sync limitations). That's what I'm talking about baby! TOTALLY TAKING CONTROL of ambient light.

Camera info: Nikon D3, Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G, ISO100, f/1.4, 1/1000th
Strobist info: Ambient light with 2 fill cards placed way too low.
Model/Makeup: Mladenka Grgic

Admittedly, I should have had the reflectors higher up in this shot. Also, this is the only set of pictures for which I did not capture the lighting setup. I've been good though! Out of 4 sets, I captured the setups for 3 of them and only missed one... this one. But there's nothing to show really. It's simply 2 reflectors placed on the ground being held down by either a lightstand or my left hand. With the reflectors so low the shadows on the face are in the wrong places. The light should have been bounced downwards and not upwards. It was hot though and with my knees in the grass and holding my camera/lens with only 1 hand, I didn't have the patience or the physical flexibility to do anything else. At least Mladenka was in the shade! Yes, I know... excuses.

But wait there's more!

If you mix and match ambient with a little bit of strobe lighting you can achieve phenomenal results with incredible control! This is probably my first foray into combining the two light sources with good results. The shot below originally utilized the ambient coming through the window as strong soft backlighting with good wrap-around effects. Fill lighting was again applied by directing the two windshield reflectors close to Mladenka. Unfortunately this wasn't enough. In order to get the proper exposure on her face, we had to really slow down that shutter speed which made for poor handheld shooting and also flaring from the strong backlight. Ultimately, I opted for another soft light source in the form of an SB-800 via a shoot through Westcott 42" double collapsible umbrella from our typical camera upper right at about 45 degrees onto the model. Now we're cooking!

Camera info: Nikon D3, Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G, ISO100, 1/80th, f/1.8
Strobist info: 2 fill cards and 1 SB-800 camera upper right. Triggered with Cactus V4 (Gadget Infinity). See below.
Model/Makeup: Mladenka Grgic

One thing that these two pictures have in common is the shallow depth-of-field that is offered with big apertures. Most of the stuff that I shoot in-studio is f/7.1 or smaller in aperture. This is the first time that I've explored the big bokeh producing apertures of f/1.4. The 85mm f/1.4D lens is the perfect candidate and is probably the most versatile portrait lenses in ambient light conditions because it offers such a wide apertural (is that even a word?) range. The benefit of the big aperture is the creamy bokeh and blurred background but you have to also consider the razor thin depth-of-field where the ears are already out of focus! What this means for me is that my focus better be spot on and furthermore neither my subject nor I have much freedom of movement during the shot, or else the picture will be out of focus.

Getting back to the subject at hand, it's extremely important to push your horizons. Always try something different. Something new. This ensures that you're always learning and not stagnating at any particular place in your learning curve. As far as my rant on ambient lighting is concerned, it's all true. That said, exploring ambient lighting now in my lighting career is important because it makes me a more versatile photographer with what I know about light and its manipulations. I understand ambient lighting with a completely different perspective than before becoming a strobist.

Anyway, I have one more picture to come with 100% ambient lighting. This setup is the simplest and probably the best looking out of the three sets (considering the two above). Stay tuned!

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