Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lighting diagrams, blah blah blah :)

These days I'm so "over" lighting schematics that I don't trouble myself with looking at setups from others and/or document my own. That might be a mistake.

That's not to say that I don't occasionally come across something that's lit in a very impressive manner, but more so that it's not so much the lighting that continues to impress me but more so the comprehensive nature of the image. By "comprehensive nature" I mean the logistics, wardrobe, makeup, thought process, model, retouching etc. that go into making an image what it is.

When I first started out, I thought that by simply recreating lighting, I could recreate a shot. I quickly realized this wasn't true. Even if I was spoon-fed the lighting schematics, I still could not recreate the shot. Case in point would be the Jill Greenberg or Dave Hill stuff. Now, I don't know if they purposely used 10 million lights simply to confuse other people (I have heard this to be a strategy employed by some non-sharing professional photographers), or if they really needed all that light, but people have analyzed Dave and Jill's images to the point where their lighting were no longer secret recipes. Yet, few were truly able to recreate those hyper-realistic images.

It turns out that in order to really recreate Dave and Jill's stuff you have to not only employ a lot of light but light it in such a way to create the proper highlights. These highlights are later carefully and selectively dodged and burned in order to make the images appear hyper-realistic. The reason their work appears hyper-realistic (for the most part at least), IMHO is that those highlights and shadows can not and do not exist naturally. Of course, Dave also retouches "grit" into the picture by using something like the high-pass filter or a high level of unsharp masking. Honestly, I don't really know since I haven't looked into those effects since I started out. The point is that it's not just light...

I understand that there's a worldwide hunger for lighting knowledge right now. Hell it's a famine! Ever since the creation of and the price of dSLRs becoming affordable, everyone and my grandmother wants to know how to do off-camera flash photography. If I were to do it all over again, I'd actually start with natural light first because it really is the starting block of lighting. Hell, if I understood natural light, I wouldn't have had to read some of David Hobby's posts over and over again. Seriously, it took me a good 5 readings of the specular highlights post before I understood what the hell a specular highlight was.

Perhaps I'm being insensitive. Just because I know this stuff doesn't mean I should just gloss over it... I mean, there are crazy people that actually read this blog and actually believe they can glean some sort of knowledge from my nonsensical rants ;) You know who you are... and I appreciate each and every one of you, even you lurkers :)

But there are people who are amazing at putting together lighting diagrams.
Dustin Diaz is one of them. He made flickr fame from all his low-light, bokeh, off-camera, flash photography. If you haven't checked him out, he's got diagrams coming out the wazoo. But I assure you, even Dustin's tired of explaining his stuff. I think he's been doing this a little longer than I have and though he's got much more followers, I don't see his work truly improving over time. Looking at the date/timestamps on his photos it looks like he's been posting a lot less on flickr lately. It's a paradox unfortunately... the more time you spend blogging, the less time you have to actually create and grow as a photographer. Not surprisingly, those months that I blogged the least were the months that I spent the most time in the batcave cooking up new creations.

Where does that leave us? Nowhere. If you haven't figured by now I make a lot of circular arguments. Endless loops. You wind up exactly where you started ;) Actually it does bring up the subject of retouching. I was originally going to save this for another post but I don't know that I have enough "material" to really make it a post. I have to say that I truly believe that you can not be a great photographer without retouching. You can be good, but I don't think you can be great. Of course this is my opinion and you can beg to differ all you want. Just remember that even the great Ansel Adams and
Dick Avedon retouched the hell out of their work.

I call it
Symbiosis ;)

I know retouching is hard. So is Calculus... but look at the tools that we're offered today. We're able to "fix" things that were not so in the original image. Not just fix things, we're able to change things and perform these changes gracefully in such a way that we're enhancing the image to the point where you'd never want to look at the original image ever again. I will probably talk about this more later but there is so much potential in digital manipulation that I predict we see some form of artificial smart light manipulation appear in Photoshop CSX; lighting that's so smart and so real that you could have sworn the highlights and shadows on the picture were created by an actual light source and not created artificially in post-processing.

A great photographer once asked me, "What makes you different from other photographers?"

"I dunno" I said, with a shrug of my shoulders. "I don't really think I do anything that's totally different. I mean, my lighting is pretty standard... so often I get by with just 1 light"

Trying to elicit a more substantial response he asked, "But what would you say is your specialty?"

Thinking about it for longer than 2 seconds, I paused and racked my brain for a proper answer. I thought about all the things that go into making a good shoot. How it starts from first contact, scheduling, planning, assembling the pieces together, quarterbacking the events and wading through so many logistical nightmares... to interacting with people, making people laugh and feel comfortable, putting together lighting setups, actually shooting, then finally retouching. If you assigned me a letter grade for each of the above, I think the range would be anywhere between an A to a C- with lots being C minuses LOL. Of all the things I've mentioned, I feel that things really come together in retouching.

"Retouching?" I say with an upward inflection in my voice indicative of a question and not a statement.


The truth is I don't know. In many ways, I'm jaded because I've seen lots of good work by lots of good photographers. There's nothing new under the sun and I'm constantly trying to figure out my "angle/niche". It's also a hard question to answer because there are so many moving pieces of the puzzle... I mean, just look at my images. They change from week to week. My retouching doesn't even sit still for long enough to be an "angle/niche".

But perhaps, that's not the right question :) The answers are all wrong because I'm asking the wrong question. (Incidentally if you search "no right answer" in the search box to your right, you'll see 12 posts with that phrase.) For a guy that's supposedly so "process-oriented", I sure am concerned with having the right answers... I suppose I'm a hypocrite hehe.

Speaking of which, I thought I had some posts regarding being process-oriented vs. goal-oriented. I'm surprised I can't find any... (
edit: I found it... it's a draft of a post I never finished LOL!)

Okay, now I'm in a bind because I have no segue to the images below. Oh well.

I retouched this one first but as a totally separate image from the second image. I was enchanted with the image and started retouching it before later realizing that it was a closeup of the same pose. I felt each image offered something unique. Otherwise, I would have just wound up kicking myself for not doing one as the crop of the other:

Stephanie D3/70-200mm f/2.8G 1/200th f/11 ISO200 @200mm. B1600 in 40º gridded beauty dish from upper camera left.

Stephanie D3/70-200mm f/2.8G 1/200th f/11 ISO200 @70mm. B1600 in 40º gridded beauty dish from upper camera left.

The following image is from the same set as the black and whites from
the post before. I almost didn't retouch it because I thought I was done with the set after retouching 6 previous images. But after I saw this one again, I knew I had to retouch it and make it different:

Stephanie D3/70-200mm f/2.8G 1/100th f/11 ISO200 @155mm. B1600 in 40º gridded beauty dish from upper camera right. B800 kicker in 20º grid from camera front left. B800 into flag for background light from camera left.

To bring this story full-circle I'll do something I rarely ever do. Here's an out-of-the-box version of the first image:


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  2. I like this post. It coincides with my first paid job and my sudden understanding that lighting setups are the last thing on my mind. I've had to organise six people, wardrobes, makeup artists, assistants, schedules. Heck, even loaning a 5D MkII and obtaining a permit to shoot at Copenhagen central station. I'll probably only know the lighting when I get there and pull it out of the air on a whim.

    I've just tasted process-orientated photography, and it tastes like being the director of a movie, not a cameraman. Leaping from "in the bedroom with an ebay umbrella" to "central station with a team of 8" is, it seems, one of the most profound leaps of photographic endeavour in an organisational sense. You stop being a photographer and start being a manager, director, businessman... creative visioneer?

    And I think THAT is what it's all about. And maybe what YOU'RE all about when you look deeply.

    You're years ahead of me in experience and equipment but it takes a wise man to know that the fundamental difference was never the lighting setup anyway - something that most of the community have overlooked.

  3. Charles,

    As one of the "lurkers" on your blog :), I can say without qualification that I derive quite a bit from your blog, not least of which is seeing your evolution as a photographer over time. I'm kind of "sponging up" information about the photography business before I actually make a full-fledged stab at it, since I think that photography, more than a few other creative endeavors I can think of, has a heavy business/marketing side to it. I personally don't think that people who approach the photographic profession as strictly a creative outlet can survive very long.

    With regard to lighting, I enjoy it when you and others provide lighting information, but I understand it does take a lot of time. Luckily, I can understand things phonetically through words and also visually through drawn out diagrams :)

    I also agree with you that "there isn't anything new under the sun". (Maybe I'm a tad jaded as well! ;) And I think it's more than a little difficult to discover your own niche in this saturated market. I haven't attempted to figure this one out yet, but I will at some point. It seems to be more the business/marketing/advertising side of the business.

    Now, as far as being ringmaster of this parade of MUA's, stylists, logistics, touching up, etc. as far as I'm concerned dude, you can talk about that all day long. I'd love to hear about that aspect of the photographic business, largely because I'm not very versed in this process. ;)

  4. Tommy, you don't count as a lurker, You're a full-fledged lucimablog member ;P

    I have a story for you about the business-side of things that I'll mock up in a bit... thanks for providing me more interesting things to talk about :P

  5. Charles,

    Thanks, man! I try to keep the conversation lively :)

    Another thing about lighting. So much of the time, I prefer shots that use a one light setup because it gives a facsimile of reality. Not only that, it alludes to classical paintings, like Carravagio, Rubens, Vermeer and the like, who often paint scenes with only one light sources, i.e. the sun through a window or through candlelight. This also gives the image a certain dramatic flare because the sharp contrast.

    I like analyzing light setups to see if I can imagine where the light would fall. I then cross reference what I thought with the finished image to see if I was right and to see what the photographer did in the post-processing/touch-up stage.

    But as you noted, lighting is only one component to the creation of a compelling image. Albeit a very important component, one might argue that it's the most important component, but it's still one component.

    I really do have the image of a ringmaster or a conductor trying orchestrate the caravan of players to get on the same page and working harmoniously when I think of a photographer. :)

  6. Too bad we're a dime a dozen ;P I think ringmasters and conductors rank higher on the list of paying professions! LOL!

    I totally agree with you about trying to backsolve the light and checking to see if I got the "answers" right. Feel free to ask about any of my images, I can always verbally explain what I did (as long as I remember!). Usually I think the answers are going to disappoint people because there's not much going on haha!

    I never thought about the facsimile of reality, but I suppose it's 100% true! We don't walk around with a constant Rembrandt light on our faces along with a hair light, a rim light, background separation and maybe a kicker/side light. That being said, it's very interesting that 90% of the time on TV/movies they use a combination of a main light typically at a 45º angle high with an opposing kicker/highlight on the opposing side. Weird ain't it? It looks good, but no one ever stopped to wonder, "Wait a a second... I don't look like that when I'm talking to someone in my living room!"

    My thing is that I love the sharp contrast... contrast pictures to come in the next post ;P

    Thanks Tommy!