Thursday, April 12, 2012

It's Just Light

One of my first shoots experimenting with flare... back when I still used reflectors!

Got an email today regarding lighting that allows me to really share some insight regarding how I approach lighting, especially outdoors!

So I've finally finished reading every blogger post just to make sure I'm not asking anything redundant. I feel like I have a solid foundation studio wise now as to what to look out for but I'm still trying to fill in gaps for my ambient light understanding. Sorry in advance for the question bomb!

So here goes:

I'm still not really sure on what your approach to ambient is. Outside of having the model facing the sun being more fashiony and the model being backlit for more lifestyle, I feel I'm struggling to figure out what a good final exposure is (as in, what I need to bring into Photoshop to get a good non boring edit).

If it's similar to studio, should I be looking for how to utilize the sun to make interesting lighting? (As in, face the model in the general direction to get (rembrandt, loop, butterfly?)

And then if it's overcast, do I need to bring in lighting? Wouldn't it be fairly flat lighting otherwise?

What do I need to look out for in terms of lighting outdoors? I know you don't really light much outdoors anymore but I think I need a bit of understanding on the approach so I can light w/ or without.

Would you power your strobes/aim reflectors to somewhat match the background for fill? And are you trying to feather these lighting types outside as well? And how would you do this w/o having a strobist type look to it?

Do you use scrims to allow for strobes / reflectors to provide directional lighting? What kind of exposure am I looking for?

For backlighting, do you try to position the model near reflective surfaces so the exposure difference is not as drastic? I am finding it hard to properly backlight.

Could I get some basic examples of properly using ambient lighting? I'm just trying to get a basic construct like what I feel like I gained for studio.

And lastly, for newer models, do you have some tricks to get them to produce non deer in the headlight or smiley looks? Do you give them a story scenario to work with? Just not sure how to get newer models to organically pose.

I think with your list of questions, there's a fundamental issue that we need to address that's probably the root of your concerns. The way I approach problem-solving is that I treat the source/origin and not the symptoms. Your questions are just symptoms. I believe the origin of your questions is a fundamental and perhaps philosophical question.

Let me run through the general items of discussion. Much like how doctors will ask seemingly disparate questions when diagnosing the illness, questions like "have there been any sudden changes in lifestyle?" etc. I need to address certain foundational concerns.

First off, that there is no right answer. Many of the answers to your questions can be "Yes, and yes". And while that's not the answer you seek perhaps that's the point. That you're missing the fundamental understanding that there is no answer and that you don't create these images to by following a set of instructions. There are great rules of thumb but that doesn't govern how I go into any location lighting challenge. Nor should it be how your go into any location lighting challenge.

For example. Strobists tend to want to strobe everything. I know this because I graduated from David Hobby's Strobist University. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So fundamentally what Strobist University didn't teach me was how to understand light in a holistic way. What David Hobby did teach me was how to understand the technical foundations of lighting; how to use Rembrandt, loupe, side, back, rim, butterfly etc. But the decision making behind why butterfly and not Rembrandt, is more subjective than it is an objective decision. Sure, you'll have instances where one lighting pattern simply enhances the facial features of your subject better than another, but more often than not it's simply a stylistic preference (especially when working with fashion models with the same facial features).

And for that there's no right answer. Nor is there a wrong answer.

Getting that out of the way, I think you need to assess every location differently. What are you offered? What is the sun (ambient) giving you? What is the sun not giving you? What does the background look like? What parts of the background is important? What parts do we definitely want to hide? Where will I be shooting? What angle? What distance? What focal length will I be using? What aperture? What ISO? Is my background even important? What's my subject? What is my subject doing? What is my subject doing here?

Believe it or not, all those questions occur simultaneously. And they don't get answered sequentially. Heck no! They're co-dependent variables. Not constants. When you change one, it inevitably affects another piece. So honestly what you're left with is a balancing act rather than solving for X in an equation. Think of it like Scrabble. You get 7 tiles (letters). And you gotta make the highest scoring words with those letters. There's no one answer. There might be higher scoring words than others. But there's no single answer.

So free yourself of that assumption first. The assumption that there is even a right answer.

Second, go out there and experiment. If you're not shooting 2 to 3 times a week minimum, then you're just "armchair quarterbacking". What does that mean in this context? It means you're trying to theoretically solve problems that may or may not be applicable to your situation. Without trying and getting out there and just experimenting, you won't know what your challenges really are. And as every set of 7 tiles (letters) are different and you can't account for every combination of 7 tiles (letters), you are crazy to think you'll be able to solve all possible lighting scenarios in your head. Instead, do yourself huge favor and get out there and just shoot!

Now, with all of that said, we can get a little more specific. I feel you are missing the "drivers". With the set of questions that I mentioned above, some of which included, "What's my subject? What is my subject doing? What is my subject doing here?" you are already defining the image before you shoot it. Because it comes down to what the image is meant to portray. What story are you trying to tell? What is the purpose of this image? With the answers to these questions, everything else will fall into place.

For example, let's say I'm shooting for my commercial client and this season my client is marketing their tribal wardrobe items that include shirts, pants, and shoes. I might suggest something like, "Let's take her into downtown LA and make this an urban tribal story. We'll find a gritty backdrop (graffiti wall, anyone?) with muted colors and let the model's patterns pop from the background to make a stronger statement. Hell, let's take her into downtown LA and shoot her in on the concrete with the skyscrapers in the backdrop. Her poses should be animalistic and create the urban warfare vibe that modern day women have to deal with."

Now given that set of criteria a lot of lighting considerations get tossed out the window huh? Do we want a feathery, lens-flared, airy look? Nope because this girl is a tribal animal and she's out for urban warfare so you don't want to make her look soft with lens flare and haze! Do we need diffuse light? Nope, same reason. Do we want overcast light? Nope, same reason. What about a scrim to soften up the light? Again we don't want to soften up her hard look.

So then what do we want then? We want gritty. Hard light. Probably almost noon lighting so we can cast some darker shadows into the eyes. This might be the only occasion where this lighting works! But we don't want raccoon eyes so we'll have her keep her chin high. Or maybe we shoot at 2PM instead of 12PM. Even so, keeping her chin high also gives her the feeling of pride befitting of a tribal warrior (our model). Depth of field? Deep because we need to identify her surroundings and the skyscrapers. ISO? Can probably get away with base ISO. Shutter? I want her in motion the whole time so I want action-stopping shutter speeds. 1/500+. No blur.

That's using only ambient lighting. Another (probably better) alternative is to go with high-fashion lighting and use the sun as our source of backlighting and use a strong strobe to overpower the sun and cast the same lighting pattern onto the model's face (high and steep for more shadow). I'd probably drop the ambient exposure down 2-3 stops but not too dark to the point where we can't identify downtown LA. But the point is that we will effectively darken the background so we can get the model and her attire to really pop out of the background. Shutter speed? Max sync speed. ISO? Base. Aperture? Deep as possible. Hope we have enough juice for the light! Speaking of light. I'd pull the 2,500Ws White Lightning with bi-tube head on a beauty dish and pull the Hasselblad out of retirement and sync at 1/800th for maximum sun control. Hell, that might be way too much sun control but whatever.

These are drivers. I talk more about these drivers in my other workshops like the Beauty Workshop. With our Magic Workshop, it was much more of a take-what-you-get kind of a deal and just go with the flow so the philosophy behind the creation of the images is totally different. But when you're executing a specific/pre-determined look, it's all about adhering to the drivers which are grounded in concept.

If it's just a model test, then I'd still look at the surroundings, the wardrobe, her look and then light to tell that story. But the story can be whatever I want it to be, so really it's whatever my heart desires!, Perhaps your issue is that you have too many options with storytelling during model tests. So do yourself a favor and simplify! Decide on a story first and then light appropriately to fit that story/concept/idea! Then you will have a specific idea in mind prior to shooting.

And you'll get the feeling of the shot in the image during capture. This makes post-processing a lot easier because you have a specific direction you're going. For example, you aren't going to take the tribal-style urban warfare pictures and decide, "Oh I want to go super low contrast on these and make them super faded out". Nope. These images already have a direction. All you'll be doing in post-processing is enhancing what is already present. You won't be creating anything that's not already there. And you sure as hell won't be asking yourself, "how do I get a good non-boring edit"? And you'll be way past thinking about what a "good final exposure is" because that was determined by your concept which determined your lighting. For the tribal looks you'd have obviously metered for exposure on the skin and wardrobe, trying to balance those things while not blowing any highlights and trying to retain shadow detail.

At the end of the day, light is just light! Don't let light be the subject of your shoot. I think of light the same way a swimmer thinks of water. It's there, it can drown you if you aren't careful. But most of the time I'm just trying to get from this side of the pool to the other side of the pool. I'm not thinking about how I'm supposed to move past all this water in order to get to the other side of the pool. I push off the wall. I remember to breathe. And I just take one stroke at a time. And it just happens naturally. You forget about how omnipresent it (light/water) is.

And don't think of outdoor lighting as any different from studio lighting. Salt water is not that much different from fresh water. Sure it tastes bad. It's a little more buoyant. And there happens to be more of it in the world. Also, where there's salt water there tends to be more wildlife and oh don't forget the current, swell, wind, etc. But that doesn't change the fact that you're still just trying to swim from point A to point B. The constructs of the ocean are bound by the same physical laws that govern an indoor pool. In other words, it's still. just. swimming. Maybe a little scarier and you might get eaten by a shark or get sucked out to sea by riptide. But if you think about that kind of stuff, you'll just wind up being paralyzed. Which will keep you entirely out of the water and stop you from ever swimming at all. Kind of like analysis paralysis, which is what you have now. Just remember, it's just light/swimming. Your goal is the same. Don't make it more complicated than it is. Go out there, try freestyle. If that doesn't work, try breast-stroke, if you tire of that try back-stroke. And when all else fails, you can still doggy-paddle. Eventually you'll figure out what works best for you in any given environment!

Good luck! Think about what I've said and get out there and try a few things. You don't even need a model. Take a tripod. Put it on timer. Wear something nice. Stand in front of the camera. Try not to do the deer in the headlights or smiley look. Flow through your poses. If you want to get fancy, get a reflector and a c-stand and try doing some bounce lighting with the ambient! Experimentation is the name of the game!

Keep shooting!


  1. I love the part how you stated that the concept dictates the lighting. I feel so many people miss that critical step. Excellent article.

  2. Hey Charles! It's been a while since I commented on your blog. How're ya?

    Well, one of the solutions I picked up for shooting out on location (and since lacking a studio, I'm forced to shoot on location a lot :) is to strap on an ND filter, crank up the juice on my monobloc to full power (through a beauty dish), and turn up the aperture to between f/16 to f/22. This is one of the ways I control the exposure, reduce the ambient (as much as that's possible in 1-2 o'clock sunshine), and get as much depth as possible for the background.

  3. Great article wow... this certainly changed the way I will look at things going forward.

  4. WOW OH WOW OH WOW Charles! Love that phrase "But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."