Painting with Light: A Crash Course in Studio Lighting

After a series of four intensive workshops on portrait studio lighting, I was asked the question what makes a good portrait? My first response was to cite a cliché about the look in the eyes, perhaps capturing an intangible moment between subject and photographer. That may very well be, but practically speaking, it’s all about the lighting.

The course at the Light Factory was lead by portrait photographer Herman Nicholson in Charlotte, NC. By default, Herman ended up being the model and the majority of the pictures are of him.

The first class was a frenzy of different lighting setups and modifiers using Paul C. Buff’s Alien Bees B800 flash units and accessories including softboxes, octaboxes, umbrellas and reflectors. Using only one light at a time, we could see the impact of each different setup. I frantically tried to document each one by scratching notes and sketches in my notebook and taking the occasional iPhone pic.

Here are just a few examples of lighting setups using a single light. I particularly liked the use of modifiers to narrow the light for a dramatic effect. (I’ve included a description of the lighting setup for each image for my own future reference).

The second workshop added new layers using fill lighting and we experimented with taking corporate headshots, minimizing shadows in favor of even lighting and tones.

Here are two examples, one using a white background illuminated with stripboxes and the other shot on a black background. Both methods have minimal shadows on the face. Thanks to the patience of this great model who likely ended up with a couple of good shots to post on LinkedIn.

As a marine and sailing lifestyle photographer, I never had the luxury to use additional lighting and most of the shoots were done on the fly (or on the water, is the case may be). While there is always control over the results, the nature of the subject was more spontaneous and greater than one photographer could control –  weather, sea conditions, access to chase boats are just a few elements that all needed to align in order to capture a great shot. Light is what defines all photography, and with studio lighting, the potential for control over the environment is what makes it so appealing.

While you can control lighting, that is not always the case with the subject. In this case, the older of the two girls was more agreeable to pose, but the younger one simply did not want to smile and a dance of the wills ensued. In this case, I found a more passive approach resulted in an enchanting and compelling portrait.

Here are a few examples of the two very sweet and patient girls. They both wanted to twirl and perked up when they got to spin in their fancy dresses. Girls do just want to have fun.

The final week we were introduced to more intricate lighting effects to create dark shadows and contrast using flags, background halos (a go-to favorite on Wired Magazine cover shots), dramatic contrasts to add depth and dimension similar to Marco Grob’s portrait style and finally, Herman pulled all the stops by recreating Jill Greenberg’s icon style. By introducing fill lighting, shadows recede, profiles are outlined and new, dramatic accents are applied to the image much like a painter applies oils with a palette knife.

Coming into this class with no prior experience in studio lighting, I felt like I was fumbling along and mostly watched Herman do all the setups. Sifting through some of these setups and keeping in mind the concept of light painting, I applied some of what I learned over the weekend to varying degrees of success. It felt great to get my hands on the lighting equipment, and with an audience who had confidence in my ability(!), I went about setting up, adding more fill, changing accessories and adding modifiers to get different results.

While I still don’t have the answer to ‘what makes a good portrait?’ I do know that ultimately I am a storyteller, and while it may be naïve to think I can capture a story in a single image, playing with light can hopefully enrich that story.

As for the eyes? They do in fact have a lot to reveal. If you look closely you can see exactly where the key light is coming from. And so begins my journey into deconstructing photographs. That’ll keep me busy for a while.

photo of a photographer

Nice lens, get in the truck

10 things I learned from my daily photo challenge

Its been one month since I started the daily photo project – challenging myself to take a photograph a day that I felt was interesting enough to post online. While this project has been far more challenging than I anticipated, it has also been very rewarding.

I generally find top-10 listicles annoying, however, I am willing to make an exception in the name of efficiency. For those who hate lists, sorry – and for everyone else, here are the 10 things I learned from my daily photo challenge:

  1. Macro photography takes a lot more finesse than I originally thought.

    The shallow depth of field is both a feature and a challenge. Pinpointing a focal point and a close consideration of the backdrop are essential to creating a good composition. Macro photography also gives me an opportunity to view objects much closer than I typically would – revealing the unexpected in the otherwise ordinary.

    macro photography

    A macro shot of the red berries growing in the yard taken on a rainy day

  2. Expect the unexpected.

    Nine out of 10 times I would have a photo-worthy subject in mind, whether it was a decrepit building or a picturesque bridge. But sometimes, because of lighting, people or just serendipity, the proposed subject turns out to be less of a feature than the unexpected find. A fish stranded on a rock, a lone plant unfurling in the forest, or a light bulb embedded in a tree are all lucky captures.

    fishy leaf

    Be careful where you step – this slippery fish was underfoot while taking photos of a historic bridge

  3. From the extraordinary to the ordinary and back.

    Photographer Oliver Curtis points his camera in the opposite direction of some of the world’s most photographed landmarks to capture an equally gripping image. Instead of another image of Tiananmen Square, Curtis turns his camera to the spectators taking photos of the mausoleum. While Greenville, SC doesn’t have subjects as epic as the Pyramids of Giza or Christ the Redeemer, it does have some quintessential icons that are oft photographed. Take for example Taylors Mills – a one-time factory for bleaching, dying and printing fabrics that is inherently photogenic. Hoping to avoid a cliché, I took a more abstract approach to a close up of peeling paint on a window.

    pealing paint

    Peeling the layers into the past on this old window

  4. Nice lens, get in the truck.

    There is no way around it; I am going to be conspicuous. Whether I’m parked on the side of the road taking a shot of an abandoned mill, or walking in the woods with a telephoto lens, I am going to get noticed, and someone almost always comments about the size of my lens (usually with a “wow, that lens is bigger than you are”). Clearly I’m not invisible so instead I’ll have to come up with a few good one-liners.

    telephoto lens

    Maybe it’s the bright red jacket?

  5. Not every day is going to be exceptional.

    While this project was supposed to be fun (mostly), I took it on with the same commitment and dedication I would any other assignment. With that comes a certain level of stress in my need to deliver on expectations. However, not every day is going to bring exceptional results – sometimes a play in light, a long shadow or a single flower will have to do.

    photo of tulip

    Experimenting with a hand-held flash to add richness to this velvety tulip

  6. Elements of Style.

    I approached this project with the desire to expand my photography skills and revive my curiosity. I was also hoping to help define a style. It is so much easier to find a market as a ‘landscape photographer’, ‘portrait photographer’ or the illusive ‘lifestyle photographer’. Instead I find myself wandering the landscape, capturing anything and everything that appealed to me. There are, however, a few elements of style that keep repeating themselves. Patterns, shadows and light play feature prominently in my images.

    snow covered steps

    Stepping out on a winter’s day to find patterns and repetition.

  7. Learning the ropes, again.

    I have been shooting a Canon DSLRs for more than 14 years, and you would think I would have figured out all the ins and outs of the camera. But to be perfectly honest, I’ve always prided myself on being what I call a guerrilla photographer (Guer-rilla, not Go-rilla) for the impromptu nature of my captures. This meant that I didn’t always pay close attention to the camera’s settings, preferring the ‘f-8 and be there’ approach. But when it comes to macro, wildlife, or come to think of it, any sort of photography, closer attention to the camera settings has some big benefits. The dials on my camera certainly got a good workout.

    red shoulder hawk with tadpole

    It takes patience on both the hawk’s and the photographer’s part to catch a meal

  8. Discovery.

    Every abandoned building, rusting water wheel and shuttered mill has a history that has brought me a deeper understanding of my surroundings. Photography for me is also a way to document the seemingly insignificant relics of the past that are being bulldozed to make room for a more monotonous landscape. There is nothing wrong with modernity, however, by erasing these run-down relics, we also condemn them to our cultural amnesia and slowly unravel a rich tapestry of knowledge. The Primitive Baptist church down the road reveals the cultural significance of its inception, the shuttered textile mills a significant reminder of the division between rural and urban America. To date, two of the buildings I’ve photographed have been dismantled – and that’s just in one month.

    abandoned textile mill

    A derelict and abandoned textile mill

  9. Falls, falls and more falls.

    While I’ve always loved waterfalls, I’ve also found them to be particularly challenging to photograph. How do you capture the magnificence of a waterfall in an image without it becoming cliché or boring? Confronted with so many waterfalls, I’ve found that a steady hand, a pair of rubber boots and long exposures are the answer. The challenge is to take something exceptionally beautiful and capture it in an enduring image.

    rainbow falls

    There must be at least a hundred rainbow falls in the upstate alone

  10. Get out there.

    I confess, this project has also challenged me to get out there – to stretch out beyond my comfort zone in terms of photography and creative growth. As this challenge comes to a close, I notice that there are some elements in my photography that are strikingly absent. None of my photographs taken this past month have any people in them. This is really ironic since the majority of my past work has included people in them. Perhaps my next challenge is to shoot more people.

    I shoot people mug

    Last shot of the month!

Link to Daily Wander for a full photos from the daily challenge project.