Or, “How I Learned To Stop Aperture Prioritizing and Love The S Mode”
While I’m killing some time waiting for my headshot session with my chums at EclecticPond I figured I’d throw a blog post out into the netiverse, particularly one wherein I talk about one of my favorite subjects: the trials and tribulations of lighting in photographs.
You see, recently I’ve been finding more and more of those annoying where my beloved Quadras aren’t quite the right tool for the job, or where they needed a little buddy to help them along. I’ve needed an accent light. I’ve been wanting the lazy luxury of TTL. It was time to face it, I needed a hotshoe flash like a real photo boy. So, since I had some spare cash come in from a project I did for a lovely little English-as-Second-Language group, I decided to get an SB-700.
After a night of harassing the cats, a beer bottle, and my glass of wine, I came to a few conclusions:
- The awesomeness of the Nikon “Creative Lighting System” has not been over-exaggerated, and the flash performed minor miracles balancing itself with the ambience and giving me near-perfect shots both on and off the camera.
- I was going to have to figure out how to get the convenience of TTL (subject moved? Cloud cover set in? TTL is unconcerned, correct exposure for you) with lighting ratios other than “balanced.”
- I had no idea how to do so. And neither did the manual.
Balanced exposure has a time and place, but, man I love me some drama. Give me half the chance to knock the ambient down a stop or three and I will basically every time. But, Nikon’s TTL wasn’t designed to do that. It was designed to round out an exposure, not be the exposure. So, getting that to happen was… tricky.
First, I tried using the camera’s exposure compensation set to a negative value, then added that back as postiive flash compensation. It worked. Sorta. But the results were hinky and unreliable. Some shots were underexposed, a lot. Others had flash burn. It was no bueno.
Luckily, a comment from local photowonder Paul D’Andrea set me down a much better line of thinking that reminded me whatever else, only the shutter speed controls the ambient. And, lo and behold, the camera has a shutter priority mode. Working with Quadras has me pretty comfortable with how much ambient what shutter speeds will leave in, and I’m already used to setting values between 1/30-1/320 in manual anyway. By applying those to S priority, I was able to fix my ambient ratio while keeping the advantage of the system picking an aperture and forcing the flash to fill in the rest. Perfect! Now, I was able to quickly set ratios on the fly, without having to set have of it manually, which always leads to trouble in dynamic shoots. Behold, the results:
On the left, the world’s best trophy shot with off-camera remote flash set to TTL, no compensation, shutter priority at 1/320. On the right, the same set-up but I flipped to aperture priority and let the camera and TTL do what they were built to do. The figure is essentially correctly exposed in both, the only difference is how much the ambient is left in. Awesome. Perfect. I’m in love.
More adventures in small flash to come, I’m sure.
Now that I’m done for the next while with my design-related time commitments, it’s time to play catch up on some photography. Or so my Lightroom workspace would like to believe. Also, some sneak peeks in there of EclecticPond’s upcoming “The Importance of Being Earnest” for you loyal blog-followers. I’ll be leaving them off the “social medias” for the time being. You know, like, until they’re done. And stuff.
Hit the external link for the article.
Some previews of my next tongue-in-cheek art-world-trolling photo series.
This past weekend I did my seventh shoot with local theatre peeps EclecticPond, which has resulted (yet once again) in some genuinely gorgeous photos. But, I can’t show you them yet. They’re slowly posting them on their own FB page for marketing, and it’d be rude of me to jump the gun on them. So, while I’m waiting to show you the new stuff, here’s what their folder in my SkyDrive is looking like these days. Yowza that headshot collection is starting to get sizable, I think.
So, one of the things I aimed to do with this blog was sorta demystify the artistic process, since I feel that most artists still more-or-less work in their own little spaces using thoughts and techniques that are obvious to them–but not so much to the people who will later be looking at their work–and that this hinders the public’s ability to appreciate art in the same way that those trained in this stuff do. And so, while I am off this Valentine’s Day loving this woman:
I am going to leave you guys a gift in the form of my favorite lighting set-up. This is my go-to lighting configuration, and is used a lot in my work to what seems like constant comment from people who see my work. It’s just a really simple, reliable set-up that’s pretty versatile while at the same time giving nice, consistently Caravaggisti results. As a matter of fact, the picture of Megan above was shot using it, and I’ll be showing a lot of examples of it that’ll be familiar to long-time followers.
It’s just a two light set-up (my Quadra kit only having two heads, this makes it easy for me to do without scrounging additional lights) using a small or medium softbox as the key light, and a strip bank as an accent. It looks like this, drawn out:
Used in my typical low-key (which is to say, mostly black with light areas pulled out of the darkness) style, it leads to photos like these:
Note how the softbox being angled slightly down and from a side angle creates some pleasing modeling for features in both short-lighting (top, where the face is away from the light source), and in a more typical broad lighting situation (bottom, where the face is more towards the light source). Also notice how on the right of both subjects there’s a subtle rim of lighting pulling them out of the black. That’s thanks to the strip bank being just behind them, causing the light to wrap around them without being directly on them. And, because the strip is at half the power of the key light, and also much, much larger the light gets spread thinner and ends up being a final ratio of about 1/4 to 1/6 as bright as the key (depending on how far away you have the strip from the subject). Personally, I think this adds just the right amount of isolation for these low-key photos, helping pull them out of the inkiness without losing that air of mystery they have from the strong shadows.
You can also power the lights down a bit to be closer to the ambient for more modeling without the pronounced low-key effect to pretty good effect. And, if you jostle the lights a bit, you’ll find them able to adequately cover two subjects at once.
Above the lights are maybe about 3 stops brighter than the incandescent lighting in the room. Opening the shutter up from 1/250 to something more like 1/100 heps to balance the ambient back into the photo. Now, instead of the inky effect before, you get a more dramatic look where the background falls away a bit, and the modeling on the subjects takes on a strong, contrast-y feel that lets your subjects feel larger than life. In cases like this, with two subjects on the same plane, you might end up having to pull the strip bank forwards a bit to provide more direct side-lighting, but the initial set-up is the same and then you just scoot things to taste.
Obviously, the set-up also works flipped so that the key comes from the right side of the frame.
That variant of the set-up is one I’ve used a lot for EclecticPond’s headshots. And, again, it works well both in broad-lighting:
As well as more of a short-lighting pose:
And, lastly, you can also pull the softbox around to the side (instead of the 3/4 position) for a nice, super-dramatic split effect, as demonstrated below by the lovely Tom Cardwell:
In that photo I’ve turned the strip away even more than usual to accent the “dark side of the moon” feel, but you can see just the faintest glow of it wrapping on his face for that very subtle–but important–isolation effect.
So, there you go. An easy, flexible two light set-up that’s served me reliably for a couple years now. With any luck, that’ll help someone out there out. Now, I’m off. it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’ve got some lovin’ to do.
As a rule, I’m not one to do the typical “I’m a photographer, I shoot seniors ad weddings and maternities” routine. It’s just not me. But, I always make exceptions for my friends, because they’re such lovable characters. Except weddings. I don’t do weddings. But, while I passed on her wedding, I couldn’t say no to recording my friend Liz and her husband now that they are “with child” (or, if you prefer, “avec uteral parasite.”)
Mostly because I’m afraid of Liz and I don’t want to be stabbed.
Anyway, some pictures for you.
Models: Liz and Nick Ernest
Assistant: Megan Caylor
For those of you who missed it, I did a set of posters and cast cards for the production of Dracula: The Panto my friends at EclecticPond Theatre Company are doing, and while those came out pretty much exactly as they needed to be, I would be remiss if I didn’t share a few choice shots that happened along the way. Because I’m a sharer, you know. Because sharing is caring.
We all know that media lies to us. There is no such thing as an honest photograph, and the smarter of us realize that. Sure, you’ll get some (often loud) people who think that a shot straight out of the camera (SOOC) is as close to truth as you can have, and any form of processing otherwise is evil. But, perhaps someone forgot to tell them that your camera merely collects the number of photons at a certain site. It then makes its own decisions on what gamma curve, exposure, white balance, saturation, contrast, sharpness, and noise reduction to interpret that data with. Hell, you can even tell it to change several of those to different values yourself. And, before digital, in the darkroom you had dodge, burn, contrast filters, film choice, color packs, paper choice, and even the aperture you set the enlarger to. In short, there has never in the history of photography been an honest photo.
And, very often, the difference between an OK photo and a great photo is in exactly what lies the photographer chooses when developing the photo. Contrast, exposure, dodging, burning, and crop make huge differences without ever bringing things like direct manipulation into matters. The sooner people realize that this is the case, and has always been the case, the sooner we can drop all this useless hullabaloo about the dangerous world of digital manipulation.
But, as a consumer (and, if you see a picture ever, you are a consumer), it helps if you know exactly how you are being lied to, and not just some vague understanding that you are. Lucky for you I maintain this handy behind-the-scenes how art is made blog, then. Here’s an example from my recent gig with EclecticPond Theatre Co, for their upcoming production of “Dracula: The Panto.” From left to right, you have the photo as Lightroom interpreted the data with all sliders set to 0, the photo as developed using digital darkroom techniques (crop, exposure, curves, burn, saturation, contrast, clarity, sharpening, white balance), and the final comp for the poster with all the real manipulation applied. Do notice how much better the middle one looks, compared to what I started with. That’s why you learn how to handle post-processing, kids. The camera rarely makes the best decisions. You do.
Also, if you’re in the Indy area, or are going to be so this month, do make sure to get out and see ETC’s production of this. They’re excellent people, and I love them to itty-bitty pieces with all of my caffeine-addled heart. They have yet to put on a bad show. They’ll be performing this as part of Indy Fringe, and that’s where you’ll find all the relevant info.
Dracula: The Panto – Indy Fringe
The graph pretty much says it all, but here are some bonus facts as we approach five years of me having worked in digital:
- I have shot between 18,986 and 19,686 frames using 3 different DSLRs
- Of those shots, I have kept only 6,377. That means I discard 2 out of 3 shots.
- Of the kept photos, 59% I consider merely snapshots, and don’t keep in Lightroom.
- In Lightroom, 53% of the photos are marked Commercial or B-Side. Only 47% of my LR photos are for my own collection.
- Only 12% of my LR photos are shared on Flickr. That’s a mere 1.6% of all frames I’ve shot.
- Only 4% of my LR catalog is being used in any portfolio capacity (here or 500px). That’s down to 0.5% of all frames shot.
- When I shot my photos, by year:
- 2007 - 0.5%
- 2008 - 7.1%
- 2009 - 4.4%
- 2010 - 23.3%
- 2011 - 56.1%
- 2009 was my year of doubt, as I apparently kept fewer photos, instead of more. 2011 is when I got my studio lights, and I have 240% more photos from 2011 than I did in 2010 as a result.
- 62.4% of my pictures are tagged “people”
Just so you know.