Well, here’s a subject that can get about as complicated as rocket science, at least to me. Go right now and pick up a fashion magazine, if you have one laying around. Guys, if you’re single and you have one readily available, we need to have a talk. Assuming that you have some sort of magazine handy, pick it up and look at a makeup, beauty, or fashion ad. Look at the eyes of the model and you may notice one or more little, tiny bright spots in their eyes. These are called “catch lights”. It is the reflection of the light source off the eyeball back into the camera. If you were analyzing the angle, you could follow the light ray from the sensor of your camera off the exact spot on the eye, and that would track back directly to the source of the light. Eyes are highly reflective, since they are moist and glassy. What you will see most of the time when looking at high quality images is that there are usually more than one catch light. So what does this mean? It means that the photographer used a combination of lights and light modifiers (i.e., reflectors) to create this shot. That’s not the end of it, though. What you don’t see is the lights that are used to light up the background, and the “rim lights”, which are the lights used to paint the edges of the model and to create separation from the background. This is why these professional shots have a three-dimensional quality or depth, and many amateur images don’t.
Mastery of multiple light sources is critical if you want to start taking many of the professional shots you enjoy viewing, such as in portrait, product, and commercial photography. In fact, nearly every shot has multiple light sources. You just don’t actively think about it. If you are taking a shot inside, you might have a mix of some overhead lights, maybe some light from the window, and even a flash from the camera. Everything in your frame is part of the composition of the shot. Amateurs think that the subject is the only thing that is important, so they only worry about blasting their subject with a flash and then letting the chips fall where they may on the background. Professionals are aware of EVERYTHING in the frame. They will fuss over the light pattern on a wall behind the subject, for instance.
Pay attention to this point I’m about to make, because it’s probably the most important thing I’ll say in this post….
Shadows are just as important as light!
Don’t be so worried about lighting something up that you don’t pay attention to the absence of light. Shadows are what create drama, texture, depth, and mood. In other words, everything that makes a shot worth looking at.
Ratios, Ratios, Ratios
In photography you’ll hear the term “ratio” quite often. It simply means the amount of light relative to another part of an image. It is often referred to as “contrast”, a word you will hear all the time. For instance, you may have a ratio of 2:1 on the right side of the face vs. the left side of the face. Or a ratio of 4:1 from the background to the subject. There is obviously such a thing as absolute dark in an image, but you will usually have some level of light, even if it’s very slim. So a shadow doesn’t mean that it’s completely dark, it just refers to the parts of a photo that have less light than the others. When shooting in a studio, you are literally “building up the light” from nothing. Imagine turning off all the lights and turning on one light source at a time. That’s how you work with multiple light sources. Start with nothing and add one at a time to “paint the light” onto your subject, background, etc.
As you may recall in prior lessons, I’ve talked about the importance of having a nice flash. This is a tool, or a weapon, if you will. You need to have the ability to control the light and shadows in an image no matter where you are. A flash gives you a portable way to take back some level of control in this regard. I love the look I get from people when I am walking around outside in the noon day sun, which is a light source, and I’m firing my flash as I take pictures. I’ve already talked to you about “raccoon eyes”. I’m not a fan of them, so I use the flash to fill-in the face of a subject. You see, I’m taking back control of the “ratios” of light-to-shadow in the shot, by using multiple light sources. I hope the lightbulb is coming on for you. Start looking at pictures not just in magazines, but on your friends’ Facebook pages and you will begin to notice ratios (contrast). There’s no hard and fast rule, but generally speaking… the higher the ratio (contrast), the more dramatic a picture is perceived. In photography processing we use a scale of 0-255. O is absolute black (no detail) and 255 is absolute white (no detail). To have some parts of the image that is “0” is much more acceptable than “255”. Absolute white is often called a “blown highlight”.
You may not have heard of the term “histogram”, but you’ve almost definitely see this funny looking chart on your camera on in photoshop.
This is the graphical representation of how many of the pixels in an image fall into the 255 levels of light within that image. If you see a bunch in the buckets on the left, where the “0” starts, it means that you have a decent amount of dark in your image. Conversely, if there’s a bunch on the right towards the “255” than you have a decent amount of pure white in the image. Again, there is no hard and fast rule about how much you want in an image. There is no perfect histogram. Sometime you want a well balance histogram and sometimes you want extremes. Generally, photographers look at histograms in their camera to see if their image is too bright or too dark so they can make adjustments and retake their shot and get a little more well balanced photo. You can do quite a bit to adjust the image in post-processing, but it can be pretty difficult to recover blown highlights or absolute dark.
For a more detailed explanation about histograms, this is a nice article on the subject…Understanding Histograms
I’m going to go over actual equipment in future lessons, but I want you to understand the theory behind painting with light. As you begin to understand an image as a black canvas and that you are painting light or revealing what is already there in a controlled manner, you will begin to see how you can “create” a picture, not just take one.
ASSIGNMENT: Go into a completely dark room with a flashlight and rig it up so that it points to your subject, preferably coming from a 45 degree angle to your camera. Then take a picture of your subject. Go buck wild and use a second flashlight on the other side and cover it with a white t-shirt and see how you can allow various levels of light through to the subject. This lesser light is called “fill light”. You have now lessened the contrast or lowered the ratio of light to dark by using a second light. Notice how your subject is the only thing visible in your picture (If you turned off the flash on your camera). This is the basic concept behind studio photography….”building up the light” from nothing. Post your pics to the KevinHail.com Flickr Group