Saturday, November 1, 2014

Lighting: Ambient Versus Flash

The most critical component of any photo is light. Without it,  you have no picture.
Today,  let's take a journey through my approach to how I light my subjects and scenes.

I'm sure most of you have heard the story about the infamous W. Eugene Smith being asked a question about lighting at a seminar.  The  question from the audience was,  "what light is the best light?"
Smith answered, "Why,  available light, of course!"  There was a pause and from the crowd some muttered rumblings.  Then, Smith continued with,  "By that I mean any damn light that is available!"

I believe that to be true as well.   I don't hold someone who shoots ambient only any higher or lower on the skill level as someone who uses off camera flash.   I judge a photographer by the end product they deliver.

Out of necessity,  most of us start out in photography with very little money.   Cameras and lenses are expensive and after that money is spent,  there is generally very little left for anything else.   So, the first thing we learn, is how to harness the power of ambient lighting. That is followed very shortly by using constant light sources in the shooting environment.

And why not?   It is cheap and the majority of the time it looks decent because it is what our eyes are used to seeing.  Problem?   You generally have little to no control over it.  Also,  it has a tendency to look "average" because it is what everyone else is used to seeing.
How do we make it stand out from the pack?  Figure out different ways of shaping that light.   For example, you can get reflectors to use as fill light sources.   You can use diffusion material to cut down on the harsh midday sun.   Reflector kits generally have a diffuser as part of the unit,  white bed sheets can also be employed. 

There is even a quote from Joe McNally that I remember, and that is, "If you want something to look interesting, don't light all of it."  Sometimes less is more and, the attention to the image can be directed by what is lit and what is not.  By our very nature, we tend to look at the brightest or shiniest part of an image first.

Don't forget that environmental elements can be used as well.   Open shade is a good place to be. There are some small structures that provide for good diffusion of sunlight.   Windows in a home or building, glass arboretums are also a nice option.

After we've cut our teeth on ambient light,  we start seeing all these great portraits with this sculpted light,  well controlled and contrasty and we think to ourselves, "self...I want to create pictures like that!"  We have no clue where to start.   You look at the price of flash units and studio strobes and think that it is impossible,  can't be afforded and then think about giving up on the idea.  

Then you decide you'll check the internet and find some more info on the subject.   You stumble across some place like Strobist and you are renewed!   You start buying flashes,  triggers,  light modifiers,  stands. ... you go a little crazy and buy a bunch of stuff that you don't know how to use, when to use it or control it.   You stick with it though, and after a while you get the hang of it.  

AND YOU LIGHT THE HELL OUT OF EVERYTHING.

You go through a mode where you think that everything looks better bathed in light from every angle.   And you love it for a while,  but then it stops being fun and taking images becomes a chore,  seting up 3 or 4 lights,  lighting subjects and backgrounds,  getting the ratios right,  the ambient just right.
Out of nowhere it hits you.   Shooting purely ambient or purely flash doesn't always have to be the case.   You've backed yourself into an unnecessary and arbitrary corner.

The basic point is this - shoot the best way that makes sense for your environment and subject.  That means it can be flash,  ambient or,  dare we say it...a combination of the two together.
How do we decide?   Finally,  we've reached the meat and potatoes of the article.   Let's talk about my decision making process.

The majority of the time,  I go through this iteration when I am shooting portraits. 

One:  Scope out the shooting environment and find where is the best light.   Can I shoot ambient here? 
Two: Take an ambient light reading to see what light I'm dealing with.   I take a test shot on auto and see what the camera tells me.  If you have a light meter and prefer that method,  do it to it.
Three: What do I want to do with the background?   Is it too distracting and do I want to shut it down, or is it an integral part of the shot and I want it in the image?
Four:  Determine if my subject is going to be over/under exposed in comparison to the background elements.
Five: What kind of mood am I looking for in this shot. This will determine the user of light mods and such.

Once I have all this figured out,  I can determine in my head if I should add in lights and reflectors,  shoot straight ambient and what I'll need to shoot the type of shot I want.
For those gear obsessed,  let's get into that here for a moment.   After that, will do a walk through of sample images and how they were lit and with what.

Truth be told, if I can shoot with the ambient light, I will, as it can be much easier to get your shots without having to setup lights for each situation.

If the ambient light is not cooperating or I'd rather relight the whole scene or parts of it to get the look I want - out come the flashes. 

Most of the time, though I'm shooting combinations of ambient and flash.

Strobes - for portability,  I've got 4 Nikon speed light units.   The older SB are great because they offer good manual settings and have the ability to be TTL controlled.   More on that later.   They have good power levels and decent recycle times.   For studio or more intensive work,  I picked up 2 Alien Bees, the B400 units, with a Vagabond mini battery pack.   Great for when you need near instant recycle times and more power than you small flash units.   If you need the ultimate in a studio unit for a great price,  consider looking at the Einstein units.  Good price for the power and control you get.

Triggers: When I knew I needed radio triggers,  I wanted Pocket Wizard reliability,  but not the price.   I found that in the Radio Popper branded triggers.   Remember above I mentioned having TTL capability in the old nikon SB units.   With an add on device called an RPCube, the Radio Popper JrX Studio units can remotely control the power of the flashes from the transmitter.  It uses the quench pin to control the power signal on the flash unit.

Light Mods:  I've been through them all and these are the ones I use 99% of the time.   Shoot through umbrella,  umbrella softbox, Lumiquest softboxes, grids.  These generally cover all of my lighting control needs.

Light Stands:  I've a bunch of the standard light stands plus one c-stand with a 40 inch boom arm.


This is a one light portrait in studio, one Alien Bee with an umbrella box camera left and a white reflector to camera right.  The light source is very close so as to add a softer light.  I picked this light mod because I wanted more contrast in the light transition from one side of the image to the other.  A regular shoot through umbrella would have spilled way more light into the room than I wanted.  Control here was accomplished by allowing the light to only come through the front of the umbrella. 


This is the same light setup as above,  but with a shoot through umbrella.   You can see that the light is more wrapping because the spill is registered more.  I picked this sort of modifier because I wanted a more lit,  high key feel to the image.


This is from a child portrait shoot. This is an example of using the ambient light in combination with open shade and a reflector(camera left).  Now, if the light on the image left side was too intense, we could have used a subtractor(black card) to knock down some of the reflected light.


Another example of ambient sun light, open shade and a reflector.


Straight ambient.   The light was so good that day,  when it works,  use it! 


This is a more complicated shot.   I liked the ambient light on everything but the couple(their faces were too dark).   I exposed the scene for the ambient,  then used a Nikon speed light to camera left with a 1/4 grid to pop light onto the faces.


A cloudy day gave us a perfect diffuser for this ambient only shot. 


This is a portrait of a local parks and recreation director.   I wanted to show one of the fields that his department maintains,  but the only time available was during a very hot intense sunlit day.   I exposed for the ambient background and used a Lumiquest LTP softbox to camera right to illuminate the subject,  balancing the light sources.


C-stand coupled with a gridded speed light above and slightly in front of the camera here gives us this interesting light.   I used this to show the textures of the camera body.   You can see the effects of the grid on the fabric the camera is sitting on.  Notice how it looks like a spotlight, but instead of an abrupt end of the light into the dark, you get a bit of a softer transition.

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