Tutorial: Flash Lighting
story with photos (89 photos) starring Ariel Anderssen
This is the fourth in the series of tutorial exercises we did with RE member-turned-photographer PaulMcRope which he has kindly allowed us to share with you on the site. As we saw last time, the angle at which a light is placed relative to both the camera and the subject has a huge impact on the look and feel of the shots. In this sequence, we look into this further and also look at the influence of the "size" or the "hardness" of the light.
A hard light comes from a small point-like source. Technically, it comes from a source which subtends a small solid angle at the subject. The sun is HUGE, but it's also a long way away, so its apparent angular size is quite small on earth. Similarly, a large softbox placed a very long way off starts to look more and more like a point source of light and light coming from it effectively gets harder and harder.
A soft light, by contrast, has an appreciable angular size when you look at it from the subject of the photograph's point of view. The light comes in not at one fixed angle, like it would from a point source, but from the whole extended surface of the light. That allows the light to "wrap" around the subject, light rays from different parts of light source coming it at different angles. Hard lights are so called because they produce shadows with hard, defined edges. Soft lights produce shadows with fuzzy, soft edges, smooth gradations from light to dark rather than abrupt transitions.
Note that collimation or directionality of the light is related to but not the same as hardness or softness of the light. You can block off some light from a point source, for example by putting a bit of metal in the way so that the light only goes forward, like a flashlight. But the light source still appears small from the subject's point of view- if someone points a torch at you, you see a small point or patch of light at the front of it, not a big wide source like a softbox or a white wall. So a flash light is directional (or well-collimated) but hard. A soft-box with "egg crates" on the front can be soft but quite directional, too. A very soft light can't be as directional as a hard light- the softest light would be a glowing sphere completely surrounding the subject, and that can't have any directionality to it at all. Nonetheless, it is possible to have directional soft lights and non-directional hard lights.
But what does all of that mean when we come to light a bondage photograph? Let's look and see. Remember that these are on-camera JPEGs because we want a fixed processing chain to see the effects of the light on the subject. (Flattering or otherwise- sorry Ariel!) Look past the variations in overall exposure too - I was moving the lights which changes distance to the subject affecting general brightness. I didn't want to have to re-meter for every shot. The thing to concentrate on is the overall look and feel of each image, and the interplay of light and dark, especially on Ariel's face.
Look at the first series of photos with subtitles in this set (look at the web-sized normal versions). We shot these with the bare flash tube of a studio flash unit, which I moved from position to position around Ariel. See "flashlighting.jpg". The camera stayed at the same angle to Ariel, about the same as light position 3: in fact I held the light over the camera for the shots at position 3. The light was placed at about Ariel's eye level.
A bare flash tube is a hard light, but not very directional. You can see a bit of fall off in brightness from one side of the image to the other on the wall- this is because the light is much closer to the bit of wall on camera left. But note that the light rays are going everywhere from that one point source, including backwards into my eyes as I held the light. At light position 1, we see the exaggerated effect of moles and small skin blemishes at the dividing line between light and shadow, as in the previous tutorial series. Notice that the shadows are hard-edged and harsh, but that there's actually quite lot of light in the shadows- the shadow side of Ariel's face has by no means disappeared into black.
That's the effect of shooting with a non-directional hard light a room with pale walls- the light is bouncing off the walls and ceiling and ending up providing quite a bit of fill light.
At position two, even a bare flash gives quite nice light- we're not catching the skin texture quite so unflatteringly, and the shadow of Ariel's nose and the little bit of light on her shadowed cheek look OK. With a little tweaking we could produce a very attractive triangle of light under her eye, which is a lighting pattern used by classical painters a lot. (Rembrandt lighting).
Position 3 we've got a hard shadow of Ariel's nose- the light would need to be between 2 and 3 to hit proper Rembrandt lighting. Position 4's quite attractive.
Having the main light in the scene in positions 2, 3, 4 relative to the camera and the subject is the basis of "glamour lighting", and you can see why- even with a very hard light, it's already de-emphasising skin tone, especially in position 4.
Position 5 is the transition to cinematic lighting, where the shadow of the nose in on the side of the face closer to the camera. In glamour lighting, the shadow is on the side of the face further away from the camera. Glamour lighting is flattering and is traditional in still photography, especially glamour photography. Cinematic lighting is dramatic and good for representing three dimensional shapes on a flat screen, especially once the images start moving and we need to picture action happening, which is why it's the standard for movies in the cinema. As you can see, it's significantly less flattering to a beautiful female model. This is why cinematographers get paid big bucks- they need to add additional lighting and use tricks to keep the good points of cinematic lighting whilst
making movie stars look maximally gorgeous.
By the time we get around to position 6, the closer eye is missing any catchlights and Ariel starts to look a little sharky and dead-eyed. Position 7 is still cinematic, if a bit extreme, and illustrates a problem we're constantly going to run up against shooting in domestic spaces and hotel rooms rather than in dedicated studios. We'd love to be able to get some proper backlight in there- as we saw in the last installment, that can have a magical effect. Indeed in many ways backlight is the secret weapon for cinematographers. But notice that you can see the light stand and my hand, and that there's just not room to get properly behind Ariel- the wall's in the way. The inability to get proper backlight in will plague us often, and probably plague you on your shoots too unless you're shooting in a dedicated studio space where the furniture is away from the walls and there are mounting points in the ceiling (or no ceiling at all).
Moving on, the second series shows the same sequence of light positions, but using a DIRECTIONAL hard light. This is achieved just like in a flashlight- we enclose the bare bulb in a reflector shaped to bounce all the light around and send it out of the front, rather than in all directions. I further collimated the light beam by using a honeycomb grid, a black metal honeycomb which absorbs light that is heading out of the reflector at too big an angle. The net result is similar to a spotlight (you can achieve this sort of effect in different ways- spotlights usually uses lenses to focus the beam. The differences are interesting and helpful to a working photographer but too subtle to concern us here).
Notice immediately that the shadow areas are now properly dark- we've eliminated all those light rays bouncing off the wall and ceiling which were giving us nice fill from the bare flash. The over-emphasis of moles near the divider between light and shadow is back with a vengeance, and in position 1 one side of Ariel's face is almost entirely in darkness. The light on the wall and room is also much reduced.
You can see that this sort of light is not very flattering! It is very dramatic though and it does have its uses- black and white art nude utilises it A LOT, because of how much it emphasises musculature and shape. It's vital to get the model, the camera and the light in exactly the right configuration, and for the model to pose into the light with skill and care. This makes it broadly speaking unsuitable for sets of bondage photos, where we need to move around to get different poses. Great for single arty images when done right, though.
I've added a note at position 3: "on camera flash". This is a hard, directional light right above the camera lens, and it looks pretty horrid. That's why we try to avoid this particular lighting pattern whenever we can. If you must use a single speedlight flashgun to light a scene, at least try to get it off axis a bit, it looks more interesting and usually nicer. Or soften the light, see later.
Spot position 4 is dramatic and kind of acceptable. You might see a shot like that in a bold advertising campaign. Spot position 5 is a still from
a badly-lit horror film. Spot position 6 is lighting you use to highlight edges and give definition, but you'd not use it on its own like this.
We then have a brief interlude exploring the vertical, putting the spot light first above and then below Ariel.
With the spot overhead and Ariel keeping the pose she had before, we have what is known in the trade as "horrible top lighting" or "skull face", and which Ariel calls "chest-nose". You can see why. a) It looks horrible. b) It casts Ariel's eye sockets and eyes completely into shadow and makes her look skeletal. c) The shadow of her nose now falls down onto her chest, hence "chest-nose". It's what you get if you shoot in direct sunlight in the middle of the day, and it's why photographers don't do that if they can possibly avoid it.
All is not lost for overhead lighting though- if you have a skilled model who knows to look up into the light, you suddenly have the gorgeous lighting pattern known as "Angel light". It pays to have a model who knows what she's doing!
What about the light below? Light from below is not something that happens in real life all that much- daylight is primarily from the top. So it produces a rather un-natural and un-nerving effect which horror film makers have known about for a hundred years or more. It's called horror film lighting: use it for dramatic effect.
What happens if you like the basic look of these lighting patterns, but want to make everything kinder to your model? Hard light is great for chiselled guys and old men with interesting craggy faces, but we like women to look smooth and soft and flawless. Soft lighting is your answer. The next series shows the effect of swapping out the honeycomb (maybe 15 cm across) with a small soft box (which is more like 45 cm by 45 cm). At these distances from the model, that makes quite a difference.
(We stopped shooting with the light at position 1 due to lack of space- with light modifiers on the front there's physically not room to get in there).
Compare the head-and-shoulders shot from position 2 between the spot and the softbox. Notice how much softer the gradation from light to dark in the shadows. At position 3, we've offset a lot of the awfulness of on-camera flash by softening the light. At position 5 we have a lighting pattern that I'd actually be happy to shoot- cinematic, but not extreme, and really quite flattering. In part that's because we're shooting in a pale box again, with the bounce from walls providing fill.
Let's compare that with what happens with a bigger softbox, which is more like 120 cm across. And largely because it was on the front of the softbox already, I left on the "egg crate" which does the same thing as the honeycomb- makes the light more directional, whilst retaining the essential soft character of the light. Because this soft box is octagonal, Kate christened him "Dr. Octobox".
The Dr. Octobox shots are a bit underexposed, sorry. But you can see that the transition from light to shadow is now much softer, even though we've ended up with darker shadows and more constast because we've cut down the fill coming from the bounce off the walls. A single big softbox like this is cool to shoot with as a single light source if you're after drama, without making your model wince too much. The shots with the light in positions 3, 4, 5, 6 are all usable as is, and 2 and 7 have a certain something to them even without any supplemental light.
So we decided to take this as the basis for our lighting pattern for the rest of the examples. We put Dr. Octobox between positions 5 and 6 and set that to be the light in the scene which produced the dominant shadows: the KEY light. I supplemented this with another big softbox, somewhere between positions 2 and 3. And I rigged up a contraption with a boom pole and a c-stand and a speedlight over Ariel's head to try to get some backlight into play, although as you'll see what I really produced was something more like a gentle top-light which produced some sparkle and life in Ariel's hair- a hair-light rather than the proper rim-lighting effect of traditional backlight. That's the compromise of small rooms and beds against the walls.
Check out res_25062018_DSC06884.jpg for the lighting diagram for the three point lighting experiments.
Having set the position of the lights, we looked at how the ratio of the brightnesses of the lights affected the final shot. The effects are considerably watered down by shooting in a room with pale walls, but with the fill light on mimimum power I metered the lights so the key light was producing an exposure of f/8 at Ariel. We then shot with the fill light at:
- f/2.8 (i.e. dim, 3 stops down in light which means a factor of 8 less light than from the key light)
- f/4 (2 stops down, a quarter as bright as the key)
- f/5.6 (1 stop down, half a bright as the key)
- f/7.1 ish (maybe a third or half a stop down - perhaps 2/3 as bright as the key. Almost as bright to the eye, but definitely not quite)
- f/8, the same as the key. This is called "flat light" for reasons you'll see.
What did we find? At f/2.8 the image looks lovely. Some good drama, there's definite "modelling" of the light on Ariel's features, showing the shape of her face in three dimensions. Paul picked cinematic lighting a rather than glamour lighting as the basis of this light pattern which is why the key is at position 5-6 not around position 2 or 4, which would be glamour lighting.
We can see that the fill is offsetting the unflattering effects of the cinematic lighting- the moles on Ariel's forehead are just about visible, but hardly jumping out of the screen at us, which is much better. There's catchlights in her eyes from both light. All in all a good result.
With the fill at f/4, it maybe looks a bit more "daytime". With the fill at f/5.6 and f/7.1 we're losing that sense of shape which the cinematic lighting gave us at f/2.8, but the result is still very flattering and is heading for glamour lighting territory- although technically speaking the key light is still over at the position that cinema lighting uses, if the key and fill are very similar in brightness we end up with a glamour-style lighting pattern.
We only run into trouble when the fill and the key lights are the same intensity, at f/8. Now Ariel's features are curiously flattened, there doesn't seem to be any shape to her features. It's unflattering, not because of the highlighting of skin blemishes now but because it makes her cheeks look very broad and her nose disappear- frankly, it makes her look chubby. Which, as I remind you, she is definitely not, what with being gorgeous for a living and all.
Flat lighting is something to be avoided at almost all costs. Hard and directional and soft and non-directional light can all work, but light which is too even just makes everything lose its shape and looks subtly but definitely unpleasant. If you've got mega-soft lighting, make sure you keep at least BIT of difference in light intensity from one side to the other.
Finally, we turned on the hair light. I called it "back" on the image captions, but it's not really doing the proper job of backlight, really it is just providing a hair highlight. At f/4 the effect is subtle- there's just a hint more shine at the top of Ariel's head, and she maybe stands out from the background a tiny bit more. At f/5.6 (or maybe f/8, I'm not sure which set we shot in the end as we clearly had an issue with the fill light for a couple of shots) the effect is more pronounced, and definitely looks more professional.
Genuine back light and rim light can even get away with being stronger than the key light if you're careful where shadows fall. One wouldn't want to do that here because you'd end up with horrible top-lighting, because we've not got space to get the light properly behind Ariel, the wall is in the way. If we want real backlight in normal domestic shooting situations we're going to have to work at it. Hollywood film-makers go to extraordinary lengths to get backlight into their shots: taping great blankets of flexible LED lights to walls, building removable ceilings and variable height walls in studio sets and all sorts.