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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Simplify Your Lighting

Less is often more when it comes to crafting beautiful illumination

This Article Features Photo Zoom
"He wants to create something simple and beautiful," she adds. "That's his internal sensibility. And he doesn't need a whole lot in order to achieve that."

Togashi certainly doesn't use simple lighting to settle for plain images; his photographs are gorgeous and sumptuous—and the product of only a couple of lights. He doesn't sacrifice shape or line, texture or detail. Neither does Markewitz compromise his approach with limited gear. He can create separation with a single kicker or enhance texture with a light positioned just so. Wonnacott and Resnick clearly aren't afraid to strip down to a minimal kit to achieve a maximum effect, and these are world-class photographers shooting with big budgets and practically limitless lighting resources. If they can do it, why can't you?

The next time you feel like you just can't pull off a good shot without additional lights, think back to some of the most beautiful illumination you've ever seen. Chances are good that it came from a single, ever-present source: the sun. And then remember that age-old adage, priceless advice for all of life's difficult situations: Keep it simple, stupid.

William A. Sawalich is a frequent contributor to DPP. In addition to being an accomplished professional photographer, he's an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. See more of his work at www.sawalich.com.

How To Work With Just One Light
A few modifiers and a little know-how can turn a single light into beautiful illumination

Before you start adding sources to "improve" your lighting, consider using modifiers to sculpt the light. With a few basic tools and a little know-how, you can create amazing images with just one light.

>> Use a bare bulb. With no modifiers in play at all, a bare-bulb light source will be omnidirectional (helpful for lighting every surface in a confined space) and specular. That means your one bare-bulb light can act as an edge light, key light and fill (as it bounces off surfaces within a scene) depending on where it's positioned. In this way, a bare bulb acts much as the sun does in a clear blue sky.

Chimera Snapgrid
>> Add a reflector. The addition of a simple silver dish-style reflector (be it just a few inches in diameter or up to a foot or more) will maintain the hard-edged direct-sunlight characteristics of a bare-bulb source, but it will focus that light in one direction. This is a great way to harness all of the illumination from one source and focus it more intensely in one place (allowing you to shoot at a smaller aperture), and it minimizes the scatter that would occur otherwise. This allows you to control more precisely which surfaces are lit and which ones remain in shadow. A white-dish reflector is slightly softer than a silver dish would be.

>> Focus the light. Many light modifiers are designed to create a narrow beam. A snoot gives you a tight, round spot with a hard edge, which is a great way to emulate a theatrical spotlight and to create graphic compositions by positioning the subject within a perfect circle of light. Grid spots also create a focused, round beam of light, but with softer edges and varying degrees of narrowness. They come in handy for environmental portraits when balanced with ambient background light, as does a beauty dish, which creates an attractive, softer light than a dish reflector alone. It also adds a touch of hardness and definition that keeps portraits from appearing too bland.

>> Use a gel for color. A little bit of warmth is usually a very flattering touch to people photos. The best way to accomplish this is to gel your light source with an amber or orange gel, like a ¼ or ½ CTO (Color Temperature Orange). A full CTO gel will really warm up a shot, and with a hard light source at a low level, it becomes a great way to emulate the beautiful glow of sunset light. If you're photographing a product or other subject in which another color could help tell the story—say, with a cool blue hue representing a cool temperature—consider adding gels in any number of other hues as well.

Photoflex OctoDome
>> Soften the light. A softbox or umbrella is an ideal way to turn a hard-edged specular light source into a softer, more wraparound illumination. It's the lighting equivalent of an overcast sky. Softer shadow edges and more detail within those shadows make soft-light sources a favorite for anyone who makes portraits for a living, and it's generally a great way to hide flaws and minimize texture in any number of subjects. Soft lights are simply less contrasty and, therefore, often much less dramatic than specular sources. A single softbox is a great way to create beautiful portraits from a variety of lighting positions. Add a grid to the softbox to keep light from spilling onto the background or other elements in a scene, or switch to an umbrella to create more scatter and light a larger area.

>> Position your source and subject carefully. Because light falls off exponentially the farther it gets from the source, smart photographers can harness this "inverse square law" to turn lots of different looks in a one-light portrait. For instance, placing a subject directly in front of a white background, with one light source far away, will create a light, white background, which you might expect. But move the subject far from the background and close to the light, adjust the exposure accordingly, and you might be surprised to see that white background rendered pure black. This is a powerful tool when working with one light.

>> Break the rules with a frontal ringlight. The specular, hard-edged illumination from a ringlight (the flash tube literally forms a ring through which the lens is positioned) breaks the rules by creating a purely frontal light that normally creates unflattering, shadowless illumination. But the ringlight is no simple frontal light, and it creates a rim of shadow surrounding the subject that can help create the appearance of separation and depth, and most importantly, create an interesting image infused with energy and drama—with just one light.


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