Experimentation, Hard Light, and Working The Shot

I love hard light - I really do but it takes some experimentation and practice to use. It also can be quite the task master when working with it on location with live subjects. It screams extremely loudly at you by handing you completely unusable images when you are getting it wrong. Continuos sources like fresnel spot lights are the easiest to learn and practice with. Too bad the are really really hard on subjects. In fact unless your subject likes directly staring into 1000 or more watts continuos lights can be almost impossible to use as key lights with some subjects.

Next up are studio style strobe heads. These are pretty easy to learn and very quick to use because they have modeling lights. I can position and light using strobes with modeling lights really really quick and be right on the money 99% of the time with zero monkeying around. Too bad they are a pain in the rear end to lug all over the place. That brings us to those little speed lights. They are probably the hardest to learn with and the most fiddly but after a bit of practice you can get kinda quick.

The shot at the top was shot with one speedlight. I brought a bunch that day but only ended up using one for every setup I shot. It's actually a fairly complicated shot visually and I wouldn't have even attempted it if I had not done similar things about 1000 times before with big-boy strobes. Actually this is the first time I did it with a speedlight. I was feeling kind of confident since I had my handy dandy self-made stand adaptor and all the little gadgets for modifying the little SB-800 I needed so I said what the hell - let's do it.

I was a little slower setting it up but not too much so. The setup sequence was as follows…

  • Two test shots for setting the ambient which was to be the fill. I wanted a fairly high ratio but shadows not to be black - about 3-4ish stops under end up looking about right for what I wanted.
  • Next was positioning the flash in terms of angle and spread. This took 5 test shots with slight adjustments each time. I accidentally dialed in the correct exposure for the flash on manual so that took zero time. The problem was I wanted to do a couple of things that can be tricky with no working room. The flash is just out of frame on camera right. The subject is sitting on a futon and can only move about 18 inches away from the wall. Truth is I had to violate my policy that day of not moving crap around - I had to move a set of fireplace tools as that is the only place my light stand could go. The tricky part was I wanted varying light/dark patterns on the background that were the inverse of the same light/dark patterns on Rebecca. The easiest thing to do is usually adjust your framing or subject's position to vary those things. In this case I had to futz with the speedlight angle and spread by micro amounts to get what I wanted - always much slower.
  • I smashed the light coming out of the speedlight into a bunch of dried plant bits to break it up and create some light/dark pools of interest within the the major light/dark pattern on the background and then had Rebecca start to pose with some direction from me to get the light and shadows on her face right. The other tricky part was that I wanted alternating light/dark/light/dark going across the frame from left to right as well. Part of that is where the shadows are and part of it is positioning of the hair. Success. That took me 3 or 4 shots as well.
  • Great - perfect. Well as good as it's gonna get for now give the space constraints and only 4 feet of wall to work with. Too bad the shots were looking really stiff which can happen when you exert too much control on a subject. If you have worked with someone extensively sometime you can just say - hey it's looking a little stiff and things will be great. Having been the first time I shot Rebecca I just kept on shooting with some very light direction and used another tool from my bag of tricks that I stumbled upon more than a decade ago. I just shot while she was in motion transitioning to what I had asked for. One of the reasons a camera that has little or no shutter lag is important to me.

Pretty much done for this setup. I knew I made something that I had set out to make because I saw it through the viewfinder. I also verified via chimping on the back of the camera. Not something I do often - only when I believe I nailed what I wanted. Had this been film I probably would have shot another couple of frames but being digital and having verified I got it what did I do… Exactly the opposite of what I should have - I shot about a dozen more. I have no idea why I do this with digital. Now I have a bunch of images that are not quite as good as this one but are pretty much the same. Note to self… stop that.

A couple of take aways for those of you that shy away from flash or shy away from hard light sources. They can be very rewarding and make some really great images so experiment a lot. Who cares if you screw it up. Take some "safe" shots to. Give yourself a mini-project. Sort of like what I described I was trying to do with the inverted dark/light light/dark patterns and figure it out. You will learn a heck of a lot about the variables under your control by doing so.

If you happen to be using speedlights aiming is critical so make sure you can and some sort of way to narrow down the beam is also critical. Trust me zooming in your flash alone is not going to cut it. I personally like to knock the edges off the beam hard. There are a million ways to do this. I happened to use barn doors as they are my go to tool for keeping light off stuff. Always has been. Even without those you can use just about any thing to cut the beam of a hard source off. I have used a room with a door, assistants with gobo cards, real windows, you name it I have used it. Play.

I was in a funky retro mood today so post processing was as follows. Adobe ACR7, spotted one minor blemish on cheak, punched the WB up about 200 points for a bit more sunny-ness, VSCO Film 02 Fuji Superia 100++. The "plus" sort of makes the blacks even less black (read poor dmax or under exposed neg film printed up) and adds crazy amounts of grain. The other plus does it more.


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