Highlight Fetishist v. Highlight Nazi
I have used the tongue in cheek reference before - specifically stating that I am more of the former than that later. Yea yea yea I know just like everyone else does that once you let’um go at some point the detail is lost and gone forever. My position is - so what. There are likely more opportunities with ambient light conditions where insanely bright highlights will be somewhere in your image then there are not. I have shown a couple of variations of this scene that I shot the other day. I made about a dozen shots at the time. Maybe spent 5 minutes. I could have shot here in this light all day. I love this light.
I used one a post or so ago to demonstrate how two different photographers - or even the same photographer may approach a scene lit the same way in completely different ways with completely different results. I thought it worth repeating and also wanted to briefly discus a lighting situation that you literally run into every single day. Well most of us do. One that lasts most of the day. Direct sunshine. I love sunshine but there are many photographers both newbies and old hands that avoid sunshine like it’s some sort of bane to their existence.
Oh shit it’s 2pm and the sun’s out, I think I won’t shoot because all my pictures will look like shit or let’s find some open shade, etc. etc. There are a million ways to deal with direct sun and once you embrace it and master it even in the slightest way you will open up picture opportunities that will blow your mind.
One way is flash - specifically the dreaded “fill flash”. Yea that can be used to reasonable effect if controlled but seldom yields results that are superlative unless you take a lot of time to set it up and test it etc etc. Heck I use flash in combination with the sun but usually not with the flash attached to my camera “filling in” shadows.
Here is another way…
Try it sometime - you may or may not like it but it will certainly add a tool to your box. If you are a highlight nazi that is ruled by the little blinkies telling you you have “blown” some highlights you’re going to have to let go of that for a bit and come over to my side of things where you a free to blow the living crap out of them. It’s fun over here on this side we are a wild and fun loving bunch. Not only that but it let’s you expose any way you want - wooooooo hoooooo. Yea once you let that little bunch of blinkies start blinkin’ you can blink the living crap out of them another stop… and another… and another… woooooooo yeaaaaa look ma they still blink the same amount.
Once you let them go it really doesn’t matter how far you push them they are gone. If you have been ruled by the flashing highlight warnings you may feel a little bit shy and only want them to blink a little bit. You know so that somehow if you decided four years from now that the out of focus detail in the detail-less white sheet in the foreground somehow has the magical detail in it that make’s the shot and you could “get it back” - screw it let them go forever. Ah okay - if you are just dipping your toe in the water go ahead shoot a few with no blinkies as some sort of “backup”. Actually that’s a good idea to shoot variants but usually you will need completely different compositions and angles for them to feel right. At some point you will have to let them go.
When you do as I have in this shot and the others in this series there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. I will get to that shortly. First - this is obviously lit by the sun streaming in a window (well I could have simulated that with strobes in the dark - more on that another day) but this is the real deal. The sun was streaming in at a very low angle and making two stripes across the bed where the subject is lying. It was coming in a tiny bit behind and to camera left. The reason for the two stripes of sun is due to it being split by a large stanchion that was part of the bank of windows on the left wall.
I chucked the subject in that shady part between the two stripes. That strip of shade was only about 8 or 10 inches wide with direct sun on either side that was about 18 inches wide. One in the back of the subject and as you can see one in the front. From that point I just let the subject move and shot when I thought it looked good. I have this thing about shooting people when they are actually in motion - not crazy motion but just a little bit.
I mentioned that I shot maybe a dozen shots in this light - I like all of them but I like them all for the same reason those things are the things to keep in mind and look at when you are doing something like this. If you haven’t figured out the first step - and most important - let me spell it out. The little pieces of sun that strike parts of your subject, the foreground, and the background. Ignore them completely from an exposure standpoint. Expose as if they weren’t there. In this case I just exposed the skin not lit by the sun the way I like it - in my case way up in the upper mids bordering on highlight. Just my taste for skin values.
Here is what to watch for. It’s simple. Just make sure that the place where the sun actually is hitting are not important visually and you are good. Want to make it even better. Play around with letting the sun hit in different places. here and there and all over the place that are not important around the edges. Just smidgens. Bits and pieces of sunlight you can see on the hair in the left in two specific places. These are coming from the very very edge of that light stripe in the foreground. The lower sun strike is a bit dimmer than the upper one. This happens at the very edges.
Obviously - or not - the key light (or main) here is actually that strip of sun on the white sheets in the foreground. That is nice and soft and really close and what causes the glow on the subject’s face. It’s gorgeous because it’s so close and not completely flat. What’s not so obvious is that by letting that little bit of the “back” stripe of sun strike the subject’s shoulder I get a really nice reflection on the edge of her jaw line as well that gives some nice separation.
The other thing that may not be obvious is that once you let those little pieces of sun blow and blow in a big way the skylight - also coming through the same windows plays a much much bigger role in the photograph. Take a look at Mary’s hair on the left edge of the frame. Subtle but you can see that broad highlight of a different color temperature. I bring all of these things up because they are what to keep an eye out for as you adjust your framing and your viewpoint and your subject. All of these little things - the bits and pieces of light that you can make happen really easily in sunlit conditions. Especially on the edges of the sunlight. Edges are the interesting part and placement of those bits and pieces are what will make or break the image. As long as they look good you are gold and the nice part is that you can actually see them happening in real time with not a lot of effort or even imagination of how the camera will make them look.
If you are just starting to play with using the sun make sure you are looking for obvious gaffs in this sort of situation. Like placing one of those stripes square across the subjects face at this exposure - actually that works to in a different context with a different exposure - I’ll show you one of those next time. As you play with it more and more the big stuff will become quite obvious and you won’t even have to think about it or pay any attention - then you can start paying attention to the little tiny things more closely like those little edge bits and the way the skylight is working underneath it and making reflections off skin like the jaw line thing.
Trust me if you loosen up just a bit and become okay with sending a couple of highlights to Neptune you will open up more possibilities than I could ever explain but once you make your first image that works by letting go of the highlights a brand new light bulb will go off. I did mention context and context is huge. As long as you get the context right our human eyes really don’t expect to see “detail” where the sun hits in this particular context. This is sort of how it “feels” when you are there.
Post processing on this was one click of VSCO film 03 - Fuji FP-100c. I am on a little bit of a binge with this new toy. Exposure was probably way north of 2 stops more than what the smarty-pants Nikon recommended. More like 3 1/2 or more but start with 1 stop over then 2 stops over and go from there. It’s highly scene dependent. Especially with multi-pattern meters. With spot metering it’s easy. For me somewhere between one and two stops over measuring the subjects skin depending on that subjects actual skin tone.
One last note. Playing around with natural light of all sorts in all different ways informs your strobe lighting in all kinds of new ways - very very good ways. Like how to make reflections within the actual frame do more than one job vs. contortions of keeping your reflector out of frame and close enough etc. I will definitely go into that down the road.
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