Using Hard Light

I've written about using hard light before. This post is going to be a little bit different. Consider it a bonus for anyone that has the Simulating Sunlight Field Guide. Even if you don't there are a couple of tidbits that might interest you. For illustration and discussion I chose only one image - the one at the top. I shot this specifically for the Simulating Sunlight eBook but ended up not using it for a few reasons some of which I wanted to discuss. I also chose to post process this far differently than what I did in the lighting guides which I'll review briefly as well.

First off it's obvious that the main light is a hard source even with a casual glance at the image. The dead giveaway is of course Anastasia's shadow on the right side of the image. That shadow also provides you with all you need to know about the direction and angle of that main hard light which in this case is a single SB-800 speedlight. So far so good that's exactly what I was going for in the illustrations I was shooting for this guide. So why didn't I end up using it as an illustration? A couple of reasons that boil down to some local lighting effects that contribute significantly to the way this image looks that I didn't want to discuss at all or at least not where I planned on using this series of illustrations.

Specifically two things are going on here that are pretty important. The first has everything to do with posing and positioning of my subject. The second thing is related to my position and point of view relative to the subject and the environment. Here's a closer 100% look at the local area. As usual open in a new window to see all the pixels.

If you can ignore the deteriorated state of affairs with the makeup and hair for a moment (hey we were sans makeup-artist and stylist for this stuff and this was shot after a bunch of other stuff I did that day - gimmie a break) well focus first on the posting/positioning. Even looking at the lighting under this kind of microscope it's not instantly obvious what is going on with the lighting conditions. There's not much of a shadow edge where the speedlight is being cut off - in fact that edge is very soft. Even more importantly the typical shadows cast by facial features like noses are almost completely hidden. Everything that would usually cast obvious shadows is directly in-line with the light source from right to left. From top to bottom it's not but things like Anastasia's chin is in the shadow and not directly lit by the speedlight.

This is a huge reason why the image looks like it does and can be looked at as a tool. Positioning of light sources is important, really important. Just as important is subject positioning and posing. Tiny little adjustments are night and day differences for most light that has any direction to it. When it comes to hard light this is even more true. As seen here you can choose to position your subject relative to the light in such a way to pretty much hide the shadows - or not. You can also frame things differently to hide those shadows or display them within the composition. Speedlights are a little tricky to see this clearly with your eyes. My typical MO is to direct the subject in a broad sense of what I intend from a shadow standpoint and then fine tune it with a bit of chimping.

The second local effect happening that has everything to do with the environment, positioning of the subject, and the point of view I chose for this image is evident on the right side of Anastasia above and below the hand touching her face. Take a look at what's going on in the shadows. Look at what's going on with the vertical portion of her jawline and ear within the shadow. See the light on the edge from the opposite direction of where the speedlight is coming from making that edge separate. It's subtle but absolute critical for why those shadow areas have separation. It's coming from the speedlight you see hitting that white wall that is relatively close on the right side of the frame. It provides local contrast and has everything to do with the environment and shooting from this side of the subject. Shooting from the other side there is no effect that you can see because obviously I am not showing any shadow areas where that's happening.

Pretty important concept I talk about in both of the field guides just not for these images. Even if I framed differently so that wall was not visible the effect sure would be. Seeing these things going on with your subject and being aware of them in your shooting environment. Causing them to happen or eliminating the effect is what it's all about right after learning how to mess with the controls on your lights - actually no matter whether you choose to use "natural light" or bring your own light to the table this is the very essence of photography.

When writing and illustrating the field guides I made a decision early on not to fuss around in post processing "fixing" stuff. I also made the decision not to optimize each image and instead chose a one size fits all shoot - standardized readily available preset - export workflow so that it was really easy to differentiate stuff that happens in camera and stuff that doesn't. That was a tough call for me for a lot of reasons but ended up wanting to produce something that anyone could reproduce OOC using the same preset with no time messing around with post processing dependencies.

This image is a bit different. I spent about 3 to 5 minutes messing around with it in a very different way than shoot - preset - done. I'll walk through that really quickly.

  • First off is that I optimized the tone curve to my liking and put the contrast were I wanted it instead of how it comes out of the camera.
  • Second I spent a bit more time on the color. Actually this is where I spent the most time. Both in the color relationships, saturation, hue, etc, etc. Hand in hand with a more careful assessment and adjustment of the overall white balance as this was shot in mixed light that happened to be in a realationship that I am not a big fan of. Cool main and warmer fill. Juggling those two things produced a far different result than OOC with a VSCO preset.
  • Taking into account the color and contrast curve adjustments this would be representative of what I would typically expect of what I might get back from a pro-lab if I was shooting Portra 160NC or 160VC - maybe somewhere in between - under the same conditions. So I guess this is my verison of digital Portra 160NC along with a correction that I would expect a pro-lab that did my scanning to get back to me.
  • I did one "red-eye" correction on the eye farthest from the camera. It wasn't really the kind of red-eye that would stand out output at any normal size but there was a tiny reflection off the back of the retina that was showing color in the pupil of that eye.
  • I did a very subtle stroke of the "skin smoothing" brush in Aperture 3 directly under the eyelash of the eye closest to the camera to soften the edge between the dark area under Anastasia's eye and the rest of her skin. I could obliterate it if need be but softening it is good enough for government work.
  • Did a tiny stroke of the skin softening brush right above the point where the hand is touching the face as well. There was a little red patch there - maybe from touching the face - that I wanted to de-emphasize.

That's it but it's a fairly substantial difference. For some people that may be obvious as to what's going on in camera versus post - for other's not so much. It's confusing figuring out what is what in the context of lighting if there's no base line so I figured it was better to just have a baseline and let the OOC chips fall where they may. What's also important is what I didn't do in post for this image. Maybe I should maybe not you be the judge for your own images either way it might be helpful if I point a couple of things out…

  • I didn't mess with the eye's in terms of local adjustments. No color, contrast, dodging or burning, Nada. There are two reasons they look relatively good. The biggest is making sure I am dumping a lot of light into the eyes when I shot this. Something to look at hard when shooting people. It will always look better if you figure out how to get a lot of light into the eyes in most cases unless you decide you don't want to. Way better than trying to simulate it or fix it in post. The other reason is that contrast curve that I spoke of earlier. More "film-like" in terms of mid-tone contrast while keeping the over all light to black contrast low.
  • I didn't paint any highlights in or out - same with shadows with local adjustment on the face. That's all lighting effects. I also didn't obliterate the skin texture or modify it. Again all lighting effects and reasonable female skin to begin with. A lot of the perceived smooth-ness has everything to do with a lower than normal lighting ratio between shadow and highlight. The specular reflections from the main light in what could be considered all highlights are what gives depth and a feeling of solidity. A flatter lighting ratio with some specularity for that pop.
  • I didn't fix the make up or stray hairs. The lipstick is looking a bit ratty at this point and the tight styling of the hair is looking not so tight with a lot of pop-outs. Most folks would probably touch that up a bit…
  • I would probably spot out the tiny tiny pin points of light you see direct center of each pupil. Those actually come from the extremely low level flash output of the built-in speedlight I was using in commander mode out of convenience. Causes red-eye, generally looks bad, and gets worse the higher and higher ISO you shoot at. At really high/ISO's and wide apertures it starts to actually influence the lighting - especially if you have a dark foreground. One of the many reasons I actually prefer radio triggers - even cheap ones.
  • If… and I emphasize if this image was a really tight crop of the face I would definitely fix everything I just talked about along with some finesse on spoting/healing various things, fixing the eye makeup, etc, etc. In fact I probably wouldn't make that kind of image without a makeup person and a stylist. It saves a bunch of time. I would leave the freckles you can see both on the face and on the top of the shoulders for sure but that's just me. Even for a wider shot like this hair/makeup count a lot - a whole lot.

Okay that wraps up post and some relationship between how it's shot and how it's finished to a certain degree. One other take away from this - simulating the sun or not is the mixing of a really really big soft light source with a harder - more specular light source at lower (closer together) ratios. Even from the same direction. I use this all the time at even closer ratios than this. Here's it's a stop apart or pretty darn close. That doesn't even mean that the actual intensity is a stop apart. In fact its probably about the same but it's about twice as bright where the two sources overlap.

Truth be told - this is about the only way I use beauty dishes - usually even at closer/lower ratios. A giant wall of light coming from seemingly everywhere with a tiny pop of beauty dish mixed in on the face. That whole hard/soft thing is not one dimensional you can have soft or hard sources as well as softer or harder ratios they both influence the "softness" or "hardness" feel of an image. In most cases I will take a lower lighting ratio with a bit of hard specular pop for dimension to one degree or another. Typically it's even better when you shape that hard source and narrow it in a bit to do specific things.


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