Thursday, December 24, 2009

Reverse Engineer the Light

(photo above by Dan Winters)

One of the things I enjoy most about photography is learning different techniques. One of the ways to accomplish this, is to find works by other people you enjoy, and try to duplicate them. I'm not saying try to blatantly copy another person's work and pass it off as your own, but by trying to duplicate works that you appreciate, you can learn new techniques and can save them for when you want to try something different.

Reverse engineering a photo is a very clever way of learning new techniques, especially with lit portraits. Some photographers are very skilled at creating subtle lighting setups to flatter their subjects. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of people like Dan Winters, Gregory Heisler, Joe McNally and the likes.

Lit portraits by these guys can be very hard to decipher but with a little practice and trial and error through your own work, you can become very adept at figuring out various lighting setups which will in turn, give you valuable information for lighting your own portraits.

The portrait above of Tom Hanks was taken by the very talented Dan Winters, a notable and famous portrait photographer. He has taken portraits of many well known actors and figures and is known for his ability to create very sophisticated light on his subjects that doesn't call attention to itself. This portrait was part of a lengthy discussion on the Flickr Strobist group about how it was lit. After I offered my opinion on how i thought it was done, I decided to set about re-creating it to see how accurate my own perception of his lighting technqiue was.

Looking at the portrait above, the first thing I decided to figure out was his background. It is definitely lit separately than the subject and has a nice gradient (fall-off) from bottom to top. To accomplish this, I used an SB-600 with a Stofen diffuser, about 2 feet away from the background and pointed slightly upwards.  I knew by using the diffuser it would give me more of a spread out light and by placing it in close, I knew it would create the gradient I wanted.  This light was at 1/4 power.

Now on to the harder stuff.  Man oh man did this shot give me fits and while I will admit that my finished portrait is not quite like Dan Winters' I feel its pretty close and I really liked the finish result.

So how to trouble shoot the main light(s)... well, in any lit portrait, the first thing I do is look for the shadows and catch lights in the eyes.  These two things can tell you a lot about the lighting used, including the quality of the light (hard or soft) and the direction of the light, two very important components.  So if you look at the shadows on the subject's nose, you can see two distinct shadows, one soft shadow at the bottom of his nose at about 7 o'clock, and another slightly harder shadow coming off his nose at about 9 o'clock.  This would appear to me that two light sources were used, one slightly harder than the other.  Also you will notice that the shadow on the lapels of his jacket are quite hard.  This honestly left me baffled as to how there could be a soft and hard shadow on his nose and a harder shadow on the jacket.

I know that Dan Winters will frequently use ring lights in his portraits to fill shadow areas but I couldn't tell if that was the case in this particular portrait, and furthermore I don't own a ring flash so I had to try to come up with another solution.  Also you will notice a slight highlight on the subject's right ear (camera left).  That could either be from the a ring flash fill or from a reflector.

On to my lighting solution... I decided to use a Lumiquest SBIII with a Nikon SB-800 in close and up high at 45 degrees almost immediately to my left (camera right) and angled down.  I wanted this to duplicate the 7 o'clock shadow on the subject's nose and on the lapels of his jacket.  Since this was a fill light and not my key I dialed the power down to 1/32 and took a test shot.  This was giving me just enough light to get the result I was looking for.

Now for that glorious spot of light on the subject's face.  I'm still not sure how Dan Winters did this, but I decided a grid or a snoot would have to be my solution.  I took another SB-800 and opted for the snoot, placed it camera right and pointed it towards where my face was going to be.  Since this was a self portrait and me not shooting someone else, I had to take many test shots before I got the light right where I wanted it.  After looking at my results, I decided this light was simply too hard on my face, so the next question was, how to soften it?  I thought of putting tissue paper over the end of the snoot, but then I had (what I like to think of as) a stroke of genius!  Why not put a white shoot thru umbrella in front of it?  I had never tried this before but thought it would give me the look I was after, a spot of light with soft edges but still yet defined.  This light was at 1/8 power.

Bingo!  That was the ticket, it took a few shots to get everything lined up but I also noticed that by using the umbrella with the snoot, I was actually getting a little more frontal fill which brightened the shot up just a teeny bit ...which was nice.  I tried using the zoom feature on the speedlight and choking it up on the umbrella, but the spot wasn't very defined with either attempt and went back to the snoot and the umbrella.  This gave me the look I was after.

For that little bit of light on the subject's right ear (camera left) I used a silver reflector in very close.  It picked up the light from my umbrella/snoot combo and a little from my fill light (both camera right).

Below is my version of the portrait above and while I will be the first to admit, it is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing to me as Mr. Winters' is, I still liked the result and learned a new lighting trick to boot!

Self Portrait No. 42 a-la Dan Winters

In Photoshop, I adjusted the color tones a bit to more closely match those of the original portrait.  However I discovered that since I'm so pale (darn Irish/English roots) I preferred a little more reddish hue to the cheeks so I left that and just adjusted the color tones of the background.  A quick black border on the print and that was it.

This was an incredibly frustrating but rewarding experiment and if you're itching to learn new techniques then I suggest you start collecting images of inspiration or that you enjoy and start trying to replicate them.  Its one thing to sit and try to reverse engineer the light, but when you actually try to physically do it, you will be amazed at how your perception can change when you see things first hand.  You will learn a lot in the process and it can be a very rewarding experience.

Thanks to Mr. Winters for the inspiration and the Flickr Strobist group for bring the subject up.

Hope you try this and Happy Holidays to everyone!


For another great article on reverse engineering light, check out THIS ARTICLE by David Hobby of the Strobist blog.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What's Happening in December?

Lots of stuff happening this month, so rather than a normal post, I thought I'd share a few cool links I've stumbled across over the last month or so.

The first and perhaps my favorite, World Leaders Photographed by Platon ...this is too cool, famous photographer Platon holed up at the UN and coaxed as many world leaders to sit for a portrait as he could.  With each one of these shots, there is an audio commentary by Platon about that leader.  Very cool!

Second, need a new Nikon shirt?  Scott Kelby linked to these on his blog, and all of the proceeds go to a really good cause, check it out!

Next, David Hobby of the Strobist blog has this very cool, on going post in which he interviews some of the past Old Masters on their lighting techniques.  Very fun and informative!  His latest is with Vermeer.

Another awesome post by Scott Kelby, how to become known as a better photographer.  This is a must read!

Looking for a last minute Christmas present for a photographer friend?  Check out these awesome deals on lightstands at Photographer's Warehouse!  ...I've already bought a few.

Last but not least, I've been telling a lot of people about this site, its where I buy a lot of my photography gear.  If you live in the midwest/east, they are very close, ship quickly and the customer service rocks!  Check out Midwest Photo Exchange!

That's all I've got for now, but I should be squeaking another post in before Christmas! I'm hoping if I post more, Santa will be extra special good to me.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

White Seamless Paper Tutorial

Another year of experience and wisdom shined on me this week...

No, actually I had a birthday and my wonderful girlfriend bought me two new seamless paper backgrounds.  I have been wanting these for so long, but have just been to cheap to buy them for myself.  As a photographer though, these are totally invaluable when it comes to shooting portraits and good quality product shots.

For the longest time I have wanted to be able to produce full length portraits on a white high key background but to get these, you really need a roll of seamless paper (and space).  I am now the proud owner of a roll of Savage Super White and Black paper backgrounds.  Each one is roughly 36 feet long, which is more than long enough to give me a full sweep to photograph full length portraits on.  The extra length will come in handy; when they get dirty I can simply tear off the worn piece and pull down fresh, clean paper.

I recently did a portrait session with my girlfriend's daughter on the white seamless and had an absolute blast!  The thing I was most proud about was setting up all of my lights and having the power settings accurate on the first shot.  I'm pretty familiar with my trusty Nikon Speed Lights at this point but having never done this before, it was quite fulfilling to nail the lighting on the first go ...that never happens!

Since this technique seems to be somewhat elusive for a lot of folks, I thought I'd share my technique on this shoot.

To setup the roll of paper, I used a cheap background kit which consists of two stands and a cross bar that is adjustable from roughly 6 feet to 9 feet.  I slid the roll of paper on the cross bar and used A Clamps (A Clamps are a very useful tool in the photographer's gear bag ...and they're cheap!) from Home Depot to secure the roll on the bar.  Then I pulled down the length of paper I thought I would need and used gaffer's tape to secure the ends to the ground.  The reason I used gaffer's tape rather than another version is that it sticks well, but doesn't leave a residue and won't pull the finish off your floor or the paper.

After setting up the paper, I started with the background lights.  Generally when going for a high key (or blown white) background I've found that its best to have these lights about 2 stops stronger than your key light.  So I took 2 Nikon SB-600's (one on either side of the background) and placed them about 3 feet away from the background.  I pointed each one just a little past center to get an even wash of light.  I adjusted the flashes' power setting to about 1/4, then I added Honl gobo's to each one so that the light wouldn't spill forward on my subject.

For the key light, I used my DIY Beauty Dish with an SB-800 on a stand boomed above the model and on camera axis.  The reason I used the Beauty Dish was that I wanted a "punchy" light that was somewhat soft but not super soft.  My model has exceptionally good skin so I knew I could get away with this kind of light.  Another reason I used the Beauty Dish was it takes up less space than a large softbox or open umbrella.  My studio is my downstairs living room so I'm somewhat limited on space.  The SB-800 was set at 1/8 power.  I knew I wanted a fast recycle time with my lights for this kind of shoot so I chose 1/8 power because it will let me fire my SB-800 pretty much as fast as I want.  To make sure I was getting enough light on my model, I just opened up the aperture to f/5.6.  With stronger lights you can get away with f/8 or f/11 and I probably could have gotten f/8 with my speedlights, but after taking a test shot, I decided f/5.6 was giving me enough depth of field on subject.  Since I was shooting in a controlled environment and the only light contributing to my shot was the light I was providing, I set my shutter speed to my D300's fastest native flash sync speed which is 1/250 sec.  This ensured that no ambient light contributed to my shot.

I wanted to produce a "beauty light" type of lighting so I chose a clamshell method which is also known as the 'over-and-under' method, meaning that my key light was up above the model on camera axis, then I placed a fill light below my camera on camera axis.  For this fill light, I used another SB-800 in a Lumiquest SBIII.  The Lumiquest SBIII is a small softbox for speed lights that kind of emulates the light of my beauty dish when used in close.  Its not too soft, but its not a hard light either.  I set the power on this light to one stop below my key light at 1/16 power.  The reason I went with a lower power is I wanted to reduce the shadow under the model's chin but not eliminate it.  This is actually pretty subjective so you can really dial the power of this light in, take a test shot and decide where you want it ratio wise.  You could also use a reflector as opposed to another light, but since I knew I would be doing full length body shots, I didn't think the reflector would throw back up enough light.

Normally I shoot with Nikon CLS (Creative Light System) using my camera's built-in flash triggering system, but since I was using four lights, I thought it would just be easier to use my Cyber Sync Flash Triggers to trigger my flashes.  The only catch with this is, you have to dial the power settings in manually at each flash.  Which by now, I've become pretty accustomed to this so its no big deal.  If I thought I would be changing the power settings a lot, I would have used CLS because its a pain to run around to each light, but since this was a studio type session, I just got my lights dialed in where I wanted them and banged away.

I know from this lengthy post it seems like it took a long time to do all of this, but honestly I had the seamless paper background and all of my lights setup in about 30 mins.

With everything setup I was ready for my model.  She stepped in and I took a few shots to check to see if the positioning of my lights was how I wanted them.  Everything was good to go, so I started motoring off the shots.

Another good thing about a lighting setup like this is that your model can actually move around quite a bit and you will still get good, evenly exposed shots.  Even still, I usually will point out a spot on the ground that I want my model to stand on just to be safe.

This paper background is a 53" wide roll.  Its just about perfect for single person shots, but I still had to clean up the sides in Photoshop on the full length shots.  I would prefer a wider roll, but I just don't have the space in my living room studio to setup a 9 foot roll.  No worries, though.  I didn't have to do very much in post to get these shots to look good, so I didn't mind the minimal effort of cleaning up the sides.

In this last photo, you can see my setup (I zoomed back on this a bit to show the lighting setup) and my absolutely gorgeous living room. 

I can't tell you how much fun this shoot was for me, and I plan on doing a lot more in the future.  I'll have to experiment with the black roll next.  FWIW, these rolls of paper are much cheaper than you think and you get a cheap background kit for around $150 US.  So if these types of shots interest you and you have the space, run out and pick you up a roll or two, or three, or four, or five.

For more info on shooting on white seamless backgrounds, check out this awesome tutorial by Zack Arias