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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Believable Light

"Have a cup" by alexdpx

Everyone - or at least almost everyone - is into off-camera flash photography these days.  It 's the new thing.  "Hey, you're a strobist!!  Great!!" 

Many photographers, though, are falling into the trap of making their light the "star of the show".  That way of thinking does create impressive effects but sometimes, too much is just too much.  How often have you read, "Nice lighting." instead of "Nice picture." comments in countless photos all over the net?  Well, I've posted a few of those myself.  That's because what you first notice oftentimes is the lighting technique - more than the subject itself complemented by the lighting.

Maybe it's my background in corporate photography - where conveying a message is more important than showcasing an effect.  I prefer lighting that creates emphasis on the subject as if it is naturally occuring - not artificial.  I prefer lighting that is believable.

Take for example the photo above.  It's a strobist shot but more than the lighting, the first thing you would probably notice is the subject, his pose, the cup he's holding and the smoke coming out from his mouth, and then the details in the background.  This is a picture of a man - Benjie Aristo - relaxing on a cool winter morning at a coffee shop in Souq Waqif.  But did you noticed the lighting?  Not immediately, I believe.  Because it was subtle, and low powered - just enough to balance the subject's exposure with the ambient background in a way that's not too obvious.

The idea for lighting was driven by the result of the picture below, where my first attempt was just to take a picture of him as remembrance that he participated in that photowalk.  I was trying to get an average exposure of the bright background and him under the shades.  But that's just not gonna happen.

This snapshot shows the tricky lighting situation - bright sunlit background and a subject under the shades.

You'll notice that the punchy colors of the building and blue sky in the background got washed out as I try to avoid the main subject to disappear into a silhouette.  Obviously, that attempt was not very succesful either - he still looks a bit dark and you could hardly notice that the sweat shirt he's wearing is colored blue.

Take a look again at the first photo.  I decided that fill-flash is the best solution here but instead of on-camera flash in E-TTL mode and the camera in P mode (I usually get a very good exposure with such setup), I thought that I could do something better and turn this remembrance photo into a more creative portrait.  So I had another friend (Wili Arias) to hold one Canon Speedlite 430EX II to light Benjie.  I liked the way sunlight was striking on the architecture in the background so I asked him to hold the flash from the same direction that sunlight was coming from.  That would make it look like it's the same sun light shining on him - not flash.  Then I took the background's exposure reading and set my camera in manual mode a half stop underexposed.  That's to get better saturated colors.  For the flash, I usually start at 1/4 power output but I wanted it to be subtle so I dialled it down to 1/8.  I can't remember much of it now but I think after a couple more test shots - keeping my camera settings constant and adjusting only the flash power - I was finally happy with the exposure and all the settings.  I asked him to puff a smoke from his cigarette (it kind of helps to give him character) just before I click the shutter and hold up his coffee mug - as if inviting every viewer to have a cup.

And so what I got here is a picture about the subject - not about the light.




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