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On Assignment: Light That Isn't There

I'm as guilty as the next guy when it comes to over-the-top lighting. And why not? It's fun, it's cool and it can amp up an otherwise boring scene.

But that kinda stuff is not always necessarily the best choice. Often the best light is light that doesn't call attention to itself, but rather allows your camera to see a scene the way your eye would normally see it.

Take this biz portrait for example, which looks pretty natural but in fact is lit by three different sources.

Not Always Fireworks

Yeah, I know. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Readers of these pages will have already seen my lights emulating lasers or blasting smoke with multiple colors or completely transforming a room.

But often when you light you are just trying to close the gap between what your eye can see and what you camera can record. In other words you are trying to compress a contrast range, but in a believable way.

The process is this:

1. Expose for the bright parts. Maybe even leave them just a tad hot if you want the scene to be more believable.

2. Fill the dark areas to the point of desired legibility. Don't overdo it. Remember: believability.

3. Key light your subject in a way consistent with the surrounding ambient.

So Let's Do That Here

Let's apply this to a portrait of iBiquity CEO Robert Struble. (If you have HD radio in your car, these are the folks who invented it.) Struble was one of a series of portraits done for the HoCo Economic Development Authority.

He was tough to schedule, and we only had a few minutes. We met at a pre-arranged spot in Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia, MD, and we had him on his way after about 10 minutes.

Not having done this kind of in-photo before, I did a trial run with my own car the previous day. Good thing I did, too, as it revealed something which could have absolutely killed the real shoot.

Testing with my own car, I realized that I had better not forget to bring a rag and some Windex. Even a normally smudgy window would be really distracting. I would not have thought of that, and would have thus been S.O.L. on the real shoot.

I wanted to make this shot look conversational, have a quality edge to it and to not look lit. Think very nice snapshot. Much like the "I didn't do a thing to my seemingly randomly messy hair" look, this takes a little more work than would appear.

Here's a diagram of the light. It was done with three SB-800s, which testing the day before showed me would have sufficient power.

The fill light, an SB in a 60" Softlighter is probably the most important light in the bunch. It establishes legibility inside the car. Coming from a couple of feet behind me, it pushes into the car at an level a couple of stops under full exposure.

My considerable frame is partially blocking the light, keeping it from overpowering the foreground in the car. (Think angle of view—the closer the car interior is to me, the more I am blocking its view of the fill light.)

As for sync, I am PC corded to this light and the other two are slaved from it.

So now that I can see everywhere in the car, let's key the guy. Fortunately, the car windows allow us a pretty wide range of choices of key direction, and since we are filing for legibility the key angle is not critical. That's why I like to fill from on-axis—it allows me the safety to do pretty much whatever I want with my key.

In this case my key was another SB in a (45") Softlighter, positioned in front of the car and firing through the windshield.

Lastly, I thought the radio area was a little dark on the instrument panel. And since that is the peg for his inclusion in the series, we'll stick just a smidge of light there to make it more legible. This is courtesy another SB in a Honl ⅛" grid to control the spill. It was placed on a compact stand on the back seat of the car.

Altogether, the lights are doing everything I want but without calling attention to themselves. It's not very sexy, but it is what this photo needs.

Not to worry—I'm sure I'll be doing lasers or something of that ilk again soon enough anyway.

Next: Hiding Your Key with Fill


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