basic lighting technique - improv style


Today's photo discussion is from one taken from my archives. I was very happy with the results of this photo simply for the fact that it was done "on the fly." I had not planned on shooting anything that cold winter day. I was also limited to equipment access, having only a few basics. This proves that you do not need an elaborate setup to produce a beautiful image. It was not one of my most complicated shots, or one of my best, although I love to show it just as much as those that were lit using more complex techniques. Now, do not be fooled. Although this was "shot from the hip," on scene, there was much post involved in the digital darkroom which we will discuss in detail.


On Scene

It was a chilly December afternoon in New Jersey (sounded like a Soprano's into) and I had some family visiting to do. Living in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Washington Township (or simply, Township as the residents prefer to say), New Jersey is a quick ride over the Walt Whitman Bridge. So I pack some gear and head over to mom's house. I mentioned earlier that I had no intentions of shooting that day but as a photographer, you should always have some equipment with you as you never know when an opportunity may arise.

After sitting and chatting with the family over a warm cup of hot chocholate. . . Okay that was a lie but sounded nice to get a holiday feel. So, sitting and chatting with the family over a now luke warm Starbuck's black coffee, I notice the nice decorations around the house as mom always prides herself on. The featured model is my sister. Yes, I have some years on her, but that is for a whole other post in a whole other blog, or just my shrink. I decide then to see if she was up for a quick portrait. Being quite the ham, she agreed and quickly prepared herself for the shoot. Again, since I was not aiming for anything too elaborate, I advised her not to overdo it. I just needed her (oh, her name is Morgan by the way) to put on a solid colored shirt and fix the hair a bit.

The Shot

Prepared with my 40d Canon DSLR, I had only one lens to choose from, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, an awesome portrait lens, especially on a cropped sensor. I also had my Canon 430EX II speedlight. What else did I have? Nothing. No umbrellas, tripod left behind, triggers still in the bag, lenses probably sitting on my nightstand (I like to look at those babies before falling asleep, another story probably better shared with the psychiatrist). There was one piece of equipment that I left out that was available on scene, a large soft box. But you thought that I said I didn't have any more gear packed. Well my friend, when on a shoot, you need to not only find proper backgrounds, distractions, etc. You can also search for light modifiers that you didn't even know existed. So where is the soft box that I speak of? It's not in the garage or the basement, it's upstairs. Not on the second floor though, it's right above my head. A large white ceiling. A perfect light mod. By simply aiming the flash directly up and toward the ceiling, you produce a large diffused light source. You will lose a bit of power since the light has to travel from flash to ceiling and then back down to subject. Adjust your speedlight and camera settings to get the desired result. To also avoid any spill of light coming from flash direct to subject I make a quick homemade barndoor. I find a deck of cards and grab the joker (my favorite of the deck since I'm told I share his smile) and a rubber band. Attach to flash and raise up to block light that would shoot forward. You cannot find a cheaper light mod.

Now I'm ready to dial in my settings to get a proper exposure. My camera's sync speed for flash is a cool 1/200th of a second. You do not have to keep that setting but for this, that speed is just fine. Next I want to find my correct aperture. With the background that I chose, I wanted to have a nice shallow depth of field. With that I get the aperture wide open at the lens max of f/1.8. This depth give some nice blur to those Christmas lights. If you were to start closing that aperture down, the lights would become more and more detailed. That was not my goal on this day. Next I need to find my correct flash power. I do this by firing at these setting to see what result I get. The result is a slightly underexposed photo, perfect. In the dark, is where I wanted to be. All that were visible were the tiny Christmas lights. Now that the ambient is under control, I set the flash power and let the speedlight control the scene. I ended up dialing in the flash to 1/2 power. That gave me the exposure I was looking for.

Model now ready to pose away. I ended up with about 25 nice shots of the smiling girl. Mom was happy. I was done, and in need of a fresh coffee, I wrapped it up and headed out. But wait, where is smiling Morgan? Well, like I said, Mom was happy with that one. I caught this one between her posed self. I felt this one had much more to say to the viewers. Is she sad? In deep thought? Thinking of her next pose? Wondering what Santa may bring? Aside from nice lights and proper settings, you still want your photos to tell a story. As compared to the other 25, this one spoke the most, In my opinion anyway. Sorry Mom, your smiling daughter hanging over the mantle is wonderful! Not for my blog though!

So as you can see with limited supplies you can create something amazing. You just need to be creative in how you do it. Look around and you will find something, anything that can make your life easier while shooting.

By reverse engineering this photo you can see where the light is coming from. None is coming straight from the front of the camera body. Aside from the light coming down nicely on her hair from ceiling you can also see the shadow that her chin has created. By that angle you can see that light not only bounced from above but also from a wall at camera right. These light sources give this photo depth, which you do want.

Now over to the digital darkroom for the editing...

The Edit

Thought this portrait was very nice straight out of camera, there was still lots of work to be done. And as I do with every photo, I begin edits in Camera RAW and after that in Photoshop.

There were many steps in producing this final image. At first glance, it may seem pretty basic but read on my friend, read on. The original RAW file had an awful blue color cast. Cold as ice. A feel that may work for other scenes, but not this one. This coldness was due to the flash and white balance settings. I don't usually worry about that too much since Camera Raw's abilities are amazing. I try out the auto white balance setting and get a pleasing result. I then tweak the temperature and tint just a bit to create a perfect balance. I usually do a few other adjustments here, but was happy with those. Now on to Photoshop where things get tricky.

Layers Layers Layers

Using layers in photoshop are very important to use. If you just did straight edits and find that you over or under did some adjustment, it will become difficult to fix. With layers you can adjust a setting and find that with this new setting another is not jiving. No problem, you can go back to that layer and adjust sliders appropriately.

Curves - always a first in my routine. Creating a slight S-shaped curve after finding your true blacks, whites, and midtones (discussed in "long exposure night photography") will remove the dreaded and unavoidable color cast.

Vibrance - A great adjustment layer that will recognize skin tones better than the saturation tool. You can also use this adjustment in Camera RAW, but on this particular one I needed to do in Photoshop as I knew that I may need to tweak after editing other layers. It can be tweaked in RAW also, but by having a vibrance layer, I could save time as it is right in front of me. The final number here is 30. Done.

Skin - No there is not a "skin" layer option, but for this photo, I felt that her skin needed some softening. This is a trick I learned back in Korea (not really). First duplicate the original layer and add some Gaussain Blur. This one was around a radius of 40. Next you add layer mask and then invert it. Grab a soft white brush and paint where you want to soften skin. At first glance it will look sort of ridiculous. No fear, opacity slider is here! Drag that slider down to about 15% and now the skin has a nice soft glow to it.

Eyes - Same as previous item, there is no preset "eyes" adjustment option but you can make one. Although I had taken most of the cold blue out of the photo, I notice close up that the whites of her eyes still had some lingering. This can be fixed by adding a hue/saturation adjustment layer. Pick the blues and drag back the saturation slider. Now don't go too far or it may give a grayish look to the whites. After that bump up the lightness in this layer. You are now going to master, not blues. Bump that slider up to about 30. Again the whole image will look crazy but you are now going to add layer mask and just like the skin layer, invert, grab a small, soft white brush and paint the whites of the eyes. Finally, lower the opacity so that it looks natural or else you will give the model demon eyes.

Lips - This will be done just like the eye layer. The only difference is that you will not adjust the lightness. From camera her lips seemed like they needed a little life to them. So as before I add a hue/saturation layer and choose the reds. For this particular photo I dragged the red saturation up about 25% and tweaked the hue to give her lips a richer redder color. Too add this only to the lips, and as stated earlier, add the inverted layer mask, paint in lips and adjust opacity accordingly.

Photo Filter - The haunting cold will cannot be escaped. I was very pleased with the warmth that Morgan's face was giving but there was still some cold blue on the wall just behind her. To fix that, I added a photo filter adjustment layer. Picked the warming filter at 25% and created the inverted layer mask. I then painted some warmth to that wall. In hindsight, I probably should have increased that intensity for the overall image warmth. This is a filter that I don't usually use but it came in handy for this shot. I don't remember what my in camera white balance was set to that day, but boy was it way off. Obvious lesson learned to pay attention to details. Saves you the headache in the end.

Now that the photo is looking generally pleasing in a technical sense, I flatten all of the layers and add some sharpening. There are many different ways to sharpen an image but I prefer to use high pass filter technique discussed here.

Simple shot yet complex edit. I didn't mind though. Having a shot that needed this detailed editing helps you learn all many different ways that you can retouch a photo.

Have a great weekend and hope to have you back next time. Until then, keep that gear close by, opportunities happen when least expected.

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