Sunday, March 20, 2011

super cheap cross lighting technique

Now that's a title that will suck you right in to this article. Yes, the word that everyone loves to hear these days and definitely one of my favorites, lighting. And you thought I was going to say cheap. Well, I was but decided that wouldn't be any fun.

Super cheap cross lighting technique is the day's topic and one that you, if you are a pro or aspiring to go pro or hell, even if you just like to make awesome photos with fancy equipment, then this is the story for you. I will discuss what is cross lighting, how it can be achieved and how to do so on a super duper tight budget. I'm no stranger to finding nothing more than lint when I open my wallet so I know how hard it can be when trying to purchase new photography equipment. Hell, I'm still using my dinosaur of a DSLR, the 40d. I've said it time and time again, improvise. Being the creative creatures that we are, it should be second nature to come up with a way to augment your gear with something that does not come from the highly protected glass cases of your favorite camera shop. If this is your first time here, I'll gladly (wink wink) share that I have no problem using trash bags to modify light. You can see that post [here].

What's the Story Morning Glory

Saturday morning was here and the wife and I had to head over to New Jersey to spend the day with mom. I knew immediately that this would be a perfect opportunity to get some shooting done. As usual, I packed all of the appropriate gear. Camera? check. Lighting? Check. Modifiers? Check. Batteries? Check. You get the idea. It is always good practice to check and double check your gear before going on a shoot. You do not, I repeat, you do not want to look like an idiot showing up to a shoot with bags of gear yet you forgot to pack batteries.

We arrived in the Garden State shortly after noon. I had to put in some quality family time before I mentioned that I had to steal my little sister for a couple of hours. Mom had no arguments there, just that she wanted something that she could proudly hang on the living room wall. I agreed. Next was on to little sister, I had to see if she was up for the adventure. I sold it to her as an adventure to make the whole thing seem a bit more appealing. If I told her it was a personal project and I needed her to do some work, well, it may have yielded a different answer on her part. I obtained the affirmative answer, with a catch. Little sister, Morgan or Momo or Mo, as she is known to go by, had time for the shoot but had to be back at the house in exactly two hours from our departure time. The 12 year old had a party to attend that evening and she made it clear that she could not, would not be late. I assured her that it would be quick and painless.

Running on Empty

The SUV was already packed, I just needed to grab my 20 ounce Dunkin' Donuts coffee and Momo. I knew earlier in the day that I wanted to find either a heavily wooded area or a large field of some sort to make the shot that was in my head. The few fields that we passed weren't what my brain was imagining. I guess winter has something to do with that. I envisioned large wheat fields or rows of corn stalks. Aside from the cold factor, I don't think that these crops are grown in that particular part of the state. I could be wrong but I sure as heck couldn't see any. I decided on the forest styled set. I knew exactly where there was one that would have limited vehicle access and minimal interference of humans or technology such as cars, power lines, et. al. The clock was ticking. I was aware of that obstacle every second. We arrived about ten minutes after our departure. Looking good.

Quickly, we unpacked the gear from the back of the truck and headed down the trail to find an adequate spot. It didn't take too long until we found a spot that would allow us to set up the equipment and have room to move around a bit. There were tons of prickly plant things. I'm not sure if that is the scientific name but I'm guessing everyone knows what I'm talking about. Slightly annoying, they were the only distraction I could identify. The spot would suffice.


About twenty minutes from exiting the car, I had the stage set. The light stand was up with the umbrella connected. I had the camera ready to roll as it was PC'd to the strobe. Mo was fixing her hair and I took another gulp of my liquid energy.

I happened to forget one thing, the sand bag. It is always wise to have some sort of weight for your light stands as your modifiers can act like a kite, catch some wind and take off. The bag was back in the vehicle but the clock was ticking. There was zero breeze at our location so I thought that we would be just fine without it.

Light My Fire

Before arriving at the scene, I already had an idea of the lighting scenario that I would use. I still had that time issue hanging over my head so I was not able to do it exactly how I had planned. Things rarely go as planned so it is wise to have a backup plan for each and every shoot. Plan for the worst and hope for the best, a photographer's motto. 

At this point it was about 4:00 p.m. The sun was getting lower but not quite as low as I wanted it. Had I had more time, I would have stalled some to allow for the sun to drop some more. I didn't so I had to work with what was available. The sun was to be my second, off camera light. It would serve as a back light to accent the edges of her hair and body. The sun is your super cheap second light source. Cross lighting is simply that, crossing the light. The diagram shows a typical cross lighting scenario using the sun as the second source. Ideally, you would simply position your front light to fire in the exact opposite direction. This light produces a really cool effect. It will make the subject pop in a way that make them seem like they are in 3D. The lower the sun is, the easier it is to pull off, unless you are not using the inexpensive light source. If you decide to light it with your own strobes, this can be done any time of the day for obvious reasons. If, on the other hand, you are trying to save a buck, you have to work with mother nature's schedule. I chose the later for this particular shoot, for educational purposes. 

As far as the typical cross lighting setup goes, I had to improvise a bit. Again, I was working under the clock. I positioned the model with her back to the sun but with a slight turn towards the front of the camera. This would allow for the light to kiss the back and right side of her body. As for the strobe, it was 45 degrees on the X-axis and almost at 90 degrees on the Y-axis. I knew this would break the rules of cross lighting but breaking a rule here and there is great as long as you understand why you are breaking them. Rule breaking, in photography, can produce awesome results. Again, know the rules first and break them later. 

Freeze Frame

Everything was in position. I had about 45 minutes to play with. That, if all doesn't go completely wrong, should be plenty of time.

Next was to dial in a workable exposure. I worked first on the strobe settings. I wanted to set it and forget it. Why? If I dialed the strobe power in too low or too high, I would have to run back to it to make adjustments. I knew the strobe would be doing the heavy lifting so I dialed it into a higher setting of 1/2 power. At 1/2 power I could tweak everything else in camera. This would save precious minutes.

Before firing a single strobe I wanted to get the camera set so that the ambient was pretty dark. ISO was at a low 100 to keep noise at a minimum. I kept the shutter at its sync of 1/200. For time saving purposes I would use two techniques to change the light intensities. First would be my aperture range. For the whole shoot, I used anywhere between an f/8.0 and f/16. The other trick would be light distance to subject. I could move here in closer or further to vary the light intensity in relation to the chosen aperture. At f/8.0, I would back her away from the strobe and at f/16, the strobe would be barely out of frame. For this particular shot, the aperture was the widest I used on the shoot at f/8.0.

A few test frames and it was time to shoot. I had about 35 minutes to go. No sweat. I couldn't believe how smooth things were going and shouldn't have jinxed myself when the unthinkable happened. SON OF A BEECHEN BASTAGES!!! An ever so slight breeze came across the forest. As physics are seldom avoidable, the next part was inevitable. The breeze found its way into the umbrella and the umbrella found its way onto the ground, face first. I was guilty as charged, twice, for this mishap. First, I should have spent the extra three minutes to run back to the car for the sand bag. Second, I shouldn't have chosen the light stand that I used. In the morning, I decided to grab an old heavy tripod that I thought would help withstand any winds that would be thrown my way. In theory, that would be great but in reality, it backfired.

As I ran over to pick up the strobe, I noticed something that made my stomach turn. I saw some exposed wires. Something snapped! At first glance I thought the strobe ($$$) was broken. After closer investigation and a huge sigh of relief, I noticed that it was the Universal Translator that had cracked open. As long as it was still functional I would be able to rig the piece and continue the shoot. It was temporarily fixable and found a few rubber-bands to hold it for the rest of the day. It was another reason that the light was on that hard 90 degree angle. If I tried to aim down on the subject, the rig fell apart. I didn't panic, I improvised. The Universal Translator is less than twenty bucks, not a huge loss. This week, I will order a couple more. I was super thankful that the strobe was not snapped in two.

I had Morgan secure the light stand while I ran to the car to grab the sand bag. This turned out to waste more time than if I had originally took the time to run back to the vehicle earlier on. Live and learn I guess. All in all this wasted about ten minutes. I less than a half hour to shoot. I told her not to worry, that from that point on, all would go very quickly. As we began shooting she received a text message stating that the party would start later that they expected. This bought me an extra half hour on the clock. I probably wouldn't need it but it made me feel a bit more at ease.

Finally, after all of damages were bandaged and the mobile studio was ready to rock once again, we began to shoot. She was tense at first but after a few jokes and light conversation, Momo became one with the camera. In minutes I had about 100 frames, more than enough for what I needed. It was a wrap.

We made it back to the house by 5:00 p. m. She had an hour and a half to make it to the party that was about a five minute drive from her house.

I Walk the Line

The shoot was a success with minutes to spare. I was pleased but was unsure what I had until I was able to get home and upload the files. Chimping the camera's LCD will not give you the true picture. There were plenty of times that the LCD showed an awesome photograph but when viewed on a large monitor the truth can rear its ugly head. Some that you thought were perfect could have been slightly out of focus while the ones you thought were crap could have been awesome. This is the reason why I try not to delete too many frames until I see the true RAW images.

I arrived at home at approximately 7:30 p.m. Once I packed my gear away, I was able to sit and view all of the frames in Adobe's Bridge. I was highly satisfied. So satisfied that I had a difficult time choosing which I would post here today. I considered posting four or five different photographs, of different poses but decided that would be a bit confusing for the discussion.


The weather is starting to get better. It is time for all photographers to get outside find interesting places to shoot. Take a trip to somewhere new. Find strange and weird places to turn into your own personal studio. Don't be afraid of harsh sunlight, with some practice you can use it just like you would a $400 strobe.

Until next time.