High Key Portrait Photography With One Off-Camera Flash

Dan Eitreim

August 6, 2015

Portrait photography? No problem! Just find a pretty girl, buy a flashgun and take her picture and hey presto you have a portrait. But do you like it? Would she pay you money for it? Facebook is full of such photographs. Our albums are full of such photographs.

So what makes the difference. Well, a number of things do; the model, the background, the pose, the camera, the space, the camera, the lens and the light. Light is very special – “What colour is a banana in a totally dark room?” The answer is, it has NO colour; only light gives us colour. Light is everything!

Some say that the subject is everything, some say that the background or set is everything. In other words “Everything” is everything!! But take away light and you have NOTHING!

So what about light?

There is: harsh and soft, bright and dim, small and big, white and white (yes white and white) as well as white and coloured, direct and reflected, fast and slow, front and side and back and high key and low key and last but not least, invisible!

One Light?: The truth is that there is usually more than one light because where there is light there usually is reflected light. Have the model wear a white shirt and the light will reflect up under her chin. (For the purpose of this article, I am going to use the feminine pronoun simply because most photographs seem to be of women, but feel free to drop the ‘s’ when reading this article if you prefer.) If you remove the shirt, then her skin will reflect the light. A pale skin or a dark skin will reflect more or less and will reflect different colours. An oily skin or a dry skin will also reflect more or less.

The light that reflects off the model can also reflect off you and anything else it finds. You can use this reflected light if it helps or insert gobo’s (black go between boards or flags) to stop this. You can increase the reflected light by using reflectors, expensive ones or shirts and white boards. You can also use reflective surfaces like tin foil or mirrors for different effects.

White and White: I know you want to know about this and you will. Just not now!

Harsh and Soft: Simply the difference between the light on a sunny day and a cloudy day. Harsh light gives dark well-defined shadows. The shadows will be back unless there is reflected light. Harsh light comes from one small source and travels in a straight line. It either hits the subject or it does not. Soft light comes from many different places at the same time. With a cloud filled sky the light comes from the north, the south, the east, the west and straight up, as well as any reflected light from the ground. So the result is that there are hardly any shadows at all and the edges of the shadows are not well defined.

In a studio you can duplicate harsh light with one light. Just point it at the model and it is done. Surround her with non-reflective material and the effect will be much harsher. Another trick is to move the light further away from the model. This has the effect of making the light source smaller and harsher. It will also have the effect of lighting up a larger area which can be counter productive because it will spread light over a bigger area producing more light sources and making it softer. Light modifiers, like a snoot, can reduce this by focusing the light into a smaller spot/area.

The converse is true; move the light closer to the model and the light effectively becomes softer because the surface area of the light is bigger in relation to the subject.

Bright and Dim: Well this is a tricky one because we all know if a light is bright or dim but our eyes are not taking the photograph; the camera is. A dim light to us can be made to look like daylight, simply by leaving the shutter open for longer. So in this respect there is no such thing as bright or dim light. That is defined by the camera settings. The camera can make the brightest of scenes look like it was taken during an eclipse!

But it can make a difference because this can effect the look of a photograph. If the camera shutter is left open for longer then the subject will move, unless you have tied her down but that type of photography is the subject of another article. That movement will show up in the photograph, sometimes this is delightful and sometimes it is not. It depends on what you want. A model swinging her head around quickly will have blurred hair, giving that sense of movement.

Bright light can be used to over expose most of the picture, leaving little islands of darker areas. eg dark hair and eyes and nostrils and mouth in a sea of white.

Dim light can be used to have the opposite effect; if the model was dark skinned then you could have the whites of the eyes and the teeth showing in a sea of black.

Small and Big: The sun is the biggest light that we can use, however it is called a small light because it is so far away. But put the clouds in between us and the sun and it becomes the biggest light we can use.

Soft boxes turn small lights into big lights and are often 2-3ft across. There are larger ones that can give a lovely soft light for full length portraits. Alternatives are to shoot through a white sheet or bounce off a wall. An umbrella can achieve a similar effect because it spreads the light all over the place and reflected light can soften the shadows.

White and White: You could ask, “When is white light white?” To the human eye, white is clearly white; that is because the eyes is constantly adjusting and interpreting what it sees. Cameras are not able to do that to the same extent. Collect different sheets of white paper and take a close look at them – you will probably find quite a range of whites. The same variations apply to light. We would call them all white (non coloured) but in reality they are coloured or tinted in some small way.

Take a photograph first thing in the morning, at mid-day, in the evening and at dusk; you will find different colour tints to each one. Take them with a clear sky and a cloudy sky will also bring variations.

The same applies to artificial lights; they all have different colour variations. I have some cool lights which are described as daylight. I used them to fill in some shadow on one side and on the other side I had daylight from a cloudy sky at 11am. There was a huge difference, the daylight was much cooler (blue) and the cool daylight lamps where much warmer (red). So not colour coordinating your ‘white’ light can seriously affect your photographs.

Different lights produce different tints – fluorescent give a greenish light, incandescent give a orange tint, flash guns and strobes will tend not to have a tint; so whites look white to our eyes but some appear coloured to a camera.

White and Coloured: Now you can colour your light for different effects. Taking a photograph indoors with flash and incandescent bulbs will give a mixture of white and orange tints.

To solve this and to produce a natural looking photograph you have to make the lights the same and correct for any tint. The easiest way is to place a coloured gel over the flashgun and this will make it the same as the incandescent lights. Then you tell the camera that you are taking the photograph in incandescent light and it will automatically remove the orange tint.

I was taking an outdoor photo during the day with a deeply overcast day. I place two flashguns with orange gels and the photograph turned from a dull picture to one that looked as though it had been taken late in the evening with a lovely warm glow.

Placing a flashgun behind a subject can brighten a background giving separation to the model; it makes the model stand out more. Placing coloured gels over this flashgun colours the background and will produce different effects. Quality street sweets are famous for providing different colour wrappers that can be used for different effects.

Direct and Reflected: Direct light comes from your source light and usually has an obvious effect. Remember though, that reflected light will come from any other surface that is not totally black. Put a model in a sky blue silk blouse and you will have a blue tint to any light reflected onto her face (normally the chin and cheeks).

Any wall, ceiling or floor will reflect light onto the subject. This will differ depending on the type of source light. Using a snoot will greatly reduce any light that is reflected from the front or side. Using an umbrella will maximise the reflected light as it bounces light all over the place. Using barn doors on a light will help you control which areas receive light.

Also note that the reflecting surface is significant.

A coloured wall will give the light a colour tint. A shiny surface will give a hard strong light. A textured surface will give a soft weak light.

The distance from the source to the reflecting surface and then to the subject, compared to the distance from the source light to the subject, will greatly affect the strength of the reflected light.

Fast and Slow: Well this is not really a correct term; the speed of light is pretty constant and I don’t want to go there. What I am really referring to is the duration of the light, ie how long the light is shining while the photograph is being taken.

Daylight shines 100% of the time the shutter is open and a flashgun can shine for 1% of the time. In most cases though, you will get a combination of two lights; one shining 100% and the other a fraction of the time.

Learning to set the camera so that you have the correct exposure for both these very different lights is a useful skill. How to do this is the subject of a future article.

Here, I am going to comment on another effect and that is related to moving objects.

If you have a moving car and you take a photograph in daylight, on a tripod with a slow speed of say 1/30sec then the car will be blurred and the background sharp. If you take the same photograph with a flashgun then you will get a very similar picture except that you will have an image of the car at the beginning of the photograph that is slightly brighter/clearer; this is the effect of the flash.

You can change a setting on the camera which will make the flashgun fire at the end of the exposure and this will have the effect of moving the brighter image to the end of the photograph; this will give and image of the car with a blur behind it; normally the preferred version.

Now, if you take that same photograph, but at night, then you will get a picture of the car but without any blur. This is because the flash is so fast that it freezes the movement of the car.

Now it is possible to take a photograph in daylight but with a high speed and a small aperture on the camera that will make the picture quite dark, emulating night time. If you then add a strong flashgun, then you can get the same effect.

HOWEVER! I do not recommend firing flashguns at drivers of moving cars – this can seriously damage your camera gear. I also recommend shooting cars from the side and not in front as this can be also be very expensive on camera gear.

Front, Side and Rear: Choose the position of the main light. Each position will create a very different effect, from fully lit to silhouette. Reflected light can be used to fill in shadows.

Low and High Key: This is were the tones of the photograph are primarily dark or bright. The details of the subject are either blown out or in deepest shadow. Often the form comes from the outline of the subject. This is achieved by under or over exposing the subject.

Invisible: Infra Red is not visible to the naked eye, but filters can be attached to a camera which allows that light to be picked up on the sensor or film. This can produce a surreal effect. Different surfaces reflect different amounts of infra-red.

So there we have it, a lightening, fast pass over variations with just one light. Just think of the variations with two or more lights.

Explore my website below to see some of these effects in practice in the Galleries. Explore making your own photographs with just one light. There is so much to discover and understand.

John P Wood Wedding and Portrait Photographer – Ascot, Sunninghill, Berks, UK WebSite: John Wood Photography

Article Source: EzineArticles.com

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