This week I’m starting off my photo tip series discussing just one of the elements that went into making this photo (I don’t want to overwhelm you on my first lesson) but it’s an important place to start. The basic idea here is one that is essential for EVERY photographer – using your lighting to focus the viewer’s attention exactly where you want it in the photo.
Alice was photographed in a mixed lighting room in a walk in ‘cat condo’. That is, the fluorescent lights were on and there was bright sunlight coming in through the window (though not directly lighting her) – this is what we call the ‘ambient light’. There were other cats in the condo, the walls of the cage were barred (it is an animal shelter after all), and there was assorted clutter throughout (food and water bowls, kitty litter, blankets, toys, etc.) – basically there was a lot that I didn’t want in the picture. If you’ve ever made someone’s portrait indoors in a room with windows, with the overhead lights on, and with lots of things in the background then you’ll have a pretty good idea about what the ambient light and background would do for this kind of portrait. It would all be fine for making a record of the scene but it might be kind of ho hum portrait. One of the easiest ways to make your model stand out in an image is to remove distracting background elements from the frame. Today I’m going to talk about achieving this isolation using flashes to light the portrait. To be sure, there are ways to make an amazing portrait using ambient light but that’s a topic for another day.
The dark background here is a result of using a flash (two actually, but one would do the trick). This happens because flash outputs are very bright but short lasting. This allows the camera to use a fast (relatively) shutter speed because the bright light properly illuminates the model but it isn’t strong enough to light the background (there’s physics involved here – it’s what is referred to as the inverse square law) hence a properly lit model with a dark background. This is a great way to make your model stand out in what might otherwise be a distracting background.
Since the primary on camera flash would be enough to properly light the portrait, the question remains, why complicate things with another flash? Well, that comes down to aesthetics. One of the things that you can do to add interest to a portrait is to incorporate areas of light and shadow (instead of just lighting everything straight on). This allows the viewer to better see things like texture (great for furred subjects) but it is also something that we’ve been conditioned to appreciate in our art for centuries. One of the masters of using this technique of light and shadow was the painter Rembrandt van Rijn.
So give your flash a try. It might not be the perfect solution for every shot but it definitely has its place. Most importantly have some fun experimenting!