Photo Notes

September 25, 2009

Understanding Strobes

Filed under: Lighting Technique — John Siskin @ 9:45 pm
Click for video about shooting this bike!

Click for video about shooting this bike!

When I started taking photographs an automatic camera was one that stopped the lens down to a pre-selected aperture when you pressed the shutter button. This allowed you to view, and compose your image with the lens wide open. So it was an important and useful feature. It wasn’t until the mid seventies that built in meters that actually set the aperture of the shutter speed became common; of course this feature was called automatic exposure. At about the same time the first automatic strobes were introduced.

Automatic exposure worked pretty well back then, and it still does. I suppose the biggest reason is that people don’t usually choose to make pictures of the kind that will screw up a meter: say, white cows in the snow. Still, even with today’s cameras, if you want to make a picture that is supposed to be mostly dark, or mostly light, the meter will probably screw up. The meter can’t see the picture, it just tries to capture a pre-set amount of light, and then close the shutter. Since we now have digital cameras with instant feedback and raw capture, so that we can tweak images, almost all pictures can be properly exposed.

 

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio Class

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio Class

Automatic strobe has not worked out nearly as well. The big reason is that we are looking at the light we want when we shoot ambient light, but with any kind of strobe we can’t see how the light will look. Consider this scenario: bride and groom’s first dance. The ballroom has twenty-five lights, including recessed lights, spots and a couple of chandeliers. You come in, with your strobe on the camera, and the camera set to the sync speed. Now the ballroom has one light, a little tiny light on top of your camera, you overpowered all the existing light in the room. Your shot looks terrible: hard shadows and glare spots on the bride. This is why so many people think that strobe light is bad. I have seen many pictures of parties in which the hosts must have handed out miners’ helmets, as the only illumination for the party. Everyone looks more or less like a deer caught in the headlights. The problem is not caused by strobe light: it’s caused by having all the light come from just above the camera and from a tiny light source.

An Introduction to Photographic Lighting Class

An Introduction to Photographic Lighting Class

Light looks better when it comes from more angles; the shadows are softer. So a bigger light source looks better, the same way putting a lampshade over a bulb looks better. Strobe, even automatic strobe, will never be as effective as automatic exposure, simply because we aren’t taking a picture of what we see, but of the light we brought. The reason I teach lighting is to give photographers control of light through understanding how it works.

Business to Business: Commercial Photography Class

Business to Business: Commercial Photography Class

September 18, 2009

Available Solutions

Filed under: Lighting Technique — John Siskin @ 1:44 pm
9 lights, strobes with orange filtration iside and quartz outside.

9 lights, strobes with orange filtration iside and quartz outside.

I often mentioned that there are two and a half important things about light, and the first is color. If you have any one quality light source: continuous spectrum and flicker free, you can get excellent color with a digital camera. You can even get decent color with fluorescent and mercury vapor lamps, at least some of the time. However, when you mix color, you can’t get good color. The reason is simple, the color isn’t really mixed, but bluer here and yellow here. The camera does an overall balance, not pixel by pixel.

I don’t bring this up in order to discuss the problems this causes but to discuss the process of solving the problem. Over the years I have acquired a lot of equipment and supplies that give me control over this problem. I have BCA bulbs, which have a color temperature of 4800ºK. These are 250 watt bulbs with a standard base. I also have BBA bulbs, same wattage and base but 3200ºK. Both these bulbs are useful if I am lighting a long room that has no place to hide a light on the far side. There are problems with heat with these bulbs, so you can’t run them for more than a few minutes. Another solution is a roll of half orange gel from Rosco. I can put this on the outside of a window; you don’t see the tape if you put it outside. This will make the sunlight warmer, closer to the interior color. I could also buy full orange and 1/4 orange, but at $93 for a 4’X25’ roll, I get by with the 1/2 orange. Generally I want the outdoor light to be a little cooler than the interior light, but only a little. Both the bulbs and the Rosco gel, don’t get used much, only when I think they might be needed.

Stevenson Ranch Home, Staircase

Calumet Travelite and 5 Norman 200B strobes

I have a lot of strobes, and at least some of these go on most jobs. I have very powerful Norman series 900 strobes: 8 heads and three power packs. I use these much less with my digital camera than I did with large format film. I have one Calumet Travelite monolight that goes on a lot of jobs. I also have my Norman 200B units 7 heads and 5 power packs, at least some of these go on almost all jobs. Of course all the strobes have a color balance of about 5000ºK, daylight. In the cases with the strobes I have pieces of Rosco Gel, in full, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 orange as well as the blue for cooler lights and the greens to make the light look more like fluorescent.

Of course I have stands, big one small ones and boom arms. I have many ways to attach lights, filters, modifiers and so on. I was just discussing with a student that I have 6 tripods. I even have a generator. Part of the reason that I have all of this is that I have been shooting professionally for a long time.

Norman 90-0 series light, sith orange filters and existing light.

Norman 900 series light, with orange filters and existing light.

Another reason for having all this gear is that it all solves some problem. But it creates a problem as well; unless I rented a U-haul I couldn’t possibly take all of this stuff on location at any one time. So, when I am at my office, I have a huge number of ways to solve a problem. If I have enough time before a job I may even be able to buy a few new solutions. However, as soon as I pack to go on location I only have the solutions that I bring with me. One of the most important things you can do, before a job, is a site visit. That way your available solutions match the problems on the job.

Norman 900 series lights, 4X5 film

Norman 900 series lights, 4X5 film

September 8, 2009

Talking About Light

Filed under: Lighting Technique,Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 4:06 pm
The difference in light between the two sides of the dog's face add three-dimensionality to the shot.

The difference in light between the two sides of the dog's face add three-dimensionality to the shot.

This started out as a response to a student in one of my classes, but I think it picked up too much attitude. I’m not sure if anyone is reading the blog, so I decided to use it here.

I’ve been teaching lighting for about a quarter of a century. I often find myself frustrated because people don’t want to learn how a thing works, or why a thing works, just what should to do. The problem grows worse because the manufacturers of equipment create gear that does nothing more than the gear from last year, or even twenty years ago, but they want to tell you that it is new and better and you must have it. So, for instance an octabox is in no significant way better than a soft box or an umbrella, but I have worked with many people, going back at least fifteen years who bought these because of the marketing. Most of the lights I use on location are Norman 200B units; these haven’t even been made in more that fifteen years (there is a new version the 200C). So you can see that I don’t think that buying new gear solves lighting problems. Lighting problems have gotten easier to solve since digital capture became standard, you just don’t need as much power. When I did architectural work with a view camera I needed to work at f22 or smaller, on my digital camera I can do as good a job at f5.6, which is 1/16th as much light. Of course I still need as many lights, just less powerful.

Another problem with teaching is language, often I can’t get people to agree on what they mean by various terms. For years I fought using the term flash, that should be reserved for single use bulbs that make light by burning an aluminum filament is a bulb filled with oxygen, a flash bulb. If the instantaneous light built into your camera, and the instantaneous light attached to the camera, and the instantaneous light on a stand with a soft box on it, all use the same technology to make light why is one a flash and another a strobe? This creates confusion especially when people don’t like the results they get from an on camera strobe, and assume that is a problem with the technology of the light, and not the way the light is modified. Some years ago I read a book about lighting in which the author kept referring to soft creamy light. I know what soft light is, that’s where there is a long transition from light to shadow, but what is creamy light. Does it have anything to do with a cow? Soft light comes from a large light source, is creamy light bounced off a cow? I know this seems pedantic, but if we can’t agree on how we describe light won’t it be hard to discuss it?

Discussing light is the real problem. Let me provide an example: people talk about light ratios. I take this to mean that one side

The main light had twice as much power as the fill, which is a 3:1 ratio. You can clearly see the difference in light between the two sides of the face.

The main light had twice as much power as the fill, which is a 3:1 ratio. You can clearly see the difference in light between the two sides of the face.

of the face is some number of times brighter than the other side of the face.  But I have seen many images in which the face is lit evenly, or mostly evenly, while the photographer is still talking about ratios. There are two questions, first don’t people notice that the shot they claim has a 3:1 ratio looks the same on both sides of the face; and second, what went wrong? The answer to the first question is probably not. The answer to the second is they used big light sources, probably soft boxes. A big light source creates a long gradation so you don’t get a shift in the light on the two side of the face; you get a soft gradation across the face. This is not bad, but there is no ratio between the sides of the face, just a gradation. So here we have a basic lighting concept, that people talk about all the time, yet they haven’t actually looked at the results. If you look at images from before strobes you’ll see a lot of shots with real light ratios, if you look at current shots you won’t see this kind of light. I don’t think that ratio light is all that attractive, I’ve done it, and there is sample with this blog. The reason I bring it up is that it is a good example of the problems that we have with talking about light. We are often using terms that don’t actually describe our pictures. For more on hard and soft light please check out this article: Hard Decisions and Soft Light.

So if people don’t discuss light what do they do? They either copy themselves, doing light the way they did it last time, or they copy others. I knew a fashion photographer who always did the same thing, not because it was good, but because he was afraid to try anything else. He’d look at stuff I had

In this shot the lights are in the same place, and have the same relative values, but there is no difference between the light on the two sides of the face because the light sources are larger.

In this shot the lights are in the same place, and have the same relative values, but there is no difference between the light on the two sides of the face because the light sources are larger.

done, admire it, ask about it, but for the next shoot it was the same light all over again. It was his light, and he thought it was part of his creative talent. If you do the same thing all the time where is the creativity? Also, don’t you think you should have some test shoots, in addition to business shoots?

If I am in the studio, or in a home or business, and I need to do something quick, I use a big light source, either a light panel or an umbrella. A single big light source, like a 60-inch umbrella can do a good job of lighting a portrait, even bringing light to the background. If I have a couple more minutes I will put a single hard light on a bracket on the camera. I will set this light so that it brings much less light to the face than the large light. Both lights are lighting pretty much the whole face. The hard light will bring texture and sparkle into the image, that is what hard light brings to your pictures. In much the same way the sun brings sparkle to a diamond. If I have a lot of time I will use snoots and grid spots to bring out the details of the subject, but this means the subject has to stay in more or less the same place. But, of course, I may do something entirely different based on the circumstances of the image. I really wish that more people would build light that creates detail and shape, rather than just illuminates.

Mixed soft and hard light. The hard light comes from a slide prjector.

Mixed soft and hard light. The hard light comes from a slide prjector.

I hope you’ll consider taking one of my classes, to learn about making pictures.

An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio

Business to Business: Commercial Photography

Please check out the rest of my site (www.siskinphoto.com) to see more photographs I’ve made and for more information.

Thanks, John

September 3, 2009

Making and Taking

Filed under: Looking at Photographs,Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 12:02 pm

Charlie C.Years ago I heard that photography is the most popular hobby in the world. I suppose that is still true. What that means is that a whole lot of people take a whole lot of pictures. The key word in the last sentence is take. Most people using cameras see something that interests them, point and shoot. The photographs made this way enable the taker to bring back memories of the moment that are vivid and meaningful. The images become a diary of the takers experience. This is an incredibly important use for photography. Still there are difficulties with these images: most importantly they are personal. They rarely communicate effectively to anyone but the shooter. So you’ve taken a photograph of your child at the beach, when you see it you remember the vivid blue of the water the hot sand and the sounds of the day. When I see it I see an overexposed mess.

What is it that makes someone a photographer, rather than a picture taker? First a photographer makes pictures

Strong side light creates a good feeling of shape

Strong side light creates a good feeling of shape

rather than takes them. One of the most important skills for making a photograph is pre-visualization. Basically the process of seeing the scene and then seeing the way the photograph should look. Then you make the photograph using the tools that will enable you to make the photograph you visualized. Ansel Adams discussed this process of pre-visualization extensively, primarily referencing tools of exposure and development. There are other important tools, some of them unavailable to Adams. The tools I use most in making a shot are lighting, exposure and position. After the shot I do more work with exposure and use filtration, contrast and saturation. The key is that I think about all these tools, and sometimes a few more, as I am making the pictures. It is also important to have the tools that enable me to make the picture I see. So I almost always have lights, often battery powered 200 watt-second strobes, more powerful than proprietary strobes. I think that lights is the most powerful tools in my kit, my control of lighting enables me to make photographs others can’t. Lights are important, not just in the studio, but at most locations also. I teach lighting because I want to enable others to make better pictures. I hope you’ll consider taking one of my classes, to learn about making pictures.

An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio

Business to Business: Commercial Photography

Please check out the rest of my site (www.siskinphoto.com) to see more photographs I’ve made and for more information.

Thanks, John

Here the strobe opens up the face, back light would otherwise make the face dark.

Here the strobe opens up the face, back light would otherwise make the face dark.

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