Monday, November 7, 2011

Understanding the Image - Combining Flash and Available Light

As promised, here is Jordana Wright Photography's second "Understanding the Image" tutorial, based on a photo from our recent shoot with Chris Harris - then of the Chicago Bears, and now of the Detroit Lions.  Little did we know, as we walked around downtown encountering Chris' fans and admirers, that this would be his last public foray as a Chicago Bear.  He was released by the Bears less than 24 hours after the shoot, and picked up by the Lions only another 24 hours or so after that.  It was very interesting to negotiate a large metropolitan area with a celebrity,  encountering all of things involved with having notoriety.

As we explained in our last Digital Classroom post, part of the challenge of on-location shoots is finding dynamic and interesting lighting opportunities in which to feature your model.  On our recent shoot with Chris Harris in Chicago, we wanted to frame him in the lights, reflections, and atmosphere of the Chicago River at night.  As one might imagine, shooting portraits at night presents a number of challenges, including:

  • balancing exposure between the subject and their surrounding environment
  • selecting appropriate white balance
  • working with flash: direction, intensity, color, etc.
  • preserving detail within the image, despite low levels of light 
  • shooting with the lowest ISO and fastest shutter speeds possible

Understanding the Lighting

The above photograph features many sources of lighting, and was particularly challenging, despite its apparent simplicity.  There are lights of the buildings across the river and the sky serving as Back Light, there are streetlamps outside of the frame providing low levels of Fill Light for the subject, and there is an off-camera flash serving as the Key Light on the subject.  Because we were working with a moveable source of light (the off-camera flash) as our Key Light, we had the ability to adjust Chris' pose and position within the environment as we saw fit.  In this situation, we used a Canon Speedlight 580EX II with an Impact Universal Bounce Diffuser and an amber colored gel.  We wanted this series of photos to feel candid and realistic, so it was very necessary for the flash to provide a similar quality of light that wouldn't seem out of place to the surroundings.   Traditionally, flash is a very bright, vibrantly white light source, so we chose an amber gel (Rosco 16) to warm the light significantly.  Anytime you work with gel, it is important to remember that the flash isn't going to behave normally within the settings you are accustomed to.  Gel will reduce the amount of light that passes through it (known as "transmission") based on the saturation of color you have selected, so it will take some tweaking of settings to find the perfect balance.  The amber gel we selected was a very close match to the color of light cast by the street lamps in the area (these were High Pressure Sodium lamps, which cast an orange-ish light).  Before we embarked on the shoot, we also tested the amber gel against our subject's complexion, as different skin tones can highlight, washout, or sometimes react adversely to different colors of lighting.  

Steps in Creating a Lighting Design:

  1. Determine the Key Light.  The Key Light is the primary source of illumination for the photograph or scene.  In this example the Key Light is the amber colored Flash, firing from low on the model's left hand side.  We specifically chose to fire the flash  from slightly below the subject's chest height to ensure complete illumination of his face, even under his hat.  When determining the Key Light in your own lighting compositions, imagine that you have only one light to use- where would you put it, what color would it be, from what angle, and why?  The Key Light should satisfy all of those requirements.
  2. Determine the Fill Light.  Fill Light serves to provide general illumination and balance to the photograph.  Fill Light will highlight features, eliminate shadows, and in some cases provide a different color source in an image.  In this image, like in our first Digital Classroom post, we again have two colors of fill light -- moderate and deep blues reflected off buildings from behind the model and to his right, and the orange glow from above the model and to his left, from streetlamps.
  3. Determine other lighting sources.  Backlight is present in this image, however due to the time of day, the sources blended almost completely into the Fill Light and did not need to be considered.  In other images additional lighting sources can add color, intensity, or depth to the lighting composition, often helping to separate the subject from the background.  In this image the back light given off by the sky does provide a small amount of separation between the subject and the background, as well as providing a stunning depth to highlight the buildings against.
  4. Determine the balance.  This is the critical step, best learned through practice or trial and error.  In this case, the balance was perfected by adjusting the location, intensity, and angle of the Key Light (the flash) until a perfect blend with the orange Fill Lighting was achieved.  There are usually several ways to achieve any given look with lighting, and it is important to experiment with all of the possibilities to see which works best for you, in your given circumstances.  For instance, in this image the intensity of the Flash was reduced by moving the Flash farther away from the subject, as opposed to changing the power settings.  Any adjustment will have its own consequences.  By moving the Flash farther away, the light has a larger spread and will illuminate more of the subject, which in this example we wanted.  Reducing the power of the flash was out of the question for this shot because we needed the extra intensity to make up for how much light the amber gel absorbed.  

Understanding the Posing

When working with a subject who has never modeled before, it is very important to pose them in ways that feel both natural and comfortable.  Each photographer has their own techniques and ideas for communicating posing to a model, and rarely is one technique superior to another.  It all boils down to the individuals taking part in the shoot.  In this image, I physically demonstrated the basic stance that I was interested in achieving, and then allowed Chris to make it his own.  The most important aspects of this pose are the placement of his right hand on the railing, and the angle of his body towards the camera.  By positioning his hand on the railing, the subject is grounded within the frame and his body becomes a natural extension of the through-line that the railing provides.  The 45* angle of his body towards the camera has an inherently relaxed and candid feel-  much more than a square or straight-forward pose would provide.  By positioning the camera just below the model's eye level, he holds a position of physical power and prominence -- literally looking from slightly above the viewer of the image.  In addition, I took great care to place him within the frame in such a way that several architectural lines of the surrounding buildings converge on him, pulling even more focus to the center and therefore the subject. (demonstrated below). 

Understanding the Camera Settings

This image was shot with a Canon 60D and a 17-85mm f/4-5.6 lens using the following settings:
·       RAW
·       ISO - 800
·       White Balance - 5650K
·       Shutter Speed - 1/25
·       Aperture - f/4.0
·       Off camera flash triggered wirelessly

As always, this image was shot in RAW to capture as much data and detail without file compression as possible.  This allows for more versitility in editing and can save shots that would otherwise be discarded.  Particularly in complicated lighting scenarios, RAW makes all the difference in the world.

The ISO selected was the lowest possible for the given lighting conditions.  Chicago at night is brighter than most night time scenes which, along with the flash, allowed an ISO of 800 versus a 1600 or higher- despite the late hour of the day. 

The White Balance of 5650K was achieved using the AWB setting.  This setting was only appropriate because we colored the traditionally bright white flash with Rosco 16 light amber gel.  If we had not colored the flash, then the camera's AWB would have been less predictable, less appropriate, and more prone to error.  When using AWB with multiple light sources, always check your progress as you go to ensure that the camera is reading the color temperature from the correct portion of the image.

This image was shot with a tripod - a necessity for me under the lighting conditions and the weight of the lens used - which allowed me to use a shutter speed of 1/25.  The balance between the flash and the ambient lighting of the scene was achieved by using this slower shutter speed.  Had we fired the flash and shot at 1/100 or faster, the only portion of the image that would be appropriately lit would be the subject, illuminated by the flash.  To brighten the detail of the city and to match the ambient lighting to the flash, a slower shutter speed is perfect.  This is an example of how the camera and lighting design can work together, and why determining the balance of that lighting design was the most important step while creating this image.

A large aperture was ideal to allow for as low an ISO as possible to reduce noise.  With this particular lens, f/4 still provides a large amount of detail in the background, which is crucial to the intention of featuring not only the model, but also the surrounding environment.  

While we already discussed Flash in detail as the source of Key Light, it is important to note that the flash was triggered wirelessly with the Canon Speedlight Transmitter ST-E2.  This allowed me to utilize the ETTL features of the Canon system, which send metering information from the camera to the flash.   This also allowed me to get the flash off the camera, and exactly where I wanted it.  Because of the amber gel used, flash power settings were boosted or reduced as needed, by hand, (in this shot we were at +1 1/3) to achieve the appropriate final balance of light.  With the wireless system, you're not confined to the distances or whims of sync cords - allowing for much less setup time, but much more versatility and specific placement of the Key Light.  In all cases the flash was hand-held to allow for the most rapid transitioning between locations and distance from the subject as possible.

Understanding the Post-Processing

The first phase of editing is performed in Photoshop's Camera RAW.  This is where I make all edits that could traditionally be performed in a darkroom.  I can tweak exposure, contrast, color, depth of blacks, vibrance, etc.  With images shot at ISO 800 or higher, I traditionally perform Noise Reduction as well.  When working with Camera RAW, experiment with the appearance of the two Noise Reduction sliders.  I tend to prefer a 100% noise reduction with the color slider and leave the luminance slider at 0%.  This is a personal preference for the final appearance of the image.

In Photoshop I made small adjustments -- such as removal of threads and lint from the model's clothing -- and added a vignette.  The beauty (and reward) of putting effort into the creation of a lighting design is less post-processing!

Live Question & Answer Session 

One of the added benefits of our Digital Classroom is the ability to directly ask questions of the individuals that shot the images and interacted with the lighting and the subjects so many of you ask us questions about!  In response, we'll be hosting a Google+ Hangout tomorrow evening at 8pm CENTRAL time.  We'll both be available to answer questions about any of the topics covered above, as well as any questions you might have or develop as a result.  We both look forward to seeing you there!     


  1. Cracking post Cassius! Very informative and detailed.

  2. Hello,
    Thank. It makes me feel great when I read all these stories. It helps me from hopelessness and make me more stronger to fly… thank… for everything.