One Light: Using the Sun as a Rim Light

I've done a couple of shoots lately with beautiful outdoor evening light and I am falling in love with one particular setup, which is going in my shot arsenal from now on. It's nothing new or ground breaking, but it is very effective. Let me share it with you:

ISO100 f2.2 1/160 85mm

ISO100 f2.2 1/160 85mm

It's a one light set up, using the sun as a 'rim', or 'hair' light and a single strobe as fill. I think the effect, if balanced correctly, gives the professional feel of a studio, with the organic feel of an outdoor setting.

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

So how is it done?

It's actually very simple. I know many of you are likely afraid of flash, as I was for years, but getting this shot is really not too technical.

Firstly, this is how I position myself:

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I make sure the sun is hitting the subjects shoulders and hair from behind. This means that in choosing the composition the direction of the sun directs where I point the camera, but I still need to position myself so that I have a pleasing background in the correct direction. I mostly shoot this shot with a shallow depth of field so it's more about finding something which will create a pleasing bokeh (lens blur) with good colour and little distraction.

The next step is to take a shot without the strobe to get a good 'ambient exposure'. I want the background to be slightly darker than than it appears to my eye in order for my subject to 'pop' off it when lit correctly with the strobe. I also want to keep the sun at bay and not let it's light become too over powering. To pull this off with a shallow depth of field I often need to use an ND filter (for the uninitiated this is basically sun glasses for your camera).

As I've mentioned before, to control the ambient light I need to focus on my shutter speed, where as my aperture is going to control my flash output. 

A couple of things I need to be aware of when setting my exposure:

1. I cannot really shoot faster than 1/160 shutter speed because I will lose flash sync, which just means that my shutter fires faster than my strobe pops and it will leave a portion, or all, of my shot dark. Your camera my be different but I know this is the magic number for my 5DmkII. Just Google your camera make and 'sync speed' to find yours.

2. In bright sunlight I want my ISO as low as possible to help me maintain detail and control the light.

3. I want to make sure that if I need to slow my shutter speed down a lot to let in enough ambient light that I put the camera on a tripod to reduce camera shake and motion blur. The thumbnail rule is that your shutter speed should not be less that your focal length: in other words you shouldn't shoot handheld at slower than 1/50 on a 50mm lens, 1/100 on a 100mm lens etc. 

Obviously once I have the ambient exposure dialed in correctly my subjects face will be dark and filled with shadow because the sun is hitting her from behind.

Enter my strobe.

In the BTS shot above I am using my Alien B800, Vagabond power pack and a 1m softlighter, but you can use a speedlight and a shoot-through umbrella if the ambient isn't too strong. Your speedlight won't be able to fill against full noon day sun, but it will work nicely with a muted setting sun.

Then I simply bring my light in close to make sure it's soft and dial it up until it provides a natural fill light to the setting sun. I already have my slightly darkened background, now I just need a good exposure on the skin to complete the light for the shot. I want to position it at 45 degrees above the models head and slightly off to one side to mirror the direction of the sun. I'm looking for a good catch light in the models eye, and I often use a small handheld reflector to add a second catch light in the lower portion of the eye as well.

ISO125 f2.5 1/100 85mm

ISO125 f2.5 1/100 85mm

Something to take note of: you'll find the smallest moves in the camera will control how much flare you allow into the lens. A slight bend at the knees can mean that you flood the lens with sun light, and as you straighten slightly you can kill it altogether. It's going to come down to taste, and some strong quad muscles, as to how much flare you want in your shot.

Here are few more examples:

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

ISO100 f1.8 1/160 50mm

ISO100 f1.8 1/160 50mm

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

Go try it for yourself, and post me links to your shots in the comments. 

Thanks to the beautiful models:

Actor and Director, Lucy Drive: http://www.modelmayhem.com/548139

and Professional Dancer and Model, Beth Willetts: http://www.modelmayhem.com/824462

Bending Light

Last weekend Sarah and I headed into the woods to play with strobes and practice balancing them with ambient light. While we were scouting out the location and testing the ambient light, I got this shot of Sarah with a 50mm and a handheld reflector to give a nice catch light in the eyes:

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Then we pulled out my Alien B800 and Vagabond battery pack. The main reason I was keen to do some testing was that I had recently bought a 1.8m softlighter. A softlighter is a large umbrella with a silver inlay which you shoot the light into for shape, but it also has a white diffusion panel over the front to soften the light up on the return journey. Being 1.8m big I assumed that this was going to give me a huge, soft, wrap around light source. The general rule with lighting is that the larger the light source relative to your subject, the softer the light. The sun for example, while bright, is only a tiny point in the sky relative to us, which is why it gives such harsh shadows. A big light source held close to the subject though will fill in shadows and give a soft, pleasing light. 

So what I thought this big 1.8m light source would do was this:

wide lighter.jpg

But when I took a test shot what I actually got was this:

Ruislip Portrait 032.jpg

The light was soft, but it wasn't a big light source. In fact it barely covered head and shoulders. I was really confused for a while because this was breaking the rule I had learnt. It took me a few minutes but from what I could tell, this was what was happening:

narrow beam.jpg

Due to the fact that the umbrella is so shallow the light source was only bouncing off the centre and so creating a small light coming back through the diffusion panel. That diffusion panel may have been almost two meters big, but the light was only bouncing back through the very centre of it. The small reflection size, and the concave shape of the umbrella meant that I was left with a shot which looked like it had been lit with a snoot and a bit of ambient back lighting. I think it's actually a flaw with this particular product (Walimex 180cm Reflex Umbrella). Ideally the umbrella should have a deeper concave shape, so the light can sit further away from the inside surface, and so spread light over the whole surface and come back through the diffusion panel as large a source as possible.

Don't get me wrong, I actually like the shot. It was a happy accident and I stayed there shooting for a few minutes and got some great shots with that set up. But it wasn't what I had planned. I still wanted a bright ambient hair light from the sun, filled with a big soft light from the front.

So how did I get there?

Well first I had to slow down my shutter speed to let in more ambient light. The rule is, when balancing ambient light with strobes, that shutter speed controls your constant ambient light, and your aperture controls your strobes. Slowing down my shutter speed, means keeping the shutter open for longer and allowing more constant light in to the sensor. It doesn't effect the strobe though because it only fires momentarily within that shutter duration anyway. 

I still had the same problem with the softlighter though. So I decided to pull the diffusion panel off the front and hang it spread out in the tree branches off to camera right. I then took my light and pulled it back so that the light would fall full across the surface of the diffusion panel without spilling past the edge:

Tree.jpg

This now meant that I had my large soft light from the front to fill. As a trade off I lost the shape of the light somewhat because Sarah was now only being lit by a bare strobe firing through a flat diffusion panel instead of being shaped by light returning from a concave umbrella, but it gave me the balance that I needed to get the shot I wanted. Which was this one:

Portrait 062.jpg

So I used the sun coming in through the trees as a hair light, or rim light, and just balanced the strobe to fill in the front of Sarah's face. The trick with this kind of photography for me is to keep it looking as natural as possible, and I like the result of this one.

There are million ways to light. Once you get a sense for how it moves and behaves you can get a vision for what you want, and then work out how to get it. There are a slew of modifiers to help you get there too, from snoots to softboxes, umbrellas to beauty dishes, even just a white wall, or in my case, a diffusion panel hung from a tree. The point is to experiment and learn to bend the light through your lens and onto your sensor to get the shot you want.

Shooting Models

I have been trying to build a portrait portfolio.

If you want to make a real go of a career in photography, you have to pick a lane at some point. You have to decide what sort of photography you want to specialise in long term. It's all very well broadening your skill base and being able to shoot many subjects and in varying contexts, but at some point you want to specialise because it's how you 'get known'.

So to this end I have decided that I would like to work hard at becoming a good portrait photographer. Being a bit of a humanist at heart this seems to be the area I am most happy shooting in, and one I could see myself doing into the distant future.

In order to start building up a portfolio of work I decided to contact a friend of a friend who I knew was keen to dip her toe into modelling. I offered her a shoot with images we could both use for our respective portfolios, an old TFP (Time for Photos) model arrangement (something I will get into in another post).

I was really lucky with this shoot. Lauren was a star. In fact she lulled me into a false sense of security because I think I thought that it would be this easy all the time. She just knew what to do. Every time she heard the shutter click she would alter her pose to give me something different to shoot. As I clicked away I would wait until something she did looked interesting, at which point I would tell her 'stay there, and make smaller moves'. I would give fine tuning directions more than anything.

I have no doubt it won't be this easy with every model shoot, and some will need more direction, which I am going to have to learn how to give, but I got a glimpse into what makes a professional model so good at their job. They really have to be fearless and give you poses which look ridiculous when you're standing there watching them, but which translate into something beautiful on camera. It's a strange dynamic. It takes a huge amount of personal security, and body knowledge, on their part as well, and I instantly acquired a respect for their craft.

Another really helpful aspect of this shoot was that Lauren's room mate is working with Vogue and offered to act as stylist for the day! She had prepared a number of outfit options which we cycled through as the day went on. Some I didn't use. Some I did. But what a pleasure having both the poses and styles constantly changing. If I had just stood in one spot and clicked the shutter, I would have had a wide variety of stuff.

So what was my role, apart from camera monkey?

The challenge for me was to chose the set ups. When we arrived at their flat I walked around and looked at the space, then took a tour around the little garden. I picked backgrounds which I thought would work for different looks, and quickly summed up the light to see where we could get the best looking shots, and at what time of the day. I also began to plan where to create an indoor backdrop (what turned out to be just a white wall, or a patterned sheet over a door frame) so that when we began to lose light outside we could move indoors and carry on.

I learnt a few things on this shoot:

1. Come up with a short list of shot ideas while you're doing your initial location tour.

2. A good model is a joy to shoot. Let him/her move and watch for what works. Then 'fine tune' when something she/he does catches your eye.

3. Having a number of changes of clothes and make up options helps to vary your shots, and inspire ideas. It also gives you time to come up with a new set up and test the light while your subject is getting ready. From now on I will always ask a model if they could bring at least four changes of clothes, and see if they would like to bring a friend who can help them with changes. I will likely get a lot more options and the model will be more relaxed with a close friend around.

I shot all day on my 5DmkII and switched between my 50mm f1.4 and my 85mm f1.8. I had recently bought a softbox for my speedlight, which I mounted on a monopod and had a friend hold for me, so most of the shots I took are just using the ambient light and filling with a softbox, or using the softbox as a one light source when shooting indoors.

I think we got some good stuff between us.

Some thanks:

Lauren Franklin for Modelling: http://laurenfranklinmodel.wordpress.com/

Frith Carlisle for Styling.

Sarah Howse for retouching on shots 1, 3, 4 and 5: http://sarahjhowse.wix.com/sarah-howse-editing

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