A month or so ago, I was hired to photograph several people for a marketing publication. They were looking for lifestyle type portraits. So I shot most of them in natural light, often with a reflector or two. Warm, happy, and beautiful was my direction, and so I was looking for bright colorful backgrounds. When I arrived at this couples home, I went through the usual introductions and before long, I was taking the grand tour of their home. It’s always funny to me that as a photographer, I can walk into a strangers home, look around in all of their rooms, and tell them what to wear. Years ago, this took a bit of getting used to, but now it feels somewhat normal.
There was not much in the house that lent itself to what I was looking for, so I decided we would head to a park. As we were leaving, I took notice of this room with the piano, the old lamp, and the bright sun streaming through the window. For a moment, I turned off the filter in my head that was only looking for commercial lifestyle type portraits. The muted colors and the overall feel of the shot that began forming in my head was not something that would interest my client, but I decided that it was worth exploring for myself.
This was a really fun lighting process, and there were some elements that I don’t often get to work through. I know a lot of you are often curious, and email me about my lighting, so how about a lighting walk through. Take out a sheet of paper and a number 2 pencil. Here we go.
Direct sunlight was coming through a large window on the left side of the frame. You can see the bright spot on the floor pointing toward the piano. There were soft rolling shadows all over the wall and furniture from the sunlight bouncing off the white carpet and other light surfaces. It was beautiful light, but the range between the light on the floor and the shadows was too wide to capture with detail.
I took several frames with just natural light, to get a rough idea of what the shot could feel like. After I felt confident that something interesting could develop, I ran out to the car and brought in all of the lighting that I had with me. Three strobes in this case. I almost didn’t even bring them because I didn’t think I would be using lights that day. The first thing I did was get an exposure that had some detail in the sun spot on the floor. I wanted it to be bright, but not blown out. My goal was to mimic the natural light, but bring the range from highlight to shadow down to something that is within the camera’s range of capturing. I shot at ISO 100, and the exposure was 1/125 at f/9.0.
Exposing for the brightest spot in this case made the rest of the frame very dark. The next step was to add in light and bring up the shadows. I like to add and work with one light at a time when I am building my lighting setups. I start with the brightest light source. The sun in this case, and work my way down to the fill lights. I feel like this gives me more control, and allows me to better see the results and consequences of each light that I am using.
Equipment: Before I get into how I used my equipment to create this shot, here is a list of the actual equipment I used along with links to the product pages.
The Key Light: I set up a large softbox on camera left, in front of the window. There was a lot of furniture and items in the room, and although I did rearrange quite a bit, I didn’t want to make a complete mess of their home. There was not enough floor space to set up a stand where I wanted the key light, and even if there was, it would have cut into the frame of the shot. So I set up a C stand with a grip arm and mounted the softbox on the end of the arm. I swung this over the couch and up against the window so that it was angled down toward the floor and feathered away from the wall (pointing across the frame toward the right side of the room). The reason for feathering the softbox from the wall was because I wanted to create a darker shadow in the upper left corner of the frame. The more the softbox is pointed away from the wall, the larger and deeper the shadow in the left corner becomes. I also wanted the light to be a little more even across the frame, and feathering gave me more reach. You can see a slight shadow with a hard edge on the floor on the very far right at the base of the drawers. This shadow was from the softbox. If I had the softbox pointed directly toward the couple, the light would not have reached that far. And finally, let’s not forget. It is kind of important to actually light the subjects with the key as well. So I made sure that the light was hitting them how I wanted. The head and softbox were actually a little too large for the C stand arm, so I did have to do a little work with some tape, clamps and an extra light stand to keep the softbox from pointing straight down. Clamps and tape are a must if you ask me. Now we have a floor highlight that is not blown out, and properly exposed people on the piano bench. But, the right side of the frame was still really dark.
Fill Light #1: The goal for the fill light was to control the shadows. I don’t want this light to be even with the sun, or the key (softbox). What I want out of the fill is to bring up the dark shadows to a level that has detail, but still looks and feels like a shadow. I used a 45” umbrella with black backing that I bounced a strobe into. So the strobe is actually pointing away from the subject into the umbrella and bouncing the light back onto the frame. I experimented with a number of positions for the first fill light, but I ended up placing it about a foot or so behind me, and two or three feet to my right. The height of the strobe head was about a foot above the subjects head, and the umbrella was not angled much. The umbrella rod was about parallel with the ground. You can see the shadows created by this light on the ground behind one of the piano bench legs, and the right piano leg. There is also a very soft and subtle shadow on the wall to the left of the drawers. This tells you that the actual strobe head was just to the right of the edge of the drawer, but the umbrella just swept over the edge to create that soft shadow. If I would have moved the light further to the right, the shadow would have grown and become darker. If I would have moved the light more to the left, the shadow would have disappeared completely. I left the shadow in to create some depth on the right side of the frame.
Fill Light #2: I also set up a second umbrella for fill light. I placed this about 9 feet away from me on the right side of the frame, and used it to fill in the shadow on the wall to the right of the drawers.
And then it was time to start shooting. After a number of different poses, I decided on this one. I really like this shot. The man is a retired professor, and it turns out that he taught photography for a few years. This was many years ago, and the program eventually was shut down when funds became tight. But it was a lot of fun talking to him about cameras and equipment. It was also the first time I had a subject offer to set up and take down stands and actually know how to do it.
I hope you found this interesting, or helpful. Feel free to post any comments or questions. I will do my best to respond and answer any questions you may have.