lighting

Pools of light technique from 2008.

Every time I post one of my old technique examples I get a massive spike in the visitor figures for this blog. Despite some of them being fifteen or more years old they still seem to attract quite a bit of attention. This one is being re-posted after a specific request from a reader and I’ve added a second photograph at the bottom for a little ‘added value’.

©Neil Turner/TSL, May 2008

©Neil Turner/TSL, May 2008. 1/180th of a second at f4, 200 ISO

I was inspired to share the “how” for this picture because of a comment from a colleague who said that I had been “lucky to find such a nice pool of light”. I was amused, annoyed and complimented all at the the same time because I created this light and he obviously thought that it looked as if it was a natural effect. Much of the best lighting looks as if it were not lit… so how was this one achieved?

I had been asked by the picture editor to get a good range of portraits of this man who is the Vice President of a company that handles examination papers. The logo was needed in some frames and this plate screwed to a wall in a corridor was the only one on offer. The layout was like this..

Single flash the other side of the door

Single flash the other side of the door

The brown lines that you can see on the layout are fire doors – big heavy wooden doors with three small square glass panels in each one. The Lumedyne flash unit with a Pocket Wizard receiver on was placed outside the door and the door was closed. The subject was lit entirely by the hard, un-modified flash coming through those three glass panels. Lining up exactly where the light will fall is very easy – if the subject can see the flash head, then it can see them. After that it is just a question of shooting a couple of frames and judging on the camera’s LCD screen where the light is falling and then raising, lowering or moving the flash accordingly.

In this case the flash is about ten degrees above the subject’s eye line and he is looking almost directly at it. This allowed me to get the nice hard shadow behind his head and still have a reasnably flattering light on his face. I also tried to do a few rames where the ambient light in the corridor (see below ) was making the shadows softer but I much preffered the hard treatment.

©Neil Turner/TSL, May 2008

©Neil Turner/TSL, May 2008. 1/10th of a second at f4, 200 ISO.

Technical Stuff: Canon EOS1D MkII with a Canon EF16-35 f2.8L lens.

Another ‘classic’ technique posting from the old site

The idea here is to have two separate lighting set-ups for one interview portrait without having to constantly move around the room adjusting lights. This interview was with a senior businessman who chairs a body that decides how much teachers’ pay rises will be each year. The reporter wasn’t all that comfortable with me shooting through the interview but it was what the picture editor wanted, so that’s what I did. This job required a bit of quick thinking so that I could get two different set-ups in place.

©Neil Turner/TSL, April 2008.

©Neil Turner/TSL, April 2008.

The picture on the left was lit using a single Lumedyne head at 50 joules bounced off of a wall almost in front of the subject. The image on the right was lit by a single Canon 550ex flash gun with a Honl Photo snoot attached aimed directly at the subjects face and set further away from the camera.

Both flash units were fitted with Pocket Wizard receivers set on different channels from each other. The idea here is that by simply switching between channels on the transmitters I could switch between two very different lighting styles without moving.

The left hand image is far more evenly lit. The large expanse of off-white wall made a very good and large light source. The exposure here was 1/60th of a second at f5.6 on ISO200. There was some available light play – without flash the scene would have been two stops under exposed with that amount of flash. You can see from the diagram below how the room was laid out and the flash head was positioned at about 10 degrees above the subjects eyeline.

The right hand image is far more starkly lit. The exposure was 1/250th of a second at f13 on ISO 200. There is almost no available light in this picture and the lighting effect is dramatically different. The very narrow angle of the light offered by the Honl snoot makes it difficult to always get the subject right in the centre of the small pool of light and so you need to be careful when aiming it to centre it on where the subject is most likely to be.

The layout of small conference room where the interview took place.

The layout of small conference room where the interview took place.

The point of this technique is that you can arrange more than one style of lighting and then switch between them at will simply by selecting a different channel on the trigger. I find that I use the Honl snoot a lot more than I had imagined that I would. It fits into a bag very easily and it is simple to use. When you are in complete control of the lighting, it’s very easy to achieve dramatic results. This style of light might not be to every picture editor’s taste and so the evenly lit alternative is a very good idea.

A fourteen year old technique post

Between May 1999 and June 2008 I posted a large number of technique examples on the original http://www.dg28.com taken from my daily work to show how I used light in an era where digital cameras were pretty poor at ISOs over 800 or even 400 in the case of the venerable Kodak DCS520. These days flash is a creative choice rather than a technical necessity but the techniques still stand up. From time to time I re-post one of these old examples just to remind myself how life used to be. This one was first posted fourteen years ago and for a very long time it was amongst my favourite pictures that I had posted.

©Neil Turner/ TSL, November 2000.

©Neil Turner/ TSL, November 2000.

At the time it felt as if I spent every evening answering follow-up questions about the pictures and techniques that I’d described. These days there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people publishing ‘how-to-do-it’ photography blogs but back then there were only a small number of us. It was such an exciting time in our profession. Anyway, here’s the post as it appeared back in November 2000:

Arriving at the job is usually the best times to start having ideas about locations for a portrait. Buildings often have features that lend themselves to use in a photograph, and the grounds can be just as inspirational.

When I arrived at the Suffolk farmhouse of journalist and author Simon Barnes, he and his wife were busy chasing one of their horses around the yard. By the time the mare was back in one of the stables it was all but dark, but I had seen just how wonderful the other stable looked lit by the 60 watt bulb inside it. 

This image called for the mixing of available light and fifty joules of Lumedyne flash. The flash head had it’s diffuser cap over the standard reflector at an angle of 60° from the lens axis and at a height of about six inches above Simon’s eye level. I had to use the flash a lot lower than I would have done because I wanted him to keep his hat on and the if the flash had been higher his face would have been in shadow from it’s wide rim.

Cut down to it’s minumum 50 joules at a distance of seven feet the flash reading on 200 ISO was still f6.7, which was a lot more than I would have liked. At f6.7 the inside of the stable needed an exposure of about 1/3rd of a second, and the sky needed 1/2 of a second to get some detail in the lighter areas. The discrepency between the two exposure requirements was only half a stop, so I went with the longer exposure because a little over exposure inside the stable would be fine. 

With a 28-70 f2.8L series lens on a DCS520 I started shooting pictures of the upper half of his body and a little of the stable roof and sky. Without changing the exposure I changed lenses to the 17-35 f2.8 and moved back. As I moved back the sensor floodlight came on and the light shining into the lens gave some strange pink flare (bottom right) and the floodlight made an excellent element in the composition. By this time I was hand holding the camera at 1/2 second, which meant that there would be some camera shake so I shot about twenty frames at the same exposure in the hope that a few of them would be still enough to work. 

I shot some safer images as well with the inside of the stable lit by another Lumedyne head complete with a warm up filter to simulate the tungsten glow. The image worked really well, and I am more than happy with it. It shows that light and location are the most important factors when planning a location portrait.

Footnote: Immediately after this job I started to carry a sheet of -2 stop neutral density gel in my bag. I have learned lots of lessons the hard way since the beginning of my career in 1986 and, whilst they are fewer and farther between, I still learn plenty of things that way.

Genesis PowerPort Duo 1000

genesis_duo_smallWhen my old Quantum Turbo Z battery died a few weeks ago I was a little bit annoyed. I hadn’t used it that much and I wasn’t that happy about getting another one. I had read several reviews of a battery pack available in the UK under several different brand names including Godox and Lencarta and I decided to investigate. The unit was available at a really good price from Calumet under their Genesis brand and as a member of The BPPA I was able to get a decent discount from the already low price of £125.00 inc VAT. At that price I thought that it was worth a shot and so I extravagantly rang Calumet from Paris where I was working at the time and got them to send the pack and a single Canon Speedlite cable so that my Genesis PowerPort Duo 1000 would be there waiting for me when I got home.

My first reaction was that it was a lot lighter than the Quantum, roughly the same size in terms of bulk and had two ports. It didn’t appear to be quite as well made and the covers on the two ports were feeling more than a little “plasticky” when I had a look at them. I’m never rough with my gear and so this isn’t always a problem so I stuck the battery on charge ready for a job the following day which was going to involve quite a bit of bounced flash.

It charged really quickly (to be fair, it arrived at 2/3rds full anyway) and I gave it a few tests just to make sure that it was functioning and that my decision to not bother reading the instructions wasn’t a huge mistake. All seemed well and it was recycling a Canon 580exII on full power output in a fraction over a second – every bit as quick as my Quantum Turbo Z.

I shot the job the next day and it performed flawlessly. Every frame was lit and the Speedlite didn’t get remotely warm (a danger with the Turbo Z). My investment was looking to be a decent one. There was another photographer on the job with a differently branded version of the same battery and he had a short cable that allowed you to charge any USB chargeable device from the pack. I had a play, it worked and I ordered one using Amazon Prime on my phone there and then.

That was all about three weeks ago and, as luck would have it, I’ve needed to use the battery a few times since and each time it has performed really well. I’ve topped up my iPhone using it too. To be honest, this battery is so light that it gets put into my bag where the Quantum probably wouldn’t have been. To sum up, when compared to the Quantum Turbo that I had been using it is:

  • Cheaper – at £125.00 inc VAT against the cheapest Quantum Turbo at just over £400.00 inc VAT
  • Lighter – at 500g it is than my old Turbo Z (844g) but a fraction heavier than the Quantum Turbo SC (422g)
  • Two ports
  • Optional phone charger cable
  • The pack has a separate battery which you can swap out easily

This appears to be one of the great photo-bargains. I’ll let you know if it fails to pass the durability test over the next twelve months – which is the only potential fly in the ointment. That’s why I went for the Calumet branded one – they have shops where I can go and take it back if it does fail.

 

You learn something new every day

It is one of the universal truths of photography that you never stop learning. Almost every time you pick a camera up something happens that you squirrel away in your memory banks that will make a difference to how you shoot something else at some time in the future. Normally these are small things but this week I was shooting the wonderful Talvin Singh performing at an arts festival and something happened that made me scratch my head because I’d never experienced anything quite like it.

©Neil Turner, October 2104

©Neil Turner, October 2104

The two pictures above were taken within a fraction of a second of one another under ‘exactly’ the same lighting without flash and with identical settings (manual everything apart from focus) on the same camera with the same lens and have been processed through Adobe Camera RAW identically. So why are they different? The answer seems to be LED stage lighting. You might conclude that both pictures are ‘quite nice’ and move on but that’s not really an answer when you are shooting something that has a moment that you absolutely have to capture. I’ve had issues with un-balasted HMI lighting and of course strip lights but this was in another ‘issues league’ entirely.

It appears that these brand new lights installed in a state-of-the-art theatre are an absolute nightmare for stills photography. Now that I’ve experienced this, I have been reading up on it and it seems to be a known phenomenon where the lights cycle between the red, green and blue LEDs in the light at a speed that the human eye chooses not to detect but that a camera shooting at shutter speeds of 1/125th of a second or higher has a real problem with. The higher you go, the worse it gets. Of course you could shoot at 1/60th of a second and all would be reasonably well – apart from any movement being a little/lot blurred.

Being a complete anorak I decided to shoot a series of tests at an even higher shutter speed (having first racked the ISO up a way) to see what happened:

©Neil Turner, October 2014

©Neil Turner, October 2014

That makes shooting under these lights at the kind of shutter seeds you need to freeze action nigh on impossible. Once I had realised that there was an issue I dropped down to 1/100th of a second and then to 1/80th and shot lots of frames. The first five frames above were shot at 1/400th and the last one was at 1/100th – what a difference.

Most of what I have read about LED stage lights concerns white balancing – well that was the least of my worries here. It was almost as if shooting with shutter speeds in excess of the cameras maximum flash synch speed (the highest speed at which the entire chip is exposed at the same moment) was part of the problem. The LED stage lights in this theatre were effectively pulsing or flashing and the only way to get a consistent image was to work with that pulsing and use shutter speeds below the maximum flash synch. I have read something on what appeared to be a well-infomed website which implies that this only happens when the lights are dimmed – which makes some sense. I haven’t got enough experience with this to work out whether the speed thing is a coincidence or whether it is directly related but I now know how to shoot in this one venue with these lights.

Shooting with shutter speeds that are a long way below “ideal” some of my pictures were sharp and many weren’t – but the job got done. Constant reference to the screen on the back of the camera is frowned on by a lot of people but this case proves that there are times when it is exactly the right thing to do. Imagine having had to shoot this on film with no LCD…

Presumably more and more theatres and venues will use these lights and the problem will grow. Maybe there’s a solution out there already?

©Neil Turner, October 2014.

©Neil Turner, October 2014.

Techie stuff: Canon EOS5D MkIII with a 70-200 f2.8L IS Canon lens. 1/100th of a second at f3.2 on 2000 ISO. WB set to daylight but adjusted in Adobe Camera RAW removing quite a bit of magenta and adding a small amount of yellow.

Three important things

Many, many years ago I started to post technique examples and opinions on my website. By 2002 I had about fifty articles on the site and over the last couple of years I have been recycling many of them because I still thank that they are worth reading. None of it is unique wisdom and much of it can be found in the form of YouTube videos by other people. I like to think that I was marginally ahead of the curve back then at least. Here is one of my favourites…

There are many things that help make a great photograph – a good photographer, the right equipment and luck can all play a part but there are three things that, in different proportions, are absolutely essential.

  1. Light: Possibly the most important element to making an ordinary photograph into a good one.
  2. Composition: Getting all the right elements in the right places.
  3. Subject Matter: It’s true that what you are photographing can very easily make the difference between good, very good and great pictures.

Light: You not only need the right quantity of light, but the right quality and direction of the light are vital too.

  • Too much light can be just as much of a problem as too little. A picture that relies on shallow a depth of field for it’s impact will be hard to achieve if there is too much light to work with wide open lens. Of course if there is too little light to freeze the action when that’s vital to the picture, that’s also a problem.
  • Many pictures rely on hard shadows and extreme contrast for their effect and others need even and soft light to make the photograph work.
  • What direction the light is coming from in relation to the subject matter is important. Strong backlight will be perfect for some subjects and ninety degree side light will do it for others.

Composition. Whatever else is going on in the picture, this is the element of the total package over which you have the most control.

  • What lens you use is an absolutely critical decision to take in terms of the composition. What you can see through the viewfinder is utterly controlled by this decision.
  • Where you position yourself in relation to the subject is another crucial decision.
  • Confusion is the greatest enemy of clarity! How successful you are in keeping extraneous details out of the photograph has an enormous bearing on the final result.

Subject Matter: All great photographs tell their own story, and that’s just as true for a product shot of ball bearings as it is for Pulitzer prize winning documentary images.

  • If what you are photographing tells it’s own story, then you need to strip the content down so that the story isn’t confused.
  • Some things aren’t that interesting, so you need to add content. Telling the story sometimes requires the photographer to set the context.
  • Photographs don’t always need to be great art. Sometimes subject matter is all, and nothing else matters. If there is only one picture of a vital news event and it’s out of focus and taken from video it may well qualify as a great picture.

Three elements that go together to make great pictures. Sometimes light takes the lead and other times the composition is the most important. It doesn’t matter if one element is dominant, but photographs where all three are well balanced and well done then the image is guaranteed to be a winner.

There is, however, one extra element that you can’t legislate for. Magic. Like many things in photography, you know it when you see it but you cannot measure it or define it. Well composed and lit pictures that have great subject matter are (relatively) easy to come by, but once in a while they have magic too.