How do professional photographers light up their photographs?

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How does the famous portrait painter Albert Watson light up his photos? With a foolproof three-light setup that makes her photos look amazing, of course! Except… he doesn’t. In fact, the configurations are very far what professional photographers do when they illuminate their work. This is the state of mind of photographers when they light.

We all start in one place: a YouTube video showing amazing setups with just one light. When we watch a video showing a 4-light setup, we already feel pro. And yes, for some photographers, being able to do a four-light setup – a nice rim, infill, hair, and a key light – is enough. These configurations give a simple formula to use when lighting a scene.

Many photographers can create these lighting setups, but very few are professionals. So how do the pros light up their photos? What configurations do they use? How do they decide?

Configurations are a myth

The first thing I want to point out is that setups don’t exist on a professional board. No one has ever asked me to do a three light setup, nor has anyone asked me to create great results with just one light.

Being able to do a classic portrait setup and having the best clients is a thing of the past. In the 80s, you could impress someone with a crisp white background, but now that’s not all about it.

The competition is fierce and many photographers end up learning as many setups as possible in order to have a vast mental toolbox. As a result, companies sell kits for “the perfect light for portraiture”, “the perfect light for beauty” “the perfect light for fashion”. It creates an established mentality that there is one right way to light up fashion, another for beauty, and the third for portraits.

The best analogy I can give is if you were told that there is only one way to eat bread: plain with butter. You can’t toast, add jam, or even make a sandwich.

I think it’s pretty clear that thinking in terms of configurations is limiting. It’s not wrong, but it puts a label on something indefinable: perfect light.

Then how Make Do professionals light up their photos?

Before I get into how to learn the art of lighting, let me introduce you to a kind of step-by-step process that I have applied to light so far.

1. Black frame

It all starts with a single image. If I am in the studio I take a black frame to make sure there is no ambient light. On site, I take a perfectly exposed frame. Although now I have a hunch about the show, I still do it as a good habit. If anything, it lets me know I logged in correctly and everything is working.

2. Ambient control

When the test frame is finished, I introduce the light. If ambient studio light is desirable, I can increase the ISO or maybe lower the shutter speed. Usually I don’t touch the aperture too much because I like having a wide focus plane around f / 11. There, I’ll play with the settings to get a good amount of ambient light.

3. Presentation of artificial light

Again, it all starts with one light. If you want to be a purist, you can start with a light directly in front of the subject. Adjusting the wattage and then seeing what that light is doing is the next step. Here are some questions to ask yourself right now:

  1. Is the light too harsh?
  2. Is the fall too dramatic?
  3. Is the light coming from the right direction?
  4. What do I want to show / say with this image?
  5. What aesthetic do I want?
  6. Nothing else?

The answers to these questions will form a basis for what you want to do next. This can include adding a modifier, moving the light further, or maybe even adding additional lights.

A good way to think about this step is to adopt the mindset of a painter. Each light is a brush that adds dimension to the image. You have to be careful what you add and don’t do with each frame.

Remember that with each light comes a great responsibility to control it – don’t forget things like flags, canvases, or butterflies. These will help you sculpt the end result and create a unique image that is yours. Truly.

Completing this process should give a light that you feel is good. Determining what looks good and what doesn’t comes from being deeply caring and passionate about the topic. While I don’t want to sound like a loose art type, good light just clicks with the subject like a puzzle that fits right in.

Careful attention to the subject allows you to understand which light fits properly. If you are photographing cars from the 1950s, you might want to show off the chrome on the bodywork. If photographing popsicles gets your whistle wet, you’ll inevitably find a way to show them in a light that works for you.

What separates the great from the good is the subject’s obsession with the lens, whatever it may be.

How to learn the light?

Knowledge of light comes from experiencing and appreciating what each surface does to light, how it reflects or bounces, diffuses or moves directly, etc. This understanding then makes it possible to appreciate each modifier.

For example, a 5 foot octabox will have the same light diffusion as a 2 foot one, but the softness will be different. A 1 × 6 softbox turned sideways will produce a hard vertical but soft horizontal shadow. Diffusion paper on a small source will not make the light soft.

There are practically thousands of examples like these that arise from understanding what each little tool does to illuminate.

I wrote a separate article on learning to light earlier this year. If you want a more detailed explanation, read this article!

Closing thoughts

Professionals illuminate their images in order to achieve an aesthetic rather than performing a standard setup, much like the way painters paint in order to convey ambiance rather than doing a technical exercise. Of course, good technique is important and useful, but knowing four single light setups is not good technique – making your own light setups with 1, 2, 4, 10 and more to suit the aesthetics is a good technique.

I promise you that knowing how to light will not only advance your photography, but also allow you to solve some of the more complex problems that arise on set.


About the Author: Illya Ovchar is a Budapest-based commercial and editorial fashion photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. You can find more of Ovchar’s work on his website and Instagram.



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