~ Vincent Van Gogh
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
~ Vincent Van Gogh
I have always loved the night. The world truly is a different place at night. The idea of night time portraits has been on my photography to-do list for a while now and I finally decided to give it a shot. Hopefully this article will be insightful and helpful for those considering doing these types of shoots.
First, a few words about my amazing model. I met Angela a couple of years ago for a quick studio-like shoot with a friend of hers. I was blown away with how comfortable she was in front of a camera for not really having done much modeling. She moved and posed as if she had done it for years. I can usually tell within a few minutes if someone has modeling experience and I was floored when I discovered she didn’t. She brought the same confidence and talent to this shoot as well – to my pleasure! Over the hour or so of our shoot, I had time to learn more about her personally; one of the things I love most about working with models. Angela is a very strong and independent free-spirited individual. She has a drive and ambition that will most definitely take her places. Don’t be surprised if you hear great things about her in the future. It truly was a fun and amazing night shooting with her. Chances are very high you will see more images of us working together in the future… if I have anything to say about it! Now on to the shoot!
Click on image for larger picture.
Location, location, location. A night shoot is all about finding a great location. I drove around quite a bit several times prior to the shoot trying to find a location I thought would work. On a whim, I stopped by the CU Medical Center/Children’s Hospital campus to check it out – at night of course. There are tons of large buildings, lights, open grassy areas, and creative art pieces that are all well-lit. It turned out to be the perfect location. I imagine a University campus or even well-lit areas downtown could make for some interesting backdrops as well. Once you have your location picked out, try and use as much of the ambient light as possible. Try and find a location that is not only well lit for the area around the model but where there are lights in the background that will create beautiful and bright bokeh behind the model as well! We shot next to large windows with a lot of light spilling out of them, around sculptures that were well-lit, and around well-lit entrances to buildings. Even in the best lit areas, I still needed a fast lens, a relatively long shutter speed, and high ISO settings. I mainly used my Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 lens almost exclusively at f/2.8. I haven’t owned this lens for very long and I am still putting it through its paces. I also used my Nikon 35mm prime lens for a few of the shots as well. The 35mm has the advantage of opening up to f/1.8 which was very helpful in a few of the darker areas we shot. My ISO settings were around 1000, sometimes a little higher and sometimes lower depending on the ambient light and the lens I was using. All of my shutter speeds were slower (or longer in length) than 1/100 of a second (which can be a bit of a problem I’ll discuss later).
Click on image for larger picture.
A few of the scenes were still too dark and I did resort to using an off-camera flash and a shoot-thru umbrella (some people prefer a soft box but I was attempting to carry as little gear as possible). This is where I ran into some problems. I still wanted the dark look of the night so I exposed the image for the ambient light first and then added in the flash. It didn’t take much power from the flash to get the look I was after. In fact, most images were taken at the setting of 1/128 flash power. The problem is in mixing two different light sources. The ambient lights were a much warmer color temperature than the cooler color temperature from the flash - so much so that the resulting images weren’t very pleasing to me. I had to adjust the temperature on certain parts of the images in post processing to get results I found more pleasing. Even in the edited versions, you can still see the difference between the bluer light from the flash aimed directly at Angela as compared to the yellower ambient light coming from above her. Should I do this type of shoot again, which I most definitely will, I may play with gels on the flash to better match the color temperature of the ambient light.
Another thing worth trying would be a tripod. If you’re wide open with your lens and still need more light, you really only have two options. You can increase your ISO setting and/or increase your shutter length. I do not like shooting above ISO 1000 on this camera as I start to see noise that I find unacceptable (unless we’re talking astrophotography). The only thing left is increasing the shutter length. Even with the image stabilization feature on the Tamron lens, which is incredible by the way, I found several of my photos were soft due to slight camera movement. I had to get rid of more photos from the shoot than I wanted to because of this issue. Although a tripod is cumbersome and makes switching between poses more timely, I think it would make a huge difference in night portraiture. A slightly longer shutter speed will allow you to reduce your ISO and perhaps allow the use of a higher f-stop, if desired. If you decide to use a tripod, simply let your model know they will need to hold still during the shot.
The images aren’t perfect but I am really pleased with how most of them turned out. Despite the crappy quality due to compression posting the images in this blog, the high-res versions are beautiful. Frankly, I think that Angela’s natural beauty and confidence in front of a camera went a long way in covering up my lack of experience with night portraiture. I am a firm believer that an amazing model, or subject, can save an average image. Angela is just such a model. She also brought several different outfits and changed between locations which kept our images looking fresh and new. Albeit she had to find dark corners to change but that didn’t phase her one bit!
To wrap up, use the fastest lens you own, find a decent location, bring a tripod, keep a flash handy just in case, and find an amazing model! Go in knowing you will probably set your ISO higher than normal and that you will need slower shutter speeds. Truly, the best advice I can offer is to experiment! Experiment with everything! Experiment with mixed lighting, tripod or no tripod, flash or no flash, high ISO or longer shutter speeds. The more you experiment and discover what works for you, your equipment, and your style of photography, the better photographer you will become in general. Everything explained above is just the settings and impressions I got from this particular shoot. Find what works for you and as always, find a way to stay outside of your comfort zone! Thanks again to Angela!
I have always had a fascination with light painting and photography. Some of the images I have seen online simply blow me away. Hopefully after reading this blog and watching the video, you too will be inspired to take a stab at this incredibly creative art form.
Light Painting with Steel Wool
Steel wool is cheap, can be found at just about any hardware store, and makes for some incredible light painting images. When purchasing steel wool, make sure you get steel wool with a very fine texture or grade. I get steel wool with a grade of #0000. Although you tend to get more sparks from this grade, experiment around with other grades as they can give you different effects. Find a metal container to hold the steel wool as it melts (burns) away. A metal whisk works out perfectly. I was lucky enough to find metal whisks with a metal loop at the end of the handle. Next, find something to attach to the whisk that will allow you to spin the whisk around. I used a short length of chain and a quick connector. Once you are set up and ready to go, take a pad of steel wool, fluff it out a bit, and place it inside of the whisk. Light the steel wool with a match, lighter, or even a 9 volt battery. After lighting the steel wool, swing it around. The faster you swing it, the further the sparks will fly! A friend of mine swung the steel wool while I manned the camera in the video and images. A word of caution: you are working with molten metal. Keep this in mind. Do this in an area where the risk of setting the surrounding area on fire is minimal. If using a model, be extremely cautious. These sparks can, and will, burn you! And as I learned on this shoot, it’s not a bad idea to have a fire extinguisher handy as well.
Camera settings. All you need is a camera that is capable of long exposures (with bulb mode if possible) and a steady tripod. In this case, we parked the car in front of a small puddle to get a reflection. My camera was set approximately 30 feet in front of the car. Since we did this shoot at night, I used a powerful flashlight to illuminate the model and car enough to be able to lock focus. Once I had focus locked, I switched to manual focus so that the camera did not hunt for focus before each shot (which it probably would have never found). I was using my Tamron 24-70mm on a crop sensor camera (D7100) closer to the 24 mm end of the lens. I set my ISO to its lowest, 100, and set my f-stop to f/9 but feel free to play around with your settings. We had a bright full moon out that night which provided additional light. I set my camera to bulb mode and began the exposure as soon as the sparks started to fly and ended the exposure as soon as they died off. Each shot was different but if I had to guess, the average shutter length was around 15 to 20 seconds long and bulb mode allowed me to start and stop exactly when I wanted.
The first couple of attempts were nice but the car remained in shadow, more or less. In an attempt to light up the front side of the vehicle facing the camera, I placed two flashes on the ground aimed at the model and vehicle. I set the flashes to rear curtain so they went off at the end of the exposure, that way, the person twirling the steel wool and the model knew exactly when the exposure was complete. Both flashes were set to ½ power. If I do a shoot like this again, I will put colored gels over the speed lights to get a better match in color on the car and model as compared to the sparks and the background color in general. I did adjust the hue and color balance on the car slightly in post, but getting it right in camera is always the better practice.
Light Painting with Fire
I got this idea from Zach Alan of Zach Alan Photography. The principle is very similar to the steel wool idea (or any light painting idea). You simply paint with fire behind your model. I used a ¾” wooden dowel that was 48” long. I then wrapped cotton around the top foot and a half of the dowel and secured the fabric in place with industrial staples. I also think wrapping the top portion of the dowel with natural fiber rope (like in my firewall tutorial) would work just as well. I then soaked the cotton in Coleman fuel (white gas) and lit on fire. We got decent light from the fire for about one minute then it started to slowly burn off and die out. Simply smother out the remaining fire with a damp towel and re-soak for more images. Make sure the fire and sparks are COMPLETELY out before pouring more gas on it. Since I was the individual light painting with the fire, I had my camera set to a two second exposure and had another individual trigger my camera. Some of the resulting images I had to edit and fix in post either because the camera stopped too soon or too late. In the future I think I will try triggering the shutter with radio triggers so I can precisely control when the camera starts and stops. I think this should be possible even while being the one light painting.
Camera settings – other than bulb mode, the settings were exactly the same. We did not use the flashes for the images with just the model.
Overall I am pleased with the results but would do things a little differently for both ideas should I revisit them in the future (which I most definitely will). Anyway, get out there and try some light painting with steel wool and fire, but be safe! No image is worth a visit by the local fire department or a trip to the emergency room! Well, most images, at least.
I have always loved brightly colored shoots that are unique and different. I’ve often wondered if my fascination with colorful shoots is tied in some way to my colorblindness. Anyway, I digress. When I first saw images of the Holi Spring Festival several years ago, I was blown away - so many bright and vivid colors. I researched images and found a few photographers that took the idea into the studio creating colorful powder/flour shoots with models. Obviously this idea was RIGHT UP MY ALLEY and I had to give it a shot. But where does one find colored powder in bulk for such a shoot?
The easiest way to do a colored powder shoot is to illuminate plain white flour with colored gels covering off camera flashes. Another method is to color the powder first and just use a regular flash to illuminate the powder and subject. A cool side effect of coloring the powder is that the vibrant colors will be visible on skin and clothing, especially white clothing. You can purchase Holi powder online but it is not cheap and for a large shoot you would need quite a bit of it. The last time I checked, a five pound bag of a single color was around $24 dollars, so roughly $5 a pound. I wanted to find a cheaper way to produce colored powder in large quantities. More research led to several online tutorials and recipes for do-it-yourself colored powder or Holi powder. I tried a recipe that involves regular flour and coloring but found it didn’t produce nearly the texture you get when using cornstarch. Although flour is cheaper, the cornstarch recipe produces a better powder that is still cheaper than the online Holi powder. I have seen corn starch as low as $2 a pound. So how do you make it? Read on!
If you are going to do this for a shoot, start making the powder several days in advance, if not a week. First, buy some cheap cornstarch. It does not need to be a fancy name brand. Next, pour the cornstarch into a large bowl and slowly add water until you get oobleck. If you don’t know what this is, watch a video or two on this fun-to-play-with substance. Try not to add too much water because eventually you are going to dry the mixture out. Don’t fret, you cannot mess up by adding too much water, it will just require more time to dry. After you have the non-Newtonian mixture made, add color to it. You can use food coloring to color the mixture as much or as little as you wish. I personally use Wilton cake decorating colors because they tend to be more saturated and I have access to it for next to nothing. For photo shoots, I suggest more saturated colors overall so use more coloring than you think you’ll need but keep in mind this is completely a personal preference. When the powder is dispersed in the air, the color tends to appear less saturated simply because it is not as condensed. Put on some gloves and mix the color thoroughly into the mixture. It will take some time and effort as the substance is a little difficult to mix.
After you have the color you’re after, spread the mixture into a large shallow pan that allows the mixture to spread out as thin as possible. The thinner you can get it, the quicker it will dry out. On hot summer days, I simply leave the pan out in the sun until it dries. If the weather is bad or particularly humid, you can place the pan in an oven at a low temperature to dry it out as well. Periodically break up and crumble the mixture during the drying period. If you dry the mixture on a countertop or outside, it may take several days to completely dry depending on the size of your batch and the pan used for drying. If you find that the mixture clumps together when you attempt to periodically break it up, it is still too wet. After the mixture is completely dry, place small portions in a blender to further reduce the mixture into a fine powder. After you have your powder, bag it up in air tight (moisture proof) bags or containers until the shoot!
Please keep in mind that the color in the powder can stain! Make your model aware of this prior to the shoot so they can get appropriate clothing. Or as the photographer, purchase something for them to wear at a thrift store you don’t mind possibly ruining. As long as the model doesn’t get wet, or sweat too much, you can fairly easily blow the dust off of them. As soon as the powder gets wet, you do run the risk of it temporarily staining the skin or clothing. Frankly, we didn’t have that much of an issue with skin staining but it is something to consider. If at all possible, do the shoot outside or in an area you don’t mind getting powder all over the place. As you can image, cleanup can be a hassle. I have two powder shoots coming up, one with colored lights and one with colored powder. I will hopefully follow up with a tutorial on the actual shoots themselves discussing setup, camera settings, positioning of lighting, etc. Stay tuned!
Black Lights! Because sometimes all you need for a shoot is ultraviolet light. I have done a few shoots in my day, and for the most, I can get fairly close to the image idea I have in my head reflected in my finished image. Only on rare occasions do the images turn out better than I was expecting. This was one of those shoots.
A good friend of mine sent me some images of black light shoots and suggested I add the concept to my never-ending idea list. I have done simple black light shoots in the past but never really got the effect I was after. Having not been satisfied with my last attempts, I wanted to give it another shot. My goal for this shoot was to highlight the female form with bright colors and remove the actual body from the images just leaving the bright colors. In some respects, I wanted the images to look like paintings against a black background. I also wanted to figure out a better way to control the light during a black light shoot. Most black light bulbs do not throw off a lot of light. You need to have the fluorescent paint or material fairly close to the light to get a good effect (unless you spend a fair amount of money to get dedicated black light equipment). Luckily, I discovered a way to help create more ultraviolet light that I had far more control over.
Step one was finding a way to modify my off camera flashes to act as black lights. I won’t bore you with the details here but if you’re interested, watch this YouTube video on modifying an off camera flash to be a black light. The next step was to find some colorful fluorescent paints – a fairly easy task given all the hobby stores in my area. I did wind up finding some nail polish that worked great as well. The last step was to find a willing model. Given that I knew this was going to be a nude shoot, I needed to find someone that would approach the shoot with complete professionalism and with the physique necessary for this type of shoot. AND I DID! Brittanie Lynne graciously agreed to be the model for this idea. She has become one of my favorite models. You can check out her work and follow her here!
We did a couple of warm-up images. We started out with just some basic images of her in a very cool dress. I saw a selfie she had posted online in the dress and I thought it would make for some great images.
Click on image to view larger
We then moved on to an idea I ran across online – a dress made of decorative duct tape! It took a roll and a half for this dress size (just in case you want to try something like this yourself).
Click on image to view larger
We ended with the main event, the black light idea! I diluted the paint just a bit with water so that it would run a little easier. I also put the paint into small bottles that we could squeeze on her body with a fair amount of control. After some simple drip images, she smeared the paint around her body for a different effect. The image of the drips on her back is an image with little post processing. After the shoot came the process of editing out her body. As you can see, the skin picks up a blue hue from the black lights. The other images displayed were edited to reduce or eliminate that blue hue (and therefore, the body itself). I increased the black levels and bumped up the contrast quite a bit. I also increased the saturation and clarity a bit as well.
Click on image to view larger
In my humble opinion, the images turned out awesome!! If you want to try a black light shoot, either find a good source for your black lights, modify your flash, or use several small black light bulbs to produce enough light for your shoot. Make sure your paints and props are black light reactive (there are tons of props specifically designed for black lights online). If you think this idea is too messy, complicated, or time consuming, perfect! Stay out of your comfort zone, give it a shot, and remember to have fun! Huge shout out again to the amazing Brittanie Lynne!
By far one of the messiest shoots I do, a paint toss shoot is tons of fun and relatively easy to set up. I have done this type of shoot before and I learn something new each time I do them. In this post, I will describe the equipment, positioning, and the camera settings I prefer.
First, the obvious. This is a MESSY shoot! I usually spend about an hour before the shoot hanging plastic from the walls and covering the floor with plastic as well. In addition to miles of plastic sheets, I also use a small kid’s swimming pool to try and collect the majority of the paint thrown at the model. I then line a pathway from the shoot location to a shower with plastic as well. The paint itself is a washable tempera finger paint. I purchase the paint at a local school supply store. For this type of shoot, I usually purchase the paint in gallon sizes although they do have smaller sizes available. I dilute each gallon with 50% water giving me two gallons per color. I have found that one gallon will give me roughly 10 images. Keep in mind there is paint being thrown at the model on both sides. If you toss paint from just one direction, two gallons should yield roughly twice as many images. Other equipment I use includes:
Nikon D7100 (Still images)
Nikon 50mm 1.8G Lens
Yongnuo YN560-TX Flash Trigger
Yongnuo YN 560 III Flash (x3)
43” Reflective Umbrella
Olympus OM-D E-M10 (Video)
White Seamless Paper
The location of the shoot was in a two car garage. Since I do not own a studio, this is my go-to location for these types of shoots. Although I do have a background stand and I used that to hang the white seamless paper, it could have just as easily been hung on the inside of the garage doors. I used two pieces of 53” wide seamless paper from a roll side-by-side to a length of about 5 feet each – just enough to have a decent white background behind the model, waist up.
I then placed two Yongnuo flashes on light stands on either side of the seamless paper with large homemade reflectors (white foam board) on the side of the flash facing the camera. The whole point of the flash is to blow out the white seamless paper for a pure white background. Both flashes were set at 1/8 power. The main light was another Yongnuo flash placed in a reflective umbrella at about 45 degrees to the camera-right side of the model and about 45 degrees above the model aiming down. The power of this flash varied between 1/8 to 1/4 power depending on how far it was placed away from the model.
Since this is a shoot where I wanted to freeze the paint mid-air and any splashes on the models, the light from the flashes are controlling my exposure. In other words, I set my camera to settings that when a picture was taken without any of the flashes triggering, I had a fairly dark, if not completely dark, image. It is important to NOT set your flash power too high as this will create a longer flash duration which can create motion blur with the fast moving paint. I would not set these flashes above 1/4 power if you intend to ‘freeze’ action. With that in mind, I set my power on the flashes facing the background first and adjusted my camera accordingly.
I then set my shutter speed slightly over my sync speed. Actually I set it quite a bit slower than I normally do for flash photography. For this shoot, I set my shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. Keep in mind, the flashes are creating the exposure and not necessarily the shutter speed. Typically for flash work I set my camera to 1/200th of a second. After setting my shutter speed, I took test pictures of the background with only the two side flashes firing. The main flash was turned off. I was simply trying to see what ISO would give me the best/white background. I always start at ISO 100 and increase from there. For this particular shoot, I opened my aperture to F8. With the Nikon D7100, I can set my playback screen to show me when portions of the image has no data (is blown out white or completely black). I started to achieve a good white background at ISO 250 - significantly lower than my previous shoot. After setting my camera for a nice white background, I then have the model stand where she will be standing for the shoot and take test pictures adjusting the reflective umbrella flash for a correct exposure on the model.
Once the lighting is done, it’s splash time! The hardest part of this shoot is having the throwers toss the paint so that it hits the model at the same time from opposite directions. Keep an eye on the paint and press the remote shutter at the ‘right moment’. Ha! If there is such a thing. IMPORTANT: Make sure you switch your lens/camera to manual focus after getting the proper focus during test shots. If you leave the camera in auto-focus mode, your camera will hunt for focus, even if slightly, when you press the remote trigger. This slight delay can make you miss the perfect moment. Manual focus only!!!
Besides the complete mess this shoot creates, this is an incredibly fun project both during the shoot and in post processing. Much of what I have explained above can be seen in the video. I will be doing another shoot like this eventually only because I have so much fun with them. So, go buy a lot of plastic, a couple of gallons of colorful finger paint, find a few brave and willing models, and have a blast. As always, get out of your comfort zone and have fun experimenting. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.