Light (or lighting) is the key to photography, any photography. Most photographers work with natural light (or ambient light) and/or with speed lights and strobes. However, there is a world of possibilities when it comes to lighting for your shoots. Anything that produces light can be used for creative portraiture. This is just a list of a few more unconventional items used for portrait lighting.
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Candles are cheap, readily available, and can make for some very dramatic images. Candles also tend to be one of the trickier lighting sources with which to work. A single candle does not produce much light but can be very dramatic. If you experiment with a single candle, keep in mind you may need to increase your ISO to achieve your desired effect, but try not to increase it too much. You can also try using a tripod, but if your subject is a person, you’ll still want a relatively fast shutter speed so that their movements do not cause a blurry image. For my camera, I try and keep my ISO to 800 or less for portraiture. Anything higher than that and I personally do not like the noise that starts to appear in the images. Opening up your aperture can also help in keeping your ISO lower. However, it is always a balancing act between wider apertures and ISO with generally dark images. Too open of an aperture and you may start to lose or miss focus on areas you prefer to have in focus. Generally speaking, the eyes are typically my focus point but if I’m shooting with a wide open aperture and my model is not facing directly at the camera, I know the eye furthest away from the camera will be out of focus. If you narrow your aperture so that both eyes are in focus, you run the risk of having to increase your ISO more than you may want to with just the light from a single candle. To help combat the problems of low light from a single candle, use multiple candles. You’ll be surprised how just a few candles can make a huge difference.
In addition to ISO and aperture, pay close attention to your white balance. Candles produce a very warm color and that may be either good or bad depending on what look you are after. One way to deal with the white balance issue is to shoot in raw. The camera I use has two card slots and I shoot raw to one card and jpg to the other. In post processing with the raw images, you can adjust the white balance to your liking. You can also more accurately brighten or darken portions of your images with the raw files as well. Grab a candle or two (or a handful) and give it a try. It may take a tad longer to get the perfect exposure with candles but the resulting images can be stunning.
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I picked up a ceiling light fixture kit with two circular lights for under $10. The kit included a larger bulb and a smaller bulb as well. The item was discontinued and I believe may also have been a returned item. I did need to purchase a ballast for the lights but that was only around $10 as well. With a little wiring, I was able to make use of both of the bulbs included in the kit. The bulbs do not get very hot which makes it possible for the model to hold the bulb if necessary. You can also hang the bulb for hands free ideas. One of the reasons I love using circular lights is the catch light, or specular highlight, in the model’s eyes. I find it very dramatic and punchy! Depending on where the light is placed in relation to the model, you can get very different looks with minimal adjustment. You can create a soft even light by placing the light closer to the model or create more shadows by simply moving the light a little further away. Unlike the candle setup, you should be able to get enough light without having to adjust your ISO much at all. However, unlike the candle setup, you’ll need to do a little more post processing to remove the wires running to the light. Even with the additional post processing work, it is well worth the effort.
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Yup, a projector is just another light source. But unlike the other light sources, you can control the light and actual create an image with the light that you then project onto your model. When I first ran across this idea, I was blown away! And the cool thing about using a projector is that the ideas are practically endless. The down side to using a projector as a light source is that most people probably don’t have a decent projector just lying around. I had my wife borrow the projector from her work for this idea. A projector can be used as a dual purpose light source. It can be used to project an image on a model or it can be used with the model to create a shadow or silhouette. The light source from some of the cheaper projectors is still plenty bright enough for photographic purposes. If you try this idea and borrow or rent a projector, try and get one with a high resolution. Lower quality projectors can result in what is called the screen door effect.
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There are as many ways to photograph and manipulate light as there are light sources, if not more. What results will you get if you attempt to light a model with glow sticks, sparks from a sparkler, a flood light shot through a Pringles can, light from a plasma ball, a black light, or a colored flame from a tiki torch? I’m not exactly sure (expect for the black light) but I love experimenting. The more you work with different light sources, the more you understand light and how to best utilize whatever light source may be available. That, in turn, will force you to learn your camera and lenses and their limitations. You will learn how much you can push your ISO before getting undesirable results. You will learn which lenses and aperture settings will work best for a given lighting situation. In addition to hopefully creating some amazing images, you will become a much better photographer in the long run. So get up, look around you for the most unconventional light source, and find a way to make great images with it.
It’s amazing what you can do with a little light and a camera capable of taking long exposures. Well, maybe there is a little more to it than that, but not much. For photographers into light painting, ‘tube painting’ has become a bit of a trend lately. I originally ran across the idea of making illuminated circle behind models when I saw Wien-Jié Yang’s video several years ago. More recently, Eric Paré and his model Kim Henry have refined the process using very specific items to create amazing images. If you are not familiar with either of their work, please take a moment and check them out. Once I saw the resulting images, I had to give it a try.
In essence, you want to create a long tube of light you can move around your subject. By placing a flashlight at the end of a clear tube, you can create this effect. You will need a flashlight, T12 tubes, white tracing paper, and colored film for this shoot. For the flashlight, Eric Paré uses a very specific and bright flashlight for his work. The flashlight, however, isn’t cheap (~$70) and if you want a strobe effect in the resulting images, you’ll need at least two of them. Always trying to keep my shoots as cheap as possible, I simply modified one of my brighter flashlights instead of purchasing the more expensive flashlights. The T12 tubes are clear plastic tubes that are placed around T12 fluorescent light bulbs to protect them. These tubes also come in smaller sizes such as a T8. The tubes come in 4 and 8 foot lengths and can be found at most local hardware stores for about $4 and $8 respectively.
At this point if you simply place the flashlight in the tube and turn it on, the tube will not light up enough to be visible in camera. You need to find a way to disperse, diffract, and bounce the light around inside the tube to make it brighter. I experimented with sanding the outside of the tube to create more areas for the light to bounce and reflect through, but this process was not nearly as successful as simply putting a piece of white tracing paper inside the tube. The white paper really does help diffuse and spread the light more evenly throughout the tube. I then purchased several different colors of cellophane ‘basket wrap’ from a local hobby store and cut the cellophane to fit inside the tube as well. At first, I put the colored cellophane on the inside of paper but found it worked better putting the colored film on the outside of the paper. I also found if I doubled up the colored film, I could get more saturated colors. If you are lucky enough to find them, some T12 tubes come in different colors therefore eliminating the need for the colored cellophane. I did not find colored tubes locally and was only able to find them online so I decided to try the colored cellophane.
Find a bright flashlight that will fit inside the tube, or can be easily modified to fit inside a tube. A flashlight that allows you to focus the beam can be helpful in getting the light to more evenly reach the other end of the tube as well. I used my strongest LED flashlight, unscrewed the housing around the light, and found a PVC adapter that fit both the end of the flashlight and the end of the tube nearly perfectly.
After having created the tubes and modifying my flashlight to fit inside the end of the tubes, I spent several nights trying to find the best camera settings for the effect I was after. This was probably the hardest part of the process. Each night of practice would yield different results given the different ambient light. It is impossible for me to advise anyone on the ‘correct’ settings as it drastically depends on so many different variables. For the most part I shot around f/5 or lower (wider) with ISOs anywhere from 100 to 500. Again, it really depends on the strength of the light from the flashlight, whether or not you want some detail in your model, the ambient light, etc.
I triggered the camera with a radio trigger. I do have an infrared trigger for my camera but it simply is not the best choice for this type of shoot. First, you will be relatively far from the camera and infrared triggers become less reliable the further away you are from the camera; much more so than radio triggers. Second, you need to be behind your model to prevent your body from being visible and infrared triggers require line-of-sight. If you do not own radio triggers for your camera, there are several options available and many of the cheaper ones work just as well as the more expensive ones.
This also brings up the issue of hiding yourself from being exposed in the images. Have your model wear clothing that fans out and covers a lot of the area at and around the ground and the model’s feet. You should be directly behind the model. Any part of you that is not in constant motion will be visible. In other words, the dress acts as a cover for your legs and feet. Next, always wear black or darker colored clothing when light painting. Lastly, keep in motion. Anyone that has experimented with long exposure knows that static objects will appear and fast moving objects generally will not – or at least not as much as the static objects. That being said, make sure your model holds as still as possible during the exposure as you move around rather quickly.
I once asked a photographer friend to join me one night for shooting and he asked if we were just going to go out and ‘mess around with light’ (in a very ‘that’s kind of ridiculous’ tone) but light painting can yield some incredibly amazing results. Maybe it just wasn’t his thing but I love trying different light sources and methods for creating long exposure images. If you try this idea, I’d love to see your results and if you don’t get the results you were looking for the first few times, keep trying! My first few practice attempts were laughable (and I think I did actually laugh). Even the edited images from this shoot could benefit from some more attempts and refining the process. I believe there are no absolutely perfect images and that’s okay. The joy comes from the pursuit of trying to obtain them! As always, step outside of your comfort zone and give this a try!
And a HUGE THANK YOU to my wonderful model (and photographer herself), Alecia!
Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet. ~ Roger Miller
A rain shoot has been on my list for a minute or two and I finally broke down and tried it. But how does one create rain? I found several possible methods on YouTube and settled on a quick and cheap method. I used ¾” PVC pipe, cheap sprinkler heads, and t-connectors. I also used a PVC adapter to connect a garden hose to the contraption. After assembly, I put the build on my background stands. The length of the build was about 10 feet and I found that the build would bend down in the middle significantly so I purchased a 10 foot section of cheap conduit pipe and taped the rain machine to the pipe. Viola! No more bending. The entire build was right around 20 dollars. Not too bad. After that, simply connect a garden hose and away you go.
But water from the hose is cold!!! Yes, it is! There are a couple of methods you can try to help warm the water. You can coil the majority of the garden hose in a large trash can and pour in hot water around the hose. This will help to some degree. Another option is to hook the garden hose to the hot water outlet for a washing machine if it is close enough. Worst case scenario, do it on a summer night when the cool water will be appreciated.
If the water is really cold and you want to minimize the amount of time the model is in the rain, soak down their outfit first with warm water otherwise, they have to stand in the cold water until the clothing gets wet enough for a decent effect. Also, beware of any makeup that might run when wet (unless that’s the look you’re after). All of the models brought several different wardrobe ideas which was very cool and helped keep the pictures looking fresh.
I covered the ground with black plastic tarps and placed two speed lights behind the model on either side of the model. The speed lights were placed about 8 feet behind the model at different heights just outside of the rain area (however I did cover the flashes with quart size Ziploc bags just in case). It is very important to back light rain as you will have a hard time seeing it attempting to just light it from the front. Since I was using flashes, it was very difficult to get long steaks from the falling water. I did the shoots at night and set my aperture to f/18. I set my shutter speed to 1/200th a second; one stop slower than my sync speed. A narrow aperture means that the speed lights will have to be set to a higher power which means they will be on for a longer duration. Not only does this help to elongate the falling water drops but the narrower aperture helps create the star pattern from the speed lights when they go off. A cool effect! There are also several tutorials out there for creating a rain effect in Photoshop as well. The front side of the models was lit by two speed lights placed in shoot through umbrellas; sometimes placed on the same side of the models and sometimes set on either side of the models. The lights lighting the models were set just outside of the area of water fall and the camera was handheld just outside the rain as well. Other than that, it’s fun time!
This was a very fun and cheap shoot if you can find some willing models. Huge shout out to Dina, Danica, and Brittanie for braving the cold water and taking one for the team! Aside from having a rain machine for future ideas, the kids love running through it as well! Spend $20 and give it a shot!
“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!
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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).
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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.
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.