I was asked to take some family photographs at a location that the family chose, and they also had a very specific look that they wanted to see and even went so far as to email me some sample images that they wanted to mimic. So they set the mood of the shoot as well as the style and location that they wanted to achieve. Fair enough, they’re the boss, right? But I did get to choose the time which was important because I could think about what problems I would have to solve depending on the time of day. For example, if I had to shoot in the middle of the day when the light was the harshest I would have to look for shaded areas, or try to use a diffuser to bring the dynamic range of the hightlights down closer to what a camera can capture, or perhaps uses speedlights to bring the shadows closer to the range of the highlights, etc. But since I was able to choose the time, I asked them to be there at 5:00 since the sunset was going to be around 6:45. Meeting at 5:00 should allow me to survey the area for all of the places that look like good potential spots for each look we were after and see what problems we would have to solve for each area. I wanted to get some shots before and after the sunset since each scenario presents different opportunities for dramatically different looking photographs. I know that 5:00 seems a little early for that sunset time, but with around a half dozen people showing up to be photographed, I wanted to leave plenty of time for stragglers who arrive late (which turned out to be a good call because we all arrived closer to 6:00).
Now that we’re all finally onsite and ready to get started I see a shaded area that I want to start out with since the light is still too intense for the dynamic range that a camera can capture. I know this because as we’re all walking out to the park I’m studying the light and I can see how bright their faces are in the open sunlight, and how dark the shadows are on the shaded areas of their faces. Look for the spots under their chins, the shaded side of their faces, and the shadow their noses cast on their faces. If you’re new to this don’t fret, once you actively attempt to observe this ratio of light to shadow it’ll be pretty obvious.
Now if you’re wondering why I decided to choose this first area to start shooting pictures, here are some of the problems that I see with the current conditions and how I plan to solve them.
Like I mentioned earlier, the intensity of the light is too high for a camera to capture. You might also think about it in terms of contrast whereas the difference between the lighted areas and the shadow areas are beyond the range of what a camera’s sensor can address. To fix this issue (the issue of too much contrast) I can try to over power the sunlight with the backpack of speedlights I have with me, fill in the dark areas with a reflector, try to bring down the intensity of the sunlight with a diffuser or scrim, meter my exposure for their faces and let the rest of the image fall where it does, find a shaded area, or a mix of all/some of the above.
Again, I apologize for being so verbose, but I want to take you through my process of identifying problems and how I solve them to get the desired photograph. Through that lens (pun intended) let me take you through my thought process as we arrive at the first shooting location and I start to review my options to solve my exposure problems. This is probably a good time to refill that coffee mug…
I could try to overpower the sunlight with my speedlights, and I do have enough of them with me to actually do it, but I know it will cost me time to set all of the light stands, lights, triggers, light modifiers, gels, power settings, etc. If I did select this option I would most likely start with all of the flashes shooting wide into umbrellas on 1/4 power. That would provide me with nice large light sources and fast recycle times that I know I won’t overrun. I would also use 1/4 CTO gels to warm up the flash’s light to better match the ambient light. While configuring the settings on the flashes I would also ensure that the audible “flash ready” tone was turned on so if I did manage to out run my recycle times I’d hear it, but more importantly if my batteries died along the way I would notice it. (A couple of quick tips for your speedlights; try to always leave them in a known state. For me, I leave them at my starting point of 1/4 power, flash head zoomed wide to 24mm, audible signals on, and their radio triggers set to channel 13. I also have velcro all the way around the flash head with several gels attached to the top and bottom of the flash head for easy access.) I would start by placing the flashes around my subjects to get the look and lighting I needed and make minor adjustments to power output by varying the distance of the flash to the subjects. Although this solution will work, it is a lot of overhead and will cost me more time than I want to spend for just one of the shots I want to get. Plus it’s fairly windy and I know I’d be playing Whack-A-Mole with falling light stands that get blown over. I decide to back burner this option for now.
Since I’m shooting solo I do not have an assistant to help hold reflectors or diffusers, so that’s off the list of options. Besides, when shooting a larger group of people I would have to use a large/or multiple reflectors or diffusers which gets to be impractical pretty fast. (Quick tip, don’t be afraid to enlist some of your subjects to lend a hand holding reflectors, moving light stands, etc.)
Analyzing the light falling on my subject’s faces, the shadows, and the ambient light, I try to think through the results of simply metering for the lighted side of my subject’s faces and let the chips fall where they may. It would do their faces justice but the shadows would be too dark. If I metered for the shadow side of their faces the highlights would be blown out, and the background would be destroyed as well. (Quick tips; Sometimes this is your only option and you can make the most of it by changing the direction of light by rotating yourself and your subject to help even out the light/shadows on the import areas like your subject’s faces. You can also shoot in RAW mode and meter the highlights as close to, but not over, the right of your histogram, then salvage the shadows as best you can in post processing to compress the exposure as much as you can.) Since I have better options, I dismiss this one immediately.
Surveying the area I see a beautiful spot under a row of trees that will provide not only a very colorful and scenic “set,” but will also provide some much needed shade for my subjects. I select this lighting option and select this spot to start out with while to look for pitfalls I want to avoid. Immediately I see one thing that is going to be an issue for me, the little areas of light that are peeking through the leaves. If those little sunbeams land on my subjects’ faces it will cause unsightly bright spots devoid of detail. To problem solve around this bright spot issue I move the group as best I can to keep them in the shadows, or at least keep the bright spots off of their faces. Since the wind is blowing my shade around the bright spots are going to be peeking through here and there and I know it’ll be unavoidable to a certain extent. I figure that I’ll take a few extra photos along the way to increase my chances of getting a good shot with no bright spots on anyone’s faces.
Now that I have my first shooting location selected based on the best options available to me, I start tuning the “set” to achieve the mood that I’m after and start thinking of problems that will need to be solved along the way. First off, now that I’m in the shade and other than the occasional wayward bright spot falling on my subjects, the lighting is nice and even on them. But the ambient light is still falling on my background and pushing it’s brightness beyond my camera’s ability to capture it while properly metering for the important part of the image, the people. I could just leave it alone accept it, but I have better options to bring everything into a range I can capture without too much effort. I decide to use a speedlight pointed into a shoot through umbrella to pop some light on to my subjects which will do a few things for me. The speedlight will push light into the shadows of my subjects as well as giving me the glorious side effect of putting catchlights into their eyes. By the way, introducing catchlights into my subject’s eyes is one of those little things I always try to do since it really gives that little sparkle that I like. Just a personal style thing for me. Next, the speedlight will allow me to balance my subject’s exposure with the background’s exposure further compressing all of the areas of the image into a range I reasonably capture.
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