People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

Exercise: Experimenting with light

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Take between four and six standard head and shoulders portraits of the same subject that are very different in lighting effect. Find locations in which the light varies and is suitable for taking a portrait photograph. With tight framing the distraction of the setting is eliminated so that the shape and planes of the face will clearly show differences in shadows, highlights and the general quality and direction of light.


Subject: this is Mo, a friend and neighbour who kindly gave up her time to help me out on this.

1. Natural Light, Full Sun:

The late afternoon sun was getting low but not quite setting, so while it’s not a full ‘golden hour’ wash of colour, there is a warmth to the skin tones that I thought really suited the smiling expression.

Natural Light, Full Sun

Natural Light, Full Sun

2. Natural Light, Shade:

Although only a minute or so apart, the tone on this is noticeably cooler and bluer than the first photo, as I asked Mo to move into a more shaded area of the garden. Again I tried to match to the choice of pose/expression to the overall tone – cooler, more distant.

Natural Light, Shade

Natural Light, Shade

3.  Window Light + Bounce Flash:

In front of a west-facing bay window, letting in light to the rear and the two sides, augmented by a hotshoe flash aimed at the ceiling. This gave me a reasonably consistent light coverage to the face, with no major areas of shadow, whilst keeping a little edge lighting through the hair. This is probably the best all-round neutral, faithful rendition of the subject.

Window Light + Bounce Flash

Window Light + Bounce Flash

4. Bounce Flash + White Card:

I moved Mo out of the light of the window and to the corner of the room, where white walls meet. Again I used bounce flash off the white ceiling, and this time asked her to hold a white reflector card just out of shot. I actually think the white card, added to the white walls and ceiling reflections, made the resultant picture slightly too pale and cool.

Bounce Flash + White Card

Bounce Flash + White Card

5. Tungsten Side Lighting:

By positioning a tungsten lamp directly to one side I lit just one half of the face. The light is quite harsh and unforgiving – it brings out some redness in the skin – and I thought this treatment really suited a closely cropped shot of the face with a calm, neutral expression. Although I don’t actually think this is a good likeness, I really like this shot! (not sure Mo agrees…)

Tungsten Side Lighting

Tungsten Side Lighting

6. Candlelight:

Although superficially a little similar to the previous shot, the light provided by candles is warmer and softer. Shadows fall across parts of the face but not harsh shadows, so the overall effect is warmer (more orangey-yellow) than in the previous image.



What I’ve learned

The results were quite interesting I thought. Although all photos were taken over about a half-hour period, the changes in lighting (and framing and posing) gave me quite a varied set of images. Some don’t even look to be of the same person at first glance! It’s amazing how much of a difference the lighting can make, and I don’t think there are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ lighting choices, it’s all about the intent. For example, to flatter the subject and literally ‘show them in the best light’ I’d choose something like 1 or 3, with even light smoothing out the facial features; but if the brief was (for example) for a weekend magazine cover for a feature about “the real person beneath the public persona” then the stark lighting of number 5 would meet that objective.

What I’ve really learned is how to use different types and qualities of light to achieve certain effects. There was similar exercises in the Light section of Art of Photography, but applying the concepts to people is bringing a whole new level of realisation.

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