Lighting (part 1)

When taking model shots, it helps to have some kind of light available, and the more you have the better. If you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you’ll know I’m a great fan of available light, and no lover of using flash. Of course, using available light can often mean lengthy exposures, and that’s not something some of the compact cameras are really adept with.

As part of an article I’m writing, I’ve been experimenting with various different digital cameras in order to see how easy—or not—it is to take half-decent model shots. As part of that experimentation, I used a small compact camera, set it to macro mode, and tried an image with the flash on, and the same image with the flash off.

That’s with the flash on. Obviously. Why is it bad? Well, imagine this was a real railway vehicle. It looks like the photographer was using a searchlight to illuminate the scene. There are hard shadows, the part closest to the camera is all but blown away, and notice how the light falls away part way along the model leaving the background in the dark. Yuck! It simply doesn’t look right, and screams “Look at me! I’m a model!” when we’re actually trying to fool most viewers into thinking it isa real full-sized vehicle.

Here’s the same model, photographed under the available light. Technically, it’s not a very good image, but we’re not interested in the depth of field as much as the quality of the lighting. The camera’s auto white balance—a subject for another day, I feel—didn’t really handle the fluorescent lights very well either, leaving everything tinged with green. In fact, this image is after colour correction, so it shows how bad it got! Again, that’s not the point of this shot. What I’m trying to illustrate is how the lighting is much more even overall. There are no harsh shadows, and the background is still lit adequately, although out of focus.

These examples are really the worst case I could come up with. The little camera, a Nikon Coolpix L11, is not really ideal for this kind of work, and I admit I was pushing it beyond its real capabilities. Having said that, when I tried similar shots outdoors in both direct sunlight and in shade, the results were a lot better—particularly the depth of field. Here’s the result in bright sunlight, where the camera’s iris closed right down:

The smaller aperture resulted in better depth of field by default, and proved to me the camera could take good model shots if there was plenty of light available. I was a little too close for the macro’s preferred 15cm distance, which is why the nearest buffer is just going out of focus, and the direct sunlight is throwing quite harsh shadows.

Here’s the result in bright shade, where the light was diffused and didn’t throw harsh shadows:

The macro autofocus went to the nearest point, leaving the furthest part just out of focus. I did try to force it to focus further away, but it didn’t want to play ball. While not as good as I’d like, I think you’ll agree both these images are pretty good for such a small camera, and I’d be happy to show them to anyone.

So, if you’re going to take photographs of your models, please don’t use flash, especially the built-in flash, if you can avoid it. To use available light, you will almost definitely need a tripod or be able to stand the camera on something solid, and may have to use the timer release to avoid jogging the camera when you press the shutter, unless you can use diffused daylight.

From these images, you can see that it also pays to consider what’s behind your subject! Next time, I will take a look at ways that don’t involve flash to help throw light on subjects, and how to lighten dark areas while making the exposure.

Thanks for reading!

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