Best Lighting Tip of the Month

Earlier this week my friend Jim Taskett, who owns the absolutely fantastic Bear Images, was walking me through a bunch of Broncolor's more esoteric lighting equipment in his studio in San Francisco.  I'm a huge fan of Broncolor gear and use it almost exclusively in my studio, and I wound up buying a bunch of very cool light modifiers (a grid for my Para88, a projection attachment, snoot, and barndoors for my Picolites, etc.).  But perhaps the coolest thing that I picked up from our afternoon together was the value of having a mannequin head in your studio for evaluating lighting setups.

Curly helping me to test out a two light, high-key lighting setup that I'm going to use on a bunch of upcoming portraits.

Curly helping me to test out a two light, high-key lighting setup that I'm going to use on a bunch of upcoming portraits.

I'm not a huge fan of super-complicated lighting setups, unless they are absolutely necessary, and tend not to use more than one or two lights and a reflector for my portrait work.  That said, even in simple light setups, small things can make a huge difference and you might need to do a lot of fiddling to get exactly the right lighting for the images that you're trying to create.  It's hard to ask a model to be patient enough to sit perfectly still while you're trying out a gazillion different things, which for me more often than not results in compromise.  I quit fiddling around with lights before they're 100% perfect because I don't want to risk having my subject be tired and/or irritated and missing the opportunity to capture an authentic portrait.

That's where a mannequin head can help.  After my visit with Jim, I promptly ordered one from Amazon for $20.  Today I was tinkering around with a lighting setup that I'm going to take on the road with me: a simple white background with the key light above the subject and to the left angled down at about 45 degrees.  I'm using a Para88 as the key light and a P70 reflector to light the background.  I've done this setup a gazillion times.  But today with my new model, "Curly", I was able to really dial the setup in better than I have ever been able to before, learning a couple of things along the way.

In the animated GIF above, each frame is a shot of Curly with one parameter changing.  A bunch are me fiddling around with the background: setting exposure, getting the center of illumination right behind the model's head, figuring out whether or not to use a grid to control the fall off of the light and how much "halo" effect I was going to get.  Nothing surprising there.  

But there were two things that I discovered that were interesting.  First, I found that with the Para88 angled down at 45 degrees with the center pointing directly at the subject, I was not getting much separation on the top left of the subject's head.  That part of the head was getting blown out because it was the closest point to the Para.  To fix that and to get some more illumination into the subject's eyes, I feathered the Para by reducing the angle of the reflector so that the center was pointing at what would be the subject's chest which was out of the frame.  This softened the light on the top of the head while still providing nice, soft, wrapping light onto the subject with a bit more illumination in the eyes from the lower rim of the reflector.  Very cool!

The second thing that I noticed with this setup is that the shadows on the right side of the subject's face were a bit too deep for the mood that I am trying to create.  I solved that by putting a white reflector just outside of the frame to the right of the subject.  I played around with a bunch of different distances and angles, but, what I liked best was the reflector parallel to the subject's right cheek and as close as I could get without being in frame.  This softened the shadows up nicely.

I'm now ready to take this setup on the road and should be able to rig everything quickly and with confidence so that I can get my subjects in and out quickly.

I can highly recommend that everyone shooting with strobes of any sort get themselves a Curly.  :-)

Kevin Scott