A Location Portrait

A Location Portrait

by William Lulow

On a recent trip to the Atlanta area, I had occasion to do some portraits of a high school friend, Paul Golden, who, among other things, has become quite an art collector. His main business is running a very successful commercial printing venture, which he has been doing for probably over 40 years now. (Wheeler-Benitas, Snellville, GA). When I went to his house, I was amazed at his library so I decided to make a portrait of him there. He showed me an old portrait that a friend did of him when he was much younger, so I decided to try to emulate the lighting. It was a dark, moody portrait of him smoking a cigarette with a wisp of smoke rising from his mouth. I didn’t want to make it quite as dark, but I did want to keep the same feel for the lighting, so I set up my portable speedlight in roughly a similar position.

Here is one of the lights I positioned to his right:

If you look back near the book shelves, you will see the light near the window. I also used a diffuser mounted on my camera. When I don’t have my umbrellas and larger power packs to work with, I use this contraption instead. It bounces the light from a white reflector, thus softening it and keeping it about one f/stop less than the other flash which is aimed directly at the subject.

Here we are looking at the results:

These days, I like to share a few of the images I’m getting with the client so that they can see what kinds of pictures we’re making.

And here is another shot of me working with Paul:

(Many thanks to Paul’s wife Ellen for taking these snaps).

And here is the result:

The bounced flash provided just enough light to make the features of Paul’s face visible. Without the second flash, the image would have looked like this:

There wasn’t quite enough light on Paul with just the accent light. Hence, the addition of the on-camera flash.

When I am on assignment, I usually bring my regular lights with power packs and umbrellas, but this was a shot I did while I was on vacation and didn’t have my regular lighting kit with me. But you’d be surprised to see the results you can obtain when you know how to use whatever lighting equipment you happen to have with you.

Photographers’ Use Of The Social Media

Photographers’ Use Of The Social Media

by William Lulow

I think everyone would agree that if you’re in business these days, you need to be on the social media. It’s really the way that people communicate most often and the most quickly. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out how the various algorithms work in terms of posting and re-posting articles, but I believe it’s necessary to post valuable and interesting content in whatever field you happen to be. Not only does it let people know who and where you are, but it adds information to the ever-growing fund of knowledge on the internet.

Also, photography is one of those services that people will only buy when they need it. It’s not like a product that’s bought on “impulse” or something someone decides they have to have! Commercial photographs are purchased to serve a particular purpose, mostly in selling something or someone. But, when someone needs a commercial photograph, they will be searching for a photographer who can best fill the need, whatever it may be. That’s what the internet and the social media help photographers to do. They keep your name “out there” so that people can find you when they need you. And these days, they probably use one of the major search engines, Google being the most well-known of them.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr and Instagram all work somewhat differently but they provide the ability to link the same post to each other’s feeds, so it’s really easy to make sure that your post gets seen by the largest possible audience. This has been a plus for me as it has for other photographers as well.

It has really become a “do-it-yourself” world out there and that’s one of the main reasons I like to post my brand of instructional articles on a regular basis. I have been doing so for over four years now, every week, twice per week and the lessons are free for the reading. One reason I work so hard at it is because I feel it’s necessary for me to pay back a bit for the success I’ve had. In addition, photography has been made easier, somewhat, by the invention of digital cameras and the digital process generally. Today, anyone with a decent digital camera can claim to be a photographer!

However, taking good pictures and doing it as a profession are two very different things. So, I feel it’s my duty, as a photography teacher, to give as much information as I can to future photographers so that they can raise their skills to the level they desire for whatever their interests in picture making may be.

I think there is a good deal of information that many people who want to be photographers (or to express themselves through the medium), simply don’t have. For instance, many younger practitioners today, haven’t really bothered to study anything about photography’s history. Many of these people have never heard of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon or Philippe Halsman. They’ve never seen the original prints of W.Eugene Smith or Ansel Adams. They don’t know what the FSA was or that people like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans actually had jobs as photographers during the Great Depression! And, they might have heard of Matthew Brady, but probably don’t know when he lived or how influential he was! Nor are they aware of the kinds of equipment used in photography’s infancy and how it all led up to today’s “digital revolution.” Understanding the history of any medium is important to learning about its future as well.

The social media is simply the best way of publishing articles and photographs that have relevancy today. But because you are, in essence, your own editor, you don’t need to have your article approved by anyone but yourself, so it is therefore, incumbent on you as a writer, to make your content as interesting and well-written as possible.

Everyone today devours content immediately and quickly moves on to the next bit of information out there. As photographers, we need to strive to make our images the best they can be, not publish them just because we made them. We all take pictures with our camera phones these days, but why not learn some elements of composition so that they can all be better? Since there are so many more images, taking the time to think about yours will go a long way to making them stand out.

Content is still king! So making sure you have something of value to say on social media is more important than ever these days because sites like Facebook are really no better than the National Enquirer when it comes to news. Having no editors means that anyone can publish anything! That’s why I always encourage everyone who reads my posts to check my information for themselves or to ask me any questions they like about anything I write.

Here is one of my own images:

I post photographs with explanations of how they were made! Most of my blog articles contain detailed information about cameras, lenses, lighting and teaching techniques that help today’s digital shooters improve their photographic efforts. I sometimes offer “behind the scenes” images of particular photo shoots so that others can see what went into making the pictures.

(This is the lighting setup for a cover shoot at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City back in February of 2016).

So, the social media can help spread your name and images but you need to try hard to make your posts informational and not trivial!

Making Sharp Images With Digital Lenses

Making Sharp Images With Digital Lenses

by William Lulow

Note: If you are struggling to achieve really sharp images, this article might just help. I’ve been doing more reading on digital lenses recently and felt the need to re-publish this article of about a month ago.

Lenses are curved pieces of high-quality glass that serve to focus light rays as they enter the camera on a spot behind the lens called the focal plane. The better lenses can focus the light, the sharper the image will be. One of the characteristics of all lenses is that they are made up of a number of elements of glass all spaced in such a way as to make the focusing of light accurate. The further apart these elements are, the more the lens is able to focus on a small part of the scene and magnify it or make it appear larger. The closer together these elements are, the more the lens is able to take in a wider angle of view. If the elements are able to move within the lens (as in a variable focus or zoom lens), the more they will be able to focus on near objects and distant objects both. Movable elements introduce a factor that often makes it difficult for the lens to achieve really sharp results and that factor is that the elements are always moving. Sometimes they can drift out of perfect alignment, causing the image to lose quality. That is not to say that acceptable results can’t be achieved with zoom lenses, but as a rule, they are not as sharp as fixed focus lenses with no movable elements. (And, keep in mind that if you use a normal, “point-and-shoot” digital camera, it will almost always have a built-in zoom lens.) The other factor that determines a lens’ sharpness is the quality of the glass used. Obviously, cheaper lenses use cheaper glass. So, again, as a rule, a cheap lens will usually yield images of lesser quality. You can sometimes get an inexpensive lens that happens to be very sharp, but that is the exception, not the rule.

As a lens is used at its largest aperture, more of the edges of the glass are used to focus the light rays. Because of this, the larger the widest aperture, the less the lens will need to be used at that opening to make a truly sharp image. If the lens can be stopped down one or two f/stops, it will be using more of the center of the lens and less of the edges. This will yield sharper images. In other words, a lens with an aperture of f/1.8 has a larger piece of glass in order to be able to admit a correspondingly larger amount of light. Therefore, this lens, if used at an f/stop of f/2.8 will yield a sharper image than a lens whose largest aperture is f/2.8, because it will be stopped down one or two f/stops, thus using more of the center of the glass. As a lens uses more of its center to focus light rays, it’s ability to render sharp focus increases up to a certain point. (Within the lens, the shutter blades themselves can cause some refraction of light. So, if a lens is stopped down to its minimum aperture (say f/16, f/22 or even f/32) some refraction will usually take place that alters the sharpness of the image even though you will get more depth-of-field at these smaller apertures. So, you have to make tests to see if there is any fall off of sharpness at those small apertures. In addition, the number of blades that make up the shutter affect the overall sharpness as well. Better lenses have more shutter blades and consequently yield a rounder aperture. This would help a lens’ overall sharpness. Also, in reading about the Canon 24mm F1.4 L II lens, for example, I learned that the shutter blades are rounded instead of straight. That sounds like it would help the refraction problem within the lens itself.

In almost all of the tests I reviewed, the sharpness of the lens increases dramatically when used at the middle f/stops (f/4 – f/11). As a matter of fact, this result is noticeable even on the less expensive lenses as well. It seems as if no digital lens really performs well when used wide open! It may be that digital sensors are not as kind to wide open lenses as film was. I remember using my Nikon 200mm f/4 lens wide open at concerts and being able to make very clear 16×20 inch prints from my 35mm negatives! This is simply not the case today. You really need to stop a digital lens down a couple of stops to get sharp images these days.

A view camera with bellows and separate front (which has the lens) and the back (which has the focal plane), can be adjusted to provide infinite focus at just about any f/stop. Digital cameras, however, do not have this feature. So, the only way to achieve really sharp focus is by using the lens and ISO settings correctly.

The point of all of this is that if a good lens is used a couple of stops from wide open and/or a couple of stops from its minimum aperture, it will probably achieve its maximum sharpness. For photographers intent on producing really sharp images, this means using lenses that are fast enough (have a wide enough maximum aperture) for their purpose and having enough light in the scene so that they can be used somewhere in the middle of their aperture range. If you are shooting in mostly low light situations where you have to shoot wide open, you probably won’t be able to achieve really sharp images. One way around this is to increase the camera’s ISO settings to allow for shooting one or two stops down from wide open. If you can control the amount of ISO increase to one or two stops, you will probably achieve acceptable sharpness. Using really large ISO numbers usually introduces an element of “noise” or “grain” to the image. So, you want to stay away from ISO numbers that are much higher than around 2500.

Canon 24mm f_1.4 Canon 85mm f/1.8

I use this principle when I shoot concert photographs where there is little or no stage light.

 

This image of Judy Collins was made with an 85mm f/1.8 lens at 1/125th of a second at f/5.6 using an ISO setting of 2000. This f/stop setting was more in the middle of the lens’ aperture range and because of the high ISO setting, I didn’t have to use the lens wide open. I had enough speed to stop the action and the image has enough sharpness to make a large print.

And, here is an image made with a studio strobe unit which put out enough light to allow an ISO setting of 100 and an aperture of f/22:

Note that focus is carried almost from the very front of the guitar to the very rear. (The front screws are a bit soft though). This was shot with a Canon 60mm Macro lens. The camera was mounted on a tripod for extra stability.

Now, with all this being said, there are other factors that could cause soft images. They are:

-Unsteady camera – Use a tripod or a monopod.

-Slow shutter speed – Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough for you to hand-hold the camera. You can increase your ISO a bit to yield a higher shutter speed.

-Improper autofocus settings. – AI Servo is probably the best.

-Check your autofocus points as well. Probably best to use one point in the center so that your AF doesn’t get fooled that often.

-Use your camera on Manual rather than P or A.

As I have said, it’s important to know that if you use a point-and-shoot camera, they almost always come equipped with a zoom lens. The better ones will have a fast zoom lens that carries its largest aperture through all of the focal lengths. So, that’s something to look for if you like these kinds of cameras. Otherwise, you may end up with unsatisfying results as to sharpness. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” definitely works here.

All of the above techniques should ensure fairly sharp images overall. In order to really check for sharpness I recommend making 8×10 inch prints. We are so used to seeing images on one kind of screen or another that we are sometimes fooled into thinking that an image is sharp when it is only marginally so. If you make a print, you will know immediately whether it is sharp or not.

ISO Numbers & Digital Sensors

ISO Numbers & Digital Sensors

by William Lulow

Since I do a fair amount of concert photography, I was curious to see what effect higher ISO numbers would have on the images. So, I began to experiment. In the past, when I did concert photographs with film, I would purposely underexpose the film by two or three stops and then make up for it with high speed, extra fine-grain developers which would bring out some extra detail in both the shadows and the highlights. Remember, when you use higher ISO (or ASA in the old days) numbers, you are essentially UNDEREXPOSING your images. You are trying to add light where there really is none by assuming that the CCD “sees” more light than it normally does. So, something has to give.

With digital sensors, I have found that underexposing the sensors by as many as five stops (ISO100 to ISO1000) doesn’t seem to add appreciably to the amount of “noise” or “grain” visible in the images. It’s not until you begin to approach ISO2000 that you begin to see the image exhibit more noise than I normally like in my photographs. What I’m looking for is to be able to produce an 8×10 print that has an acceptable degree of sharpness and detail in both highlights and shadows.

Here are a couple of images shot at ISO1000:

Both made acceptable 8×10 enlargements. I used to make 16×20″ enlargements of my concert photographs and they were grainy when shot with film, but contained what we used to call “sharpness in grain.” That is, they were sharp even though a bit grainy. 

(I even have a 30×40” print of an old 35mm negative of Jerry Garcia that looks amazing! Don’t forget, it had to be scanned first and then printed!)

Here are a couple of images shot at ISO100:

You certainly can’t tell the difference on the screen, but you can when the images are enlarged to 16×20″.

This brings me to my next point about exposures and ISO numbers. If you are shooting primarily for use on websites (a computer), you may just as well shoot at ISO1000 or ISO2000 if you don’t require any prints!

Here are two images of singer/songwriter Iris DeMent, shot in concert a month or so ago:

They are the exact same shot, but the one on the right (bottom), was made from an 8×10 print! It’s not a perfect copy shot, but it was pretty close to the original and was made using my iPhone! I was fairly impressed with the quality of the print given that the image was shot at ISO2500 at 1/100th of a second and f/4.5. (All my concert shots are made with aid of a monopod for extra stability).

My point to all this is that ISO numbers are pretty forgiving these days. Sensors are much more sensitive to light than any film was and it is a lot easier to make a decent exposure for almost any purpose. My rule of thumb is that if there is plenty of light, I always use ISO100. If you are shooting in any kind of low light situation, begin with ISO1000 and then see what you need to make an acceptable image. Keep in mind, of course, that the higher the ISO setting, the more “noise” you will have in your image. Also, remember that you shouldn’t really make images with most digital lenses wide open. In order to obtain maximum sharpness, you need to stop down at least two stops.

How To Make Unusual Images On Vacation

How To Make Unusual Images On Vacation

by William Lulow

One of the tricks to making more unusual images while on vacation is to shoot at either earlier or later times. Sunrises tend to be pinkish and sunsets more orange-red. I’m usually up very early in the morning so photographing sunrises is no problem. Here’s an example of some great early morning light:

I took another image that I plan to combine with this one to make a panorama. Here’s a sunset image:

So you can see the different tones between early and late. 

Another thing you can try is to keep on top of weather forecasts. It’s easier to anticipate special lighting conditions when you can get a good idea what the cloud cover, or lack of it, will be for any given day. Find places that have good vantage points of major cities or towns. Try to find different angles from which to photograph famous landmarks. Lower camera positions generally produce more interesting landscapes.

Think about using reflections:

If you wish to photograph a person standing in front of a famous landmark, put them off to one side and ask them to do something like put their foot on the edge of a fountain, or sit on the sidewalk nearby. Don’t just have them stand with their hands at their sides directly in front of a statue, for example:

Maybe, include other people in your composition as well! 

Think of more interesting compositions for your scenes:

Here’s a fence used as a “lead in” to this rustic barn shot. Try to think of “visual cues” like foreground treatments:

This shot of a bridge is unusual because the bridge is smaller than the foreground treatment. It leads the eye into the image and makes the viewer pay more attention to the whole scene! 

These are just a few ideas that can be used to make more interesting images when you are traveling.

 

The Process Of Portaiture

The Process Of Portraiture

by William Lulow

I write quite a bit about lighting and how to get the most from your lighting setups when it comes to doing portraits. But, there is really no substitute for the ability to elicit that certain something special from your subjects. It can be done in so many different ways and that’s why there are so many styles of portraiture in the marketplace. I’ve said before that many photographers have photographed the same people yet every portrait looks different. That’s because each photographer has his or her own unique style. The photographer really needs to concentrate on developing an approach so that his or her portraits begin to take on that certain style! Some people like white backgrounds. Some like to do all their portraits on location. Some prefer photojournalistic portraits, whereas others just love the simplicity of the studio. It really doesn’t matter as long as the images show that special connection that the photographer has with a subject.

(Interestingly enough, the famous portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz says that you really don’t need to show a subject smiling or in a particularly good pose. That’s all well and good if you’ve already achieved a bit of notoriety as a portraitist. But, I’m talking about the more down-to-earth photographic portrait photographers who are working for clients who will be exhibiting their portraits on their own walls, perhaps. Or using your images on their websites or brochures! As I have often said, if you’re shooting for a magazine art director, she’s the one you need to please. If you’re shooting directly for a paying customer, he’s the judge of your efforts!)

You can often see this in a person’s eyes. There is definitely something special about the eyes. You can register a smile, but if there’s no emotion in the eyes, it won’t look real. I often can tell just when I’ve connected with my subject. And, I can remember having this feeling when I was shooting film. The digital process let’s you check immediately whether you’ve connected or not. But, that feeling still exists even if you can’t check it right away. When I know that I’ve captured a communicative expression, I often continue shooting anyway. I don’t stop there. Sometimes I fire off several frames at a time to see if I can capture the expression, the gleam in the eyes, more than once. When I was shooting with my 4×5 or 8×10 view cameras, I could only expose one frame at a time. Even then, I knew when I had the expression I was after:

This portrait was done with my old view camera. I knew I had the image I wanted but I kept exposing sheet after sheet anyway. I think I probably shot about 20-30 frames of Mr. Levin.

For my portrait of Diana Vreeland it was the same thing. I think I had barely enough time to expose a dozen sheets of film. This was one!

Photographers often don’t like being photographed themselves. Here is a “grab” shot of famed photographer Richard Avedon I made at a book-signing event. His expression is almost haunting.

And, a recent portrait of my granddaughter, Haylie. Look at how she’s looking at me! She has that “glow” in her eyes, even though she doesn’t know what it is, she still feels it and the viewer can tell! This is what I’m always looking for in my portraits. It’s the connection between me, as the photographer, and my subjects almost independent from the camera being there. I’ve often thought that it would be great to just be able to blink your eyes and record that special moment. Digital imagery is really the next best thing. Although, most times, as I said, I can just feel it when I’ve captured the connection!

How Light Is Used To Create Images – V

How Light Is Used To Create Images – V

by William Lulow

In the past few articles I’ve discussed how light is used to create images. But, there’s a whole lot more to it than that. The “Psychology Of Light” comes into play here as well. Once the photographer has decided what lights she will use, the decision has to be made on how exactly to use them. What kinds of lighting will be used to create just the kind of photograph desired?

Like most everything else, light has a definite psychology. Dark images are “moody” or convey a sense of mystery. Light images are usually happy and convey a sense of lightness or airy-ness! It is important to keep these things in mind whenever you start to do a portrait. You need to find out what the final “judge” of the picture wants. Portraits for websites and other publicity images need to be informational. They need to show what the person looks like, but at his or her best. Personal images, the shots that photographers usually do for themselves or their portfolios, can really be anything they like. I’ve often said that a personal portrait is more about the photographer than the subject. Many famous photographers have photographed the same subjects, yet they all look different. That’s because each photographer has a different “take” on how the subject looks.

You have to keep the rules in mind. Publicity and advertising photographs are most often “directed” by someone other than the subject (an art director, usually). So, if you want to sell those images, those are the people you need to please. If you’re doing a private commission, I would suggest finding out how the subject sees him or herself and then try to please them. If you’re doing a photograph for your own book or collection, then you are free to make whatever kind of image pleases you!

So, “light” pictures are mostly informational and must be lit accordingly. You need to fill in shadows and add highlights and keep the backgrounds light to make the image have an uplifting psychological impact. Conversely, if you’re trying to create a psychologically “down” feel, then the lighting should be shadowy, moody and the backgrounds dark.

Once you have been able to make these types of images consistently in your body of work, you can then try breaking these “rules” and discover what effects you can create.

Here’s a psychologically “light” image:

Expressions are smiling and the background is light. Here’s more of a moody image:

This is lit by a single edge light and the subject has a serious expression.

Keeping expressions in mind is important to the outcome of your portraits. I usually like to talk to my subjects to try to elicit expressions, but if you’re creating a “mood” portrait, sometimes playing slow music can help. Trying to control the “psychology” of your shoots will lead to better portraits that really say something about you as a photographic artist. And, using light creatively usually makes all the difference in portraiture.

How Light Is Used To Create Images – IV

How Light Is Used To Create Images- IV

(Electronic Flash)

by William Lulow

Most photographers these days use various types of electronic flash units to provide illumination for their images. The gamut runs from simple, inexpensive on-camera flashes to large, studio ones. The studio models can cost thousands of dollars and even the smaller, professional grade portable units can be expensive as well. They are designed to replicate the effects of hotlights so, in order to use them correctly, an understanding of how light works is necessary. In the previous article I introduced the various types of electronic flash units as well as the smaller speedlight.

 The relative power of these units is measured in WATT/SECONDS. (How much power is put out in a one-second flash).  This is usually not very helpful when comparing  studio flash units. What is helpful is knowing that if your exposure with a 500 watt/second unit is f/8, say, with a 1000 watt/second unit you would have twice the light output , allowing you to shoot at f/11.  Some studio units are rated at 3200 watt/seconds or higher. This enables studio photographers to achieve a fairly high degree of light output allowing them to do things like stop motion, create stroboscopic effects, or to shoot at very small lens openings. This used to be important in the days of large, studio view cameras and slow film that required small lens openings to carry focus (lots of depth-of-field) and provide crystal clear images for advertising and catalog use.

Today, with digital camera sensors that are far more sensitive to light than film ever was, such large amounts of studio flash power are simply not needed. I have photographed products with settings of 1/125th of a second at f/22 with only 500 watt/seconds of power. The flexibility of these studio flash units allows the photographer to connect several lights (known as flash heads), to one power pack. Many of them can power three or more heads and some can power up to five heads.  Of course, the more flash heads you plug into one unit, the more the power to each is diminished. This is the reason that many studios have several flash generators (packs) and multiple heads in order to cover various lighting needs.

These flash heads are all professional quality and capable of flash output of around 2400 watt/seconds. But having many flash heads and power packs are of no use unless one knows how to use them. These units must also be powered by a generator and although portable, are nowhere near as easy to carry as many, lighter, off camera speedlights.

The term “speedlight” refers to smaller, less powerful flash units like the one below:

CanonSpeedlite_2These are not professional studio flash units and, by comparison are only capable of putting out only around 50 –  100 watt/seconds of power (depending on the unit), but they are small and very handy. They can be mounted on a camera or used off-camera when mounted on a light stand or other place, but even though light modifying accessories are available for them, they probably don’t have enough power to be used with umbrellas, and setting them up with umbrellas can be tricky. Also, note the size of the light itself is quite small. Not particularly good for lighting portraits.  Speedlights can also be set up to fire with radios. Some have these radios built in to them. For others, you will need to buy a radio transmitter to put on top of your camera.

But today, these may be the only lights you may need. Unless you are doing regular studio shoots requiring one of the larger units above, one or two of these speedlights may suffice for many events and other outdoor use.  One should get used to using these speedlights by following some of the earlier articles detailing specific lighting effects obtainable by placing these lights in different positions. (If you wish more information, kindly refer to the blog archives). Again, use the same positioning of lights to create desired effects by referring to the articles which talk about the various classical lightings for portraits. Here is what my normal studio setup looks like:

You can see that I’m using two “packs” and five “heads” in my small studio. My normal portrait exposures are f/11 @ 1/125th of a second at ISO 100. The packs are capable of putting out 1000 watt/seconds each, but I’m only using 250 watt/seconds on my main light, 125 on my fill-in light and 125 each on my accents and background lights. This is a “typical” setup which allows me to use all lights or as little as one, depending on the effect desired.

Studio quality electronic flash units allow the photographer complete control over lighting. They last a long time, give constant quantity and quality of light output, are fairly easy to set up and strike and generally, make using artificial light in any setting easier than it has ever been.

How Light Is Used To Create Images – III

How Light Is Used To Create Images- III

by William Lulow

Note: This is the third article in the series and contains a bit of history.

In the old days, most studio photography was done with theatrical hot lights. And, they were just that…HOT. Flash has actually been around almost since the beginning of the photographic process in the early 1800s. Photographers used a mixture of potassium chlorate with other substances and ignited it in a flash bar to produce a brief, intense flash of light. Sometimes it was accompanied by a loud noise as well.

PowderFlashGun

 After that came the flash bulb which was a glass bulb that contained crumpled up aluminum in an environment of oxygen. It was ignited by an electric current produced from a battery. Today’s electronic flashes are made with a small flash tube that contains xenon gas that is ignited from an electric charge produced by modern batteries. It produces a short, bright flash of light.

EarlyFlashBulbIn the past, it was difficult to synchronize the flash with the camera’s shutter. The camera had to be mounted on a tripod and the lens opened before the flash was ignited. Later, it was also hard to synchronize the flash with the shutter. There was a “B” (bulb) setting that delayed the opening of the shutter for a fraction of a second until the flash bulb reached its peak of illumination. Today, modern electronic flash units can be synched to fire instantaneously when the shutter opens.

On camera type flash
On camera type flash

It is important to understand the basics of artificial light before one begins to work with electronic flashes, but most people will just go out and buy a small flash unit that can fit in their camera’s hot shoe and just snap away. Flash units that are mounted onto cameras, or the built in flash units that accompany most modern cameras are limited in the kind of light they provide. The light comes from the same spot as the camera and produces a harsh, flat light that is basically only good for illumination, that is, to provide light when there is not enough ambient light to take a picture. It’s not really great for portraits.

If you want to begin to be creative with your use of light, you will need to purchase one or more units that can be operated OFF the camera. These will have to be mounted on light stands or placed in other positions around the studio or wherever you are shooting.

Most photographic studios today use a type of electronic flash that requires a flash generator and several “heads” mounted on light stands, all off the camera.

Here are some examples of large, studio electronic flash units. They are used in most large studios today:

These are the “packs.” They are flash generators which take electricity and turn it into a current that will flow through the flash “heads” below, and produce a short, powerful flash of light.

More about these units in the next article, but the best way to learn how to use these lights is by first beginning with regular incandescent “hot” lights (as I have said). I have detailed the placement of lights in other articles and you can refer to the archives in lighting for more information. I also re-post some of them from time to time. Then, using the same positioning, you can begin to develop a technique for shooting portraits with flash units.

Note: Any modern electronic flash unit can also be used with a softbox by using what is called a “speed ring” that allows the softbox to be mounted to the lights themselves. Most flash “heads” also have holes that hold photographic umbrellas as well.

Shadow-Less Product Lighting

Shadow-Less Product Lighting

by William Lulow

Note: I am interrupting the flow of the “How Light Is Used To Create Images” series to publish this article. Third article in the series will continue with the next, scheduled blog article on Friday.

Whenever you have to make images of products with absolutely clean, white backgrounds, these kinds of shots call for using what is called a “light table.” I use two thicknesses of white, translucent plexiglass on top of my glass coffee table. I do this because I have a small studio with limited, nine-foot ceilings. The coffee table acts as a mounting place for my plexiglass background. If I had larger products to shoot, I would have to get a whole sheet of white plexiglass and, since it is flexible, use it as what’s called a “sweep” creating a shadow-less, white background that can be lit from underneath. Here’s what I’m talking about:

This is an example of a light table with a fairly large piece of white plexiglass mounted on it. This would be used when larger products were being photographed that needed a comparably larger area of white. This would be lit from underneath and from the back to create a completely shadowless “sweep.”

This was my setup for these smaller leather items:

There are the two pieces of white plexiglass on top of the coffee table. The light underneath can be adjusted back or forward depending on how bright you want the white background to be. In order to wash out all trace of shadows, I like to make the background as bright as I can without causing any flare on the objects being photographed. Here’s one image from this setup:

Here is another. You can see a bit of the light from the background beginning to creep up on the leather money clip. In this case, the client liked the effect, but I liked the deep blue color of the shot above. At any rate, there are absolutely no shadows on either shot.

Obviously, images like this have to be lit from the top as well. Here’s another view of the lighting setup:

At the top of this picture you can see my medium-sized soft box. Since these products were fairly small, this was all the light I needed to light them efficiently. Here is another example from this shoot:

Notice the even highlights on the product. A large enough mainlight on a small product like this will provide an even highlight and really make the product shine!

Note: I have also done shots like this on plain white no-seam paper, but then I’ve almost always had to retouch them a bit, in order to make the backgrounds perfectly white. Here, no need for retouching. All these effects are done “in the camera” with the light table.