Let me start by thanking Scott for giving me his blogspace for today, I will try to leave it the way I found it :)
My name is Frank Doorhof and I’m a Dutch fashion and sometimes glamour photographer. In our business we made a quite drastic move into teaching workshops instead of aiming for the magazines. I still shoot for magazines and advertising of course, but our main focus is on the teaching of workshops. In the last few years this has resulted in workshops worldwide and the release of 6 instructional DVDs and this year number 7 will hit the market.
So what is the thing I try to do in the workshops? In a time where you can see a lot of photography on the web and photographers who have only been shooting for three months already teaching workshops, it’s a market that is very confusing for the people just starting out with photography or simply people looking for a good workshop. What also struck me with amazement is the lack of basic knowledge in most posts you see online. One of the most asked questions for example on my shots is, “How did you light this?” In most of my work, with just the basic knowledge of light, you can clearly see how something was lit.
To make a long story short I try to start with my students on square one. Don’t, however, think that I only focus on how you should put the lens on the camera. That’s something I skip completely. What I do teach however, is understanding (and I mean really understanding) what light does. Too many photographers are just placing their lightsources in the trusted setup they have used for many years or which they know will work because they copied it from someone else who is successful. The problem with this is that when you don’t understand what you are doing you will one day run into big problems when a situation occurs where you have to improvise, and those situations are the ones where you can get customers for life.
By understanding what light does and how it behaves you can get a good shot in almost any situation, whether it’s with natural light, strobes or bounced light. Because even this blog space is not long enough to explain everything in detail I will give you some very quick tips which I hope will trigger you to search further on the net or maybe visit one of the workshops I teach :) Also please look into one of the greatest teachers ever – Dean Collins.
Why fake it when you can create it?
Most questions you see online are about recreating a certain style. The funny thing is that after seeing pages of people trying to recreate that style, most fail. The reason why most fail is very simple – they use different light setups. In the old days of photography everyone knew that light was the most important thing in a photograph. When your light was wrong, the picture would not come out correct. However, somehow in this day and age with Photoshop, most photographers seem to think that there is a filter for everything and they can just shoot a bad picture and the magic filter will transform it into art….. Well, I’ve seen some amazing things done with Photoshop (just visit Scott’s seminars), but even the best Photoshop users can’t make a bad picture really shine….. That instant killer shot filter still doesn’t exists….. or does it ?
Your viewfinder is your Photoshop
It depends on what you see as filter. For me the viewfinder of my camera is the first and most important step. Learn to look through the viewfinder, and I don’t mean look through the viewfinder to see the subject and shoot, but REALLY look through the viewfinder. Find the right composition, look for factors you don’t like and look for your shadows. Too often I hear the expression, “I’ll will fix that in post.” Remember that, often, fixing it right away will take you seconds while fixing it in post can ruin your picture or take you forever. If you load a picture into Photoshop that’s already almost perfect, then there are some stunning things you can do and really finish that shot into art. But remember, the shot has to be there. In fact, the raw file should already be the finished product. Photoshop should only be used for the finishing touches, or in some cases to create the real art that was envisioned.
Metering is everything
You don’t want to know the discussions I had about using a light meter. According to some the light meter is something from the past and should not be used anymore. “Just use the histogram” is the well known expression. Well think about this… When you look at your models and you look at their skin tones, are they all equal? ?I don’t think so, so when you are shooting on a histogram how do you know when you nailed the exposure? Exactly – you don’t. You can get close, but how about reshooting the same model a week or two later? Can you make a 100% accurate series? With the meter you can, and it’s lighting fast, just use the incident metering, aim towards the light source and you have your exposure. But also invest in a meter that can do spot metering. When using the spot meter function you can very quickly calculate the white or black backgrounds.?Let’s look a bit more into that very quickly.
It’s all in the numbers
To understand the method to calculate backgrounds, it’s important to first understand that 18% gray is seen as middle gray, or in fact a spike in the histogram in the center of it. (Some people claim it’s 12% but I’m more in the 18% gray camp). When you know that one stop of light is double the amount of light it’s very easy with a reflective meter to calculate the backgrounds, but also to see if a dress still holds detail in the shadow areas or highlights.
Let’s start by making a white background really white. When we start out with a measurement of our model on F8 (incident) and we want the background to turn white we can very quickly calculate how that should work. We switch to reflective reading metering and measure the background. For this example it’s also measuring F8 (to make it easier). If we shoot now, our model should be correct and the background should be 18% gray. But we wanted it to be white…… Well it’s not as hard as it seems. Every stop is double the amount of light so one can calculate white at 2.5 stops over. 18% is middle, 1 stop higher is 36%, one stop higher is 72% and add a bit more and you are at app 100, so we normally can say it’s app 2.5 stops over. For black it works the same way. 18% is middle, 1 stop less is 9%, 1 stop less is 4.5%, 1 stop less is 2.2%, 1 stop less is 1.1% so we normally put black at 4.5 stops under.
With this knowledge you can measure incredibly fast if a scene holds its detail (perfect for wedding photographers). However with the new cameras and growing dynamic range it can happen that the numbers will change slightly, so test this with your own camera, but for most cameras this technique will work flawless. When mastering this techique you will know exactly when to use fill in flash or when to just take away light.
Ok, a meter is fun but it’s not accurate?
It’s always a letdown when you buy an expensive meter and it doesn’t work the way it should. However with most light meters this is a fact. This is not the fault of the meter however, not all cameras are using a real ISO100 so you have to “calibrate” the meter to the system you are using. That sounds complicated? Well it actually isn’t. In fact you can do it within a few seconds. As mentioned before, 18% gray should render a spike in the middle of the histogram, so the proper and quick way to calibrate your light meter to your camera is to simply shoot an 18% gray card and check the spike. If it’s not in the center you can use the offset of the meter to make sure it is after the calibration. You now have an accurate tool for measuring your light setups.
Another small tip
I get a lot of mails about the high contrast shots I make, especially in the portraits. People are mailing me examples of their attempt and they don’t seem to be able to pull it off. So very fast the conclusion is drawn that it must be the expensive camera and the expensive light. In reality this is not true (luckily).
The first thing I try to teach is to start out with just one light, don’t be afraid for the shadows. They are (when properly placed) wonderful. But also understand a thing that’s called the inverse square law. The inverse square law dictates the fall off of your lights. When understanding this rule you will know that when you place a light source very close your subject the light will fall off very quickly and for a portrait this will pay back in one side of the face lit and one side of the face in darkness, and this can be done with even the largest softbox.
Understanding this rule will give you an incredible amount of power to use on location and in the studio, and the option to create every possible combination of light and shadow you have in your head.
Styling and concept
You can understand all the theory and light behavior you want, but it doesn’t guarantee a good image. Well, it will often guarantee a technically good image, but to make an image more interesting it’s very important to also invest in the styling and the model. For this a good team of creative people is vital. The best shots I see are rather simple in lighting setups but rock in styling and clothing. But I have to add that I just love over styled themes
A blog post is always difficult to fill simply because there is limited space and so much to tell. What I hope to have triggered is a little spark into the understanding of how you can use light to your advantage. When you know what’s going on and how you can control your light, you can make your own light setups without the need to copy others. And when you learn to look through the viewfinder in a photographer’s way you, will save loads of time in Photoshop. Or in simple words, “Why fake it, when you can create it?”
Thanks so much for having me here on the Scott Kelby blog.