Assignment 3: lighting challenges

I’ve taken all the photos for Assignment 3 (unless it ends up going to reshoots) and have spent some time selecting and processing the images and seeking feedback from the sitters. I am almost ready to submit the assignment but first I wanted to capture some notes on a few technical challenges I encountered, and the lessons I have hopefully learned.

From the start I knew I wanted to shoot in the woods. This was not because of my long-standing fear of studio lighting (indeed, I had a breakthrough on that over the last few weeks) but rather because shooting a group of volunteers for an outdoor activity site in a studio environment just seemed inappropriate and missing a huge opportunity to link the people with the place.

I did think that lighting could be a bit of a problem though. And I was right.

I did two scouting trips before any subject shoots, with the twin objectives of finding suitable locations within the woods and assessing the lighting conditions. Even though I visited at about the same time of day for each reconnaissance visit (and for the actual shoots that followed), the lighting was quite different each time.

Variability of light

One factor is that the light than makes it into the ground level in the woods is subject to not only the strength/position/hardness of the sunlight above, but also to the filtering effect of the canopy of very tall trees – some of which sway visibly at their summits even when there is no discernible wind at ground level. The result is often a continually shifting pattern of light and shade.

Another factor is that I wanted to shoot in at least four different spots in the woods for visual variety, and in some cases to try to link the backdrop to the subject. Different spots only a few meters apart had quite distinct lighting conditions, due to the effects of the foliage canopy described above.

Skin tone

Possibly due to the lack of control over lighting, specifically the unplanned ditching of the artificial lighting that would have given me a little more consistency, I was disappointed on all four sets of the close-up portrait as I could see too much variation in skin tone. Transitions of shade and/or shine between areas of skin that were imperceptible to the naked eye were exaggerated in the photographs.

I did my best with my limited Lightroom / Photoshop skills to mitigate, but in the end I remain unhappy to one degree or another with how the skin has come out on all of the close-up portraits.

Practical challenges

I tried to mitigate the erratic lighting conditions (for the first two sessions, Rick and Nicola) by bringing an off-camera flash on a light-stand with a shoot-through umbrella. My idea was to provide some consistency of lighting across the image, particularly the close-up portrait in each set.

The main practical issue that I failed to anticipate or overcome was the prevailing wind conditions in the woods. Winds moving within wooded areas get channelled through the trees and can accelerate into surprisingly strong and sudden gusts. The result was that my lighting kit repeatedly fell over, to the point of slightly damaging the equipment, and so I abandoned that idea (I am aware that I could have mitigated by using weights such as sandbags, but one thing to bear in mind is that I had one opportunity to shoot each subject, and if I didn’t get it right on the day I would most likely not be able to reschedule).

So I persevered with natural light for both these first two shoots on the same day and the other two that followed separately, as I didn’t want there to be artificial lighting on some but not others.

Blown highlights

The lighting caused me some exposure issues which I should by now be able to anticipate and avoid – I can only imagine that the pressure of dealing with a live model made me forget some of the absolute basics :-/

Specifically, the shafts of light funnelled downwards through the treetops made for blown highlights at the top of the subjects – most notably the (ahem) shiny pates of the gentlemen sitters and the shoulders of the light green t-shirts. The latter in particular caused me an issue on Tim’s environmental portrait shot that I had to resort to Photoshop to fix.

Lessons were learned! In the final session with Mike, I switched on the ‘blinkies’ to show blown highlights on my camera display, and when I saw a similar bleached-out effect on the t-shirt shoulders I dialled back the exposure a stop so as not to lose the green. It worked.

I don’t often do this kind of post for assignments, probably because I don’t often feel like I’ve made quite so many mistakes (positive spin: learned quite so many lessons). Or if I do, I reshoot or correct them behind the scenes. Directing models on location is however something that I have had little to no practice in, and I always knew that scheduling reshoots would be difficult. So I’m glad I’ve got all of this down in writing if only so I can reduce the chances of making the same mistakes in future!

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