Creative Lighting: Understanding Shadows

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

The first thing I did was set up my scene. I found it easiest to work with a small card table in the middle of my room. If you have a blank wall, you can shoot against that as your background; otherwise you’ll need to place something behind your subject to give it a solid black or white background. I used the backside of a poster, taped to a piece of foam-core board (as seen below).

Three-point Lighting setup.

By using a single sheet for the wall and the floor it eliminates the seam where the floor meets the wall. Appropriately enough, this technique is called a “seamless” [background]. (Thanks, Mariano!)

The whole idea of creative lighting is to be able to control the light; therefore I recommend that you shoot at night with all the blinds and doors closed. You don’t want any light leaking onto your subject from another source. Be sure to turn off any computer monitors or other unsuspecting sources of light.

The subject you choose to shoot is quite important. For now, pick something simple. We’ll shoot more exciting objects later, but to start you want a subject that’s not too intricate. I used a wooden model, but you could try a vegetable, Willow Tree figurine, or small toy.

For this first exercise, Understanding Shadows, I recommend that you put your camera on Aperture priority. Initially I tried shooting in Manual, but I quickly found that the exposure values can be quite different simply because of the position of the light. Set your ISO as low as it will go –not Auto. You’re camera is already on a tripod, so you don’t need a fast ISO. Put the focus on Manual too. Your setup won’t be changing so there is no reason for the camera to re-focus each time. Affix a lens hood if you have one. Lastly, take your White Balance off of Auto. I mention more about WB later in this tutorial.

Once you have set up your scene and camera the way you like them, it is very important that you do not move your subject or your camera. The best way to observe the effects of different lighting setups is to keep all other factors equal (namely perspective and composition). By keeping your subject and camera in the exact same position you can scroll through the images on your camera’s LCD screen and easily see the differences from one frame to the next. If your perspective changes, it throws everything off and makes it very difficult to learn from what you’re doing.

The following images were taken using only one light. I put the lamp in a different position each time to give the picture a different feel. To simplify things, I never placed the lamp to the left of the camera.

If you hover your mouse over any image you will see a brief description of the light placement. By the way, if you view the photos as a slideshow you will more easily be able to see the differences from one photo to the next. This is especially helpful when the changes are subtle. Look for “slideshow” links throughout this tutorial.

Side-front. Above. Close.Side-front. Level. CloseSide-back. Level. CloseSide. Low. Medium distance.Side. Low. Close.

Side-front. Above. Medium.Straight on. Light directly above the lens.Straight on. Light directly below lens.Side-front. Above. Very close.Above, pointing down. Slightly front. Close.

Directly above, pointing down. CloseAbove, pointing down. Slightly behind. CloseBehind. Above. Slightly right. Close.Side. Low. Mostly bouncing off floor. Close.Side. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close.

Side. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVFront. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVBehind. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVBehind. Low. Shining on background. No direct light (all bounced). Close. -1EVBehind. Above. Far. Pointed at subject.

Behind. Above. Close. Pointed at subject.Directly above. Close. -1EVMostly above (halo), slightly front. Far. -1EVMostly above (halo), slightly behind. Far. -1EVDirectly behind. Close. -1EV

Above. Far. Shining on background only (no direct light).Directly above. Behind. Close. With pop-up flash.Pop-up flash, only.

Notice how different the photo can feel simply by changing the position of the light. The same wooden model can look like a friendly neighbor saying hi, an angel pointing to Heaven, or a sinister villain ready to attack. The only things I have changed here are the position of the light, and the Exposure Compensation. None of these images have been edited. They all came straight off the camera.

I hope you’re beginning to realize just how much the shadows and lighting can affect the feel of the image. Not only do shadows provide shape and form for the subject, but they direct the audience’s emotional response. A simple change can make a dramatic difference.

Continue to Part II: Revealing Details

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