March 21st, 2011
In lifestyle or reportage portraiture the environment completes the narrative. The story is all around the subject and the viewers eyes can wander the scene reading new information with each pass. In my studio I have abandoned the narrative to reveal just the subject in isolation. I’ve opted for purity of design. A sumptuous immersion into minimalist shape and tone. With everything in control – well, nearly.
My ideal studio is a black box. A space without stray light. Any light that exists is there because I put it there. With such control comes responsibilities. There are no external factors to blame when the lighting is poor.
When I have a six or seven light set up each light is rigged and set in turn. I start with the backlights. With all other lights switched off I set them to do exactly what I want. I then rig the kick light, the background lights, the fill light and finally the key or principal light. By isolating each light in turn I can concentrate on setting it just so. Finally with all lights switched on I take a frame and analyse the picture on the camera. The camera screen is a powerful tool it shows exactly what information is in the file. Or an 8 bit jpeg representation of the file to be exact. I use this image as a guide to adjust the power of my lights to give me the lighting balance that I want.
I never use or rely on a light meter in the studio because there is no ‘correct’ exposure in many of my images. My work can often be exposed over a three or four stop range with each setting rendering an acceptable image with a different characteristic. I do break rules, allow areas of peak white to sit alongside pure black. I don’t hanker after every pixel having a tone of discernible value between 1 and 254 on the eight bit levels scale. There are times when a print comprising perfectly rendered grey tones make it an object of desire. I first realised this when looking at Ansel Adams prints. The prints were somehow more important than the subject. A lone tree in an arid landscape had something of ‘so what’ about it but the print was amazing rendering every tiny detail. The subject is nearly irrelevant when the craft is this good. I liken the experience to listening to a virtuoso musician playing a musical scale. It can have a wow factor.
When I’m lost for inspiration I just switch off all the lights between three and nine via six. All the down stage lighting goes off. Usually this does the trick and magic is restored.
My studio shoot is a journey. I start with nothing rigged and make each shot from scratch. Building the lighting rig as I talk to my client. I study my subject well as I light them. Setting a light gives me an excuse to really look at them. The shape of their nose, the cut of their hair the asymmetry of their facial features etc. I am seriously hung up on detail. every strand of hair, the shade of the eye liner or the sheen in the skin is all under my scrutiny.
Once the shot is taken there is no going back. If I was to try and recreate it again the shot would be different. The mood of the moment would be lost and no matter how hard I tried the shot would show a different narrative. I watched Rankin on TV trying to recreate some original images by other photographers that inspired him. In quite a few of the shots, the original images had so much more about them. They were not the result of a technical exercise they were the result of one moment captured on a creative journey. Some of the originals were less perfect but it was often the lack of perfection that made them fabulous.
I love to get it right in camera. Once it is captured I leave it pretty much as it was shot. I learned my trade shooting transparencies and there was no jiggery pokery with post production then. Somehow I think this will add value to my work in years to come when the plastic wrapped blemish free perfect skin and perfect body look of the naughties has run it’s course and looks dated.
My one light portraits rarely use one light. I nearly always have another light hitting the wall behind me as a fill light. This pumps light around the room and puts the shadow detail just above the noise in my image. It can always be dropped back to black later taking the noise down with it and this technique works just like Dolby noise reduction did on my audio cassettes in the 90s.
I’m not a histogram shooter. I don’t use a highlight alert on my camera screen. I just guess an exposure check it and tweak it in. 1/3 of a stop accuracy is fine for me. That’s all the resolution my camera affords me and it keeps things simple. After a while shooting in manual mode and guessing the exposure I became a bit of a human light meter able to predict the exposure in just about any situation. This really is a useful thing as a photographer. It lets me work out my strategy before I pick up the camera. Will I need a monopod, will I shoot high ISO or let the shutter speed drop right down? If I want to shoot at f/2.8 will I need to use an ND filter and so on.
When I tell my delegates on a studio lighting workshop that my studio is an f/11 studio they hardly believe what they are hearing. I say “set your camera to ISO 100, 1/125th second and f/11. You won’t be far out for any of the straight flash images here”. I can shoot the whole day in the studio without touching my camera settings. If I find a light is a bit bright I will pull it back a bit or turn the power down a bit. It is quite an organic process relying on the camera screen all the time. I will zoom in to check the seams in a pair of jeans or the sheen on a black leather jacket. I will look at the life and vitality in my clients skin and tweak the lighting as required. By going through this process I’m not just looking at light level in the way a light meter could do I’m looking at the captured image and the balance of the elements. Once the technical check is done and adjustments made I concentrate 100% on my client. I don’t need to refer to a shot unless I think it is ‘the one’, a keeper. In that case I check eyes, pose, and the story in the image before moving on.
My favourite wall in my studio is painted with Dulux Ice Storm 2 paint. I spent ages researching the ideal and there you have the result of all that effort. I have a near white corner too at the other end. The other panels of colour and wall paper in the studio are changed regularly. I currently have a panel of Wickes ‘Aqua’ and four drops of an Osbourne and Little wall paper. Paint is great because I can change the colour at will to almost any shade imaginable for under £10 and in half an hour (plus drying time).
I’m tending to use continuous light more and more now in my studio. I use a pair of fabulous new HMI lights from Lupo. I have an 800 spot and a 1200 spot plus a Chimera soft box for them. Occasionally I just use the modeling lights in my flash heads just as I did with 800 ISO film in the 1990s. As modern cameras have nearly no grain at ISO 800 the punchy gritty monochromes I used to shoot with continuous light have been replaced with perfect, clean imagery. Some say it allows the subject to live without the print having an influence on it. Im not sure about that, all I know is i like my canon 5d mk2 at ISO 1600 because the images start to have a discernible character.
I’d love you to join me and my team on the adventure that is a Lovegrove studio lighting workshop. Workshops are limited to just three delegates for the perfect learning experience. Details are here. You can also browse our range of upcoming photography training courses here.
Please feel free to comment on these pictures or the techniques I use. Which is your favourite and why?