Character Portraits

by Daniel Arnaldi

When I’m shooting a “Character portrait” I like to include a little narrative to the piece, usually drawing ideas from what the subject is known for or may have achieved.

Sharon recently managed to switch the power needs of the common areas of her apartment building to solar energy, she also keeps a blog about the conversion. So the portrait included not only Sharon, but a light bulb above her head as a kind allusion to the comic book device of a “bright idea”, naturally in this case it has to be an energy efficient bulb. I decided that giving her an activity would make the pose a little more interesting and since she has kept a blog about her project I thought the laptop would be a good way to tie that in. In keeping with the idea of renewable/reuse of resources the backdrop is corrugated cardboard and the tabletop is construction plywood.

The first light that I had to contend with was the light bulb itself, I had no real control over the output and colour of this light, so I had to base all my lighting and exposure around it. The challenge was that since it was part of the subject matter I wanted to show detail in the light bulb.Of course the exposure setting I would have to use to capture this detail meant that the light bulb was going to appear in a total darkness so that the bulb itself wasn’t over-exposed.

Stopping my lens down to f11 gave me enough depth of field to cover the scene, and with my shutter speed at 1/200th I not only had the right exposure for the bulb I also had the bonus of being able to shoot without having to wait for the light to stop swinging each time it was moved to avoid motion blur.

The next challenge was to bring back the light on the scene by reproducing it with flashes. The first light was the most obvious – the key light. I placed a monoblock as near to the blub as possible to get the light to spread in a similar pattern i.e. radiating out from the direction of the blub. Notice how the shadows on the table in the right of the frame are at nearly 90 degrees in relation to the shadows on the left. If the key light had been further away these shadows would have been closer to parallel which could have made it obvious that the key light was someplace else in relation the blub, and I wanted to maintain the illusion that the light on Sharon’s face and the table top were all coming from the blub.

In the diagram below you can see the key light singled out with the white circle around it, the arrow shows the direction of the light and the dark line coming from the light to the model is path of the light.

Once I had the right shadows happening I needed to bring a little fill light to stop them from becoming too dark.For this I used a rather large shoot-through umbrella located behind the camera. Placing it there gives me a shadowlessaxial light that fills in all the nooks and crannies in shaded areas without introducing more shadows from an alternate light source.

Remember I wanted to create the impression that the bulb was the only source of light and a fill light would have thrown shadows onto the background situated very close to the model from a direction that would have made it obvious that there was another light to the side. By using an axial light I can throw enough light on the shaded side of Sharon’s face and the laptop without creating any visible shadows.

In the below diagram the fill light has been highlighted, you can see the dark line representing the lights path. Notice that the centre of the light path runs through the camera lens, this is very important to have the axis of both the light and the lens to achieve effective axial lighting to minimise shadows being cast by the axial light.

When you set up an axial light behind a camera it needs to be big. In this case I used a 1.5 meter diameter umbrella, helping to avoid the shadow from the camera becoming an issue. If the light behind the camera was only 15cm diameter the camera would have been big enough to cover pretty much all of it. For this shot I placed the camera on a tripod so that I wouldn’t have to stand in front of the axial light (amongst other reasons), I cast a much bigger shadow than a camera!

A popular alternative for creating axial light is of course a ring flash. I didn’t use one here because with a subject this close to the background, a ring flash would have cast a telltale shadow around the edges of everything. Although ring flashes are considered shadow-less light sources, in set-ups like this that would not have been the case. The solution is to go BIG – the bigger the better. By making the light source big you make the shadows soft, and if you go big enough the shadows will become soft enough to almost completely disappear.

Of course the exposure settings that I used to keep detail in the bulb meant none of the light that was coming from the bulb was visible. A bare bulb that close to a wall without throwing some light on the wall just does not happen in the real world, especially when everything just beneath that bulb is awash in bright light.So I added a spot of light to the background just behind the bulb to re-create the spot of light that was being cast by the bulb. If I had left background without the spot of light it would have looked wrong.

In this last diagram you can see the spot light singled out to show where it is in relation to the other lights.

Thank you to contributor

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