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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

••◊ Some lighting info worth mentioning

I caught myself being an uber-geek in Barnes and Noble last weekend. Yes, it's true - your's truly. I pick up magazines not for the articles, but for the pictures - and it's not just a guy thing. There was a rather nice looking cover of San Diego magazine with Danica McKellar (Winnie) from The Wonder Years fame and I was thinking "wow, they must have used a beauty dish on her. Not very dynamic lighting, but even and bright like most covers. Oh good they didn't photoshop her eyes...there's the soft boxes." Then I openned the cover and found an ad for some abhorently expensive watch - oh yeah, and a gorgeous model wearing it too. "Wow, they really went to town on the side to side f-stop difference and also airbrushed the heck out of her. There's the softbox at camera left." I had to stop myself for fear of lusting over Profoto gear. There's got to be help for me somewhere.

I began looking at lighting for cinematography, so The 5 C's of Cinematography was a natural starting point. This taught me about how to place shadows, highlights, and balance of light in a frame. Since the book was written a long time ago, it doesn't cover the subject of color and the pictures are all B&W. That's not a hinderance since the author wants you to concentrate on correct composition framing and camera movement. Most of the aspects of cinematography carry over to still photography, so I would recommend it for anyone interested in creating wonderful images. The 5 C's is really a book for people moving a camera around and doesn't necessarily teach you how to light, just how to adapt the camera to the lighting in the scene.

That's where guys like Roger Deakins really start to shine. He is the director of photography for the Cohen Brothers films (No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn't There, O Brother Where Art Thou?) and many, many other successful films. I truly appreciate his work, especially after No Country... That movie was carried by dialog and cinematography. Beat that Jerry Bruckheimer! The wonderful thing Roger offers is lighting diagrams of some of his previous work if you register on his personal web site. Just about all of his personal photos are B&W and use natural light. I feel like I started in somewhat the same way. Not having lighting gear forced me to recognize good natural light. That seems to carry over to artificial lighting later if you're not into the high fashion looks.

Along that same vein, the Arri lighting handbook is a brief but useful idea reference. It really stresses the point that lighting is really about key, fill, separation, and background. When I review my own photos after a session these four aspects are often the first thing I look for after focus. They are just rough rules of thumb. I mean if you plan your lighting correctly and the stars align you can sometimes get away with one key light, use a white bounce card for fill control, and postion your subject such that natural light takes care of separation and background. The downside to learning these things is that you realize why you need more lights, i.e. $$$ (or friends with lighting kits).

The latest find I came across has more to do with still photography. It's a product brochure posted from Bogen called Simply Well Lit with Joe McNally. It's always good to have a reference of what a beauty dish, versus ring flash, versus softbox looks like (oh yeah, I forgot again...and a pretty model too). Light modifiers are just tools and it's always good to at least know what tools do what, even if you can't afford them.

Then there's Jill Greenberg. What can I say, the girl likes lights. Lots of them. She does have a preferred setup, but it's such a highly stylized setup that it would be nearly impossible to recreate in cinematography. Silver umbrellas at camera left and right, ring flash above the camera, and two strip softboxes to the side of the subject (I think). I guess this really shows how far you can take lighting (and photoshop) to the extreme. I thought it was interesting to at least mention her because you should know when to back off on the lighting.

Having only a photo enthusiast budget I appreciate one of the quotes from Joe McNally's early mentors in his book The Moment It Clicks. When asking if the photographer W. Eugene Smith shoots with available light his reply was "Yes, by that I mean any &*%$#@ light that's available." Sometimes you're just out of luck without the right gear, but most of us put our Robert Rodriguez hat on and try to do the best job possible with what we have. What's possibly worse is if you're supposedly "out of luck" with the right gear and everyone is looking at you for a solution.

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