Defeating the Lighting Trap
Maintaining Innovation and Creativity in The Studio
Written By Rick Trottier – RJT Images
Consistency provides us with a sense of stability and comfort. When people go out to eat, it is often seen that they will go to the same restaurant and order the same meal rather than try something new. That which is known is safe and therefor it is also enjoyable. When changes are made in the structure and arrangement of the floor plan of our preferred supermarket, intense stress ensues because the routine has been interrupted and consistency has been disturbed. Stability seems to be the way to happiness, and I will be the first person to trumpet the value of a consistent routine. I like to know where all my tools of the trade are placed and stored, and I enjoy the sanctuary of my daily habits. However, I fight falling into the trap of leaning on consistent lighting techniques with all the weapons at my disposal. With consistency may come security, but that way leads also to stagnation and a decline in creativity. The studio can be a stultifying enough place as it is due to the lack of diversity in background choice. The way to defeat the Lighting Trap and master the pull of creative inertia is to try new approaches, force yourself out of the box and face the possibility of failure, but in a manner that can lead to innovation and greater success.
Taking the Road Less Traveled and avoiding the dreaded pull of stagnation is not all that hard. It requires some basic technical knowledge, a leap of faith, a yearning to grow and a desire to experiment. It is usually best to choose to do these things with a client or colleague who appreciates an inventive foray into the unknown. Trying out new approaches with someone expecting very specific looks will most likely be a mistake. While the suggestions I am about to proffer are not the only ways to break out of a lighting rut, they are ones I have used of late with success and are reflected in the images of this gallery. In some cases I made only minor adjustments and liked the subtle changes I saw reflected in the pictures. In other cases I made immense shifts in strategy and was rewarded with looks I had never achieved.
Adapting or Revising your Lighting Array
It is incredibly easy to become more calcified than a cave stalactite when it comes to lighting a sequence. Only certain lights and boxes/strips get used, at a specific intensity, at fixed distances and at only a few angles. More than ANY other trap, the snare of using the same lighting array under certain conditions is as bad as it gets. Sometimes we are forced to adopt a new approach when equipment malfunctions or doesn’t fit the needs of the moment, but that is no different than being out of your favorite ketchup and using another condiment for the brief span that it takes to replace the viscous fluid of choice. The best way to leap forward into a brighter world of creativity is to plan out some specific attempts at lighting a situation differently. For me, I am constantly shifting angles of lights from side to side and up and down. Use all three dimensions when you are considering a change. Just altering one direction of lighting can be helpful, but there are 360 degrees to explore. Working with different lighting intensities and trying different types of lights in different situations can bring exciting result. Don’t be afraid to under-light and overexpose your subject. You probably won’t be decapitated for a frame or two that doesn’t work. Try something novel and bold. For example, I use to ALWAYS use a large gridded strip box as my main light and rim light and/or backlight with a variety of different tools. Then I realized that it was time to try main lighting with a small beauty dish, or a small gridded strip box and backlighting or rim lighting with the big box I had overused as my primary firepower. I often backlight or rim light even more aggressively than I use to, just to get different effects. Sometimes I use other diffusion techniques and pass light through a series of structures to redirect and refract it. Often times I try to reflect light off surfaces to get interesting effects or bring in materials to absorb light and see what the outcome could be. While I agree that light seems tricky and there are many variables to consider when lighting any scene, light is also quite predictable and as long as you know your studio and all that surrounds the subject, you should know what the potential outcomes should be. More importantly, the more you try new arrays, the more you will learn about the Nature of Light and how it can be made to obey your whims and wishes.
Mixing Light Sources in Your Studio
Unless you work in a studio with no windows, there is more than one light source available to any photographer. Natural light in a multitude of intensities and colors leaks into my studio through many windows and depending on time of day, time of year, cloud cover and humidity, that natural light provides me with chances and choices to light a subject as diversely as can be imagined. While using JUST natural light has its appeal, the beauty of working in a studio that has access to natural light is you can blend and mix natural light and studio light sources and create all kinds of exciting results. Try using full light from a window augmented by a low powered beauty dish or soft box that is ungridded. If the light coming through that window is low in intensity, try using only the modeling lamp instead of the strobe. Another approach is to use a window that is on the opposite side from the sun and then augment that very low intensity light with a strobe or just a modeling lamp. You can use the natural light from the window to front light, back light or side light your subject depending on what its intensity is or what your desired outcome might be and what the attire the subject has chosen. The beauty of mixing and blending light sources is that it is a marvelous way to play with shadows, warmth and other elements of the lighting spectrum that can add depth and intricacy to your work. Studio light is often harsh and unforgiving, while natural light has a complexity that is unrivaled. Combining the two allows a photographer to blend the best of both worlds and put a smile on a client’s face.
Changing your Camera Settings
Both of the afore-mentioned categories are great catalysts for the next step in the process of “Defeating the Lighting Trap”. I tell every inexperienced photographer I meet that they must “know their camera”, which means experimenting with all the settings so that a person can predict the likely result of using a certain shutter speed, or aperture, or ISO setting or picture style, etc. However, just as using a set lighting array can be stultifying, so too can the settings of your camera become so rigid in their application that the mechanical parts of your camera fuse with underuse. And God Forbid that all you ever shoot on is “Auto”. We know that increasing the ISO can add noise to an image, but there are all kinds of noise reduction techniques to assuage that problem. If the light source is weak but wonderfully diffuse, try a higher ISO. I rarely use to go above 200, but now will experiment with settings from 400 to 1600 depending on the situation. This has allowed me to use very weak light sources to full effect. I started dragging the shutter a lot more over the past year to get different results. Try dropping your shutter speed to 1/125, 1/100 or even 1/80. I CONSTANTLY play with the F-Stop, which is my favorite tool to manipulate. I rarely go above F8 and prefer to work between 2.8 and 5, but on occasion of late I have played with F-Stops at 16 or more. Try one of these changes, then try two in combination, then try more, and then blend them with your altered lighting array or differing light sources. Some of the images in this gallery are examples of some of the most complicated and daring adaptations I have ever tried, and I am beyond proud of the results. The multitudinous nature of camera settings is meant to foster experimentation and not the reverse. Just keep an open mind when it comes to what comes “out of camera”. I use to be deeply averse to “blown out” looks but have been embracing them of late. Adjusting your acceptance of styles will lead to innovation too.
Once you have done some or all of the approaches mentioned above, you can also have fun in the editing process and take your efforts at new lighting techniques to whole new levels. Editing can be just as much of a rut as lighting and adding in effects like a vignette or gradients, utilizing blend modes, playing with the levels and curves in concert with selective color, adding filters, these are just SOME of the possibilities available to the intrepid photographer. I like to save three or four versions of an image I am excited to experiment with and then apply a series of innovative editing techniques to one, and then try an entirely different series to the next. By the time I am done (scrupulously taking notes on each as I go), I can compare my efforts and see which one works best for this image. I DO NOT toss out the other approaches for they may serve me well on another image. It is so very important to keep in mind that no two shoots are every alike, and what worked brilliantly for one shoot may not be sovereign for the next. One of the most effective ways to become creative with your editing is to BUILD TIME into your schedule. When the work load is heavy and your flow must be maintained is not usually the best time to look for ingenious approaches. However, it is just the time when the punishing nature of mounting expectations drains those “aquifers of creativity” inside the best of us. As soon as chance allows, make certain to give yourself some “artistic me time”. Try something new in your editing arsenal and replenish the reserves that can sapped by all the demands on your precious time.
There is nothing like the feeling of having tried something a little daunting, certainly something that could be frustrating and problematic but then having mastered it. Accomplishment leaves us more confident and when we are more confident we are better armed to face even greater challenges. Creating your own artistic challenges so that greater gains can be made in your skill set and technical understanding of photography is the best way to leave behind acceptable imagery and embrace excellence. Each time you take a step into a broader and brighter artistic world, it will invigorate you and in addition to its impact on your own soul, your clients and colleagues will be the better for it too. They thrive on your exhilaration and excitement, and while routine can be comforting, a little zest can be good for the studio environment too.