Paint With Light
By Nick Fancher
12 Jul 2007
As with anything, when it comes to doing a photo shoot you can go high-end or you can go low-end. When you are talking about lighting in a photo shoot, an example of a high-end shoot would involve many strobes with several people helping and possibly cranes and ladders, etc.
A moderate budget would possibly allow for a couple of decent lights and a Pocket Wizard or another kind of remote. You may even be able to get away with using really long sync cords. But a setup like this could still run at least $1,500.
I will teach you a way to take a single flash, a tripod and a camera with manual controls and make professional looking results.
To start off with you will need the thick cover of the night to use this method. These shots require a long shutter speed. Hence the tripod. I typically use around 15 second exposures when I do this. I also shoot with a wide aperture and a low ISO (to keep the graininess low). This causes the shutter speed to be longer due to a low ISO but having the aperture open all the way keeps the shutter speed from being too long. Results may vary depending on whether or not you are in total darkness (in the woods at night) or in the city (street lights, etc). Again, I try to keep the shutter speed around 15 seconds and so if it is pretty bright around me I may need to close the aperture down a bit to achieve the 15 second exposure I want. I typically underexpose by one stop based on the meter reading of the scene so that the subject is more separated from the background.
Once you have your exposure roughly where you want it you take your model and place them where you want them. It is often hard to focus on them if it is really dark. I have learned that if it turn the camera dial from the manual setting to the automatic setting and take a picture, the flash will pop up and focus on the subject. I can look at the resulting image and if they are in focus I turn the dial back to manual and turn the focus to manual (this is important or the camera will search the darkness for your subject and most likely pull out of focus ).
So now you have your exposure and your subject is in place and in focus. Now comes the fun part of experimentation. Make sure that for the first couple shoots where you are getting the hang of this technique that you are photographing someone who doesn't mind waiting until you get it right. It will take some practice. Press the shutter and begin your exposure. Now take your flash (I use a Canon 430 Speedlite but you can use almost any flash) in hand and hold it over your head and aim it where you want your subject to be lit and manually press the flash trigger on your flash unit. On an older flash you will not be able to control the output of light and so it will be REALLY bright. With the Speedlites you can cut the exposure down just like an aperture. I typically expose a subjects face at 1/16th power while I may back light them at full strength. Again, this process will take practice.
Now with one subject it is fairly easy to master lighting with this technique. It gets tricky when you have three subjects and two are close together and one is farther away or you want one person glowing bright and another more subtly lit. This is when your shutter speed might need to expand to 30 seconds. Sometimes I use the timer on the camera too so I can get in position before the exposure even starts and maximize my time.
If you do have an older flash and you cannot cut down the power of the output you can still control the power somewhat. I have tried using those mini-soft boxes they sell for $20 at camera shops that velcro to your flash unit which works at cutting the light a fraction. I have had almost more luck in diffusing the light output with a white tee shirt or a white sock. It just depends on how much you want to cut the light down.
When you are exposing your subject be aware of where you aim your flash. Often I use a single pop of the flash on the front of a subject because if I pop the flash twice and the subject moves (even a fraction) their face will appear distorted. So typically I hold the flash about 3-4 feet away from their face and I pop the flash at 1/16th strength. Sometimes I find that I need to pop another flash at their waist down if it is looking too dark near their feet. Often I also walk behind them and pop the flash at full strength to back light them. And if I am shooting two or three subjects I will hold the flash a bit closer to their face (2 feet away) and shoot at 1/32nd strength in order to light each subject's face individually rather than holding the flash back and emitting one giant blast of light.
Once you have your flash exposure down and your shot is starting to look good you may have noticed traces of yourself in the shots as you look through them. That is because you are in the shot. If you move around enough in a long exposure you will be invisible but when you pop the flash (even if you hold the flash high over your head or way out in front of you) some of the light will spill onto you as well. So it helps to wear dark clothing. Also I use a magazine or a black tee shirt to wrap around my hand and the flash to hide the source of the light from the camera. As long as the camera can't see where the light is coming from you are pretty much invisible. This allows you to back light subjects as well. You can pop a flash behind their head and as long as you stay hidden behind their bodies you are golden. Every now and then I will have to Photoshop traces of my body out of shots but you can get good enough where this is rarely needed.
You can go on from here with any number of variations. You can paint in light while using flashlights or candles and you can write words in the scene with sparklers or a pen light. If you have seen the latest Sprint commercials on T.V. you have seen people painting with light. Try holding color gels over your flash or crawling into bushes and popping the flash to make the greenery in the shot glow. Hold the flash high up as well as from a low angle to see how this shifts the shadows. Have fun with it. Every one will think you are performing some sort of magic when they see the final perfectly lit image where you the photographer, who had been seen walking all through the scene while the picture was taking, is nowhere to be seen.