One Light, Constraints, & Growth
An exercise in frustration that was somewhat productive
I’ve alluded and outright declared a bit of a personal psychological struggle of late. Specifically adding a bit of control to things related to personal projects. In summary I started with the Fuji X cameras specifically to give up control in various ways. Give up control and operate more as an observer rather than director.
The start of it was the Fuji X100 taking a few road trips just to make pictures with no plan. Using only that one camera and nothing else in terms of gear. In many ways that led to personal photographic projects where I’ve ceded control almost completely in terms of direction of collaborators, environment, lighting, background, etc. With a few noted exceptions it’s been just me, whoever is in front of the camera, and wherever we happen to be at the moment. No consideration of “lets go find a good spot” or “lets move all this stuff around”. Even when I’ve used strobes on occasion it’s been whatever has been setup and ready to go and never more than one light.
I’ll admit I’ve got some issues that are not too common but maybe a slice or two of those could have some common applicability. Those issues most likely manifest a little differently for others. One particular issue I have is I tend to be all-or-nothing in the extreme sense. I either do not give a shit (in certain ways) and just take whatever is in front of me excepting basic camera controls or I bring everything to bear and exert control to an idiotic degree. That feels a lot like making pictures for work and brings a whole lot of other internal psychology into play that’s not good for personal projects in terms of exploration, meandering, and allowing stuff to just happen rather than accomplishing some predetermined pictorial outcome.
Case in point; Lighting gear. For the very first time I took a small kit with me on a trip that had nothing to do with making pictures for anyone else. Just one light, a tiny foldable beauty dish, an umbrella, and a tiny wobbly crappy stand that folds to about a foot long. Ever since then I’ve been stressing about the shortcomings of what I took with me and what I should or shouldn’t bring next time.
A lot pictures I made during that recent trip to New Englandcouldn’t possibly been made without a light of some sort. The small strobe kit was certainly more convenient than attempting to completely rearrange a friends loft given the total lack of ambient light after sunset. Above is a quick set I made with Shannon, a friend of the person I was hanging out with for the long weekend. Just a regular person that happened to stop by. We felt like making a few pictures so we did.
The above shot is my exposure test for the lighting setup I envisioned. Trying to get one light to act like three or even four. The particular conditions in that spot were as follows:
- A really tight space with a large sofa to camera right and behind me. A large screen TV with table etc to camera left.
- Extremely tight framing at 18mm to do a full length so I had to keep S. pretty close to the wall or I couldn’t move back enough, even if I could that wall isn’t wide enough or even high enough to move back at all. I’d suck in the dark window to the left and the end of wall / kitchen mess on the right as well as the ceiling.
- No free outlets, they were all in use for computers, TV, internet, etc. Well except for the one in the picture.
- The sofa on the right was a bit of an issue in light positioning as well. Too tight to bring the stand inside with me for a full length for sure, on the other side it’s really far away and I’d loose all control over the background lighting.
One Light As Three Or Four
Here’s the thought process in using a big 5 foot silver umbrella for this shot
- A bit of the umbrella behind S. and a bit in front with twisting it about to control the gradient on the background wall. So you have a background light that’s not just flat on same as subject as well as the key light obviously. (Thank goodness for the Profoto B2 modeling light, makes short-work in terms of positioning things)
- Allow the reflection from that big umbrella off the window opposite to provide a bit of fill/rim effect on the shadow side (see arm on shadow side)
- Raise it up enough and tilt it this way and that to light up the top of S.’s hair too.
There ya go, one light as three or four. Great right? Let’s go to town and make some pictures. Heck, I even managed to position the chair just so in order to hide the ubiquitous and horrible looking outlet on the wall. Great right? Wrong. As can be seen in the exposure test shot Shannon’s hair is blocking all the light into her eyes. Well not all of it but a lot of it, no catch light, no white white’s of eyes, etc. Jeeeezes f’ing christmas!
Hmmmmmm, if I have her look more towards the light (which I did) she’ll look all strange neck twisty. If I move her foot back and twist her whole body towards the light she’ll be casting a shadow on the wall which will ruin the separation / entire effect of the background being lit. Not only that but it won’t be flattering to her figure putting a lot more in the light. Shit I guess I’ll have to jigger the light a bit a bit and see if I can still get the background effect while putting a tiny bit more in front. Just a hair.
Next test shot above. That’s it, that’s as far to the front as I can go without destroying the way the background looks and casting an obvious shadow on the background (which will destroy the effect and significantly flatten things). Also reduces that rim/fill light reflected from the left window glass, whatever. Her hair is still blocking a lot of light in her eyes. Also lifting her head this much which I asked for makes her neck look a little gawky. Shit!!! Now I have to be a little closer and a little more to the right so the damn umbrella isn’t in the shot at the top right. See what that causes? Note framing on bottom and that damn (once hidden) outlet behind the chair. God dammit! Okay lower your chin a bit and lean in to me (see what that little thing does? Narrows S’s waist a bit, bend her elbow, puts a far better shadow on her neck)
Dammit all to hell, makes that hair blockage problem worse so I didn’t accomplish much with all that screwing around (well honestly that was about 45 seconds of screwing around but you see where this is going right?? Can you feel the internal stress sort of like a job???)
Ah, screw it. It’s fine for full length as long as a tiny bit of light gets in there to show some shape on the eye’s/eyelids/lashes/brows. Honestly it might be even better given the vibe here. Let’s roll with it. Nothing I’m going to do about that outlet having to shoot from this position, if I move S. over to the left I’ll not get that lighter background on her shadow side thing, or a lot less of it. Plus I’ll grab a hunk of the window on that left wall. That’s how tight this is with an 18mm. I’ll just frame with her head a little closer to the top and LEEEEEEAN back a bit.
Okay, we’ll do a couple of shots and just roll with it. Dammit, I should move these sofas so I can shoot a hair longer. And that light needs to be higher but I only have that tiny little stand and that’s it. I’d like the hot spot on the wall to be a bit higher and to get some of that light off her arm. what can I use as a flag. If I had another light I could and some decent stands I could just light the background separately and moving the sofas would allow me to back her off the wall and shooting at 35mm would be no issue in containing the background. And if I had another light I could put that rim light back on the shadow side from a little behind. Nothing super crazy just a tiny little pop about 2 stops under main sorta like it was in that first test shot, and if I had some V-flats, and…
This is were my head goes and I’m sitting here looking at what would be a massive amount of shit to carry along with me. Once my head goes towards exerting control I really don’t know where to stop. It’s hard to draw the line without setting some hard constraints. Like moving furniture. I could turn what started as a 10 or 15 minute on-the-fly thing into something completely different. Sure I could pop any of these into photoshop and get rid of that hunk of outlet in 10 seconds but where does that stop? For me it doesn’t and starts to feel a lot different than just me, my camera, a collaborator, and see what happens. Then I start curating everything before I take the first frame including who I am collaborating with, what it will look like, and all the rest.
Maybe I’ll just stick to that one light thing that I took with me on this occasion and figure out where the line is. I’ve been avoiding that for a long time, wrestling down the all-or-nothing thing that goes on in my head. But if only I had an assistant with me, just one See what I mean.
All photos made with the Fuji XT-1 and 18–55mm XF. Processing via Lightroom CC. Random black and white preset of my own applied on import. Screenshot at the very top is 100% crop (with L/R crappy fake grain) sort of demonstrates why when using strobes and such at f/5.6+ that IQ of the 18–55mm is no issue for me at all so I tend to use it a lot when shooting with flash. Go ahead and open it in another window so you can see it full size if you want. The 18–55 is fine everywhere, better than fine at f/5.6 you should clearly be able to see even at f/5.6 what’s in and out of focus this close to the subject and how decent it is where it’s in focus.