A Giant Reflector Flood
Sometimes it is useful to have a studio light with a very large reflector. When it is used very close to your subject it can provide both the direction of light you may want and at the same time fill the shadows. Used in this way it is very good for close up portraiture. When used further away from your subject the coverage, in terms of illumination provided, is helpful when photographing full length figures. The great thing about this kind of lighting system is that it simplifies the whole approach to studio lighting. It is true that many picture shooting situations need more than one light depending on the required effect, but at the same time a simple lighting set-up if often the way to get better pictures.
Large lights like this are expensive to buy, so why not go down the DIY road. As an experiment I tried this myself. First I had to think about how it could be done. What was needed was something that could be used to make a large enough reflector. After considering dust bin lids, not large enough, the obvious choice would seem to be a big umbrella. The required reflector had to be light in weight to be portable, so I thought perhaps papier mache might be an answer.
A large umbrella was first covered with kitchen cling film to avoid damaging it, then strips of newspaper soaked in wallpaper glue were added to its outer surface. This provided a reflector 120 cm (about 4ft) in diameter. The layers of paper were built up until the covering was about 3mm thick. As I went along I embedded stiff wire in roughly the same positions as the umbrella struts were situated. I guessed that a thin paper structure of this size might need some extra stiffening in order to retain its shape.
When the papier mache had dried, this takes several days even in dry conditions; it was lifted off the umbrella which could then be returned to its normal use. The next step was to cut a hole in the middle of the back of the reflector and make a simple pivoting unit to fix it to a lighting stand, and provide a small shelf for the flash head to stand on and be secured. This can be seen in the picture here of the unit at the half built stage. The reflector was then painted white inside and black on the outside. The final operation was to fix a round metal disc, in this case a biscuit tin lid, just in front of the flash head inside the big reflector to prevent any direct light from it hitting the subject. The whole unit is reasonably light for its size and remarkably flexible to use. Its construction was well worth the effort.
This portrait head is taken just using the large light. The light was placed quite close to the subject and it gives a diffused but directional light to her face. At the same time the shadows are filled, so no addition lighting was needed. It also lit the background. This image was converted to monochrome and then colour added to produce this effect.
Here the light was moved back from the subject who is shown posing with one of my own cameras.
The lighting now seems more directional but the shadows are still filled. The position of the light was high and to the right of my camera; a classic 45 degree lighting set-up. A second weak light was pointed at the background to lighten one side of it. Its light was kept off the subject.
This example shows a situation about midway between the two previous shots. Still a soft lighting effect with filled shadows and smooth rendering of the girl’s face and skin. The only difference is that a second light again, a medium size soft box, was directed straight at the background to lighten it leaving a small amount of light to spill onto her shoulder.
Large DIY Softbox
While the soft boxes supplied with flash kits are very useful there are many occasions when much larger versions can provide a better quality of light, particularly when lighting a full figure shot. Many commercial studios have large soft boxes as a matter of course. They are also available from the flash manufacturers at a price. I personally like, if possible, to adopt a DIY approach to my lighting. The following description is about how I made mine. The illustration here will show you what it looks like. Usually soft boxes are small and light enough to hang on the front of your flash unit. Because this one is too large and heavy to do this, it is a question of hanging the flash unit in the back of the soft box. Even so it pays to make the box itself as light as possible otherwise handling it can become a problem.
The box described here was built on a rectangle of thin plywood with a hole cut in it for the flash head to poke through. This forms the base to which is attached the wooden frame work. To make this I used strips of hardwood thin enough to keep the weight down but strong enough to hold the whole thing together. They were fastened to each other with thin metal plates and very small screws. The sides were then covered with thin fabric; it this case an old bed sheet. The fabric was then given several coats of white emulsion paint to make the surface more light reflective. In this way the whole thing weighs as little as possible without being too fragile. Mine may be 1.75 x 1.05m in size but it is very easy to move around the studio. Outdoors it is not so useful unless it is a windless day; flash units do not windsurf well.
Back to the actual construction; a small wooden platform, see the sketch on the right of the illustration, is how the flash unit can be fixed to the S/Box reflector. The flash unit is located on a peg screwed to the floor of a bracket fixed to the plywood reflector base. This peg was made from a 50mm section of 15mm copper piping held in place by metal washer and a long wood screw. The actual diameter of this peg depends on the attachment point of your flash unit. I use Elinchrom units which just drop onto a peg this size and can be fixed using the side locking knob as it does onto a normal stand. The platform bracket in turn pivots on a short length of 50 x50 mm wood by means of a bolt and thumb nut. The bottom end of the wood is drilled to fit onto the top of a standard lighting stand. The whole platform Flash unit and reflector is now able to swing around this bolt which can be tightened to hold it in position. The unit it too large to tilt much but the movement is enough for most practical purposes. When finished, the whole thing is light enough to use on a normal lighting stand with care. A heaver stand would make it more stable.
In practice, just like the other lights described on this site, there are several ways of using it to alter the quality of the light output. The rectangle of opal plastic suspended on string or wire suggested earlier in the previous technique sections, see the top right sketch the main illustration, softens the light considerably. Covering the reflector front totally with translucent material softens the light even more. It is purely a question of the sort of lighting effect you require for a particular shot.
This picture shows the large softbox being used as a main light. The plastic baffle described in the previous section is in place so the unit is working like a giant beauty light. The only other light used in this shot was placed behind the girl and directed at the background obliquely to show its texture. This light also throws a small amount of light on her dark hair. The light from this lamp would have spread further if it had not been filled with a simple cardboard baffle. The main light is big enough to provde soft direct lighting and at the same time fill in the shadows to a degree.
In this set-up the large softbox as before is used as the main light. It has been moved more to the right of the girl so she is almost side lit. The white background is strongly lit from a light near the studio ceiling overhead and is directed straight down towards it. Because the studio is small and white painted, the amount of light bouncing around from the two lights fills the shadows on the the girl’s unlit side making it unnecessary for an more lights to be used. I find it makes things simplier to use as few light as possible in any situation and in this case is one of the advantages in using a small studio.
The difference between this and the previous example shots is that the large softbox is now being used as a fill-in light. The front of the reflector was also been covered with translucent fabric to soften its light further. As the girl is lying on the floor on the bright red fake fur, if bouce light had been used on its own to fill the shadows, her face would have picked up too much colour from its redness. So here the power of the overhead background light was increased and the power of the softbox was reduced. By bringing it back toward the front of the girl, it provided just enough light to stop the shadows going bright red.
This shows the large softbox in use out of the studio in a room setting. It is another two light set-up. Here the light has to work with a full figure. The second light to the right of the girl and slightly behind her provides some highlights on her body and help her stand out from the background. It is important when using this sort of lighting plan not to have the accent light set too strong in relation to the main light or the highlights it makes can burn out.
Substitute Beauty Light
There is a large range of studio lighting available at the moment. There are also many ways of modifying the quality of its output with attachments or different reflectors. Recently, the so called Beauty Dish has become increasingly popular in the studio for all types of picture taking. The purpose of this piece is to show you how to improvise a substitute for one of these without having to go to the expense of buying one.
Starting with a standard soft box, the folding type that comes with a studio flash lighting kit, remove the front diffuser. It this state the unit will provide a fairly harsh quality of light. The results may be softened by preventing the direct light from the lamp or flash tube from reaching your subject. This can be done by suspending a piece of opal Perspex in front of the light from holes drilled in its corners with thin elastic under tension. An easy way of achieving this is to make four corner pieces out of thin sheet metal to provide anchor points for the elastic. This elastic is treaded through the hole on the metal hook to connect to the holes in the Perspex. The illustration here will show how this works. The easiest way to make the clips is to cut out the shapes suggested in the illustration, hold against the soft box corner, and bend the side tabs to the required angle. The pull of the elastic then holds them in place. As this addition only clips in place, it is easy to remove it when you want to return the soft box to its normal mode of use.
Having made this diffuser, the light may still be a bit hard so there is a further simple addition which can be made to improve things further. The standard soft box usually has a metallic inside; a simple insert cut from white paper will soften the light further. The illustration gives a rough idea of the required shape. Again it is only a matter of seconds to insert this into your unit. It is held in place by the elastic and Perspex arrangement and can be removed if not require equally easily.
One way of softening the output still further, is to take a piece of household cooking foil and wrap it around the Perspex diffuser. This now ensures that only reflected light reaches your subject.
In use, it is a matter of experimenting to see which of the above suggestions gives you the results you are after. You will find being able to control the quality of your studio lighting out-put increases the creative possibilities of your work. The modifications to the light that have been described give you several ways of doing this without adding further expense.
This is taken using just a single light modified as described here.Both the opal Perspex and the paper liner were in place. No reflectors were used so the result depends entirely on the one unit. The shadow behind the suject shows the degree of softness that is produced by the light in this form.
Same lighting unit as the previous shot.This time the cooking foil is used to block any direct light by covering the opal Perspex. The background has been deliberately over lit by the use of a second light. It was in fact yellow but now appears white. Because the studio here is small and painted white, a certain amount of light is bouncing from the background and softening the shadows to a greater degree than in the first shot.
For this final shot, the lighting set-up is exactly the same as before except that the intensity of the single light on the background has been reduced. Now the exposure for the yellow background is within the camera’s range, it records correctly. Because an even softer over all lighting was required, reflectors were placed in front and to both sides of the subject. All these pictures show how by making quite subtle alteations to the output of your lights, it is possible to vary the final result in several different ways.
Making a single studio light work
Studio lighting is easier to learn if you start with a single light. After all in nature there is only one light you can use; the sun. So it is what you do with it that counts. More lights can just complicate the issue. It is a fact of life that in the studio it is better to have more reflectors than more lights when photographing women. Once the possibilities of the single light are mastered extra lights can then be added if you need them.
Previous workshops have shown alternative ways of using the single light to alter the quality of its output. Here a single light in a small soft box is being used in a way that gives it even more scope than just providing your subject with light from the front. The diagram shows how to use a single light to perform a number of tasks. This set up will provide a hair light, brighten the background and, via reflectors, the lighting for a face when taking a head and shoulder picture. The fact that the model’s face is lit solely by reflected light is a bonus. Reflected light is very kind to human skin. The important thing is to place the light just out of shot as close to the background as possible. It will then shine over the subject’s shoulder and down onto the reflectors that are placed around her.The position of the third reflector is indicated by the black dotted line on the illustration. The intensity of the light of the face can be adjusted by the amount of light you allow to fall on the reflectors. The closer they are to your subject, the stronger the light will be. The finished picture is shown below.
A variation of this technique works well in a small light walled studio or room. In this case by using a white background, the one light is directed at that. Now your model will either be a near silhouette or again can be lit by the reflected light from the front. This can come both from reflectors and the light that bounces around the room. This works well if you are photographing a complete figure. It is all a question of getting the exposure right in the camera. If you are using a digital camera then there is no problem as you can check your results instantly and make any necessary adjustments to get the effect you want.
This shot was taken using the set-up described above. It is a basic portrait which because the subject had dark hair has benefited from the light falling on it. The light stand was placed almost touching the background. The girl sat about 1.5m in front of it. The three reflectors moved as close to her as possible without showing in the shot. Had she been blonde it would have been necessary to take care that the highlights did not blow. So the camera exposure would have to be correct and the light only allowed to skim the subject’s head as its full force falls on the reflectors in front.
Same set-up as previous shot but the girl is now a little nearer the background. The light coming from behind is used to light the side of her face as well as her hair. The reflectors have been move even closer so the lighting on her face is brighter. This was done to reduce the overall contrast between the side lighting and the rest of her face.
Now the single light is directed at the white background in this figure study. It was in fact angled slightly towards the wall at the side as well. The usual reflectors were placed in front of the subject; one on each side of the camera. Because the studio was small a great deal of light bounced around the room which helped to produce the soft lighting effect. Again by varying the use of reflectors or even not using them, the shot could have been turned into a near silhouette. It might have also been necessary to cover a reflector with some dark cloth so that it absorbed light rather than reflected it.
Optimising the small Studio
Not everyone has access to a large well equipped studio. If you own a garage or a large shed which also has an electricity supply then there is an opportunity to create a workable studio for occasional use. While it depends on the sort of picture taking you want to do, the height of the space is always an issue. If photographing standing figures is necessary, then of course the space must be high enough to allow this to be done.
This technique article will concentrate on making the most of the height available. When you need a white or any other coloured background that gives a seamless effect, it is usual to employ a paper roll. In a confined space, this cannot always be raised high enough above the model’s head to make it work. Large commercial studios extend the use of their space by using an infinity cove. This is basically a construction that removes all the corners of the background so that floor, ceiling and the walls on each side, top and bottom, blend into each other. The finished result is like being able to photograph inside half a giant eggshell. It this way, even things as large as motorcars, can be shot surrounded by background even if the available space is little bigger than they are.
This system is of course much too ambitious for the small studio but it is possible to borrow something from the idea. What is proposed does not take up much room and also does not prevent the space from being used for its normal purposes once picture taking is over. Only the end wall needs to be treated. This should first be covered with plaster board so that it is flat and free from obstructions if this is necessary. The illustration here will give some idea of what all this is about. By making a scoop to blend the floor into the wall and a similar one from wall to roof and painting it, you can get more background out of any given space. If the area being used has a pitched roof then it is a matter of deciding how wide you are going to need your background to be, and then seeing how near the roof it is possible to fix the top scoop. Both top and bottom scoops can be made out of hardboard. It is best to pre-form them before fixing into position. If you are planning a background say 2.4 m wide then the hardboard needs to be about that by about 0.6m. It will be easier to bend to shape if this is cut into 1.2m lengths. These are first dampened with water and placed at 45 degrees to a wall one on top of the other, the middle can then pressed down until the sheets form a curve and then weighted with something heavy. Bricks work well. Do both sheets together so they take up the same curve. They are left until the hardboard dries out when they will then be found to have accepted and retained the curve. The sheets can then be fixed to the wall and floor and skimmed with plaster so that the floor curves seamlessly up to the wall.
The process is repeated for the overhead curve. It is usually possible to make use of a cross beam from the A frame of the roof to provide the top anchor point. Next you need a piece of vinyl to cover the floor up to the point that the scoop takes over. Both this and the background is painted white or whatever other colour you need and the project is complete. If a join shows in the finished picture it is a simple and quick process to clone it out using your computer. When the shed /garage is not being used for photography the vinyl is simply rolled up and put to one side. When it becomes marked with use from foot prints it is merely given another coat of paint before the next session unlike background paper which usually has to be discarded. In the meantime your shed/garage can return to its original use.
This picture was taken in a small studio using the methods described here. The studio was only a modest 2 m high and even by using the roof space, only added another 0.2 m. However by bending the background back overhead, much more background area was provided from the camera’s viewpoint. Something which is necessary if your subject is wearing high heels. If you still do not have enough space to get you camera far enough back from the subject to get her into the picture, shoot through any opening or doorway in the wall opposite the background.
Fantasy effects without Your Computer
We all know that working with a computer, almost anything in terms of special effects, is possible. But what happens if you want to get your effects in camera or at the time of the shoot? Perhaps you want to demonstrate the effects you are after to show someone how the session is progressing. You can always try double exposure but again this is time consuming and can destroy the rhythm of a photo-shoot.
For a long time and before most of us all went digital, I used a system which still is valid today. It is particularly helpful if you are a film user.
It is all done by mirrors. I have built several different versions of the unit I am about to describe. In its simplest form it is very easy to make. All you need is a mirror, a lens, (it could be a condenser lens borrowed from an old enlarger or even a large magnifying glass), and a few DIY bits and pieces.
By the way, you need to be using a camera with a focusing screen such as a studio large format camera or a more usual DSLR or SLR. You must be able to see what you are doing through your camera. The mirror is arranged just in front of the lens but angled at 45 degrees. Then the image you want to add as background, should be ideally but not necessarily a transparency. It is focused by the extra lens and directed by the mirror back through the camera lens onto your film or sensor. It is simpler than it sounds. The key to the whole thing is the mirror. This can be an ordinary handbag mirror but it does need special treatment. You need to scrape the silvering off the centre section so when it is in front of your camera you can see you subject through the centre that has been cleared and the image of your background picture is reflected by the bits of the mirror silvering you have left intact.It is possible to use a semi-silvered mirror but one image will overlay the other completely which is not alway what you want,
I found the easiest way to use this device was to make small wooden tunnel to which the camera could be attached to look down it. The mirror is set inside and a hole is cut next to it. The large lens is fitted over this hole. Next I mounted two metal rods to support a sliding holder for my background transparency. I then positioned a studio light to illuminate the transparency.
When you use this device, focus as usual on your model. Then focus the background image through the mirror and addition lens by sliding the transparency holder up or down the rails. It is necessary to experiment with the camera lens aperture until things look right. Once it is set up for a particular session you can concentrate on your subject and start shooting. If you need a different background effect, simply change the transparency; it only takes a second or two. Of course this is not a way of putting a studio picture of your subject in a natural looking background but it does open up the possibility of all sorts of fantasy effects. The examples below will give you some idea of what is possible.
The picture on the left will give you some idea of what my device looks like. The aim of it is to find a way that brings distant subjects (your model) and the background (object, print or best of all transparency) into focus at the same time. This is done by preparing the mirror and placing it at 45 degrees close to the camera lens front. The inset shows roughly the sort of shape you should aim at when removing the silvering from its centre. The condenser or large magnifying glass is used as a sort of close-up lens to focus on the background object. I fix this on the side of my plywood tunnel. The camera can then see your subject through the clear part of the mirror and the background transparency or whatever is reflected in the remaining parts. It is also brought into focus by this extra lens
The centre of the diagram shows the arrangement I use to photograph the model top right. The frame, to which I attach my background transparency, slides on the rods so that it can be brought into focus. This is easily done manually so you do not need a complicated mechanism. You do this once your camera has focused on the model. It helps if your camera is fixed to the tunnel and then the whole unit can be mounted on a tripod. The last thing you need is for everything to get out of line as you press the shutter.
The bottom shows the set-up diagrammatically. It is important to put the mirror as close as possible to your camera lens so that it is well out of focus. The large lens should be near the mirror as well, in order to keep the size of it down. I put a piece of translucent plastic behind the transparency and light it with a free standing lamp. This way it is easy to adjust the exposure by varying the lamp to transparency distance until you get it right.
These four pictures were all taken within a few minutes of each other. They show how the device can work in practise. I used the same background throughout only varying its position slightly in the sliding transparency holder. The background is in fact a close up shot of a pocket watch movement. The aberrations produced by the condenser lens used as part of the device have added their own bit of fantasy.
So you see, once the shot is set up, unlike some other methods you can use for these sorts of effects, you can produce the finished result in-camera time after time. This, if nothing else, keeps everybody happy as they can see what they are getting immediately.
Here are more pictures produced using this device. Starting top left, this image uses a transparency of a piece of texture plastic as the background. The clear area of the mirror was small and the edges were more defined. I later found it better to increase the areas of the mirror that should remain clear in order to spread the effect more widely. That is when it became more of the sunburst shape that was illustrated earlier.
In the image (top right) the background is a transparency of water. Here the background and the model images are more integrated. The water image was a black and white shot toned blue.
The next image (bottom right) uses a background shot of mirror tiles with broken glass and water drops lying on their surface. The colours were added by half covering some of the lights with red and blue gels.
The last image (bottom left) was made using an abstract transparency as a background shot. It was of strands of glue stretched across a small cardboard frame and lit with coloured lights.
In all these photographs I sat my subject against a dark background and lit them normally. I then used an extra lamp to light the chosen background transparency. Once a balance is obtained between the light on the transparency and the lighting on your model the actual business of shooting a range of different effects is both easy and quick.
I have not used this device for some time but got it out again recently. After a bit of fine tuning this is the result from a shooting session a few days ago. I will inthe future be making improvements to the effects box as I feel it has some distance to go before all the things it can do have been exhausted. Varying the strength of the lighting on the transparency, in this case an abstract shot of brass swarf from using a lathe,in relation to that on the subject can give a wide rage of different results.
Using Diffusers and Reflectors Outdoors
That useful device the reflector has already been covered in this techniques series. Next to the reflector, I find the large diffusion screen almost as valuable. Working in direct sun, as we have seen, is often a problem. Anything that can be used to soften its effects is a a great help. Again the DIY approach makes dealing with this easy.
My own reflectors are about 1.8 x 1.10 metres in size and I make the frames from 18x28 mm wood. A thin translucent nylon fabric is used to provide the diffusion. If you fix the framework together using coach bolts and wing nuts then the whole thing can be taken apart if necessary for transportation. If you do want yours to come apart, you should only attach the diffusion fabric to sides A and B. It is very simple piece of kit to make. The only problem with using screens like this is the question of supporting them. If you have, say three screens, they can with care support each other provided you are not working in windy conditions. Helpers if available can also be use to get over this difficultly.
There is another way. This is the small scaffold tower as used for DIY repairs to houses. If transporting these things is not a problem, because you are working near home or in your own garden, they are invaluable. By using only a few sections it is possible to make screens, tunnels or supports for your diffusion screens or reflectors. In this way you can get a screen over your model’s head which is necessary of the sun is high.
A further refinement that is useful as a time saver is to put screw eyes into your reflector’s corners. If short pieces of string are left tied to them it is quick to fix them to any support. Apart from this, the scaffold tower, with a platform in place, is useful if you need to raise your model or yourself for a particular shot. I have even used mine in the studio when I need a higher shooting angle. It is much safer than balancing on a step ladder.
Here are a couple of configurations that you can use with a scaffold tower. The larger one shows how the sections can be arranged to make a bridge over your subject. By placing a diffuser overhead and if necessary another one to the side, the sun’s direct rays can be softened. Used in this way and perhaps with additional reflectors you have great control over the contrast of your subject without effecting the way your background looks. The device in the picture is constructed from four scaffold sections and the two longer pieces, normally used as cross bracing, to form the bridge.
The second and smaller configuration shows how you can build a stand to support difusers if the sun is lower. The diffuser is hung on the upright sections of the stand. This arrangement is also useful to support reflectors or if you need some sort of privacy screen. An advantage of these systems is they are quite easy to move about. This time the unit is again made using four sections but without the long braces. If you need more height just add another section to the vertical part.
In this picture the conditions were bright overhead sun. The scaffold sections were arrange so that a diffuser could be placed over the model’s head. A second diffuser was placed to the side between her and the sun. In front of her on the ground I put a reflector. She was then sitting under an open ended tunnel through which the background could be seen from the camera but not effected. All this has softened the light on her face and produced a more flattering result than direct sunlight.
The same scaffold arrangement is used as the previous shot.This time the sun was not as strong as before but the overhead diffuser played its part. I did not need to use any other difusers or a reflector. This was because the girl was posed kneeling on a patio made from pale grey stone which worked as a large reflector and the sun was still high in the sky as well as being slightly behind her.
Alternative Lighting System
Most people, when they use studio flash, think only about using the reflector that comes with the unit or an umbrella or maybe even a soft box. There are a few other alternatives like beauty lights or trough lights as well a many different sizes of reflector to add to the mix. Not many people would think of using their flash unit without its reflector altogether. People who specialise in photographing room interiors have known about this for some time but removing the reflector has advantages for other sorts of picture taking. I regularly use flash in this way for photographing women. With the lighting unit near your subject the effect is a bit too harsh so I tried ways of softening it. My first experiment was with a discarded 4 litre plastic milk bottle. It had nice translucent sides and when cut across just below the carrying handle was about big enough to fit over the flash tube and modelling light of my Prolinca unit. I made a number of holes in the bottom, now the top, to let out the air heated by the lamp.
It worked so I set about making a larger and more permanent version out of opal Perspex, (using the square I cut out of the centre of my ring light that was described earlier). This cut in half provided two strips of the right size. I shaped and fastened them around a thick plywood base to make a complete circle. The Perspex could be bent by heating it with a hot air gun. I then glued a piece of thinner opal plastic on top and drilled holes for ventilation. It is important to make sure the air can flow freely through it or the whole thing can become very hot. The wooden base has a hole to match the size of the flash unit and it sits on top of it in use. If you want a simpler version just tape a piece of stiff translucent sheeting around the base of your studio flash unit once its reflector has been removed. This will work well provided you do not let any direct light from the flash tube fall on your subject.
Using the device.
I usually work in a small studio which is painted white so when this light is used it works like a huge soft box with you and your model inside. It provides a more direct effect than bounced light but is softer than a conventional light. The bonus is the bounce lighting the studio walls provides opens up the shadow areas on your subject to good effect. Although only one light is being used, it does make it easy to get good results. If you also want hair, background or accent lighting, you can of course also add these using extra units with conventional reflectors. If when using my light I find in a given situation the lighting is still too harsh, I add another layer of diffusion by taping a small piece of extra plastic on the unit between it and my subject. A small square of cooking foil makes the light even softer as the subject is shielded from any direct light at all.
If you are working on location indoors, the light I have described is easy to move around as there is only the one unit to bother about. It can be used as a main light or as a fill to any natural illumination that may be coming into the room. All in all, the unit I have described can be very useful indeed.
The studio flash head with its reflector replaced by my DIY unit, it may not look pretty but it is functional. The plastic was bent around a wooden base and fixed before the perforated plastic top was glued on. The whole thing is only resting in place so the flash head has to be kept vertical. A cardboard ring re-enforced with fibre glass helps to keep it in position. In a small studio the flash output only needs to be at half power to provide more than enough light. The pictures below will show the unit in operation.
This is the unit in use. No other light was employed. A small amount of extra fill came from a reflector lying on the otherwise dark studio floor. You can see it reflected in the model’s eyes.
Same basic set up as previous shot but with the addition of more lights. I have lit the background with an extra flood light and use another to accent the model’s hair. Even so my system light is the main source of illumination.
Here again my alternative light is used as the main light. So you can see it works even with a full length shot. Like the previous shot I have used two additional lights, both diffused floods. In this case they are both directed at the white background. There is so much light bouncing around the room that the model’s figure separates well from the background. I find this type of set up very useful if I intend at a later stage to paste the girl image into another background shot.
Leaving the studio and moving to an indoor location, this is the unit used or its own. Here, a calendar type shot was taken in a workshop. The space was both cramped and dark so the light had to be placed fairly close to the model and there was some light fall off. This of course could be remedied in the computer. A small amount of daylight came in through the window behind her right hand but it did not play any part in the scheme of things.
This shot was taken in a room with some daylight and a scene visible through the window. In order to preserve this, the flash exposure was matched to the one for the window light. Even so the flash system was still the main light. So you see my alternative light has many uses in several different shooting situations.
DIY Studio Ring Light
Everyone knows that light, the driving force of picture taking, has two basic factors; its strength and its quality. Working indoors the first of these is governed by the lighting system we use. The second, the type of lighting we apply to our subject. In this technique series we will have a look at what can be done with several types of lighting. Here, the ring light is being considered. Ring lights were originally intended for medical or close up photography but are now often used for fashion or glamour photography. This is because they give a soft flattering frontal light. If your model is standing close to the background then this light will cause a soft edge shadow to outline her body. There are many commercially available ring lights ranging from relatively low priced and low powered units to more expensive and powerful studio systems. I have always been a believer in the DIY approach to studio lighting. It is cheaper and you end up with exactly what you want. The unit described here is a large ring flash type system which has a number of extra refinements and uses.
My light is basically it is a large soft box with a tunnel built through its centre. This tunnel is large enough for the camera to shoot through the opening. The diffusing panel on the front of the box is a sheet of translucent opal Perspex with a square hole cut in the middle. On the back of the soft box I cut a hole each side of the central tunnel to allow a studio flash head to poke through into the reflector. A true ring flash has a circular flash tube which fits round the camera lens but my system works almost as well. With two light units fitted it provides a good all round illumination.
It also has the added advantage in that you can alter the lighting effects by varying the power output of the flash heads. You can even only using one or the other at a time. It also works as a normal soft box when moved away from the camera.
My unit is fairly large and heavy so it is supported on a substantial stand to which I have added casters and the ability to alter its height and angle. As an additional convenience I also put a normal lamp holder with a 150W bulb inside the reflector to provide a brighter modelling light if I am using film instead of a digital camera. The reflector body is made from thin plywood. A much lighter version would be possible if the rigid tunnel was used to strengthen it and a light weight framework made out of thick wire like a lampshade used to form the rest. The body of the reflector could then be covered with a thin light tight fabric with its inside lined with cooking foil. Instead of opal Perspex, you could use any thin nylon translucent fabric. This would keep the weight down considerably. This material can usually be found at any large fabric shop. Alternatively you can also use a colourless plastic shower curtain material. I have made convention soft boxes this way in the past.
When using a soft box of this type it is not necessary to put in it a high powered flash unit so two small independent camera flash guns would work well once they have been linked together. As this unit is normally used quite close to your subject the light output does not have to be huge. Should you want to use this type of DIY light with a convention tungsten flood lighting system you have to make sure it cannot overheat or you could have a studio fire on your hands.
With my own system I use two studio flash heads with their reflectors removed. Because the soft box body is rigid I am able to fix the lights on little platforms screwed to it just below the openings. However with a less rigid arrangement they could stay on their stands and be positioned so that the flash heads pokes through the holes in the soft box. The picture here is an example of this device in use.
Normally only the ring light is used to light your subject. Again nothing is set in stone so it can be used simply as a frontal illumination so that other lights can be brought in to accent hair or light backgrounds. It is purely a matter of the effect you want in your picture.
This is how my lighting unit looks. It is shown with the translucent opal plastic removed from the front. The unit is about 1 m square because that was the size of my Perspex sheet. It could be what ever size you want to make it. The tunnel is 30cm square and reaches from the back to the front of the unit. This allows a DSLR camera to be used with a 28x70 lens. Longer lenses work just as well.
The tunnel also works as a lens hood if other lights are being used in the set-up.
A straightforward head shot of a girl and hairdryer taken using only the ring light. I have included an enlarged section to show the catch-light in her eye. If a true ring light had been used the highlight would of course been a tell tail circular one. This one is less obvious but the lighting produces all the other advantages of using a conventional ring light.
If you are using the system only to produce an even flattering lighting as I have done here, the overall effect can sometimes look a bit bland. So using the computer it is a simple matter to cut it out and paste it onto a different background. In this case the background was a close-up of a piece of charred wood
A further modification to the unit I have described above is shown in the illustration. By masking down the light output to a smaller circle the ring flash effect is heightened. The true ring flash effect; the diffused edge shadow, depends on two things. The distance your subject is placed from the background and the distance the light is from the subject. The nearer you approach the person you are photographing the more noticable will be the outline shadow.
On my own unit I have used a piece of flexible black plastic sheet to made the circular mask. It is attached to the unit at the top and has a thin wooden strip stapled to its bottom to keep it stable. This is so the whole thing can be rolled up out of the way, like a blind, when I want to use the unit as a normal soft box.
This picture shows the modified unit in use. One if the problems in using this type of lighting unit close to your subject is that the light output is often too great. This in turn means the camera lens has to be stopped down to say about f 22 or even f 32 for the correct exposure. It can even happen when you set your studio flash units to their lowest output. The result could be that you are not getting the best from your lens.
Most modern lenses produce their best definition the f 8 - f 16 range due to diffraction setting in as you stop down further. However the circular mask on this unit cuts to light output down to the point where it is possible to work in the optimum range for your lens.
The larger professional studios often employ make-up artists on photo shoots to get the very best out their model’s looks. Some models, even quite experienced ones, are not always keen to do there own make-up. If you do not have the budget for a make-up artist or do not know one who is willing to work with you, help is at hand from your computer. Almost everything that might need to be done to a human face to make it more beautiful can be done in image management programmes like Photoshop. When we all worked with film and transparencies a model who developed spots on the day was a disaster. Now such problems are easily remedied. However this can take a long time, particularly if you have to go through an entire portrait session correcting a large number of pictures. Fortunately there are good programmes about that will retouch the whole face for you in a few seconds without you loosing control of the overall look of the image. Some of these programmes are not expensive and well worth the money they cost in terms of time saved and results.
This is the girl as photographed originally. She is wearing make-up but not enough to cover her freckles. It would be fine as it is if only a natural result was required.
Here the first photograph has been treated with a programme called Portrait Professional from http://www.portraitprofessional.com which was both user-friendly and quick to do. There is provision for controlling exactly how much correction you want to do to the model’s complexion and many other aspects of her face In this case the freckles have been subdued, eyes slightly enhanced and a few tiny lines removed.
Here it was felt version 2 needed more accentuation around the eyes so this was added in Photoshop afterwards using the ‘Burn tool’. It only took a few seconds but made a lot of difference to the final result.
Finding and working with models
Most people start off by photographing their families and friends. This can be a great start as a way of building your own confidence and providing pictures to show what you can do. If this is not possible for any reason or you have reached a stage where you want to be more adventurous then there is the professional model to think about. However model agencies usually need convincing of you picture taking ability and that you intend to shoot pictures for the right reasons before they will let you book any of their girls. This is why you need some good examples of your previous work before approaching them.
If you do not have these pictures at the beginning then all is not lost. In most parts of this country there are studios for hire. If you happen to live in the south east of this country then http://www.momentsstudio.co.uk is one of these. For example, they have a wide choice of furnished built-in sets as well as an infinity wall. A very comprehensive array of lighting equipment with all the usual accessories. There are 70 sq metres of floor space so there is plenty of room. They hire to professionals and amateur photographers for whom they run regular group sessions where technical advice is given if required. I understand they are putting together a model list for those who do not bring their own. Together with all the usual facilities you would expect in a hire studio, it makes this is an excellent package. To a greater or lesser extent, similar studios can be found in many parts of the country and for anyone wanting to make a start on getting a portfilio they are the solution. Finally, working in a group session is a lot less expensive than hiring a studio for sole use.
Apart from going directly to a model agent, thanks to the Internet, there is another good way of finding models that can also benefit you as a photographer. This is the online site that provides hosting for both photographers and models. There are several of these and http://www.purestorm.com is an excellent example. Apart from providing good advice this is a site listing both photographers and models and is free. It is possible to have your own page setting out the degree of experience you have, the type of work you do and the area of the country in which you live. The page also can contain your photographic portfolio. For models the situation is exactly the same. So you see, not only can you find exactly the model you need for your picture taking; how she photographs and her working details. As she can see all about you as well it is then easy to arrange a session on the terms you are both happy with.
You will find models listed of all experience levels. You will also know exactly what sort of pictures they are prepared to do and in many cases their fees for photography. There is also feedback for people who have worked with them. You can contact each other through the site. Some models who are starting out will be prepared to work TFP (time for pictures) in stead of a fee. Remember in order to get work most models need to build up their own portfolio of different pictures so are always interested in something new.
Moving on to the next stage, having hired a model, you are ready to start shooting pictures on your own. If you want the session to go well pre-planning is the answer. The other important thing is consideration for your model. Tell her what you are trying to achieve. Make sure she is comfortable with what you have in mind and the environment in which you are going to work. She must feel part of the shoot and not just an object being photographed. Listen to any picture ideas she might have. Some models, especially the more experienced ones, often have very good ideas to bring to the session. It can be a useful contribution to the success of your finished pictures.
Using backgrounds around the home
All is not lost if one does not have access to the sort of location opportunities or the lavished studios that some professionals use. There are plenty of photo-opportunities around the average home. One of the best places to use to photograph women is the conservatory. A conservatory can become a daylight studio. Even a small one is usually an extension of an existing room so that in itself gives the camera space to pull back from the subject enough to avoid distorting features and limbs. Daylight is great for shooting faces and bodies. If the conservatory has blinds even better because it is then easy to control the direction and quality of the light. Also the furniture and plants often found in conservatories can make ideal props. The conservatory is often a more comfortable environment outdoors for a model to work in if you are doing glamour or figure photography
French windows are the next best thing. They not only provide the necessary light but can be used to form the picture’s background. The world outside will burn out to become lighter so interest is concentrated on your subject. This is where a good reflector comes into play. It is needed to lighten the shadows on the dark side of the subject. There are lots of types of reflector commercially available but for cheapness there is nothing to beat a large thick sheet of builder’s insulating Polystyrene sheet. They are rigid light to handle and very effective.
The other way of using a room’s windows is to think of them as the main light. A french window can produced much the same quality of light as a huge soft box in the studio and is very kind to the skin in a glamour shot. If the room you are working in has windows in other walls the light coming from these can be used to provide interesting accents. Just as adding further lights to a main studio light can in the studio. If you do not like this additional effect just pull the curtains on that window.
A sunny day with translucent blinds pulled down formed the background but allowed enough light shoot the girl. The blinds had been lowered al around the conservatory so she was in effect sitting inside a light-box. A reflector was placed on the four in front of her.
Same situation used as previous shot but a different time of day. More direct sunlight has been allowed into the space.
This time more of the conservatory has been used as a set. The sunlight was not as strong as it the other two shots. The scene outside the glass windows at the end forms the picture’s background.
Here the window is behind the camera and give the picture a soft overall effect.
The same window was used as the previous shot but this time it formed part of the background. A reflector and the white walls of the room filled in the shadows to light the model.
The room’s window together with a curtain forms the picture’s background and reflector used to provide the lighting for the girl.
Here the window is again the background and the model is lit by both a reflector and general lighting from another window set at a right angle to the first.
Pictures of women are so often shot in the most exotic surroundings. If you do not have access to interesting locations, what can be done? Make your own is the answer.
Shooting digitally opens up all sorts of possibilities. Thanks to programmes like Photoshop almost anything is possible. The backgrounds can be quite small. The place where the subject is photographed does not have to be turned into a Hollywood type back lot. In the example here, a girl was photographed in a small garden. The pictures alongside will show how the archway was made from the simplest materials. Sections of wooden broom handle that had been sliced in half were stuck onto a sheet of cardboard. Curtain rings, again halved, were glued on top and bottom to provide the decoration. Then came the messy part, coated the wood with a thin layer of plaster filler. Using simple card board formers to make moulds, the archway was caste in more plaster. This process continued by instalments leaving each bit to set before continuing with the next until the whole model was complete. The advantage of doing this way is that each shape can be quite simple but the compound effect can be more elaborate. When the plaster has set but before it becomes really hard, it is fairly easy to carve into any required shape with a craft knife. After that, this example was painted in an attempt to mimic stone, using acrylic paints and a small sponge. The finished thing stood about 30cm high. It was then photographed using the same sort and direction of lighting that had been used on the girl. This is important if you want to make a shot look authentic.
The rest was down to Photoshop. As an operation it proved quite simple. With the girl image on screen, the arch image was placed in a layer over the top of her. All that remained was to select the arch opening and cut it out; the simple outline making this relatively easy.
The key to success with all this is to mix the real with the false. An added effect with this shot was to merge the model archway with picture of a real stone patio before adding it to the girl shot.
When planning computer combinations, make sure the lighting type and direction are the same for all the picture elements or the shot will fail. The overall perspective of the shot must also look right, so this is something to bear in mind as you photograph the picture’s components.
Using this technique almost anything is possible and the only limit is your imagination and the length of time you are prepared to spend making background models.
A wooden broom handle was sawn in half to make the columns. After this had been stuck to the cardboard base the shape of the arch was drawn in the background.
Wooden curtain rings were then halved and stuck top and bottom of the columns to form the decoration. All the wood was then covered with a thing coat of plaster to make it look like stone. The base and tops of the columns then was made by casting plaster using cardboard moulds. The arch could then be treated in the same way. The two rings of stonework added in succession when each previous layer had dried. Then the arch opening was cut out. And a coat of plaster spread over the background to make the wall. When this was dry enough the stonework detail could be scored on with a sharp pointed instrument. The detail on the arch stonework was added in the same way.
The final step in the construction was to paint the model to make it look as realistic as possible. The easiest way of doing this was to use artist’s acrylic paint applied with a small piece of sponge.
Wooden curtain rings were then halved and stuck top and bottom of the columns to form the decoration. All the wood was then covered with a thing coat of plaster to make it look like stone. The base and tops of the columns then was made by casting plaster using cardboard moulds. The arch could then be treated in the same way. The two rings of stonework added in succession when each previous layer had dried. Then the arch opening was cut out. And a coat of plaster spread over the background to make the wall. When this was dry enough the stonework detail could be scored on wit a sharp pointed instrument. The detail on the arch stonework was added in the same way.
The final picture.
Shooting outdoors in sunlight
Photographing women outside in sunlight is often difficult because direct light is not flattering. Harsh shadows render texture but this is unattractive on a girl’s face. It works when showing the whole of your model, say on a beach, but it’s by no means easy. The question of lighting is the first consideration with outdoor shooting. When working in a studio the photographer has the ability to move lights wherever he wishes, to create the best effect or mood. Outdoors there is only one light and there’s no alternative but to work with it.
When working outdoors I try to arrange for the light to come from behind the model. Pictures A and B are good examples of this. The advantage is that the background looks more three dimensional. The model stands out from it and she doesn’t look directly into the sun. What must be remembered is to throw light into her face. It’s important to expose the shot sufficiently so you don’t end up with something which is almost a silhouette. Should you adjust the exposure for the face, the otherwise beneficial rim lighting you’ve got burns out. The background will be overexposed which also spoils the shot.
A reflector is the answer. One of the simplest is a 4 ft square of builder’s polystyrene sheet. Place it on the ground between the camera and the model. For the best effect, the sunlight should fall directly on to the sheet. The reflected fill light from the sheet flatters a girl’s face and skin which is an added bonus.
An alternative is to use the flash on your camera or one held near the camera. This is illustrated in Picture C. It may not be so flattering but is a way of getting a result if you can’t use a reflector or there isn’t enough light. Remember to reduce the power of the flash by 1 to 1.5 stops to prevent it washing out your subject.
The girl was leaning on a fence with an area of grass in front of her. The polystyrene sheet lay on the ground in front of her. It has not only brightened her face but it also prevented the grass giving it green tint; something which is a problem when working with film but can be remedied later in the digital world.
This picture was taken in broken shade. The sun still managed to light the girl from behind but it was more difficult to find a place to put the reflector. It wound up in the only patch of sunlight leaning against a nearby wall to the left of the shot. It still provided enough power to light her face and body.
This shot was taken from inside a room while the girl outside lent against the railings of a balcony. The position of the sun and the shadow of the building made it impossible to use a reflector properly. There was not enough room and insufficient light would fall on it. I used the camera’s own flash and reduced its power by 1 ½ stops. This avoided over exposing the model when the background was correctly recorded.
This picture (see below the article) combines old and new techniques. It started as a multiple exposure experiment. The original shot was taken in the studio on film. The camera used allowed me to make a number of exposures without winding the film on. Each image is superimposed on to the previous one. The black paper background was sprayed with gold paint to give visual interest. The model was asked to bend forward slowly, as if she was trying to touch the floor. The camera shutter was fired at several points in the action cycle. The plan was to take five exposures. To prevent the finished result from being washed out (overexposed) the basic exposure was calculated as if it was a normal picture. Each shot had a fifth of that so the overall effect was correct. The camera, loaded with transparency film, meant the end result was hard to predict until the film had been processed.
The picture lay around for some years. When I saw it again, it was dusty, marked and scratched. With digital techniques and computer technology now available I thought it might be possible to revive it. First the blemishes were carefully removed via an image management programme. Then the girl’s hairstyle was updated. The next step was to posterize it, which is a simple process using the computer. Then the colours were changed to further enhance it. Finally, the image was put in a layer on a larger plain white background. It occupied half the area available so a copy of it was flipped over to fill the other half. Blended together with the original it makes an unusual panorama. It has been captioned as “witches dancing in the mist.“
This image was the starting point and was made in the way described in the text. It does not show quite all the available picture area. The camera used was a basic 6x6cm twin lens reflex with no exposure interlock which made it easy to take multiple exposures. The model was lit by electronic flash but any lighting source would have worked just as well.
The original image has now been posterized (reduced to three separate tones). In this case they were dark red lighter red and yellow. I did this before the digital age so had to do it the hard way in the darkroom. Fortunately it is now a simple and quick process to do in a computer and you don’t even need to get your hands wet.
The final result; a flipped copy of picture B blended with it to make a much larger panoramic image.