In my journey to make amazing portraits versus taking pictures, I sought to gain mastery over light and shadow. The mastery of light or the lack thereof is what separates one photographer another.
Usually, when I talk to friends and family about this notion of taking pictures versus making portraits—they tend to believe that I’m just making a play on words. What’s the difference between making a portrait and taking a picture? Aren’t they the same thing? Not really.
Understanding light—it’s intensity, it’s shape, it’s hue, it’s absence, it’s direction, it’s reflection, it’s speed, and it’s movement are just some of the characteristics that I look for when I’m composing an image. Each of these elements will have an impact on the look and emotion that I’m seeking to create. There is so much that photographers are able to do using natural sunlight as a primary source of light for a portrait. One of the big challenges with natural light is balancing the exposure across the scene. You’ve probably seen a lot of outdoor images where the background is overexposed to compensate for the foreground. I’m not a fan of those images.
One of my favorite natural light photographers is Sean Archer. Archer primarily makes his portraits by shaping the light that comes into his living room.
Professional photographers must be able to create the perfect light regardless of the time of the day or location—indoors or outside. The sun is only available during the day. This requires moving beyond natural light to producing and shaping artificial light.
Because of my background in video production, my first foray into artificial light was with continuous tungsten and halogen lights. I hated them. I never color balanced the tungsten lamps in production, so post-production always took an extra step to do so. The halogens were bright and clean…but difficult to shape. I hated both of them because the lamps quickly got hot, the ambient heat cause the whole room temperature to quickly rise, and they were dangerous to touch and turn off.
So I moved to LED lamps for continuous light. I love LED lamps simply because they are small and don’t create the heat that traditional lamps produce. Years ago, my LED lights had one drawback, they rarely were ever bright enough to produce the desired effect. Today, I use LED lights from Rotolight and Zylight that both produce beautiful color balanced light with enough brightness to make the image I want. My Zylight also gives me the ability to create color hues without needing to use CTO Gels. The final benefit of LED lights is that they provide a safer lighting option for clients that may have an adverse reaction to strobe lighting in their eyes.
Moving beyond continuous lighting, photographers move to strobes or flashes to create a desired visual effect. Years ago, I bought a Nikon Speedlight for my flash photography, but eventually gave it away without opening the box. At the same time, I started shooting with SONY Alpha cameras. I later bought another Nikon Speedlight 910 for my Sony cameras…and got some interesting results. However, flash photography with speeedlights simply do produce the professional results that I want for my art or portfolio.
The biggest investment I’ve made beyond my camera bodies and lenses is my pro lighting gear—specifically, monolights. Monolights are strobes. Strobes are flashes. However, they are not speedlights! In the simplest terms, monolights provide far more power than speedlights and create greater illumination for your subject. Typically, it would take three to five speedlights to achieve the same performance I get from just one of my monolights. The greatest advantage monolights have over all other lighting approaches is the amount of modifiers available to sculpt and color your light and shadows. This is game-changing creativity for photographer and her subject. Personally, I prefer shooting with light I create so that I can produce consistent results in any condition.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that only professional photographers use monolights. I believe a professional photographers and photography enthusiasts can make a great image in all lighting conditions that they can shape or modify. That said, I would submit that professional photographers are masters of light and shadow. This mastery requires fluency across the natural light spectrum and artificial lighting gear.
I am constantly experimenting with light and shadows. It helps to continously raise my performance from level of mastery to the next. There is so much achieve and much more learn about light and shadows. I encourage to subscribe to this blog to keep current on hot topics and emerging techniques!