Por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher Richard Wood walks us through how to em­u­late the soft, moody light­ing of the mas­ters — with just a win­dow

New Zealand D-Photo - - HOW TO | RICHARD WOOD -

‘Rem­brandt light­ing’ is a broad term given to an im­age lit with a key light from the side. Most com­monly, it’s con­structed by way of a sin­gle light source placed ap­prox­i­mately 45 de­grees off­set from the sub­ject and a bit higher than eye level, which il­lu­mi­nates a tri­an­gle un­der the sub­ject’s eye on the side of the face that is far­thest from the cam­era. While I’ve seen text­book for­mu­las of ex­act ra­tios and an­gles of stu­dio light set-ups, I pre­fer to stray from th­ese. I have no prob­lem in mov­ing away from th­ese pre­cise for­mu­las, as they’re sim­ply the rec­om­men­da­tions of some­one who has done this be­fore. It could eas­ily be taken as gospel, and all too of­ten we be­come sci­en­tists more than we are cre­atives, which stran­gles our po­ten­tial. Per­son­ally, I view the term ‘Rem­brandt’ as a broad con­cept where light comes into the im­age from one side, much like it ap­pears to in the work of its name­sake, the 17th-cen­tury Dutch painter. The style in which Rem­brandt worked was known as chiaroscuro, where a three-di­men­sional qual­ity was cre­ated through de­tailed gra­di­ents of ex­treme tone vari­a­tions, from shadow to light. Rem­brandt wasn’t, of course, the only artist to prac­tise this tech­nique, but the name stuck — pos­si­bly for the idio­syn­cratic tri­an­gle of light on the sub­ject’s face, which pho­tog­ra­phers of­ten aim to achieve. There are end­less vari­a­tions of light­ing tech­niques that will recre­ate this aes­thetic, and it’s easy to cre­ate im­ages that ap­pear both nat­u­ral and com­pelling with min­i­mal equip­ment. Rem­brandt, for one, had no flashy stu­dio strobes, re­flec­tors, soft boxes, or beauty dishes — more of­ten than not, he prob­a­bly just had a win­dow. While a win­dow sounds sim­ple, there are a cou­ple of key points that will en­sure a suc­cess­ful ex­er­cise in por­trai­ture.

THE DIFFUSION OF LIGHT As we are work­ing with avail­able nat­u­ral light, we should take a look at our op­tions. If we have a soft, over­cast day out­side, we have a greater chance of ob­tain­ing that beau­ti­ful soft light over the face. A harsh, sunny day is go­ing to cre­ate ex­actly that — a harsh, strong light across our sub­ject’s face. How­ever, we can some­times out­smart the weather by choos­ing a win­dow on the side of the build­ing that is fac­ing away from the sun or by plac­ing some diffusion over the win­dow, such as a net­ted cur­tain or a scrim from the out­side.

THE STRENGTH OF LIGHT In the stu­dio, we set ra­tios with a main light and a key light; that is, set­ting the dif­fer­ent strengths of light for both our high­lights and shad­ows. When us­ing avail­able light, how­ever, we’re not al­ways as flex­i­ble, as our en­vi­ron­ment has to be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion. The greater the the strength of light com­ing into the room in com­par­i­son with the am­bi­ent light in a room, the more con­trast we will achieve (more mood). Con­versely, when the light com­ing into a room is not much greater than the am­bi­ent light in­side, the con­trast and mood will lighten. A large win­dow will al­low a lot of light into the room, mak­ing the in­side light closer to what it is out­side, while a smaller win­dow will al­low a smaller amount of light into the space, thus not light­ing the room up so much — and lend­ing a higher level of con­trast in your im­age. While a light source that is large in com­par­i­son to our sub­ject is most likely to achieve a softer ef­fect, it can also re­sult in a room that is filled

with light. To lessen the ef­fect of this, we some­times have to play with how far from the win­dow we place our sub­ject. The closer our sub­ject is to the light source, the larger the light source be­comes in re­la­tion to them. This will also in­crease the con­trast be­tween your high­lights cre­ated by the win­dow light and the darks of the room. Al­ter­na­tively, the fur­ther a sub­ject is placed from the win­dow, the more the light dif­fuses and be­comes closer to that of the am­bi­ent light of the room, thus less­en­ing the ef­fect of our con­trast.

THE GOLD NUGGET When teach­ing stu­dents, there’s a par­tic­u­lar tech­nique that I of­ten call the ‘Gold Nugget’. I call it this be­cause I feel that, once learnt, it can re­ally change the way some­one works with light. The tech­nique is com­monly re­ferred to by pho­tog­ra­phers as ‘feath­er­ing’. I use this with both stu­dio light­ing and nat­u­ral light, and, judg­ing by the beau­ti­ful soft­ness that Rem­brandt achieved, it’s ev­i­dent that he also made the most of the light avail­able to him. All too of­ten, I see pho­tog­ra­phers point­ing their mod­i­fiers right at their sub­jects (po­si­tion A in the di­a­gram on the fac­ing page). When I do this my­self, I of­ten find the light far too harsh for my style of work, even with the largest of soft boxes. In­stead, more of­ten than not, I use the am­bi­ent light com­ing from my mod­i­fier or win­dow. Just shift­ing the sub­ject out of di­rect light can give the work a very dif­fer­ent qual­ity (po­si­tion B).



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