When the Sunlight is good enough

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When meeting Ross for some retro styled fashion shots in central Portsmouth, I bought him to a spot that I thought had a complementary back drop – the red bricked buildings providing a not too modern setting and not too distracting. I like uncluttered backgrounds to my images, with the focus being on our subject.

Additionally, the buildings which flank either side of the street are also tall and I thought would therefore make a shady spot for shooting in. Why was I seeking shade? Well, I was unsure of where the sun would be at the time of our shoot and I knew that if I had a shady spot then I could guarantee some nice light through some off-camera flash. This was how I anticipated lighting the shoot.

The main image at the top however was shot with entirely the available light, not one ounce of flash light. It still though has a certain pop to it, which I like. Looking at the shadow under Ross’s nose and the gradient of shadow of light across his face should tell you everything about the direction of where the light was coming from…

The sun just happened to be coming in from the end of the street, nicely diffused by some occasional drifting clouds. This meant the light was quite soft (even at about 1pm) and coming from a good direction. I asked Ross to look into the direction of the light. Perfect and no need to add anything else! The diagram below will give you an idea of the set up.

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Camera settings: ISO 200, f/4.0, 1/400

Later on in the shoot the clouds broke and the sunlight was harder. Too hard for someone to look at without squinting heavily so we moved to one of the walls and had Ross turn his back to the sun putting him in ‘open shade’.

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This gave a completely different sun drenched look to the image. Camera settings: ISO 200, f/4.0, 1/320.

Additional lighting can be a necessity when the available light is not good enough, or when we want to achieve a certain effect, but its also important to recognise when no other lighting is required. Sometimes the sun is more than good enough!

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It’s Bright Outside! (Sunny 16 Rule and Subject Position)

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Its a lovely bright sunny day with no clouds! Perfect for taking photos………

Well, sometimes I welcome a good old bit of British cloud. I think most photographers will agree that bright and sunny can often mean very tricky shooting conditions.

The direct bright sun is a hard light source and with that, unless we control the light positioning, this can bring ugly shadows on our subject, on top of squinting eyes. The sun is a tricky light source to move but what we can control is our subject position.

I quite often will seek the refuge shelter of a shaded spot in these situations, which then gives me the option to position my subject more freely or even add additional lighting to my taste. But if there are no shaded spots and the light is too bright to overpower with extra lights, then we must position our subject so that we get flattering light on them. This more often than not involves having their backs towards the sun.

With their backs to the sun, their faces are now in open shade. No harsh shadows and no squinting eyes. The light might be quite flat but is certainly pleasant. In addition you will get some nice rim lighting on the back of them. This may blow out in certain parts but crucially the face will not be…..providing you have exposed correctly.

In a previous blog I mentioned how you can expose correctly via the use of the histogram (using my infamous white vest). This method is described in the excellent new book by Neil Van Niekerk called Direction & Quality of Light. I can’t recommend this book or his other books high enough!  But we can also make a very good guesstimate of our settings when time/circumstance doesn’t permit other methods. This guess is based on the Sunny 16 Rule…..

This states that on a very bright day correct exposure will be at f/16 when your shutter speed is the inverse of your ISO.  For example f/16, ISO 200, 1/200.

My base ISO for my Nikon camera is ISO 200 and when in bright light I tend to jump to 1/250 (my max flash sync speed – even though I did not use flash in this instance), which leaves the aperture as the remaining variable for me to adjust.

Using the Sunny 16 rule, at ISO 200 and 1/250 my aperture would be f/14.  Why f/14? Because as my shutter is increased by 1/3 stop over 1/200 I have to open up my aperture by 1/3 stop from f/16 to f/14

Quite often, with our subjects back to the sun, a 3 stop increase on these settings is spookily close to correct exposure.

Based on these settings I therefore opened up ~3 stops to give me a guesstimate of correct exposure.

f/14 > f/10  >f/7.1 > f/5

In reality I didn’t think of these numbers exactly.  I knew f/5 would be about right for 3 stops and this would be a good place to start.

What was my next step? Take a photo and look on the back of my camera! Yep, there’s no shame in admitting this.  An instant check of your photo on the camera’s LCD is a major benefit of modern technology.  I also check the ‘blinking lights’ to check my subjects face is not over exposed.

In this instance the exposure looked good and in fact didn’t need any adjustment later in processing.

For the photo below I wanted a really wafer thin depth of field so opened up my aperture to f/2.  This can be dicey, especially shooting kids, who generally move about quite a lot, but I wanted to try out my new lens with the aperture this wide open. I cannot compensate for this increase in aperture by lowering my ISO and so the only camera control I can use to account for this is by increasing my shutter speed.

Settings for this image ISO 200, f/2, 1/1250

If you juggle my settings for the previous image then my aperture has increased by 2 2/3 stops (from f/5 to f/2) and my shutter speed has increased 2 1/3 stop (from 1/250 to 1/1250).  I am therefore still pretty close to 3 stops over the Sunny 16 rule.

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Once I have got my settings I can shoot away. Critically I am shooting in manual mode, which means my exposures between frames will remain consistent. If I am shooting in an automatic camera mode there will be a very, very good chance my subject will be greatly underexposed with the strong backlighting encountered in this scenario.

If I were to try and account for this using exposure compensation then this maybe OK for one image. However, if I change my position slightly, and the camera automatically adjusts the exposure again, then I face a constant wrestle with my exposure for my subject. Manual exposure eliminates this problem.

My Vest – Exposure Metering using the Histogram

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My white vest caused quite a stir on the beaches of Hayling Island during my recent location shoot….!

In fact, this beast is quite often part of my camera bag when out on a shoot and is a great aid to quickly determine my camera settings for subject exposure.  This is a technique that I have acquired from the ‘guru’ Neil Van Niekerk and is based on using the histogram information of our image to establish exposure.  Specifically, the far right hand side of the histogram.

Neil Van Niekerk is a legend and his book On-Camera Flash Techniques is essential reading for photographers. His book explains this method and this blog shows how I have applied it on location.

The histogram itself is a graphical distribution of image data with black tones on the left and white on the far right.  Anything that is beyond the far right of the histogram will essentially be ‘lost’ (although of course such information can often be retrieved through image manipulation).

Back to my vest…..

If you are still with me, my vest is white meaning if that I place this tone to the far right of the histogram then all other tones within my exposure (for my subject) will fall perfectly into place.  To do this I simply fill my viewfinder with the vest and increase my exposure by 5 clicks or approx 1.7 stops from the zero point.

The vest was held up by model and so I am ‘exposing’ for white in the same light that is falling onto my subject.  This is critical as it is my model that I want correct exposure for.  You also HAVE to be shooting in manual mode.

This screen grab from Lightroom shows the histogram information for my white vest and the subsequent exposure under the same camera setting for my lovely model in the photograph above….

The histogram in the top right hand corner shows the data is on the far right hand side, just where we want white to be.

Histogram

This process is a matter of 1-2 seconds when shooting in manual mode and ensures that I am getting consistent exposure for my subject from frame to frame irespective of my focal length.  Shooting outside in bright light? ISO 200 (or base ISO), 1/250 (flash sync speed for my camera), then f/stop to give my ~1.7 stops over zero for my vest. Easy as that!  Should you want a specific depth of field then these settings can then be juggled to your desire.

My flash sync speed is quite often my start point in case I decide to pop some extra light (especially in bright light)….but that is a different subject all together.

What is great about this method is that it can be used with speed during weddings (brides tend to wear white, perfect) and can be adapted to meter for light strobes in the studio or flash light (when using manual mode).  Forgot your light meter? Crack out the vest!!

So…..if youre shooting with me and I bring this item out don’t be alarmed, I keep it clean, it will soon be put away and you’ll have nicely exposed photographs to show for it 😉

(Note: This method is not limited to vests, other garments may be used)

Strike a pose!

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You’ve arranged a shoot….you’ve found an ideal location….you’ve discussed wardrobe and styling….you’ve prepped all your gear….all that’s left is to put your model in front of the camera and click the shutter, right? Not quite….

This article was inspired by a recent facebook post by one of my favourite photographers, the awesome Jennfier Alder. Her invaluable tip to anyone modelling is to have a handful of pose ideas ready for the day – and also goes on to say this this can also depend on the wardrobe for that shoot; be it a long flowing skirt, backless top, bikini or whatever. Great advice!

‘Become familiar with a handful of simple poses’ is something that I have found myself occasionally mention to models before or during a shoot. Even better is to pick a handful of poses that you can move simply between.

However a photo shoot is DEFINITELY a two way street between the model and photographer and this advice, in my opinion, rings true for those behind the camera too!

Yes, as a photographer, I also practice the odd pose or two in front of the mirror (sssshhhhhhh!!). I’m sure that anyone I have worked with can vouch that I am prepared to demonstrate a figure or two. Obviously, it doesn’t quite have the same impact when I do it as opposed to the model (!) but the point here is that it is easier to get someone to mimic a pose by mirroring what your doing, rather than with verbal direction. This is true for me whether I am in the studio, on location, or posing a couple during a wedding.

It can also break the ice a bit on a photoshoot and inspire a bit more of a collaborative process in coming up with new pose ideas.

For me then, depending on the type of shoot, I research similar themed images to find things that I like and try to memorise a couple of these poses for the shoot. More often than not this is just to get things going. Look at magazines, look through the internet…even go as far as keeping a scrap book of poses.

When both the model and photographer do this before a shoot it can only help with the creative process on the day.

I really like the pose on the main image for this blog. Simple, flattering and easy to remember!