It’s Been a Hard Day’s Light

In my lighting workshop, I spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of soft light. When referring to photographic lighting, the terms “soft” and “hard” refer to the quality of transition from light to shadow. Hard light produces a sharp line, whereas soft light produces a gradual transition.

When we first experiment with diffusers, whether by bouncing light off a ceiling or with clever products like Gary Fong’s Lightsphere, we tend to fall in love. That’s why, toward the end of the workshop, I reintroduce attendees to hard light. Hard light is not an enemy, and I think that learning about soft light helps beginners better appreciate the dramatic power of hard light.

For Hat Night 2, my original intent was to create a “film noir” type of lighting. I practiced working with hard light and with techniques for restricting and aiming that hard light. I didn’t get what I imagined, but I learned a lot from what I got.

Hard light tends to create hot spots (elbow), and sometimes unpredictable shadows. The lights were so tightly aimed that the model's breathing changed the position of the shadow of her hand. But it's hard to beat hard light for drama, eh?

I used two flashes, with the camera set at 1/250 of a second and f8. I would generally use a bigger aperture for portraits, but cluttered backgrounds required that I underexpose the ambient light as much as possible.

To aim the flashes, I used a Honl 1/8 grid on the SB800 and a Honl speedsnoot on the SB600. The grid is a honeycomb device that narrows a flash’s beam while also slightly diffusing the light. A snoot is a kind of tube that extends beyond the flash head to aim the beam and prevent light from spilling out to the sides. Generally, I used the grid to light the subject’s face and the snoot to light some other element, such as a knife.

With electronic flash, aiming lights is a matter of trial and error. I never did get a proper light on the pistol.

Primary lessons from this shoot:

1)   There’s a reason film crews spend a day and a half setting up lights for a one-minute scene. It takes time to aim and carefully balance the lights. I need to allot more time for set-up and tests when I use grids and snoots, because they must be precisely aimed.

2)   Part of the joy of working with hard light is the opportunity to craft shadows as part of the story. I spent most of last evening trying to light the subject. I need to spend more time learning to light the scene. Completely dark backgrounds are dramatic, but strip the subject of context. Next time, I’ll style the backgrounds and then experiment with ways to blend ambient light (perhaps two stops underexposed) and electronic flash to more thoroughly realize my ideas. Of course, I’ve had success in the past using one flash to light the subject and another to light a plane of the background, so I’ll experiment with that technique as well.

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Filed under Camera Settings, Lighting, Portraiture

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