A friend once told me that photographers don’t photograph people or things,
photographers capture the light being reflected off of those people or things.
While intellectually I understood that everything we see is really just light reflecting off of matter, it took a while for the practicalities of that to sink in. I let the concept sit in the back of my mind for a while, not taking up much operating room, but every once in a while I would see the light reflecting off of a tree in a way I hadn’t noticed before, or how a tiny glow reached out to halo my friend when she stood with her back to the sunset.
Finally, I got it. Light matters. Especially in photography. You might have the most exquisite cupcake imaginable sitting in front of you, but in the wrong lighting it could look flat and pedestrian. In the reverse, you can take something quite ordinary and make it intriguing by being clever with the lighting.
I have much yet to learn about light and lighting, but I’ve come a long way from where I started out and thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned with you.
I mostly shoot with one light source at a time. This source is either the sunlight coming in through a window, or a stand light I purchased because I have a bad habit of working into the wee hours of the morning.
There’s a lot that can be done with the lighting of a picture simply by changing the position of your subject in relation to the light source. Do you want it lit straight on? Back lit? Lit from one side or the other? The position of the subject to the light source is a decision you make (consciously or unconsciously) each time you set up your shot.
However, today I want to take it a step further and talk about manipulating the available light beyond the positioning of the subject in relation to your light source. What do I mean when I say “manipulating light?” Basically, I mean using items to either reflect light back onto or block light from reaching the composition.
I’ve found that foam core boards are the handiest tool to use for this purpose, which is why I’ll be talking a lot about them. I have several pieces of foam core board (hereinafter “FCB”) in white and black and the occasional gray.
FCB is a wonderful tool for manipulating light. The white FCB reflects light beautifully, while the black FCB does a bang up job of blocking out light. It also works really well as a backdrop for pictures.
Last November I took a workshop with Helene Dujardin of Tartelette and Tami Hardeman of Running with Tweezers where I learned more about the wonders of FCB. In particular, Helene passed on more advanced FCB technique: cut a hole in the board. If you are using a black FCB, it acts somewhat like a spotlight on a dark stage. If you have white FCB, you can reflect light back onto your composition and brighten up the areas surrounding where the hole doesn’t reflect the light.
Another really useful way to use FCB is to make what I refer to as a “card.” I’m not sure if that’s the proper name, but that’s what I’ve been calling them. It’s just two pieces of FCB taped together like a book (tape on the outside, like a book binding). It’s great for bouncing light back onto a small area.
Okay, now that I’ve probably confused you with all this talk of blocking and bouncing light, let’s look at some practical examples.
For starters, here’s a look at my baseline setup for the photo shoot.
The eggs (see below) are on a table that sits just to the right of a window. I’m using a piece of black FCB as the backdrop to my image.
The window, table, eggs and camera do not move throughout the photo shoot. Various pieces of FCB are used to bounce and block light and, of course, the sun was setting in the sky, so the light changed a very little bit during the course of the shoot.
If you want to see diagrams of all the different setups for the shoot, see the very bottom of this post. While they are in no way to scale, they should be pretty helpful for understanding how are FCBs are set up to achieve the results in the following photographs.
I’m starting off with these photos because they demonstrate just how much light can be reflected off of a piece of white FCB. In the first picture, you can’t see the writing on the front of the basket. In the second image, the only thing that has changed is the card placed just in front of the basket and suddenly the text is visible.
However, clearly we’re not going to take pictures with the card visible in the foreground like that, so here are some examples of how FCB might be used to bounce light for this composition.
These photos demonstrate how the use of a card or an entire FCB to bounce light back on the composition changes the final image.
Image A uses the initial setup (Fig. 1), where all the illumination comes straight from the window.
Image B has a card set just to the right of the basket of eggs (see Fig. 2 below). The change is subtle, but the shadows have a softer quality and the towel is a little more luminous.
Image C has an entire piece of FCB held just to the right of the basket of eggs (see Fig. 3 below). There is a drastic difference here. The shadows have lost that stark edge and the light on the eggs is much more even and feels almost gentle in comparison to the other images.
This picture is another good example of how a card can reflect enough light to really impact the picture. A card is set up just to the right and of the doughnuts and it really lightens up the shadow. It also reflects enough light to brighten up the right side of the mask as well.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying that more light is always better. It completely depends on what you are going for. Shadows create depth and drama, so sometimes you want to enhance rather than lessen the shadows. As with many things in photography, the more knowledge you have, the more control you have over the final picture.
Sometimes you want to subtract light from the image rather than adding light to it. For instance, you may not like the hard horizon line where the boards meet the FCB used as the backdrop in these images. Or maybe you just like dark backgrounds. You can use black FCB to block the light going to the back of the image.
This is actually one of my favorite example images. The difference was just so drastic when I took the picture that I got really excited about it. The picture on the left is the basic setup with a card (see Fig. 2). For the image on the right I used a piece of black FCB to shutter off part of the window (see Fig. 4 below), which allowed the window to light the middle and foreground of the picture, but created a really dark background. The result is just a completely different picture.
I also think that these pictures are really fun. Image A is the basic setup with the card again (Fig. 2). But images B and C were set up so that almost all of the light was blocked off, except for light coming in through a hole in one of the black FCBs (see Fig. 5). The differences between B and C come entirely from changing the position of the hole, which changed the direction of the light coming into the frame.
Because B and C were so dark, I included edited images where I increased the exposure so you could see what a final product might look like. I didn’t seal off my windows when doing this, so you can see where some light leaked, but I think the photographs are wonderfully dramatic and atmospheric.
Summing It All Up
Light is neat. Once you get the hang of bouncing and blocking light, so many options open up to you regarding how to compose the image, the tone you’re aiming for, what you want to emphasize and so many other things.
I just ran through some basic ways to manipulate the available light, but there are many more t ways to bounce and block the light. You can use materials other than FCB, use colored fabric in lieu of white to add some color to the image, or just play with the placement of your bouncers and blockers to see what you can come up with.
Through this photo shoot, I discovered that I don’t experiment with blocking light nearly enough. I almost always bounce light in some fashion, but I haven’t really gotten down and dirty with the black FCB to experiment with taking the light away. I was really excited and inspired by how subtracting light really changed the images. It’s now entirely possible that this may be reflected (puns!) in my photography for the next stretch.
And with that, I leave you with just one more example of how bouncing light changes images.