Most photographs are taken during the day using sunlight as their light source. At night, we can use street lights or interior lighting of buildings to provide light and with experience, we can control and harness these sources to give the creative effects we require and light our subject in a way that suits our intent or aesthetic. Photographic lighting can be used to replace or complement these other light sources and is the method most controllable by the photographer.
These lights can take a variety of forms, from the humble flash gun (even the on camera flash which should not be completely discounted as a creative tool) through to tungsten lighting and mains flash units.
Over the years, I’ve built up a small collection of speedlights, reflectors and light modifiers, but nothing more advanced. The portability of flash guns has always been more useful to me than constant lighting that while more powerful and easier to control, is also more expensive and bulky.
For the purposes of this and the following exercises leading up to assignment 4, a flash gun should be sufficient.
Softening the Light
A flash gun provides a small, bright, high-contrast light source. Its effect is similar to that of direct sunlight and means that the light hits the subject from approximately the same angle, causing hard-edged shadows. A photographer shooting outdoors in these conditions can wait until the sun is covered with cloud that will scatter the sun’s rays, causing them to hit the subject from many angles, softening the shadows.
When using photographic lighting, rather than available light, we need to find other ways to soften the light (if that’s what we’re looking to do) and these mimic the effects we’ve seen used in sunlight. This exercise uses diffusers in front of the light, scattering the light into random paths as cloud did outdoors.
This first picture uses a flash without diffusion. It was positioned a couple of feet above the scene, front right of the camera. It was left at full power for all shots.
The shadows in this picture are extremely hard-edged and dark. In parts of the set-up it is difficult to tell the difference between the shadows and the metal of the chainrings. Also, because the light was bright and close to the subject, there is an unsatisfactory light gradient across the picture from top-right to bottom-left.
With a 60cm square softbox fitted, the light source becomes much larger and more diffused. The flash and camera settings were the same and the reduction of light on the scene is evident. The shadows are just as dark, but the edges far softer. The lighting on the metal surfaces is less contrasty and gives better detail. In this case, it is an improvement.
The final pair were taken without flash and used only the light through a window (at a different angle). The exposure time had to be extended to 25 seconds, but the light source is even lower contrast and more diffuse, giving extremely soft edges to the shadows.
Hunter, F et al. (2012) Light – Science and magic. An introduction to photographic lighting. Oxford; Elsevier Inc.