How to manipulate shadow and highlights
This month, professional photographer Neil Turner looks at ways to manipulate shadow and highlights when shooting portraits. He offers tips and advice on how to set up your kit and explains why you shouldn’t be afraid to break all the rules.
Photography is full of terms we all think we understand. Terms we read about regularly, but in practice need to be explained. By setting ‘high-key’ and ‘low-key’ into a historical frame, they become easier to understand and build on as techniques. Most observers believe both the phrase and the technique we know as high-key originated in cinema, where the film stock and printing techniques couldn’t really cope with too much contrast, so film makers started to use multiple light sources to get a very even light. The leading actresses of the day loved the subsequent side effect that the light created was very flattering — giving them dream-like complexions and a real twinkle in their eyes.
Stills photographers saw the effect, latched onto it and a whole lighting genre was born. Cinematographers are almost certainly responsible for low-key lighting, too. The need to suggest moods, drama and even evoke a sinister atmosphere led the early lighting experts to develop techniques that emphasised shadow and darkness while still allowing the copying and printing of the movies to be done quickly and easily. Low-key lighting was also used when they started shooting on location using ‘day for night’, where they shot during the day but were able to suggest night time by underexposing the scene and picking out only the essential highlights with hugely powerful spotlights.I try not to use labels for styles of photography that were established long before I was born because I don’t want to adhere to conventions that were set early in the last century. What I want to look at here is a modern take on low and high key that I’m going to call ‘minimum shadow’ and ‘minimum highlight’.
There is a fine line between minimal shadow and no shadow at all. Having a subject with dark hair means there will always be part of the image that registers as shadow on a histogram. The classic way to start a minimum shadow portrait is to have your large light source above the lens and a high-efficiency reflector beneath it. I use a 40in shoot-through umbrella above and slightly to one side with a 48in silver Lastolite reflector below with a flash illuminating the background to give an even feel. Every person reacts differently to light, and sometimes with the subject you will realise the main light needs to be moved right slightly and to come down a fraction to get it just right.
If you close the lens down by half a stop and shifted the white balance from 5,200 degrees to 5,600 you can warm things through the image. Moving the main light down a little and to the subject’s left really helped, and can help the subject to come alive in both their eyes and posture. If you got much closer using a 12mm extension ring with an 85mm lens, this would allow you to move the light and the reflector even closer, turn the power right down and work with the lens almost wide open to get a very shallow depth of field which always emphasises the minimal shadow look.
Minimum shadow has a power to create moods. By removing as much shadow as possible and by using large amounts of soft light, we can create a very flattering and evocative mood for photographs — especially for portraits. When it was invented the high-key method used lots of lights to achieve an even effect. It was often used with soft focus to give the glamorous Hollywood style of the day. Using lots of lights is time consuming and expensive and the minimum shadow style is easily achieved with larger light modifiers and good reflectors. With the introduction of some subtle modelling, the image to the right moves away from the strictest interpretation concept.
The idea behind shooting with minimum highlights is to use the few highlights you have to great effect, to pick out a detail, make your subject look mysterious or to change their look altogether. My starting point for all portraits is to have the subject look into the lens to establish eye contact, but there are times when that doesn't work, either because your subject isn't comfortable looking into the camera or because the composition works better when they are looking elsewhere. When you shoot with minimum highlights, the contrast and hard light sometimes dictates that the picture will be more effective if the subject looks at a point near the light source. This helps to manage the shadows on their face. Once you have the position of the light right and the angles all look good, you can refine poses and expressions. From a single light source with a straight daylight balance, you could easily move through experimentation to create a very different but very pleasing portrait.
When an advertising executive coined the phrase ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’, he or she was introducing a very useful phrase into the English language. Minimum highlight lighting does exactly what it says in the title. By strictly limiting the areas of the image that are highlight or midtone, we give pictures, especially portraits, a style that can be used to suggest all sorts of things. Darkness and shadow are both highly evocative and photographers can make use of them when they introduce just the right amount of midtone and highlight to balance the darker areas of the image.
Neil's Words Of Wisdom
It’s hard to think of another area of photography where personal taste plays such a huge part in our decision making. If you are supplying all or most of the light, you have some big calls to make. When you are shooting pictures for yourself then your own taste and requirements are all that matters, but you still want to get it right. Playing with light is one of the joys of photography and setting the mood is great fun. I make no secret of the fact I prefer to work with lots of shadow whenever I can. There is something about contrast in pictures that appeals to me. Maybe this is because I come from a newspaper background where you try not to have too much shadow in the images because the black inks soak through the poor quality paper and ruins the pictures, copy or adverts on the reverse page. If you are shooting portraits for a living then you have to take into account the style of the client and where your images are going to be used. For different reasons to those which spawned the high-key look, minimum shadow pictures often work well where the reproduction isn’t of the highest quality or sophistication. You need to remember minimum highlights means contrast and almost certainly lighting coming from acute angles. It is dramatic, but it is also very prone to emphasising skin blemishes, so be careful and be prepared to do quite a bit of retouching. Planning moods is never easy. There are a whole range of factors that come into play, such as your subject’s colouring, how matt or shiny their skin is, what they are wearing and what kind of location you are working in. In the studio you have more control and that is often a mixed blessing. Having a few decisions made for you (colouring, skin type and clothing, for example) helps you to focus on making the few decisions left open to you and to make the images work. The two extremes of style that we are looking at here should be seen as starting points, techniques to be tried out and understood before using them as a basis for experimentation and the development of personal styles.
In a break from my usual kit, these pictures were made using two hot-shoe type flash units on manual power. Neither of these shots needs a huge amount of power and my Canon 580 EX II Speedlights are easily powerful enough to do the job. I have married them with some basic lighting stands from Manfrotto, the Manfrotto Light-tite umbrella adapters and cheap shoot-through umbrellas that I bought from eBay for under £15. The flash units were triggered using Elinchrom Skyports — mainly because I have them and trust them. They are more reliable than Canon’s infrared system and you don’t have to worry about line of sight.
- Canon EOS 5D MkII x 2
- Canon EF 85mm f1.8 lens
- Canon EF 70-200 f2.8L IS lens
- Canon EF 24-70 f2.8L lens
- Canon EF 12mm extension tube
- Canon 580 EX II speedlights x 2
- Elinchrom Skyport trigger and receivers
- Shoot-through white umbrella
- Westcott Apollo 12in x 12in softbox
- Sto-fen Omni-Bounce white and warm diffusers
- Honl accessory snoot, flag and Velcro straps
- Manfrotto lighting stands
- Lastolite silver/black reflector
- Lastolite white/black portable background
This feature is from the May 2010 issue
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