Photography: Using light fall-off to illuminate your subject
John collects vintage … oh, everything. His entire house filled with collectibles – it is like stepping out of a time-machine into a different era. I joked with him that the only two things in his house from the 21st century is his fridge and his dog! Most impressive in a way, is John’s workshop where he maintains his two vintage era motorbikes and a Model A Ford. The tools in his workshop are all authentic to the era and are hand tools – no electric tools – and they work. The way John describes it, it actually makes sense in the way he maintains everything with hand-tools and lathes and such.
I wanted to portray him amongst all these items. And I wanted to stay true to the spirit of what was presented, and just use the available light. Sweeping the garage doors open, there was a flood of soft, directional light – perfect.
Shooting at a right angle to the light streaming in, there is that dynamic interplay between light and shade as the light faded off the deeper we look into the workshop.
That gradient of light isn’t linear – it falls off according to the inverse square law from the open garage door. In where we position our subject and therefore adjust our exposure, the exposure ratio between our subject and the background can change. We can control it.
Shooting deeper into the workshop, everything is lit more or less the same, since everything in the frame is nearly equidistant to the light flooding in from the garage door.
Lighting & Design for Portrait Photography
Lighting & Design is a follow-up of sorts to Direction & Quality of Light. It’s a slightly eclectic mix, discussing the thought-process with various scenarios shooting portraits. The examples use available light, bounce flash, off-camera flash as well as studio lighting.
The idea is that in every one of the 60 sections, there is something to be learnt and applied, regardless of your level as a photographer or where you shoot – all shaped to form a cohesive narrative arc throughout the book.
The next two images will illustrate clearly how the light fall-off to the background can change where our attention is focused. These two photos are quite similar, except that with the first one, John is further back into the workshop. Therefore about the same amout of light reaches him as does the tools and workbenches behind him.
In this photo, he had stepped forward, closer to the and in getting corrrect exposure for him now (more brightly lit by the light coming in from the garage doors), the background is now comparatively much darker. It would need additional lighting to pick that up to proper exposure again. While a light behind him as back-lighting would’ve helped separate him from the background, I wanted to keep it to natural lighting.
As an aside, John affected a “Strong Man” pose, which is also reminiscent of a previous era.
There is a two-stop drop in exposure if you compare the two images above. (The ISO changed by two stops.) Keeping the exposure correct for John, the background went darker, with just a hint of detail in the back, so the focus is much more on John. In this way, there is a range of positions I could’ve had John stand, (closer or further to the garage door), giving more (or less) light to the background, as I adjust the exposure for him.
With the inverse-square law in mind, choose specific places to shoot, and specific ways to shoot – always aware of the gradient of light falling on your subject and the scene.
- Using interesting available light (model: Olena)
- Available light portraits – Composition, light and style (model: Christy)
- Under- / Over-exposure vs. exposing correctly
- Window-light baby portrait photos
- Other articles on Available Light Photography