Lighting 102: Combining Distance and Two Lights
By using a second light to ensure legibility in the shadows, we can place a "floor" on how low the tones will go on our subject. But we can also combine this with the fast falloff of a closely placed key light to get total control of a subject with an inherently tough dynamic range.
The above photograph of Omar, a falconer in the desert in Sharjah, UAE is a good example. Omar is wearing a bright white kundura, the traditional Emirati garment. Fully lit, it's brightness would pull attention away from both Omar's face and his falcon.
Using two lights, I can easily solve this problem. The fill light, which I placed first, is in a ring flash. (In this case a simple ring flash adapter that mounts on a speedlight). This makes my fill light surround the lens barrel—and come from exactly the lens' axis.
That light is underexposed a couple of stops, which turns the bright white kundura into an muted light gray. Now instead of too-bright white, it is almost pearlescent.
Now that the kundura is solved, let's bring in the key light. That would be a second speedlight, in a shoot-through umbrella, placed high and in front of Omar's face, very close. It is hovering over him, just out of the frame:
As we shot, I directed Drew to bring the umbrella even closer still. That key light distance is very important. This ensures Omar's face receives a full dose of light, but the light falls off very quickly as it passes Omar's shoulders and heads down his torso.
In effect, as we transition down his body we are also transitioning from key light to legibility light. A quick slope from full exposure down to our preset floor.
The kundura is fully exposed only very near Omar's face. As you travel further down the garment, the light level it is receiving quickly falls—until it hits the "floor" I have set with my ring fill light.
If we sample the tones of the kundura at top (A) and bottom (B) we can easily see the difference:
Rather than keeping our shadows from going to black, in this case the fill/legibility light is creating what will be the defining tone for most of his garment. As a bonus, the fill light is also giving us shadow detail in his eye sockets.
Once again, working with two lights in tandem allows us to create a nuanced tonal structure that solves our "white garment fighting for attention" problem.
And note how that "legibility light" also allows us to use a more interesting, atypical key light position. Without it, those eye sockets would be near black. (I say near, because the kundura itself would act as a little bit of a reflector.)
With the close-in key light and no fill, we would get a quick falloff to a tone that would be too dark. With the addition of the second light, we have a quick falloff to an predetermined floor. And in this case, it was chosen to allow the kundura to still present as white — but in a way that would not be too bright and scream for attention.
We want Omar's face to be the entry point, and with the muted tone on the kundura, it is.
Next: Apparent Light Size
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