Lighting 103: Greg's Assignment

Abstract: The best way to get a better understanding of light and color is to just do it.

In the last part of our conversation with Greg Heisler, he gave what I think is a very good piece of advice about light and color:

"I think what you have to do to be able to see it, is to shoot it. And then shoot it.

Like, shoot it the clean way, with white light. Then the next way is to shoot it with a warm and a cool. And so you see that. And then muddy up the light a little bit, and then see it that way."

So that's exactly what we're gonna do.

In 2012 I photographed an Irish step dancer for the Howard County Arts Council (On Assignment here.) I was using a hazer and some backlight to create some atmosphere, and on a lark I decided to gel the backlights with a mix of full CTOs and CTBs.

The idea was to try to duplicate the mix of warm and cool sources I would see in theater lighting, or in performance venues. I'm not sure I got what I was looking for. But I remember thinking that the light looked far more interesting—and frankly, more real—than the typical light I was using at the time.

I thought the light on the smoke, and on the subject, looked more chromatically complex. I'm borrowing Greg's term here, because while I could see it at the time I could not really express it.

It's important to note that I had no idea what I was doing. It was more like, Mmm. Theater people mix warm cool light. Maybe David do that too, see what happen.

Here were my backlights, remembering that I was going for a theater feel with lots of hard sources:

Just a bag of hard speedlights. They are shown still white. But I ended up adding CTOs to the top and bottom lights, and CTBs to the middle lights. And it definitely made the scene, the smoke and the dancer look more grounded in light that felt more real.

There were more CTO than CTB sources, so the overall balance is warm. And because of that, I think the light feels more like hot lights than strobes. Actually, it looks like anything but strobes.

So this was sort of an 'a ha' moment for me and lighting. I really didn't have any sense of what I was doing. It was more like, let's try anything but white. And while it wasn't perfect, I immediately felt like I was onto something.

So, just like Greg suggested last time, here's what I'd like to do: an assignment. Actually, more of an experiment. I'd like for you to do a portrait, simple, on black. Light it however you'd like. If you want to use Greg's work (say, his Bloomberg portrait) as a guidepost, that's cool.

The point is to use two sources and light it white. Then warm up your key and cool down your shadows and try it that way. Maybe a half CTO on the key and full CTB on the fill/shadows.

See how that looks. Then "dirty up" the blue fill light with some added green. The basic Strobist kit gels will have everything you need. (Remember, if you need to cut back on the green a bit, you can "stripe it" and partially cover the area on the light that is fully covered by the blue gel.

Look at it straight. Look at it warm/cool. Maybe try varying the amounts of CTB on the fill. Look at that. Look at it with the fill dirtied up a bit with some window green.

What do you see? What looks more real? What brings out subhues in your subject's skin in the shadows? Or in the areas where the two light sources cross over and mix?

I'm going to do this one, too. I'll post my results and walk through them next time. To give you (and me) time to pull it together, I'll add an extra week to the posting schedule.

If you do it and you'd like to share, please feel free to ping me on Twitter and show me your results. I'd love to see them.

NEXT: Assignment Results


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