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SLC-1L-02: One light, Inside the Frame

Long-time readers will recognize this shot, of the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel in Maryland, as the photo from the very first post on Strobist in 2006. I was happy with it when I shot it. And to some degree, I still am.

But looking at it today, there are definitely some things I would approach differently. So let's walk through it, bearing in mind what we've learned since way back then.

Creating Separation and Contrast

Some of the earliest photos I made that blew me away were lucky mistakes. I'd be making my utterly ordinary picture, and the Photo Gods would smile down on me for a fraction of a second. During that tiny window, when my shutter was open, someone else's flash would go off somewhere within my frame.

The resulting burst of light might be weak, or super strong. It pretty much didn't matter—it almost always looked great. If the flash was weak, it just added an area of dimension, relief and detail. If it was strong, my photo looked all looked gutsy and dynamic.

The thing was that it was going off inside the frame. So it was always gonna be off-camera and way off-axis—and do some neat things as a result.

It could be at a press conference. Or, if I was really lucky, on the far sideline of a high school football game. It always looked good—and often, great.

So after a while, I began to evolve. Meaning, I started to consider what I could accomplish by adding a light inside my frame. (I had seen it succeed by accident so many times that I honestly began to realize you pretty much can't lose.

This shot in the wind tunnel is a good example of a brute-force light inside the frame. The room was dark and foreboding, with sodium vapor (read: sickly orange) ambient light.

So to create better color and contrast I first underexposed the room a couple stops, which turned the sickly orange into a more vibrant, tech-y orange. But that also left a whole lotta dark. So, to that underexposure, I added a single bare speedlight (on ~1/4 power) behind one of the props of the wind tunnel's giant fan.

This changed everything. First, my now-saturated room was no longer just underexposed. It was both underexposed and overexposed. Interestingly, very little in this photo is properly exposed. But the under- and over-exposure areas balance each other out and create the depth and contrast that makes the photo work.

And 2006 Dave was proud of himself because he took a dingy tunnel and made it explode with a little light. But today, when I look at the photo I can't help but wince a little.

Why the Hell is My Flash White?

Well, I can tell you why it's white. Because that was the color of light that came out of my flash in 2006, and I didn't know any better. I mean, I would warm up my key, or balance to tungsten ambient. But that was usually about it. And it is pretty fair to say that white is probably not the best choice. It was just the easiest/least sophisticated choice.

Knowing what we know now (and yes, I am including both of us here) I would approach the shot differently. Before placing this light I'd ask myself, "What color would it be?" And then maybe, "What color could it be?"

And yeah, you can make an argument here that it might be white. After all, there could be some sort of bright daylight LED (not really in 2006, but maybe these days) work light back there.

But if that is the standard, there are several directions we could go with this. You could get away with pretty much anything in the cyan-green range, touching on different colors of fluorescent lights. And already you'd have a more sci-fi, high-tech look. Hell, try to find a sci-fi movie these days that does not work a tungsten-cyan cross lighting scheme in somewhere. Within that blue-green spectrum, I'd probably be looking for something as close as possible to the exact complementary color to that underexposed orange sodium vapor.

Why? Because The Rules tell me that something cool blue to green could be back there, so now I have color contrast to work with instead of just intensity contrast. Meaning, no matter what intensity I chose that color contrast would add more depth and interest to the image.

What about red? Might some red be back there? Yeah, I can see the glow of an exit/emergency light being there. Unseen, but affecting the back of the frame.

And now you have a super warm, orange-to-red transition happening. Again, different than white. And probably better.

Better? Maybe, maybe not. But all of the above are likely more believable than a clean, super-bright white light happening back there.

What If We Added a Subject?

So this is all well and good, but what if I had to have a person in my foreground—you know, like Wind Tunnel Manager Bob or something? But I also want to preserve whatever cool environmental lighting scheme that I have built?

First, remember that the ambient environment in my foreground is ~2 stops underexposed, to get the deep orange look. So Bob (or Jane, whatev) will have to be lit. But since I don't want to contaminate my ambient scene, I'll need to restrict the light with a grid. You know, to keep it just on BobJane.

So I am probably gonna split the difference between white and full orange and go with a gridded 1/2 CTO on the face. If I am smart, I'l look at the ambient lightbulb pattern above and stick my key light in the direction of a nearby (but out-of-frame) ambient light bulb. That would sell it.

Now, my light on the face is pleasingly warm in a way that ties into the room light I have built with my ambient underexposure. Looking at the remaining shadows in the face, if they are okay at two-stops down I might leave them. If they need help, I might push a second, tightly gridded light in from the bottom and tied the color to whatever I have done in the background. That would get me some neat-looking shadow fill, with a color that has a raison d'etre.

The thinking is, whatever neato light is pushing from the back of the frame may well also be present down low in front. It's a logical tie-in, and a good place to start when you are looking for a non-white color for your fill.

I'm also realizing that I'd want that fill not only tightly gridded, but also very close. Reason being, if there's any overspray you want it to fall off before it hits the ceiling and contaminates the color.

Building One Step at a Time

This post is in the one-light section. And that one, in-frame light is what gets you the dynamic quality to your scene.

But the point is to think the same way whether you are using one light or twelve. The same little voice that tells you one light deep in the frame will build interest into your one-light scene need not be silenced by the fact that you might also have to light a subject from the front.

Stack your individual principles to build more complex solutions, but develop those solutions one step at a time.

And understand that, no matter how happy you are with a frame you make today, that process of constant progression will likely leave you looking down your nose at your today self within just a few years.

And that's a good thing.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook, One-Light


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