Dancing with light (Bowens-style)
#TeamBowens asked me to set up two demonstrations for the TPS stage - one of which I developed across the four day event into my ‘Portrait of a dancer’ theme. It turned out to be one of my favourite portraits ever….as the dancer is also my daughter.
This portrait is very special to me because it embraces a different kind of lighting than you might typically use on a day to day basis. There were initial challenges as my daughter has never been keen on allowing me to photograph her (she’s a typical thirteen year old)
But after the shoot she confessed that she had at last started to appreciate the art of photography…and what her mother does for a living.
Together we've been able to work on some ideas which means we now both get something out of our portrait sessions. I get to have a play with my lighting options and she gets images for her social media accounts…oh, and cash of course.
The portrait of a dancer idea is predicated on my desire to try and incorporate a subject’s interests in the shoot session. It’s about creating a portrait about a person – not just a portrait of them.
So how was it done?
I decided to use four XMT 500W heads…as I do in my studio. They are perfect for both their power range (they provide both high and low power, which means I can still shoot wide open, even with such commanding lights) and the fact that as these are battery powered meant there were no more troublesome trailing cables to fall over. And their quick flash duration came in very handy too.
I was asked on stage how I was able to freeze the action when shooting with a shutter speed of 125. There was no ambient light affecting the exposure. Only the flash was providing the light on this scene and that was at a speed of 3000th of a second. It was this fast flash duration that allowed me to freeze the action.
During the demo I added the lights one at a time, so the audience could see how we can build a set….we were literally painting with light. We could have stopped at any point and we would have still had a delightful portrait, without adding the additional lights.
The image below was lit with just one light, the 120cm Octobox, positioned on the left. I set this light so that when the dancer was in profile she had a loop pattern of light on her face. This light was positioned overhead, coming from behind the dancer and pointing slightly towards the camera. This can be seen in the lighting diagrams and pull-back shot of the stage.
Dark and moody can be a good look:
A well-lit portrait doesn't necessarily need multiple lights. This Octobox 120 is a large and soft light source and in the position it was in, provided enough of a wraparound light that we still have detail in our shadows. This has made for a darker, perhaps moodier image which is successful in its own right.
But I didn't want to leave it there.
I wanted to show that if you are lighting something and find that parts of the image aren't lit as you would prefer, you don't have to feel restricted by received wisdom that in portraiture we typically use just one key light and one fill-light. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that if one light isn't enough we can simply add another.
My final image was to be one that had every aspect of this dancer lit with at least a rim of light surrounding her, and for her dress to be illuminated.
Octobox is key:
So the next step was to add lights on the bottom and on each side. The image below shows all lights in position and in use on the stage. And you can see that each of the dancer’s limbs have a rim of light, her face is lit and her dress illuminated. This is the light set-up used to achieve the first image displayed in this article.
You may be wondering why I have used a variety of softboxes. Well, I also wanted to show that you don't necessarily need to have them all identical. You can use what you have available and this is what I have in my studio.
I regularly use the Octobox for my key light, the large square for my fill-light, and then I have the two strip boxes for rim lights. It is useful to have two identical softboxes as there are times when I want the light to be exactly the same coming from both sides (this is why I have the two strip boxes.) But my other softboxes are there to serve their own purposes.
Freezing the action:
For this demo I was shooting at F8 using my Fuji X-T2. I wanted everything sharp within a large depth of field. I also knew I was dealing with movement and I wanted to reduce the risk of missing focus. At F8 I was able to prevent ambient light affecting my exposures. This allowed me to use a power setting on the XMTs that gave a flash duration of 3000th of a second.
I knew the flash was going to freeze the action, which is exactly what I wanted. The flash duration on the XMTs varies depending on the power setting. At full power it’s 222th of a second but this quickly increases to 823rd of a second at just one stop less (power of 9) and was at 3003rd of a second when I was using a power of 6.7 for this demo.
The duration, when on its lowest power, is roughly 10000th of a second which is pretty incredible. I've never needed to use my lights at full power, so the relatively slower duration (a duration typical of most lights on the market anyway) isn't an issue for me.
Using simulation software I have created a diagram of the lighting set-up I used on the Bowens’ stage. There I was limited on space and had to have the lights and subject much closer to the backdrop than is ideal.
As you can see in both the diagram above and the pull-back shot of the stage itself, there is definitely spill hitting the back wall and a shadow being cast from the softboxes.
I used content aware fill, cloning and texture overlays to edit my images in order to achieve a seamless background and a polished finished piece.
Had I used a seamless paper with space to bring my subject and lights further from the background, I would have achieved light similar to the diagram below and much less work, if any, would have been required to enhance the background of my portrait.
Either way I am happy with the results.
Once the lights were in position I was ready to begin.
It’s not as simple as a portrait of a stationary subject in that the dancer needs to take a step up and usually a step forward in order to get in position. And in order to create movement in the dress (as we did), I chose to get a third party to throw the dress. In the first image the dancer threw the dress but in the image you see of the pull-back I had an assistant do the throwing for us.
Other than the most talented dancers, most will only be able to stay in a pose like the ones above for a second or two. It’s not really possible to refine posing or lighting while the dancer is in position. All you can do is keep trying until you get it right.
Once a few shots are taken, evaluate the images and make changes as necessary. You may find you need to reposition lights or direct your dancer in a way that eases them into a more appropriate pose.
Don't be discouraged if you don't get the perfect image straight away. Even the best photographers, with highly experienced dancers, are unlikely to get the perfect shot without some trial and error. Nailing focus, timing and dress throwing are all skills that require some degree of practice for each session. But when you do nail the shot it’s a beautiful and highly rewarding experience for both yourself and your client. I know I will cherish the portrait I created of my own daughter for many years to come.http://www.christinalauderportraits.com/
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