Real World Lighting: Moody Studio Shot

We’re still in the studio, with Lisa, the same camera, and 3 Profoto lights, but this time I want to show you how controlling the fall of light can create a dramatically different mood, whilst still using the same space.

Here’s our setup,

Moody studio setup shot

and here’s the now standard “automatic” straight out of the camera image. 

Auto exposure shot of moody portrait

As before, the white balance is off, as it’s lit by tungsten light, and the camera is set for flash. There’s no definition to the light at all, and since the exposure was 1/5th of a second at f2.8 we know there’s a big risk of movement and blur in the shot. As with the headshot earlier we could of course adjust our exposure and white balance settings to correct some of this, but it won’t change what is effectively a flat shot. Let’s try and create something more like this. 

Finished Moody portrait

Compare this with the final image from the headshot, and there’s quite a difference, yet we’ve not changed location, or put up a dark background. All we’ve done, as you’ll soon see, is carefully control where the light falls.

This time, I won’t need to go into quite so much detail as we build the shot up, which I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear. The first step we need to take is to change our exposure to manual, and adjust it until the room looks black. I’m going for 1/250s, f6.3 at ISO 100, and lo and behold that gives me a black frame! Exciting eh! As an aside, this is actually quite a useful trick to employ when shooting in a situation where you want to control the light very precisely. If you start from a “blank slate” black frame, you know that the only light in the final image will be light you add, so I find it very helpful from time to time. Perhaps don’t show the model, or a client, as they may think you’ve no idea what you’re doing!

Next, obviously, we need to turn a flash on. As before, I’m using my swanky radio trigger, and let’s start with the same softbox and flash we used last time as our key light, only this time I’m going to add a grid to the front of the softbox. Cast your mind back to what various modifiers do, and you’ll remember that adding a grid to a light limits where it can fall. What it doesn’t actually do is change the quality of the light itself – and since this softbox is still fairly large in relation to Lisa, it’s still a soft light, just with a much more narrow beam being cast.

You can see how just angling the softbox with a grid attached means that we very quickly can’t see any of the light it casts.

Softbox with grid attached

If you recall, this is known as feathering, and it’s key to the look we’re trying to create. If you recall, something placed dead centre in the path of a light source will receive the most light, and then the amount will decrease as something is placed off to one side. Grids accentuate this, and if we’re careful about where we angle our lights, we can control the fall of light quite precisely. For example, this softbox, is off to one side of Lisa, and aiming back at her, but none of it is aiming towards the back wall. If we went and stood at the back wall, in the section of it which is visible behind and around Lisa, then looked towards the softbox, we wouldn’t see any light. This, in combination with good old inverse square law, explains why we’ve turned a white wall into a dark grey, almost black. 

Moody portrait with just key light

Look closely at the back wall, and you can see it’s faintly brighter on the left hand side than the right. This is because this side of the wall will be just affected by any light being cast by the softbox. Not enough to make it bright, but enough to lift it just a little. If we wanted to darken this down further, we could flag the light in some way to prevent it from hitting the back wall at all, or place some large black reflectors around the black wall to shade it further.

By now you shouldn’t need me to tell you that the other reason the back wall is so dark is because of inverse square law. Since we’re exposed for Lisa (actually a little under-exposed, but that suits the mood of the shot) and the back wall is quite a way behind her, it will be a good few stops darker than she is. We could accentuate this even further if we brought the softbox closer in to her, and therefore increased the relative distance between it, her, and the back wall.

Let’s bring in 2 back lights to lift Lisa from the background, and give her some definition and depth.

Moody portrait with backlights added

I’ve placed these very carefully, as although they’re doing a similar job to the backlight we added in our headshot earlier, all I really want them to do is outline Lisa, not interfere with the light falling on her front. If they come too far round to the side, they’ll start to cast shadows I don’t want. I’ve adjusted their power to give me a very similar amount of light to the headshot image – bright, but not blown out, as you can see from this close-up. 

Highlights almost clipping

The effect is more marked in this image, because the background is darker.

The quality of these backlights is different to the headshot too. I want a soft light, as I’m wary of casting harsh shadows, but of course I also want to control very precisely where the light falls. I’ve chosen to use softboxes, but narrow ones known as “strips”. These me give just the right quality, and spread enough to light from waist up to head, but don’t spill around in all directions. Once I’ve added a grid to each of them, I can control the fall of light even more.

Let me pause for a minute and talk a little more about grids. We know they are used to control the fall of light, and that they can be metal ones that pop into the front of a reflector, or fabric ones that fit into a softbox like this. Whichever format they take, one thing that’s often overlooked is that they have quite an effect on quantity of light. On first glance, adding a grid, and channelling the light down into a narrower beam would lead you to think that the quantity of light will increase, but in fact the opposite is the case. When we add a grid to the front of a light, what we’re basically doing is blocking off portions of it, so not as much reaches our subject. You can see what I mean in this beautifully drawn diagram – the black sections of a grid won’t be as thick as this, but the principle is the same.

The effect of adding a grid to a light

Anyway, back to controlling light. Since we’re trying to keep a very tight rein on where the light goes, it’s as important to check behind the light, as it is to work on the front. Part of the reason I chose strip softboxes, rather than, say, an umbrella, is the ability to keep all the light in one direction. Imagine if instead of softboxes, these 2 backlights were umbrellas – the light from them would be spilling in all directions, and our back wall would probably get quite bright. When you assemble a softbox, they come with a little black collar, called a back baffle, which you can wrap around the light housing. Unless you want light to fly off in all directions, make sure you add this – and then ensure it’s nice and tight all the way round. If there was, it will project onto the back wall, and cause distracting highlights.

An image like this is a good time to talk about another aspect of lighting – matching your lighting to your subject, and being sympathetic to them. What we’ve achieved in this shot looks pretty good and dramatic – lots of dark mood, deep shadows, and contrasting highlights. With a professional model like Lisa in front of the camera, the shot works well, but beware using light that’s this precise, and has such a large range from shadow to highlight. Look what happens if Lisa turns her body a few degrees away from the key light – suddenly we’ve lost almost half of her face.

Moody shot, different angle

Now, again, with a professional model like this, it still works as a shot, but you need to be conscious that the more precise your lighting setup is – in this case we’ve tightly controlled the light spill to give us this low-key mood – the less room your subject will have to move around. This may not be an issue, or it may be a major stumbling block. For one example – if you were using a setup like this to take pictures of children, you may struggle, as they’re not likely to sit still for very long!

Here’s a technique that can help – not just in lighting situations like this, but any lighting situation. Always try and look at the light from the model’s point of view. I don’t mean in a philosophical sense, I mean physically. Get in there, and look back at your various lights from their position.

Assessing the fall of light from the subject's position

A professional model will likely be able to tell you quite a bit about the lighting, and you can ask them to let you know if a certain light is missing them, or shining right in their face. If you’re going in yourself, do please be polite, and respect the model’s personal space, particularly if you don’t know them very well! Viewing the light from where the subject is can be crucial, as you’ll be far better able to tell exactly where each light is falling. It can be very deceptive just looking from the camera, and assuming that a certain light is doing a certain job, and this problem gets more acute the more precise the fall of each light. Imagine how tight the beam of light will be from a small gridded light, and you’ll appreciate the importance of making sure it really is hitting the part of the shot you want.

So, we’ve taken the same location, the same 3 flashes, and with careful employment of distance, direction, and the use of some modifiers we’ve created a totally different look. We’ve learnt how grids consume light, how important it is to control the spill from lights, and why it’s important to look back at your lights from the subject’s point of view. Yes, I’ve used swanky modifiers, and expensive Profoto flash, but you could achieve something similar with considerably less kit, you just need to be very careful about where the light falls. OK, we’re all done here in the studio, let’s head outside and start to mix light up.

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