Theatrical Lighting in Photography
Given the choice between high dollar lenses or lighting I would opt for lights every time, after all the camera is nothing more than a light gathering optic device. This past month I have been working a lot with dramatic portrait photography and the key ingredient of a dramatic shot is to use shadows as boldly as one uses light. Many photographers seek a very uniform lighting scheme to remove the majority of shadows to reveal the most detail. There is nothing wrong with a well balanced lighting array as it has many respectable uses, notably family and business portraits. Another example are fashion photographers, primarily the ones working with the cosmetics industry favor lighting such as the ring flash to evenly flood a scene with clean shadow less light.
My clients as of late have been dancers of various world styles from Moroccan Belly-dance to Spanish Flamenco. These dancers have strong personas, they are performers at heart, and they are artists. They are looking for shots that symbolize their stage presence. Being that I worked a good number of years for the Denver Center of The Performing Arts, I spent a lot of time working on sets with lighting crews. I had always been fascinated by light design and often inquired how various lighting looks were achieved. What I gained from those conversations is that light can create a focal point to draw the viewer’s attention since in theater there is no such thing as bokeh blur (limited depth of field) to bring forward a subject as used in movies. I have used both blur and light in my photos to create focal points but I lean way more toward light as it gives my images a more distinctive style.
How is theatrical lighting achieved in a photograph? Well most studio photographers use massive soft boxes and high powered strobes to chase away shadows and create a soft feel of light. By contrast I use smaller directional lights and many of them to highlight specific areas on a subject rather than an overall one stop lighting effect. For instance I might use a high power strobe with a snoot and grid attached to only light the face (works wonders for chasing away wrinkles and creating a youthful face) and have another strobe just for the back or hair (isolated into a strip of light by a metal barn door) to separate the subject from the background. I may use a lower power strobe to light the torso of the subject. This array will draw the viewer’s attention to the face and the subject’s emotion not the body position or body shape. By selectively carving away shadows you trick the viewer into having to fill in the details they don’t see in the shot mentally. This type of viewer interpretation can easily make your shot stand out because it requires a longer glance to take it all in.
Light can also be modified as in theater to enhance your backdrop. As of late I have been using a grey and white tie-dye type back drop that is backlit by a high power strobe with a colored gel on it to allow many different looks with the same backdrop. When you are in a situation like I was with a day full of dancers to photograph you want to have the option to give them all unique “sets” without having to own $2000.00 in colored backdrops that you have to change out. To do this I purchased a cheap two dollar swatch from B&H photo and simply color match the dancer’s costumes to two or three of the swatch colors. I then tape the two or three swatches together in a square and attach this to the mono-light behind the backdrop. The dancer does not see this transformation during the shoot since the flash is so fast but on playback they can see the backdrop dramatically come to life in color.
Another key element in creating dramatic light and shadow is how high the key light is. Most light stands only go to 6ft but in theatrical lighting many lights are way overhead. I started using a camera jib that I use to use for independent filmmaking to allow me to effortlessly move the key light from 6” off the ground to 12ft in the air; this allows me to dial in my desired lighting effect with a tap of the hand as a set of counterweights float the light anywhere around or over my subject.
Though a jib is a costly light stand and not at all simple to set up and balance, the result is worth it.
The disadvantages of complex theatrical type lighting is that it takes a long while to set everything up and sometimes between shots there is a lengthy tweak. The plus side is that the photographer will not have to spend hours on end in Photoshop trying to make the shot look more dramatic as so much can be achieved with light. When you’re doing high volume photography (say 500+ portraits) you would not have enough time to Photoshop that level of drama into each shot so the effort forward is completely worth it.
Theatric lighting takes time and lots of experimentation but in the end it will offer your clients exciting and dramatic photos they will love.