depth of light

When your big light just ain't so big

Lighting a group

We all know that a large light in close to the subject is a soft light. As we move the light back away from the subject a couple of things happen. First, the light gets deeper. Second, the light gets smaller.

Deeper
When you move your light back the light rays are more parallel and fall-off in intensity slower. At one extreme we have sunlight. The sun is so far away that light rays reaching the earth are almost parallel. The same amount of light reaches you where you are standing as reaches someone else a block or two away from you (or miles away). So we know that if we have to light a group of people with a number of rows we need to move the light back so a similar amount of light reaches the back row as reaches the front row. If the light(s) is too close in the fall off will be rapid and the back row will be dark or the front row will be overexposed.

Smaller
Smaller light equals more defined shadows. A small light cannot “wrap” around the subject to cause a wide shadow edge.

Diminishing Returns

(click to enlarge)

I feel that after a certain distance the size of the light doesn't really matter all that much. A 60-inch umbrella far away is just as hard as a smaller modifier. So, I gathered up the studio staff for a group photo and lit it three ways.

Have you met the staff? An interesting bunch. Over on the left we have our lobotomy patient, next is our exhibitionist, then the lowly photographer, and finally that guy who is just a shadow of his former self. Look for a new post about shadows coming soon to this blog.

The light was set up 9-feet away from the group and flash power was adjusted to give f/7.1 in each photo. The first photo is with the 60-inch umbrella. The second photo is with the 7-inch dish. The third photo is the same 7-inch, but with a sheet of diffusion material taped to the front of the reflector.
Looking at the three photos, the big difference between them is in the shadow density. As I expected, the 60-inch has the lightest tone shadows, followed by the diffused reflector. They each allowed more light to bounce around the room to open up the shadows.
But what about the light on the faces? Surely the big umbrella is going to be the clear winner here. Or is it? I see very little difference in the light on the faces in these three photos. It just took a lot more flash power to light with the umbrella than with the smaller, more efficient reflector. And that can be a big consideration if you are going out on location to make the group photo, especially if using battery-powered flashes. However, the umbrella or the dish with diffuser will cast a wider area of light that you might need for a very large group if you want to stay with a single light source.
Of course, if this was to be a portrait of one or two people, I could have the big light in much closer and could be more creative with lighting patterns, and separating the subject from the background, and on and on, etc., etc. But for groups you need to pull the lights back. And, in doing so, you might find that you don't need as large a light or as much strobe power as you thought you would.

 

 

BONUS MATERIAL

Many aspects of photography are related and many of them deal with distances. Here are some ways you can apply knowledge about one aspect of photography to learning another. First we have depth of field and depth of light. As you move your camera back away from your subject your depth of field (the area of the scene that appears reasonably sharp) gets larger. Taking that to lighting, as you move your light back away from your subject your depth of light gets larger. The closer the light is to your subject, the darker the background will be. The closer your camera/lens/aperture combination is to your subject, the more shallow the depth of field.

Next is perspective. The closer your camera is to your subject, the smaller the background will appear. Conversely, as you move back away from your subject the background gets larger. This is often mis-labled as telephoto compression, but it is the physical act of moving back that causes the change. You just tend to use a longer lens when farther back to magnify the subject to fill the frame, which makes people blame the lens.

Very much related to this is how a face looks in a photograph. The closer your camera is to your subject the more pronounced their features will appear. As you move back away from your subject their features flatten out. In close your subject’s nose looks bigger in relation to their eyes and ears. But as you move back the features flatten out as the nose, eyes, and ears get relatively closer to each other than to the camera. When you move back you can switch to a longer focal length lens again to fill the frame, but like before it is the physical moving back that changes the depth of features of the face. As in the lighting situation above, there is a point of diminishing return. Once you are in the range of 12-15 feet away from your subject I don’t think that moving any farther back will have any more effect.

How do you like to light large groups of people?

How do you apply what you know about one aspect of photography to other aspects?

Thanks again for following along!
John


Light Depth

Inverse what?

In our last exciting episode, I wrote about adding diffusion to your lights. In that article I made a few references to the depth of your light and why you want to have various size light modifiers instead of moving your lights closer or farther from your subject. I promised that I would write more about this in a follow-up article, so here we are.

As noted previously, the quality of light (hard or soft), is determined by the size of the light as seen by the subject. When first starting out, you might only have one light modifier, such as a 24x30 softbox. So the temptation there is to move the light in closer or move it back farther from your subject to control the size of the light, and thereby the quality of the light. This does work. However, it has a secondary effect on your image. Moving the light changes the depth of the light.

Depth is one of the four main things I think about when designing my lighting for a portrait. The others are the depth of field that I want (how much is in focus), the size of the light (the shadow edge quality), and the amount of power I need (to get the aperture I want for the depth of field I want).

The depth of the light is based on a law of physics called the Inverse Square Law. This law states that a specified intensity (in our case, light) is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of that light. As an example, if you double the distance between the light and your subject the amount of light falling on the subject will be 1/4 (at twice the distance the light has to spread out to cover 4x the area, see the illustration below). If you move the light back to 3 times the distance, the amount of light will be 1/9th the power, and so on.  

inverse-square-1
inverse-square-simplified

Another part of this law, that seems to be often forgotten or ignored, is that it applies to a point source of light, something we rarely, if ever, actually use. As you put modifiers on your lights, such as softboxes, umbrellas, or add a lens, such as in a spot light, we start drifting away from the law. So don’t get hung up on the inverse square law or on measuring the distance between your light and subject. You only need to remember one simple rule: The closer your lights are to your subject, the darker the background will be.  

OK, sounds simple enough. But it is also very powerful knowledge. With this knowledge you can take a simple white seamless paper background and make it appear white, black, or any shade of gray between them. It also allows you to light your background separately from the subject to control the apparent depth of the scene. More on that later.

So, let’s look at some examples. In this series of images the subject is 65” in front of a white seamless paper background. The single light is a 24x30 softbox. The only changes between the images is the distance from the softbox to the subject and the power setting on the light to maintain the same f/4.0 exposure. As indicated in the images, the distances are 12”, 24”, 48”, and 96”. The first thing I think you will notice is how the tone of the backdrop changes. 

light-depth

You will also want to take a look at highlights on the subject. Look at the cheek. Specular highlights are mirror-like and at first seem to not follow the inverse square law. In actuality they do follow the law, but in a reverse way. Specular highlights maintain the same brightness, no matter what the light to subject distance is, but they change in size inversely proportional to the distance. As your light is moved farther from your subject that specular highlights get smaller and appear brighter because the rest of the image is getting darker while the highlight stays the same brightness.

specular-highlights

Now, about lighting your background separately from the subject. This involves adding more lights. In this case I added one light on my white background, a flash with a 7” silver dish reflector with a red gel. With the main light (the light on the subject) 96” away from the subject you can make out a pinkish glow on the background. But when I move the light in to 12” away from the subject the white background goes to a dark gray (as shown above) and the red gel on the background light can now be seen. If I had used a dark gray or a black background paper the red would be a richer tone than the pink that you see here. The background light was on its lowest setting. If I could have lowered the power more, it would have been more red, too.

background color

A practical application: Group Photos

So far, I’ve been talking about light falloff from subject to background. We can also think about group photos and fall off from subjects different distances from the light. By combining our knowledge of light falloff with a lighting technique called feathering we can learn to light a group of people. Feathering is when instead of pointing the light directly at our subject(s) we point it a bit off so that the light skims across our subjects. A fill card (white foamcore or a pop-up white disc) helps fill in the shadows from the right side.

group-lighting-1

As an example, if our light is on the left side of our camera we would point the softbox or umbrella at the person on the right side of the group. The main intensity of the light will now be aimed at the person farthest from the light and the lower intensities from the edges of the light will be lighting the person closer to the light, helping to even out the light across the group. If the light is still too uneven, we use our knowledge of inverse square to tell us to move the light back, farther away from the group to even out the illumination across the group.

group-lighting-2

Here is a group photo of my friends at CreativeLive posing for me. This image was lit with one studio flash in a 60" Photek Softlighter on camera left and a fill card on the right. The Softlighter was backed up a bit to help even out the exposure across the four individuals.

softlighter-group-photo

That's all for today. Thank you for following along.


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John Cornicello