I know, Ben Sasso not shooting outside? What the hell is happening in the world? Don't worry, we'll all be okay! I know I preach consistency pretty often but consistency runs the risk of becoming stale if you don't experiment a bit. Shooting indoors is often my little way of experimenting a bit out of my normal work. In this section I’ll talk a bit about how I use indoor light, what I look for, and how I keep things simple. When I say simple, I mean so simple that I don’t even use any additional lighting. Instead, I stick to modified natural light. That means you can play too and it won’t cost you a ton of money. Heck yes!
INDIRECT FRONT LIGHT
If you love luminous, glowing skin this might be the look for you. Direct light means that the actual light source (the sun, a bulb, etc) is hitting the subject straight on. Indirect light means that the subject is technically in the shade, but light is spilling in from somewhere (maybe around the corner, into a window, etc) but the subject doesn't actually have any hard light on them. I prefer to stay away from the hard light because it isn't as flattering for skin (it saturates skin tones and brings out any roughness), and it just isn't my style. For those of you who shoot like me, you'll notice that back lighting typically gives you a washed out image that you have to bring back in post. The skin isn't glowing, the colors aren't popping, and there isn't as much contrast. Soft front light will give you the opposite! Gorgeous rich tones and plenty of awesome. I use indirect front light most often by having my subject facing a window that has indirect light coming into it. That includes things like getting ready at weddings. If they are getting ready in bad light, I always ask them and/or the makeup artist if it's okay if we move them into better light. I used to never ask because I didn't want to be obtrusive but the truth is that our clients hire us specifically because they trust us to get the best pictures we can for them. If that means asking them to move the chair to the left a few inches, I ask them if it's okay and I pretty much always get an "of course!"
These two images above are here as a perfect example of the difference between back light and front light. Same model, same wardrobe, same look, and same light source, with the only difference being that he is facing away from the light on the left and facing the light on the right. In the frame on the right you can see how the skin looks like it's glowing and the image as a whole seems more polished and rich. It's not a look I shoot as often because I love the look of back light but I won't lie, I looooove a good front lit shot too.
5D III + 35L
This is one of those times where I knew I could get killer light if I moved the bride and hairstylist just a bit. They were all set up in the spot where I needed her, but she was facing away from the light leaving her face in shadow. Asking them to turn around and face the other way was a tiny little change for them but a huge change in the final image. Now, with her facing the window that had indirect light coming in, her skin glows and matches that huge smile on her face!
This tip goes for indoor and outdoor back lighting but I typically use it more for indoor back lit situations. It's all about the eyes. In my Editing and Consistencyclass, I give a ton of tips for bringing out a subjects eyes and making them pop because the truth is that, almost no matter what else is happening in an image, your viewer will look at the eyes in the frame first. It's just basic animal instinct. Even your cat won't look at your leg, it will look right into your eyes (I've done extensive research into this by staring at cats). It's just how we connect and we should make that connection, and that first impression as strong as possible.
For those of you who saw the term "catch light" and are wondering what the heck I'm talking about, a catch light is that little glint in a model's eyes. The purpose of a catch light is to create a bright highlight in your subject's eyes which gives them a bit more pop and makes them seem more alive. In back lit situations this is especially crucial because the models entire face is in shade which can leave the eyes looking flat and dull. When I'm shooting outside I add little catch lights by wearing a light or white shirt. It's that simple. The white reflects the sun back into their eyes and creates that little glint. When I shoot indoors with the window light coming from behind my subject, I have a reflector right behind me bouncing light from the window back into her eyes to create the glint. Another killer thing about adding in that little catch light is that it also lightens up the iris of the eye which means you see more of the actual eye color. Heck yes.
5D III + 50L
If I didn't have a reflector behind me bouncing in some window light, that glint in Frankie's eyes wouldn't be there and her look wouldn't have that little bit of pop that I love.
5D III + 50L
Anything bright and white can create a catch light. When I shoot outdoors, sometimes I'll even just wear a white shirt or use the sky behind me. In this frame, I used the window behind me to my right to give a bit of pop in Dre's eyes!
These next two tips are so basic that they might wrinkle your brain. Unless you're going for the more dramatic, hard-light look when you're shooting indoors (I'm usually not), a reflector and a diffuser are your new best friends.
For those of you who have no idea what a diffuser is, it is anything that softens light. Most of the time they come in the form of translucent white fabrics. Imagine you have a window that the sun is shining directly into leaving you with a hard, stark light. Putting a diffuser over that window turns that hard light into soft, even, glowing light. For the look that I love, this is perfect! I’m all about soft light because It matches my style and is extremely flattering for skin. Not only does hard light lead to more saturated skin tones, but it also brings out the rough blemishes in skin. Diffusers can help eliminate both of those problems! I personally use a Scrim Jim diffusers but in a pinch (or on a budget) you can use a thin white sheet too.
5D III + 35L
With pretty strong window light coming in to the right of the frame, I had a diffuser over the window to help soften and spread it. Since the room I was shooting in was white, that light bounced around inside also to fill in any harsh shadows. White rooms are my happy place.
5D III + 50L
Sometimes it's only all natural light, sometimes it's a diffuser or reflector, and sometimes it's both. Whenever I want that clean eve, almost non-directional light, I'll use both. I'll diffuse the window light coming in to one side and use a reflector on the other side to bounce light back into the shadow side.
With indirect window light coming in from one side or the other, it leaves a hard shadow cast across the opposite side of your subject. Placing a reflector on that side bounces the indirect light back into the shadows and leaves you with that soft, even, flattering light. Moving your reflector closer or farther from your subject will control how much light is bounced back in. I use a 5-in1 reflector which gives you the option of white, black, gold, silver or translucent. They are pretty affordable and make great tools for wafting some wind into someones hair too. Win!
Contax 645 + 80mm + Kodak Portra 400
Window light on her right, reflector on her left. BOOM. Soft, even, gorgeous light with no harsh shadows to weigh it down.
ANGELIC BACK LIGHT
When most people think of angels there are two things that come with it, glowing gorgeous light and that falsetto singing sound. I won't lie, it's pretty damn hard to capture the sound in a photo but the light is doable. For these types of shots where you want that glowing light to envelop your subject, back light from a window is you're new best bud. I won't go super in depth with this one because its one of the more simple types of light to work with. Put your subject in between the window and you, expose for the skin, shoot away. The images will most likely come out pretty hazy and washed out right out of camera but you can always bring back the contrast in post using the contrast or blacks slider, and/or the tone curve.
5D III + 50L
I love this frame because you can literally see the light wrapping around her. You can follow the light coming in from the open window behind her and wrapping around the sides of her face as it fades into the front of her which is in shadow. In addition to giving that soft glowing feel, it also slims her down because the sides of her face fade more into the background.
5D III + 50L
I lit this image with the window just to his upper left which gave him a directional back light. Back light is killer for helping your subject pop out of the background because when you expose for their skin (which is in shadow) it tends to make the background brighter than they are. That separation between the bright background and darker subject (in comparison) helps them stand out in the frame!
This is my most seldom used technique but I still love it and I still want to pass it on in case any of you love it even more. Rim light comes in all shapes and sizes but it follows one main principle: a dark subject with just s a sliver of light on them. If you search rim light on Google, you'll see the more extreme version of this. Personally, I use it more like a skinny directional light. With light coming in from one side or from the side and just behind her with no light coming in on the other side. This creates a more dramatic look and a darker type of simplicity than you may be used to seeing from me.
5D III + 50L (shot through plastic sheeting)
To create a broad rim light in the image above I shot Dre with a skinny window to her right and a black card on her left. The window gave a sliver of directional light to define her profile and light her eyes while the black card on the other side killed any light that would have bounced back in.
TURN OFF THE LIGHTS
That's right. Sometimes great natural lighting means turning off the lights. Whether its in a natural light studio or getting ready room at a wedding, if there is window light coming in some where, I'm typically looking for other lights that I can turn off. Think about it like this, window light is a certain temperature (white balance wise) and strength, any other light you have on in the room (florescent, tungsten, halogen, etc) will be giving off a different color of light than the natural light coming in the window. That means if you have the window on one side of your subject and a lamp lighting the other side, you are casting two different colors onto your subjects skin. Hello, editing nightmare. Skin tone problems caused by mixed lighting like that are brutal to try to fix. To keep things clean and colors consistent, I turn off the extra lights in the room and open up the windows fully. I'd rather bring up my ISO higher and have a bit more grain (Cameras these days can handle it) than have color issues. If you don't believe me that a darker, window lit room is better than a brighter room with mixed lighting, test it out! You might be surprised by the difference!
In each of the rooms above, there was window light and a few other random lamps and lights on. I used to not make many changes to lights, etc on wedding days because I wanted to be a fly on the wall, but the truth is that these couples are trusting me to do what I need to to create the best images I can for them. Now, I ask the bride and makeup artist something like "Would you mind if I turned of these two lamps?" and once I do, I'm left with even, problem free light!
5D III + 35L
With dark red wood everywhere in the room above, I was already left with a tough time dealing with skin tones since the light was bouncing red light into her skin. To cut out any more problems, I turned out all of the internal lights and had back lit, facing a neutral colored wall. That means the light that came in from behind her (now the only light source) reflected that neutral color of the wall into her skin.
Thanks for reading along! Indoor lighting isn't something I ever really thought I would focus much on in the beginning of my career (I always loved the outdoor look) but, in a time when I needed to step out of my comfort zone a bit, I set up an indoor shoot for the first time and threw my fear of it out the window. If you view yourself as primarily an outdoor shooter, PLEASE don't narrow your focus to only that. If nothing else, you will learn a ton about lighting by shooting indoors and trying out different techniques. You'll thank yourself when you see your outdoor work improving because of it, pinky swear.
Whether the type of light or the exposure is more important would be a pretty hard argument to win no matter which side you were on. Plus, why argue? Let's just learn it all and learn it well. How you expose your images can have a massive impact on how they turn out and how much you can alter them in post without losing quality.
When shooting digital, I always spot meter for the brightest skin on their face (usually the cheeks) and underexpose just a tad. The reason I do this is because if you accidentally over expose something with digital (also known as "blowing it out"), the detail in that over exposed area will be gone forever. So sad. Don't let that happen to you. If you over expose skin, that means that normal human skin texture won't be able to be recovered in post. On the other side of the spectrum, you are able to bring back shadows a pretty surprising amount so you don't have to worry about that too much!
Film reacts pretty differently to over exposure. Instead of losing overexposed detail, film actually retains it pretty well (even when over exposing by 2 stops). When I shoot film I'll err on the side of over exposure instead. That also tends to give it a softer, more muted look. Unlike digital, film tends to lose the details in the shadows more easily.