At the beginning of April I had the opportunity to sit in a three day class by Joe McNally about photography. I'll talk more about that in another post but one of the biggest take aways I had was how to approach lighting a scene. One bad habit I had gotten into was setting up all my lights at the beginning, putting my subject in the frame, and trying to adjust the lights together to create the scene I wanted. And while this can work in some scenarios it doesn't work well when there's multiple lights, gels, different modifiers, mixed lighting, etc. To put it another way, I was throwing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto a table and trying to figure out why they didn't land as a completed puzzle.
Watching Joe McNally work made me realize that this approach of mine meant I was starting each shoot as an uphill battle. Instead of putting my subject into a lighting setup I needed to build the scene around the subject, one light at at time. I took this approach to heart, which is why below was the first picture from a shoot after Joe's class:
No lights but the window and I already have the mood and tone of the photo down. Starting here is like having the frame of the jigsaw puzzle already completed. Yes, there's still a lot of work to be done but I already know the scene in which the pieces need to exist. From here, I knew I would need a controlled light on the subject so as to light her properly but not overpower the natural light. Easy, bring in a beauty dish with a 30° grid, gelled with a single cut of CTO. Soft, beautiful light but not spilling everywhere. She also needed to be separated from the background so a gridded strip box with a double cut of CTO was put slightly behind her right shoulder. Then a lamp behind the subject to balance the composition more. The lamp was actually too powerful of a light source so it was turned off and a strobe was shot into it with a double cut of CTO as to make it appear on.
Last step, getting the pose right and small adjustments to ISO and shutter speed so the natural light was exposed properly.
I love how the photo came out and I don't believe I would have gotten as good of a photo if I continued with my usual approach. But it is important to keep in mind that there are no absolutes in photography. Joe McNally emphasized this several times throughout the three days and it's made me realize that there's not necessarily a right or wrong way or approach. While I did enjoy using a "building" approach to this photo and it was the better approach to create this photo, it doesn't mean its the best approach to every situation. Corporate head shots, for example, usually entails setting up lighting and making tweaks as each person comes through. Ultimately, neither approach is better or worse than the other but rather different tools for different jobs.