Lighting Ratios, beyond the numbers....
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cgardner
Registered: Nov 18, 2002
Total Posts: 9376
Country: United States

The lighting ratio convention for portraits 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 etc. expresses the relative brightness of the highlighted side of a face or similar toned object and the shadow side, as seen by the camera in undefined units with the shadows aways a constant = 1. A ratio of 2:1 means twice as much light is reflecting off the highlights as in the shadows.

The convention pre-dates electronic metering. The earliest and very accurate ratio meters consisted of a card with two holes, one with a strip or wheel of gradated neutral density filters. .30 ND cuts light in half like a lens f/stop of if you wanted key one stop above fill you'd put the .30 ND filter over the highlight side hole, the clear hole over the shadow side then adjust power of the lights relative to each other until the two matched. The result was highlights reflecting 2x more light than the shadows, a 2:1 ratio. For a 3:1 ratio a .45 density would be placed over the highlight side, and so on. That would seem to explain why in the convention notation the shadow side is always 1 and the highlight number gets greater as the shadow get darker.

Ratios get even more confusing when determined via an incident meter. If you were to measure the lights set at 2:1 via the card ND "null" meter with an incident meter you'd find they were exactly the same incident strength. That wasn't any surprise back in the days of tungsten illumination because key and fill were typically identical light fixtures and to get a 2:1 ratio you'd need to place key and fill at the same distance.

_H:S_
F:1:1 even centered fill 8ft from face
K:1:0 identical overlapping key light 8ft from face
====
2:1 H:S ratio (reflected)

To get a 3:1 ratio the key light would need to be placed where it was "one stop" closer to the subject than the fill. Per the inverse square law that is 5.6 ft if fill is at 8ft.

_H:S_
F:1:1 even centered fill 8ft from face
K:2:0 identical overlapping key light at 5.6 ft.
====
3:1 H:S ratio (reflected)

The reflected H:S ratio is always 1+Key Power:Fill power because the convention assumes there is identical fill on both sides of face. There's no "rule" fill must be placed that way, but if it is moved off axis and lighting the right side of the face more than the left it simply doesn't follow the convention and the incident meter readings will not accurately match the reflected results. For example if equal key and fill are placed at opposite 45 angles as neophytes often do this is the result:

_H:S_
F:1:0 fill 45 to left
K:0:1 identical key 45.
====
1:1 H:S ratio (reflected)

The result is flat light with a dark streak two the middle with criss-crossed shadows from the nose and very dark smile lines and mouth because no light reached those places. This illustration from one of my flash tutorials show a range of crossed lighting ratios:







Predicable results were obtained with primitive equipment by applying the laws of physics systematically. I first learned to set lighting ratios by distance in high school back in 1970 from a Kodak "How to Shoot Portraits" book with a pair of shop reflectors and 100W bulbs. Kodak assumed that is the type of lighting most hobbyist would use and provided instructions for setting lighting ratios by distance. I followed Kodak's tuition and got these results in my first portrait session (I saved all my proof sheets):





Seemed like pretty sound advice to me at the time, and two years later when I went to work for Monte Zucker I found he used exactly the same distance/ratio method for dual flash candid shots, always placing the key light "one stop" closer to the subject than the fill on the camera bracket for a 3:1 ratio.

Why a 3:1 ratio and not 2:1 or 4:1?

Apart from directional modeling created with lighting there are two fundamental qualities a color photo must ideally have for the content to seem realisitic to the viewer: the same tonal range (detail from shadow > highlight) experienced in person, and similar color rendering of known objects.

The 3:1 lighting ratio addresses the first one. If you were to put aside your meter and set key and fill entirely by eye on this subject you would want to wind up with a result similar to this with a full range of tone...







Lacking a meter you would likely adjust fill until you saw shadow detail recorded in the playback and key until the highlights in the shirt were below clipping. You could start with key and add fill, or start with fill and then add key afterwords, or start with both on and fiddle until the full range of detail is recorded faithfully by the camera just based on the darkest parts of the coat and the brightest parts of the shirt.

I would suggest you try it all three ways and compare.

If you start with the key light and set it for correctly exposed highlights first, before adding fill from over the camera you will find that once you get the fill to where it is revealing the shadows you'll then need to reduce the key light because the fill overlaps the key light and will blow the previously correctly exposed highlights. The same thing occurs when you have both lights on and adjust them simultaneously; it becomes a bit of a cat-and-mouse game to get both end of the tonal scale with detail. But if you start with the fill first and set it you'll find all you will need to do to arrive at perfect overall exposure is just raise the key light until its just below clipping.

During this process youl pay no attention to the face or the ratio of light it. In fact you don't even need a face around to set the lights that way, just a light stand where the subject will be and the a white shirt and black jacket, or proxies for the them such as white and black wash rags. But when you call the subject in and put them in the same placed you'll get the results seen above.

Fitting Scene to Sensor Produces "Normal" Baseline

The photographic process isn't some happy accident. It is a carefully engineered process designed to meet a perceptual goal: to match the range of a photo to the response of the human eye. Because of the way it is engineered when you do manage to record a full range of detail in white and black clothing simultaneously everything in the middle automatically winds up looking very "normal" identical to how you would perceive it by eye in similar light. The broader goal technically of the lighting ratio, beyond the numerical ratio on the face, is fitting the range of the scene to the sensor .

A 3:1 ratio worked very well for color negative film/prints because it just happened to be the lighting ratio which when set for the face would also wind up recording the shadows and the highlights accurately. The 3:1 ratio works the same magic with digital sensors because they have about the same overall H:S dynamic range (DR).

Finding Your Native Sensor Ratio

DR is not the same for all cameras because sensor DR varies with the sensor site capacity to store photons. Sensor sites are like buckets. Some in the highlights get filled very fast, some in the shadows very slow. In high contrast lighting like a backlit outdoor scene the highlight sites will usually fill and end the exposure before any light is recorded in the darkest shadows. The actual metering is done off the viewfinder before the exposure (why it sucks so badly most of the time) but it predicts when the brightest areas will clip (max. out) the sensor.

That's why the native "fit scene to sensor" ratio need for a FF pro body will vary from that of a 1.6 crop body. On the same size sensor as more and more MPs have been added the camera makers have found other clever ways to increase photon capturing ability and keep DR relatively constant but higher MP sensors will usually have slightly shorter DRs. A 3:1 ratio on my camera may not look the same as yours. It doesn't even look the same on my two cameras: the DR on my 8MP 20D is longer than my 50D.

Indoors with studio lighting the DR isn't a limiting factor because fitting a full range scene to any DR with artificial lighting is simply a matter of adding enough fill until the shadows are recorded, then overlapping the key light to just below clipping. If a sensor only had a range of only 3 stops you could still record a full range of tone, you'd simply need a lot more fill. The reason B&W film can handle direct sunlight contrast without a problem without the need or fill is that it's range can be adjusted to 12 stops or more. A digital camera's effective range is about half that which is why an outdoor scene exposed for highlights winds up looking like this:







But it can wind up looking more normal, like this by adding flash with the same overlapping key over fill strategy. The only difference is the flash is added over stronger ambient light outdoors than indoors...







Outdoors as indoors in the studio my goal is to make it look real, not hit some numerical ratio target but experience tells me that same 3:1 key: fill ratio that works indoors to fit scene to sensor also works outdoors.







But only on the flash lit foreground. The camera sensor can't handle the contrast in the ambient background, which is why digital cameras are not great for shooting landscapes unless HDR is used.

What about when "normal" isn't the look you want?

Try taking a subject sometime wearing a dark suit and white shirt and keep the pattern and highlight exposure the same change the key/fill ratio from a "normal" looking 3:1 (key = 2x fill) to 2:1 (key=fill) and 5:1 (key = 4x fill) . Then show them to someone who knows nothing about lighting technique and ask them how the lighting makes them react emotionally to the subject.

Even beyond the goal of fitting scene to sensor to make the photo seem real the broader goal of the exercise of taking and sharing one to evoke some emotional response in the mind of the viewer. If the photo can't do that what is the point of taking it?

Human perception works on several levels to discern things. Overall shapes, contrast with the background, will tell the brain what might be, with additional clues about shape on the front provided by frontal lighting. The object is recognized when the brain finds a match to some previously seen object or face...

















The basic perception process has been studied by psychologists and is predictable because our wiring is similar, but subject to cultural variation. For examine Westerners will scan to the eyes first on a face but Asians will instead fixate on the nose because direct eye contact is considered rude. Studies have found Asians will fixate on and remember background context in photos more than Westerners who pay more attention to the foreground.

What is more individual is the emotion response to the content based on familiarity and experience. If you love cats and body modification you'll process a photo of a woman with tats and studs carrying a cat similarly to someone who hates both, but your emotional reactions will be different. But emotional reactions to things like shadow tone, lighting patterns that shade rather than highlight eyes, body language in posed and expressions are predictable.

Goals should drive strategies...

Lighting ratios work best when they match the context of the mood implied by the expression of the subject and the environment they are seen in. In a series of photo with the same expression and pattern but progressively darker lighting ratios the perception of the shape of the face will not change much. What will change is the viewer's perception of the subject's emotional state and the environment.

Beginners all seem to want to learn the "Rembrandt" lighting pattern because some famous dead painter used it in a self-portrait. But they fail to notice he was a gnarly old man. As a result their first portrait of the smiling wife with the same pattern and 4:1 lighting ratio makes her look like a gnarly old man.

"Rembrandt" is a good lighting strategy when you want to make a subject look old, reclusive and grumpy, but all things considered the wife will probably like her portrait more and complain about the money spent on the lighting gear less if you photograph her in a full face pose with a butterfly pattern and 2:1 ratio or an oblique short-lit view with the same light toned, wrinkle hiding low contrast lighting ratio.

Because only one ratio fits scene to sensor adding more fill to change the ratio to 2:1 on the face then adjusting the overall exposure to keep the highlights the same will make the shadows abnormally light and washed out...







The face may look "softer" but without a full tonal range the photo will lose it overall "normal" look because the shadow clues aren't the same as seen by eye. But changing ratio this way does have the benefit of reducing shadow noise by virtue of more signal in the darker areas. I will sometimes overfill at capture to minimize noise, knowing I can adjust the shadows back to normal when editing the RAW file or more selectively with adjustment layers in CS5 like burning in a print on an enlarger.







Another way to maintain the suit>shirt detail and make the face lighter is to first fit the range to sensor with key and fill, then add a reflector near the face as in this set-up shot...







Making shadows darker than "normal" is a bit more problematical. Any reduction in overall fill on the suit will result in a loss of detail. Moving the fill lower to put it further away from the face will result in an upward fill direction. Natural fill from the sky comes from a downward angle, which is why low under-chin fill if too low will look odd: because it creates darker areas on the top of the cheeks, lips and chin; the opposite of natural sky fill.

A better solution is to keep the fill in the same place centered around chin level or even raise it a bit more and aim it down away from the face and/or switch to a smaller fill source to better control its direction.

Photographers who automatically associate soft lighting and big modifiers and never try very small ones may never discover their benefits in controlling where the light doesn't go. Mood is controlled with shadow tone and that is controlled with fill placement. I don't change the overall ratio from the "normal" baseline to create darker moodier lighting, I just "feather" the fill away from the face.

I will usually start all my portrait sessions with a butterfly pattern with both lights back at 8-9ft near the camera, set to record a full range of tone. I set the lights using a target as seen in the set-up shot, usually before they arrive.












The overall look is similar to the contrast of open shade outdoors with no harsh distracting shadows. Keeping the lights 8ft. away minimizes the rate of fall off front > back on the face and body and foreground > background making it easy to light full length shots evenly. It is a very flattering and forgiving pattern because the subject is free to move around without changing the the lighting pattern on the face in any unflattering way.







Both those kids (my neighbors) have nearly perfectly symmetrical faces. Not everyone does....







I analyze faces before shooting and usually spot asymmetries, but I'll still shoot some full face butterfly lit shots anyway to help come up with the best strategy to try to minimize them with an oblique angle. This is a "lazy" oblique view where I changed backgrounds but didn't switch from the centered lighting pattern...





.. but seeing it wasn't working well (note the shadow hanging out behind the nose) we took a break and I changed to a 45 from the nose "short" lighting strategy.





One of the reasons I use a 3D target like a towel for set-up is so the subject can go change or chill out in the next room while I reset the light for the next strategy. I haven't stuck a meter under anyone's nose for several years now. The 3D target allows me to see the interplay of rim light, key and fill and ensure the full tonal range will be captured. On average it takes only about 2 minutes to move the sliders on the remote control for my lights next to the camera and take a few test shots to dial the ratio and exposure. Then I call the subject back in and start shooting...





Those photos were for his confirmation so I wanted them to have a boy becomes young man theme this darker more serious profile shot. Above is the result out of camera from the RAW file, all I wound up doing is cropping...





The overall ratio stays true to my Zone System compulsion for always recording a full tonal range in any photo I take. The look of the lighting was changed by using a very small key light and moving the fill from near the camera to the front of his face so it would fall off front>back from the tip of his nose just as in my normal fill strategy for the oblique view: key and fill are at the same angles relative to the face. It's a trick learned from window lighting where you don't move the lights you move around the lighting. The key light is the hair light from the other shots which is a 16 x 22 SB with a 12" circle mask and 40 grid. Fill was a med SB with a 20" circle mask, both used close to make the footprints small and the fall off from the sources more rapid than in the other shots.

I didn't meter any of the shots, or worry about what the ratio was. I expose as I did with the Zone System to place print values (Zones) on specific places in the image, using the target as a proxy...






First I'll set the brightest highlights in the shot, which for that set-up was the rim light. I raise to to the point of clipping then backdown 1/3 stop using the clipping warning not the histogram.

Next I turn on fill and adjust until I see shadow detail in the playback I gauge it by the black patch vs frame of the MacBeth target or used a black towel.

When rim light is used in back the key light needs to be one zone darker than if rim light isn't used to the two combined to look "normal". Setting Key light is very simple. Raise it to clipping then back off 2/3 stops until it is 1/3 stop below the rim lit detail.

If using a white background I will raise it to clipping, even the lighting, then lower it until I can see the rim light contrast. It winds up the same as the key light foreground, about 2/3 stop below 255 clipping...







It works for me because I never use 255,255,255 white backgrounds. That is a poor strategy perceptually for web design because it makes all the white tones in photographs look duller and darker by comparison...







Notice how the same values look on a 128,128,128 background. Overall the dots look pretty similar even with side-by-side comparison, but note how the 255 catchlight dot contrast more on the darker 240 "Zone 8" tone vs the 250 "Zone 9" white.







Maybe this will give you some food for thought, maybe it will just cause you to gnash your teeth and clutch your incident meter closer to your heart. Either way you will not find out if it will work for you unless you try it. You might find you like it


Peter Figen
Registered: Apr 28, 2007
Total Posts: 3101
Country: United States

The problem with an all numeric approach like Chuck's, and so many other's, is that it so often leads to the boring kind of photos seen here. It's kind of funny that all this talk of lighting ratios and light distances completely misses the mark when it comes to capturing any kind of emotion.

When I was a student at Art Center we had great lighting classes and never once was a portrait lighting ratio ever mentioned. It was all about recognizing the quality and light and modifying it to create the mood and essence that you wanted to convey. There were a few students who transferred from other schools who had been taught lighting ratios, and invariably, their photos complied with those ratios and were almost always boring.

Portrait photography is a combination of many factors and there are many different reasons for portraits. Aside from creating or recognizing interesting lighting, the most important factor is the relationship you as a photographer develop with your subject. Your sense of humor. Your understanding of who that person is. Your ability to carry on an intelligent conversation or even a silly or sexy conversation. Your ability to flirt with your subject to get them to emote. Those are the most important things. Not being afraid to break the rules. Being so familiar with your equipment that it disappears in your hands and you are working completely intuitively.

I honestly don't know what lighting ratios I use in any of my portraits. I do understand how light works and how highlights, shadows, cores, etc. affect the image, but I never ever measure it. I only go by if the proper mood has been created. Nothing else matters.

For a deeper insight I highly recommend Keith Richard's autobiography. It applies to photography as much as music.



dmacmillan
Registered: Nov 03, 2007
Total Posts: 4661
Country: United States

Peter Figen wrote:


When I was a student at Art Center we had great lighting classes and never once was a portrait lighting ratio ever mentioned. It was all about recognizing the quality and light and modifying it to create the mood and essence that you wanted to convey. There were a few students who transferred from other schools who had been taught lighting ratios, and invariably, their photos complied with those ratios and were almost always boring.


For a deeper insight I highly recommend Keith Richard's autobiography. It applies to photography as much as music.

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, Art Center, while emphasizing the impact of our photography, also held us to high technical standards. Negatives were examined for correct density and prints had to be approved from a technical perspective. For at least half the course of study, we got two grades - one for content and one for technical proficiency. If you were deficient in either, you didn't last long.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 12558
Country: United States

Honest question:

How does negative density of "old school" convert to today's digital hisotgrams that don't show the full range of what's available to work with. To me, using only the "safe" part of the histo's is akin to not using the full range of the negative.

Again, this is an honest question, not argumentative. I'm very open to understanding some additional technicals involved here to equate my "old school" mind to.

Just so I'm not misunderstood, I likewise understand that "art & science" are both significant attributes and co-exist with infinitely varying degree of significance to the success of an image for its intended purposes.

BTW ... Peter, you are very much correct about the abiltiy to relate/emote with a subject. Personally, I do fine with dogs & little kids, but not so much with adolescents & adults ... which is why I don't shoot portraiture, i.e. I know my shortcomings there would be catasrophic. Fortunately for me, there are other genre's of photography.



Peter Figen
Registered: Apr 28, 2007
Total Posts: 3101
Country: United States

You're absolutely right about that. I almost forgot about the "white coats". At least one of them is still there from when I was there. His name was Peter too. I also remember re-doing assignments until I got them right - one of them even four times. I'm really good at focusing on walls now. What that taught me that it was okay to make a mistake but more importantly it was often faster to go just a bit slower and do it right the first time.

You can have high technical accuracy AND a high degree of creativity and compelling images. No one can teach you how to interact with the person in front of you. That comes from experience and your personality, but you better be able to talk more than (photo) shop in order to engage your subjects.

I used to go back and give talks to classes there once in a while, and for some reason I was always showing people shots to product photography classes. That confused some of them, so I just told them to treat people as products that happened to move around and talk back. That'd be lighting wise, not treating them physically like products.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 12558
Country: United States

Peter,

Understood @ lighting a 3-dimensional object for a 2-dimensional medium isn't subject dependent (i.e. that you weren't suggesting that people are to be treated like objects). There is always an (subjective) evaluation of how you want to render the subject and for that you must be able to understand, study and compose, etc. your subject (person or product). Then, you can break out the tools to do the sculpting as you envision ... pre-determined or on-the-fly.

Also ... +1 @ going slower to go faster.



Peter Figen
Registered: Apr 28, 2007
Total Posts: 3101
Country: United States

The best lighting exercise we had in school was the ball/cube/cylinder assignment, where you had to take all three of those objects, all painted white, photograph them on a white seamless, both with a direct hard light and again with a soft diffused light, and maintain separation between all intersecting surfaces and lines in the composition. Any area where tones blended (this was a black and white assignment) had to be redone. No dodging or burning allowed on lighting assignments either. The second half of the assignment was then to go out in the real world and find balls, cubes and cylinders lit by natural light and have the light draw them to bring out their shape. This really helped to hone your ability to see the light and how it affected everything in the frame. Once you "got" this assignment, everything else came more easily.



BrianO
Registered: Aug 21, 2008
Total Posts: 8527
Country: United States

Peter Figen wrote: The problem with an all numeric approach like Chuck's, and so many other's, is that it so often leads to the boring kind of photos seen here. It's kind of funny that all this talk of lighting ratios and light distances completely misses the mark when it comes to capturing any kind of emotion.

They're two different but complimentary topics. A great "moment" can fail as a photograph if it isn't captured with proper exposure.

Peter Figen wrote: ...When I was a student at Art Center we had great lighting classes and never once was a portrait lighting ratio ever mentioned.

I find that hard to believe. Maybe you were absent that day.



Headshotz
Registered: May 02, 2009
Total Posts: 109
Country: United States

BrianO wrote:
They're two different but complimentary topics. A great "moment" can fail as a photograph if it isn't captured with proper exposure.


And in these above examples, a great moment was never captured even with technically proper exposure.



Peter Figen
Registered: Apr 28, 2007
Total Posts: 3101
Country: United States

Brian - Yeah, of course you need a good exposure, or at least as close to it as possible.

A few years ago I was photographing the jazz great Joe Zawinul (Weather Report, Miles Davis) at his home in Malibu and the writer from the magazine asked him about teaching music. It went something like this: "Joe, I know you don't teach music, but if you did, what advice would you have for your students?" Joe replied something to the effect of: " Anyone can learn how to play the instrument - y'know, where to put your fingers and play the notes. What you have to do is learn that and then throw it all away and play from your heart."

There was a great lesson in there for all photographers - that is to master the physical aspects of your equipment to the point where it is completely automatic. If you have to actually think about what you're doing, even numeric lighting ratios, it's going to take away from your intuitive creativity. I've never forgotten that lesson from Joe even though it wasn't aimed directly at me.

When my girlfriend teaches her music classes at Cal State Northridge, she talks to her students about the 10,000 theory of it taking about that many hours to master your instrument. On average that works out to be about ten years of practice at three hours a day. That pretty much coincides with what we used to say about becoming a great darkroom printer - about ten years. I always said that but hadn't hear about the 10,000 hours until more recently.

And, seriously, I was there for all the lighting classes - two semesters worth - and we never talked lighting ratios for portrait or product. We did talk about foreground to background when lighting a background to go white without flaring the foreground subject, but that's a different lighting challenge altogether.

It's one thing to make pictures worthy of a Sears portrait studio but it's completely different to aim higher - maybe even making THE iconic image of whoever you happen to have in front of your camera. The latter is alway my goal.



BrianO
Registered: Aug 21, 2008
Total Posts: 8527
Country: United States

Peter Figen wrote: ...seriously, I was there for all the lighting classes - two semesters worth - and we never talked lighting ratios for portrait or product.

Did you talk about lighting ratios in a fundamentals class that was a prerequisite for portrait and product lighting classes?



cgardner
Registered: Nov 18, 2002
Total Posts: 9376
Country: United States

I think some have missed the point of what I wrote which was the same one Peter is making: the need to get past the technical stuff like numerical ratios. I wasn't advocating their use only saying they are a stepping stone on the learning curve in understanding the more important goal of understanding why different lighting ratios and lighting strategies trigger different emotional reactions.

There is a craft aspect to photography as well as an artistic one and the two are not mutually exclusive. To use Peter's music analogy, you don't just pick up a guitar and instinctively understand how to finger chords. With enough time and trial and error one can figure how to play the sound will either match what you've heard others play or not but having a chord chart showing the fingerings for the song you are trying to learn to play speeds up the learning curve considerably. WIth practice you learn where to put the fingers instinctively and play from the heart, but if your instrument is out of tune the net result less effective than when it is in tune.

Photos are "in tune" when they show a full range of tone, arranged in the way the viewer expects them from personal experience. That happens in a photo when the lighting ratio fits the range of the scene to the sensor and the context of the message.

Like music there are steps on the photographic learning curve. A lighting ratio is like a blueprint that enables a blind man to build a house. We all start out "blind" not understanding what a 2:1, 3:1 or other ratios looks like or how they relate to emotional reactions we have when we look at photos. As in music there is a process of "connecting the dots" between the cause and effect of faces with different toned shadows on them and the different emotional reaction you have, which form the basis of how you expect others to react when seeing them.

My wife plays guitar and piano by ear. She can hear a song and sit down and play it, transposing keys on the fly as needed to match the range of anyone singing along. Everyone in her family can do the same thing. Several of her brothers and their kids are professional musicians who never had a music lesson apart from watching their parents and siblings. Very few of them can play form a score, the have an inherited genetic disposition towards understanding music intuitively. At the other extreme I've known very accomplished musicians who are totally lost without a score. One, a very competent guitarist in the Spanish style learned to play by connecting the notes on the score to individual finger positions on the strings but couldn't play a song via chord chart because she never learned to relate the fingerings to chord structure.

The visual arts are similar. Some are more naturally and intuitively gifted than others. Some gain skills in some areas but not others. We all must play the cards our genes deal us. My dad was an engineer, his father an electrician and backyard inventor, and my third great grandfather build steam locomotives from scratch. I made my living doing process control in a manufacturing environment a printing plant. Thus, I accept the fact I'm not innately creative and that I can't make heads or tails out of a guitar or keyboard. I made the effort to play an instrument in high school and in the process learned to read music and a bit about musical theory. I had great tone but lacked any intuitive feel playing music, despite having an appreciation of it from listening.

My musical talent consists of tune the guitar for the wife like Peter with an electronic tuner, now the Gibson on my iPhone. The fact my photography is "normal" looking, which like most things in life is boring, is something I can live with. The reason isn't a lack of technical skills, just lack of any innate creative motivation or intuition.

Despite my artistic shortcomings I know when something moves me emotionally upon seeing an image. We all do. Being intuitive and thinking rather than sensing/feeling in temperament I'm curious on an intellectual level about how photographs manage to trigger emotions. My interests are more in the psychology of human perception than using photography personal to make art. I've studied art criticism, psychology and physiology to better understand why a 3:1 ratio on a faces looks so boringly normal, and what it takes in terms of cause and effect to make a photo "unboring".

I was actually an art major in college before dropping out. Not because of any artistic pretensions, simply as a way to get credit for hanging out in the darkroom making photographs. But I was required to take some real art classes like silk screen, and pottery. If you put a lump of clay on a wheel and turn a perfect bowl it is pretty boring because there are a lot of perfect bowls everywhere. If you turn a perfect bowl then drop it on the way to the drying rack it becomes a mishapen unique interpretation of a bowl, which in the eyes of someone, somewhere, is likely to be considered more "artistic" in part because its not a"normal" bowl. That's human nature. Normal is boring, what is more appealing is anything other than normal.

The basic craft aspects of photography are more like bricklaying than pottery and I think the learning curve is easier if one learns create "normal" first which happens automatically when scene matches sensor then build on those technical skills to the extent your innate creativity drives you to create "art".

The result will be the same creative results that would occur without any technical skiils, but without the failure to execute technically standing in the way of getting the message across. Given two creative images, one technically optimal and the other sub-par which will create the more effective emotional reaction? In my experience creativity and technical skills win every time.

An interesting thing happened in my wife's family when they got a MIDI keyboard and computer. One of her brothers was one of the best keyboard players I've heard, but he couldn't read music. With MIDI he was able to play an original song by ear and have the computer software create the score, bypassing the need to learn musical notation. It allowed the other less gifted members of the band, who learned by reading notes, to learn the song faster.

In the same way the instant feedback of the digital camera has eliminated the need for metering and understanding lighting ratios. By simply starting from the baseline of controlling exposure to record shadow and highlight detail at the same time you automatically get "normal" because thats the baseline the process is engineered to create. Where you take it from there is only limited by your creativity, which is no doubt greater than mine.

In most cases what I shoot is to meet the expectations of the people I shoot for. In the case of the kid in the kilt, Mom was looking for "normal". If she wanted something else she would have had someone else take the photos.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 12558
Country: United States

+1 @ full range of tone ... it's the primary reason why I don't like (fully trust) the camera's histo ... it cheats you out of full range to "play it safe". It is that full range of tone that IS part of my artisitic side. I like having the precision of the technicals (i.e. electronic tuner) to HELP me get that part of my artistry.

Ours is an artistry that certainly has sufficient lattitude that I can wing it on Sunny 16 and gut experience to capture the moment when needed. That can certainly get me "close enough" that I can finish it in PP, but all the better when I can be more precise. But my pre-digital shooting was with chromes, where such leniency in lattitude does not exist. On stage, and in the heat of performance, tuning by ear is where the action is ... not the right time for a precision electronic tuning session. There is a time & a place for both.

I'm guessing, the reference to an insistence for proper negative density by mentors (btw, I checked out the Art Center curriculum ... drool) suggests to me that they wouldn't (technically speaking) allow their students to strive for "close enough" either. I know that by the time you've gotten to be as masterful and natural as decades of experience provide for, the technicals seem to be of insignificance in favor of the artistry. But there are those who still find the technicals important to aid the artistry ... similar to the equal significance placed on both by former instructors.

Imo, it isn't an either/or ... it's both. Either one can expose an Achille's Heel and either one can be the catalyst for excellence. I agree that excellence in one can be used to overshadow "close enough" in the other ... but the masters (of any craft) understand how to combine them together without ever settling for "close enough" ... albeit usually favoring one over the other in their preferential style.

It's not meant to impress or anything as such, as others are certainly superior to me, but I offer this image as one of my blends of technical & artistry. Knowing where I wanted this scene to wind up (artistic vision), it was important to know where to start with it ... and had I gone by the histo, those hidden stops beyond the histo would have been sub-optimal (negative density) for me. The technicals allowed me to know when the changing light was in range of where I wanted it (adaptive vision is readily fooled in such changing light). Again, it's not much to others ... but to me it was produced as a culmination of both.



dmacmillan
Registered: Nov 03, 2007
Total Posts: 4661
Country: United States

BrianO wrote:
Peter Figen wrote: The problem with an all numeric approach like Chuck's, and so many other's, is that it so often leads to the boring kind of photos seen here. It's kind of funny that all this talk of lighting ratios and light distances completely misses the mark when it comes to capturing any kind of emotion.

They're two different but complimentary topics. A great "moment" can fail as a photograph if it isn't captured with proper exposure.

Peter Figen wrote: ...When I was a student at Art Center we had great lighting classes and never once was a portrait lighting ratio ever mentioned.

I find that hard to believe. Maybe you were absent that day.

I can affirm we didn't talk ratios at Art Center, Peter didn't miss any classes. We were encouraged to be very familiar with the characteristics of the particular film we used and to intuitively adjust ratios primarily for the emotion we hoped to evoke and how the film reacted to light. I can read an old Kodak film spec sheet and visualize its reaction to light. I've lived with my digital camera long enough that I can view the light on a scene and know how it will be rendered.

Yes, poor technique can ruin the capture of a great "moment". That's why excellent technique was expected. We never lost sight of it as a means to an end. As Peter mentioned, technique became intuitive, we didn't have to measure ratios, we "saw" them.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 12558
Country: United States

+1 @ "saw" them.

I used to be able to do that with my Fujichrome much more so than I've been able to adapt to digital. It seemed so simple then ... "what ya shot was what ya got" ... and it just seemed to match your mind's eye (once you got it trained). Digital has been a totally different experience for me.



Peter Figen
Registered: Apr 28, 2007
Total Posts: 3101
Country: United States

"and had I gone by the histo, those hidden stops beyond the histo would have required more PP to get it there"

I don't see how NOT going with the Histogram here would have been an impediment. All the Histogram does is allow you to see how the exposure is distributed and whether or not anything has been clipped or close to clipped. A light meter would not be any better - in fact would be worse generally - in a scene like this, assuming this was a digitally captured image. The meter is not going to compress or expand the data in the image magically for you and neither is the histogram, but the histogram IS going to tell you more accurately where the limits of your sensor lie. If you were shooting Velvia on this scene, then a good spot meter and a lot of experience would help you to know where to place the overall exposure and whether to expect the white trees to blow out or the shadows to plug up, but since you're talking histograms here, it doesn't matter. When capturing digitally, the rules change somewhat and since you're shooting raw, you might as well try to place the exposure to capture all the detail you're interested in plus a margin for error (which is why I like the histogram method so much - I like knowing there's going to be a smidge more usable in the final file) and then decide in post what you want to keep and what you want to toss. This idea of trying to get the perfect tonality in a raw file is a false notion. Digital capture requires a different fundamental approach than film and seriously, the best tools are right in the back of the camera. And I'll bet, whether you shot that image, which is very nice, by the way, on film or digital, you probably would have bracketed your exposure anyway and picked the exposure or exposures that worked best or worked best together. In addition, with a digital capture, you would have the option of processing the file multiple time in the raw processor of your choice to optimize your vision for the scene.

I have not looked at the curriculum of Art Center recently, but I do know that, from what I've seen, that the current crop of students are probably not getting the level of technical intensity that was there when I was there in the early to mid 1980's. I have student and former student come to my studio and just sort of get slack jawed at what goes on there, which makes me feel good about job security. Don't come away for even a second that I'm not about the highest level of technical expertise when and where it's needed. I'm all about that, but I also know when to leave that aside and concentrate on the images.

The one piece of equipment that has given me the biggest edge technically, aside from Photoshop itself, is the Spectrolino Spectroscan T I bought about twelve years ago. Because I saw then where this digital revolution was taking us, I knew I needed tools that would give me a competitive advantage, especially for all the images that were going to offset press, and for the emerging world of digital inkjet printing. Just the capacity to make and use custom profiles for all sorts of outputs meant that multiple rounds of proofing were eliminated and in many cases, hard paper proofs were completely bypassed. This saved time and money for clients and gave me the reputation of the color guy who always got it right the first time. Of course, that doesn't always happen, as we're all only human, but that expectation has persisted. It's funny to see people's reaction to that funny little machine that has simple job and sounds all too much like an old fashioned washing machine as it plows through its test charts. But when they see the results in the prints that come off the 9900 or whatever press we happen to be printing on, all they care about is the images they see.

None of this technology was available to the common person when I was in school, although I do remember someone coming in to a class in '83 or so with a demo of what a Scitex workstation could do, and the difference between the traditional color separation and the new digital versions just coming on the market. Who knew then that it would all trickle down to our own desktops and personal computers. Ain't technology grand.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 12558
Country: United States

Peter Figen wrote:
but the histogram IS going to tell you more accurately where the limits of your sensor lie.


I would agree with you, except that the histogram DOES NOT (manufacturer's design) accurately tell you where the limits of your sensor lie. It has a 'safety factor' built in to it that varies between cameras. If it actually had the ability to give you the precise ends ... "SWEETNESS" and this wouldn't be the issue that it is. Also, when you are dealing with small areas such as the white trees, the histo doesn't provide sufficient information to let you know what their values are.

My Kodak SLR/C is sweet, in that it gives you individual RGB values wherever you place the LCD cursor. THAT lets you dial it in very nicely. With the SLR/C I can chimp & dial in an exposure to see my white point somewhere between 245 & 255 (if that's where I want it) and or see how much my shadows are blocking up (numerically) ... which I prefer much better than a meter. Sadly, I've not seen any other cameras that can do this. The SLR/C also has an option to show you a FULL HISTO or the regular one with the safety factor built in. Again, too bad other cameras don't have this functionality.

You are correct that the meter isn't going to expand or contract anything. A scene like this can easily exceed the range of the sensor. But the more accurately you can assess where an end point exists, the less clipping you'll unnecessarily lose on the other end. Leaving 3/4 - 2 stops (OEM design) off the right side side of the histo means that you'll lose more detail on the left when you have a scene that exceeds the sensor, blocking your shadow detail more than would otherwise be necessary. For some that 3/4 - 2 stops of headroom may not be important to them, for others, it is.

If a sensor will handle say 10 stops, and my scene is 12 stops, then I have some decisions to make. Knowing what my ambient light is AND knowing what my endpoints in the scene are provide information that I can use to decide which direction, and how much I want to move things. Conversely, if my scene is only 8 stops with a given lighting arrangement, then I know I can adjust my lighting to create some additional range (if I so choose), or I can stay in the "safe zone" of the histo. The meter doesn't change anything ... it just provides objective information for you to use in your decision making.

+1 @ bracketing as a strategy. Not an option on this one, as it was a multi-shot pano that I ripped off as fast as I could (thanks btw) to capture the fleeting light that I wanted. The shot was around a 30-40 minute study, wait & watch for the clouds to do their job. The exposure on this one was already established relative to incident (EV) readings and my SLR/C RGB values. So even though I had to wait for my "Assistant" to change my lighting arrangement, I had tangible information from which to know when He got it where I wanted it.

Since the key light was unchanging, it was the changing levels in the shadows that my meter was crucial for. It let me know when the shadows being created by the clouds were inside the range of the sensor would give me the lighting range that would fit in the sensor. Too dark and I block up more than I want, too light and I leave some range on the table.

If I had not had any changing light conditions to coordinate the shadows with, no biggie. But since they were variable, the meter was very helpful in letting me know when they were where I wanted them. In such lighting conditions, my adaptive vision is not trustworthy ... but my meter is much more objectively so.

I just find the ability to know my EV values, for both end points and range are highly valuable information. For others ... its just boring technical hoooey.



cgardner
Registered: Nov 18, 2002
Total Posts: 9376
Country: United States

We are handicapped outdoors with digital because its a given any scene with sun will exceed the sensor range and there will be a failure to record entire scene accurately.

The histogram is informative, or not, depending on how it is used. It is useless for any measurement of the scene range until it is pegged to one side or the other. It is also useless for depicting small areas of highlight or shadow.

But if you follow these steps it will reveal how much the scene range exceeds the sensor range:

1) First using the clipping warning, not the histogram, but the brightest non-specular highlights just under clipping. By this I mean from the camera clipping interpolate when the RAW is just under clipping which is easy to do after a few camera / ACR comparisions of warning vs. image detail. This set also pegs the histogram to the right side with more precision than you can see in it alone.

2) Look at the left side if the histogram. If scene exceeds sensor the bars on the far left will be high.

3) Adjust exposure until the histogram isn't running off the left side. The amount of exposure adjustment required reveals how much the scene exceeds sensor. Knowing that will allow better planning for how to deal with it.

For example if the difference is 3 stops you might split the difference, starting again with the just under clipping exposure in step one and opening the lens 1.5 stops intentionally clipping the brightest detail.



BrianO
Registered: Aug 21, 2008
Total Posts: 8527
Country: United States

dmacmillan wrote:

...we didn't talk ratios at Art Center...

...We were encouraged to be very familiar with the characteristics of the particular film we used and to intuitively adjust ratios...


Color me confused.



cgardner
Registered: Nov 18, 2002
Total Posts: 9376
Country: United States

BrianO wrote:
dmacmillan wrote:

...we didn't talk ratios at Art Center...

...We were encouraged to be very familiar with the characteristics of the particular film we used and to intuitively adjust ratios...


Color me confused.


The Art Center's way of saying turn the modeling lights, open your eyes, then adjust the lights until it looks right. Far more artistic than systematically metering a subject with four or five different ratios known to work, validating the assumptions by reacting to the results emotionally and in the process an understanding technically how to create mood with ratios.

It's easy to understand why the Art Center would use a "Here take these lights, experiment and come back with your conclusions about how lighting affects emotion" approach. That is very valid approach for an art school structured as a path of artistic self discovery, but not the quickest path to technical competency, which is my focus.

All the books I've ever read teaching lighting by ratio discussed how different ratios created different looks with examples to illustrate. Seeing the examples made it very easy for me to intuit that a 2:1 ratio producing light toned shadows is more flattering for a young woman than a 5:1 saving me from countless hours of trial and error.

Understanding how lighting ratios work intellectually before using lights for the first time might get in the way of artistic self-discovery but it is quicker way to get up the learning curve for someone without artistic pretensions wanting to take a flattering photo of the wife or their kids rather than the next cover of Vogue.



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