PixSylated’s Inaugural Guest Blog: I’m blessed to have a wide circle of friends who are as obsessed with light and shadow as I am. From time to time, I’ll be turning PixSylated over to one of these friends for a guest blog. I’m thrilled that the first photographer in this new series is Alex Huff, a talented shooter in San Francisco. (If you’ve been hanging around PixSylated for a while, you already know Alex from this post last August.) Alex graciously agreed to share her secrets about how she creates her chiaroscuro portraits, which have been attracting a lot of attention on the web lately. Enjoy!—Syl
by Alex Huff
My chiaroscuro (Italian for “light/dark”) collection is a painterly photographic ode to the men and women in my life, beginning with my circle of friends. My very first images in this series are of two sisters whose mother taught me everything I know about art history. The portraits were initially for her and also a personal experiment for me to see if I could create a painterly portrait. I have a great love for Caravaggio so I knew I wanted the subject to glow against a kind of shroud of inky blackness. Hair, eyes, little pieces of textured clothing–these were the things I wanted to highlight.
Fortunately for me, after people saw my portraits of the sisters they all wanted one of these tenebristic closeups. I love how they all look as a group so I am trying to create as many as I can. Other photographers have wanted to know how I create these images, intrigued by the soft-yet-rapid fallout of light and their moody old-world feel.
These are 1-light portraits that can be done in any small space. I use the following items:
- Elinchrom Monolight (such as D-Lite 2 or BX-Ri) typically shot at the lowest possible power setting, 2.3-3.3. Small flashes (Speedlites) can easily be used as well.
- Softbox, wide and deep, like the Elinchrom 39″ Deep Octabox
- A white reflector
- A short telephoto lens, such as an 85mm or 135mm.
The softbox is placed very close to the subject, slightly above them and pointed down, starting at usually around a 45 degree angle and feathering more or less to taste. My softbox is large relative to the size of my models and the closer I can bring that light source to their faces the softer the light and the softer the falloff of light. Generally speaking, the softer your light source the more gently it will fall off into the shadows. Because I am voluntarily limiting my scene to just the face, I can bring my softbox very close to the edge of the frame and take full advantage of these soft light-to-dark transitions.
A reflector is placed on the subject’s opposite side. I want to avoid having half of my subject’s face in complete darkness but I don’t need very much light to prevent that–I just need a touch of fill. One could introduce a second strobe or a small flash to provide fill light. However, using a reflector is not only simple to operate but it is also very good at reminding you to think about the direction of your key light and how it responds to large, white reflective surfaces.
For my background, I use a simple black or gray backdrop and seat the subject very close to it. Because I am not exposing for anything other than my immediate subject, I could place my subject at just about any distance from the backdrop and get the same effect. My studio is in San Francisco and is very small. Backdrop placement is more a matter of necessity than of design. This portrait set up is a good one for those with little-to-no space to work in.
I typically shoot these portraits at ISO 100, at 1/160″-1/250″, and between f/5.6-f/11. I almost always want to start with a completely black scene in the way a painter begins with a blank canvas. This is most quickly achieved by taking my ISO all the way down and brining my shutter as high up as my light source allows. All of my light is coming from one key source, in most cases an Elinchrom monolight, and I can fine tune my exposure either through the strobe or stopping my aperture up or down.
I want as much of the subject in focus as possible–even the ears–so I shoot at higher f-stops but not, of course, too high because of the softening effects of diffraction. My goal is to try and maintain a certain amount of crispness in the image while also avoiding hard lines with light and shadows in a kind of sfumato, or smokey, style that is reminiscent of old paintings.
For this example I shot at ISO 100, 1/200″, f/11 and received a completely black scene. This is good. I always want to start in complete darkness. Once I turn the strobe on and take the first shot the exposure is typically where I want it and, if it is not, I adjust my f/stop slightly. From here I adjust the feathering of my key light and the bounce of my reflector.
I use a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Nik Software Color Efex Pro for all of my editing. Lightroom is my workhorse where I make my crops, correct blemishes, and sometimes adjust exposure or white balance. It is my “clean up” software of choice.
I use Nik Software to be creative. For this particular example, I used the Fuji Superia 100 film filter and a touch of Glamour Glow from Color Efex Pro. The film filter adds richness and the right amount of grain to the image, which I feel is essential for getting the painterly look to the image. Glamour Glow brightens and smooths skin without the “plastic” look. If I didn’t add a little film grain in post I feel the portraits would look a little too clean and modern. After I add my filters, I may go back and bump the clarity in the clothing in Lightroom.
- Switch up your key and your reflector half way through the shoot. Your model’s best side may be the one previously stuck in the shadows.
- Positioning your model at a 45 degree angle is safe and flattering but straight-on shots can be powerful.
- Don’t be afraid to place your key light and reflector very close to your subject.
- Shoot tight in-camera rather than relying on cropping your image in post.
I am a studio portrait photographer in San Francisco by night and a product photographer and copy writer at BorrowLenses.com by day. I have photographed events and portraits for Google, Zenfolio, Formula Drift, and Global Rally Cross/X-Games. I have also modeled on more than one occasion for Joe McNally and Syl Arena, from whom I learned lighting and model directing basics. You can follow me on Behance and 500px or circle me on G+.
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