Monday, March 23, 2009
The Gritty Portrait
Using hard light and postproduction to re-create a popular “edgy” look
Once you have your subject and location figured out, then comes the fun part—lighting the shot! Bright, edgy light against a dark background works best to get the gritty effect. Flat light, or even direct sun, doesn’t work nearly as well as multiple bright strobes hitting your subject from different angles. When hard light hits your subject from different angles, it produces bright, hot edges on your subject. This rim lighting gives your subject better separation from the background. I normally underexpose my background by one or two stops. This makes the strobed subject separate from the background and helps when I work on the image later in the computer. Bright highlights and shadows are both important in the final shot.
Don’t worry, you don’t need a truck of flash gear to create some edgy lighting! The most basic setup is using one TTL flash, something most photographers have in their camera bags. If your flash has high-speed sync, you can use TTL flash outside at midday and still underexpose the ambient light. If you don’t have high-speed sync, you’ll have to wait for a time of day when the sun isn’t as strong so you can underexpose your background or shoot indoors.
I normally set my camera to manual exposure, figure my exposure and pop a TTL flash onto my subject. For the best results, use your flash off-camera at an angle to your subject. Off-camera flash can be done using either a dedicated cord that attaches to your hot-shoe or a wireless transmitter. By strobing your subject at an angle, you’ll create a highlight edge on your subject, which helps in creating a gritty portrait.
I use multiple TTL flashes to get nice highlights on my subject. The new TTL flashes are versatile, lightweight and work wirelessly from the camera. I use Nikon SB-900 Speedlights along with the SU-800 transmitter for many situations. I place the flashes at different angles to my subject to add accent lights to hair, shoulders and legs. Half the fun is determining where you want those hot edges! Since I want edgy light, I use nondiffused flash (no softboxes, just a standard silver reflector). This also creates strong shadows, which work well with the gritty look.
Sometimes TTL flashes don’t have enough power to overcome sunlight in a scene, especially if they’re distant from your subject. For those scenarios, larger studio strobes are needed. I use Elinchrom Rangers, which are 1100-watt, battery-powered units that can be controlled wirelessly from the camera via the Elinchrom Skyport system.
Being able to control flash output from the camera is a huge time-saver if your flashes are in difficult locations. Once I had to cross a river to set up a flash, then cross back to get to my camera position. Rather than cross the river every time I needed to adjust my flash output, I simply controlled output by the transmitter on my camera.
Whatever flash system you use, remember the goal is to produce some nice contrasty light with good accent light on the edges of your subject. Aim your flashes at different angles to your subject, and underexpose your background by one to two stops to enhance the lighting on your subject.
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