Ask a room full of photographers what they think of vignettes and you're likely to get a room full of different answers. For many, the thought of vignettes conjures images of cheesy, tacky, outdated oval borders around portrait photos. But in truth, the vignette is a powerful tool for driving the viewer's eye directly to the center of interest—as long as it is applied appropriately. In this, the first of a two-part post about vignettes, you'll learn what you need to know to put this simple, yet powerful photographic tool to work for you, by crafting vignettes with shaped light.
Many photographers have noticed that they sometimes create vignettes even when they don't want to. Some inexpensive lenses produce images that are darker at the edges, which creates a natural vignette—often easily corrected in post-processing. A similar vignette can be achieved by using a lens shade inappropriately—either a too-large shade on a too-wide lens, or by twisting a tulip-shaped lens shade so that its edges creep into the frame. While these two approaches do technically create in-camera vignettes, they're probably not what most photographers think of when they set out to create in-camera vignettes. For that, they have to turn to using light to create a controllable, deliberate in-camera vignette that drives the viewer's eyes directly to the center of interest.
A broad and soft light source casts broad, even light. That typically means that the scene you're framing will be just as bright at the edges as it is in the center. For instance, a large landscape on a slightly overcast day is going to be very evenly lit. But with a more narrow light source, maybe even one that's focused on a very specific point in the middle of the frame, you'll get a natural vignette. With natural light in a landscape, this could be a parting of the clouds that sends unfiltered rays of sunlight directly onto the scene, allowing for one area of interest to be illuminated brighter than the rest of the shot. This is certainly an interesting natural phenomenon, but what about when you want to create that same sort of effect with your own strobe or studio light?
To create a focused light source—say, for a portrait photograph—you can start with a focused light source. With a studio strobe, for instance, you might use a grid spot or snoot to focus the light into a condensed beam that illuminates only one specific area and falls off to darkness away from the center. (These same modifiers also work with many handheld strobes as well, and the principles translate to any type of light source.) This is certainly effective at creating a bright spot, but the light itself tends to be a little harsh for most portrait purposes (unless, of course, you want a bit of drama as in the example above). Instead, you can consider a slightly softer, yet still fairly focused source—perhaps a beauty dish or a small softbox with a grid.
The beauty dish really is an ideal light source not only for making beautiful portraits, but also for creating the natural falloff that causes a vignette at the edges of a frame. The larger source and protected lamp of a beauty dish makes it not nearly as harsh as a bare bulb or smaller reflector, but it is still designed to create a brighter, hotter spot at the center of the circle of light it creates. You can amplify this effect by adding a grid to the front of the beauty dish, to focus it even further. It really is a light built for natural vignettes, from strong to subtle.
You don't have to buy a special light modifier to create pleasing portrait light and natural vignettes, though. A bit of foil—especially black foil made for this very purpose—can be shaped into a snoot by wrapping it around a handheld strobe or even a studio hot light. This is a great way to focus light into a tight circle that will fall off into a dark vignette at the edges. And this circle of light can create the illusion of a proper vignette when it's cast on a background, allowing you to light a subject, however you see fit. It's a classic studio portraiture technique, and for good reason: it reinforces the importance of focusing a viewer's eyes on the important areas of the frame.
A small softbox makes very pleasing portrait light, as it softens the source considerably, and it can be used for vignettes, too. It's perfect if what you want is soft light on the subject and plenty of falloff at the edges of the frame. To increase the effect, place the small softbox close to the subject and expose accordingly, allowing the edges of the scene to go dark. Add a honeycomb-style grid to the front of the softbox to focus the light in one direction (at the subject) and keep it from spilling all over the scene, and you'll enhance this "hot spot" vignette effect considerably.
Even though a true vignette is naturally round, there's no reason you can't bend this rule. For generations photographers have employed "cookies" (short for cucoloris) to project patterned light onto backgrounds and subjects. The use of a cookie to shape light often creates hot spots and shadows, and by positioning the subject just right, those transitions from light to dark can work perfectly to mimic a vignette. Better still, the use of black flags and scrims to cut down the intensity of light, and in some cases to create strong shadows, is an ideal way to shape light—any light, from any source—into a more pleasing vignette-style main light. Simply flag the areas within the frame that you want to fall off to darkness, and voila—instant vignette.
However you do it, creating a natural vignette by modifying the light source—whether it's natural or manmade—is a great way to refine your photographs, drive the viewer's eyes to the center of attention, and ultimately make your work look more professional. To enhance the effect, most pros also fine-tune vignettes in the computer. Tune in next week for part two of this primer, to learn how to enhance these vignettes and even build them from scratch with simple digital techniques.