Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Practicus In The Studio: A Talk About Lighting.

           Lighting the sitter is one of the most difficult subject to discourse upon that could well be chosen, for so narrow is the margin between success and failure that it u not possible to give definite rules which will ensure the same results under different conditions; in fact, so far m this true that there is a legend that one successful portraitist abstains from having his windows cleaned lest the lighting should thereby be rendered to hard.
            Hearty very competent writer on the subject has recommended the study of lighting to be begun with s plaster bust, and with this I heartily agree. The only thing better would be to follow the example of Adam Salomon and have life-sized wax figures with hair and clothes complete. A life-sized bust is not an expensive luxury even in war-time, for I recently purchased one near Hatton Garden for five shillings. It was the head and shoulders of Gibson's Venus, and has not special pretensions to classical beauty; it is just a moderately good-looking young woman with her head well balanced upon her shoulders. Busts having the head in unusual positions should be avoided, as the lighting which might suit them will not be useful for sitters.
            Having got our bust, the first thing to be done is to give it a coat of buff or very pale terra-cotta distemper, so that the light values will be about the same as those of the living model. This u very important, as white plaster reflects far too much light for our purpose. The reason why I advocate the use of a bust instead of a living sitter is that the latter cannot keep still for the time required for study, and the student will quickly see how a slight movement of the head upsets all his plans for obtaining a certain effect.
            The bust must be placed on a table so as to be about the height of an ordinary sitting figure, and in front of a plain medium-toned background. It should be in such a position that a high side light falls upon it, the light being rather to the front of the object. In an ordinary span-roof studio this would mean that the dark blinds or curtains would be drawn over one end of the studio, both top and side, for about five feet The bust should be about three and a half feet from the end wall the next blind should be half-down and the next quite open; the side light is obscured up to nearly five feet from the ground, and is open for about six feet run. If we now examine the lighting we shall find it fairly round, but rather contrasty. This is all for the best, for we can readily see the effect of altering the positions of the bust, the blinds and the camera respectively. One golden rule, by whom originally written I know not, is that "light from the sitter's end of the studio gives contrast, while light from the camera end gives softness." I cannot too strongly impress this fact upon the beginner.
            In ordinary circumstances, if the lighting is too harsh, open more blinds over the camera end; if too soft, close them over the camera and open them near the sitter. This one rule is the key to simple lighting, and its application will prevent much floundering in the early stages. If we do not want to alter the blinds we may move the sitter; if she goes further under the dark blinds we get softness; if she comes forward we get contrast.
            Excess of top-light is the commonest fault in portrait lighting; but there are times when top-light is needed. A flat face with insignificant features calls for it, as Mr. H. P. Robinson says: "I think I should use a good deal of vertical light in taking the portrait of a Chinaman." If the sitter had strong features and deep-set eyes such lighting would be disastrous. We may now try the effect first of turning the bust to and from the light, and you will quickly see how the modeling of the face is affected. As we turn the nose to the light the further check becomes illuminated, while as we turn it away it sinks into shadow. I would ask you to remember that neither the camera nor the sitter is screwed to the floor, so that you can obtain the same position of the head, but with very different lightings, by turning it till the desired effect is obtained, and then placing the camera in the position whence you observed it. Always keep your eyes open for accidental effects of lighting, and note the sitter's position in the studio for future use; some of these "observed" lightings are much better than those carefully arranged. I have nearly always found that the effects obtained with dark blinds and clear glass only are rather too vigorous for the ordinary run of work, hence it is very desirable to have in addition very thin white blinds or curtains so as to diffuse the light a little and tone down the glaring effect of the nigh-lights. If there are no white blinds an ordinary circular head-screen covered with thin nainsook or pale-blue nun's veiling is very useful. The nearer this is placed to the sitter the softer will be the lighting, and vice versa. In studios which are so placed that direct sunlight falls upon the glass during any period of the day white blinds should be used to cover all the glass. I have worked in this way in a studio facing due west, on which the sun shone from 11 a.m. until evening. In such a studio we must not have too large an expanse of white-covered window open at once, or we shall get flat negatives.
            A point which should never be lost sight of is that the actual design or pattern of the studio is of no moment. So long as the light can be made to fall upon the sitter at the desired angle, ridge roof, single slant, top-light, high side-light will all give the same result if properly handled. Much more depends upon outside influences; trees, walls, other buildings all serve to modify the lighting and an arrangement of blinds which will suit the sitter in one studio may fail to do so in another which is differently placed.
            A lofty studio is not to be desired. I remember one clever photographer who said that he would work under a cucumber frame if he could. In a high-roofed studio the light is very difficult to control, as it is too far away from the sitter. Even, soft effects are easily obtained, but when any decided lighting is needed it becomes necessary to close all the blinds and to use the side-light only, and that only in a limited area.
            A few words on unusual forms of studio may not come amiss. When working in a studio which has top-light only, the sitter must be placed well back under the dark blinds, and plenty of light admitted from the "camera end." It is also often advantageous to turn the sitter slightly to one side of the studio and to work the camera close to that side of the studio, towards which he is looking, the background being, of course, placed diagonally across the corner. In a studio with a high side window only it is often necessary to place the sitter as close to the window side as possible, so as to get the effect of top-light. If too low a side-light be used the eyes are filled with light and look flat. What is sometimes called a "miniature-painter's light" is a high front light. This gives a very even, illumination of the face, but if properly managed there should be sufficient shadow and one side to avoid flatness. If it be desired to copy the lighting in an existing photograph or even a painting, if by a good artist, the spark of light in the eye forms a reliable guide as to the position of the dominant light. If this be high or nearly in the centre of the top of the iris, in the position say of 11 o'clock on a watch dial, it denotes a high front light, if in the position of 9 o'clock a low side light, and so on In some fancy lightings it may even be at 6 o'clock, which shows that the light comes from below.
            I will now deal briefly with screens and reflectors. The head-screen I have already dealt with as far as lighting the features is concerned, but it has other uses, such as subduing the light on white drapery. Nothing is more objectionable than to have a white dress brilliantly illuminated, making the face appear too dark and receding into the background. By use of the small head-screen this may be avoided, the shadow being cast where required. In some cases a screen covered with a thin open black material is useful, as it will cast a shadow without diffusing white light in other directions. Reflectors are usually relied upon too much; only when the lighting is nearly satisfactory but the shadows are too dark should they be introduced, and then not placed close up to the sitter. In this position they destroy all the modelling on the shadow side and give an unnatural appearance. It is unfortunately too common for the operator to make a hard lighting and then to use the reflector to even up the face. This is wrong, as it does nothing to subdue the over lighting on the other side. There is no need to be afraid of using a screen or white blind to soften the high-lights, as it does not cut off any light from the shadows which are still receiving front light and reflected light from the studio. If the same exposure be given with the high-lights screened the negative can be developed for the shadows without the high-lights blocking up.
            In conclusion, I would caution the tyro against judging lighting by the eye alone, the negative being the only test. The plate does not always see the sitter in the same way as the operator does. Some plates have a tendency to intensify the light, while others soften it. The lens also has a say in the matter, a short-focus lens usually giving a more brilliant negative than a long focus one does. This is partly due to scattered light in the studio, but it also seems to be caused by the distance between lens and plate. Naturally the operator will see that his lens is clean, his camera well blacked inside, and his dark-room light beyond suspicion before he starts work, or he is simply inviting failure in any attempt to secure good lighting.


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