Subtracting Light for More Interesting Shots

In my opinion most new photographers over light their shoots. They use too much light and the shots become flat and boring. I know there is a tendency to do this when you’re first starting out because you’re insecure about your lighting so you think the more lights that are set up, the better the pictures are going to be. You want everything to show. But it doesn’t make for an interesting picture most of the time. Mood and edge are created by using less light and more interesting angles. As I always like to say, the drama is in the shadows. 

One of my lighting “secrets” is subtracting light from a set. Of course, you have to know how to light if you’re going to figure out how to not light. There are a number of ways to achieve this. When I was still learning lighting, I would set up my lights in an organized fashion; key light, back light, hair light, etc. If you have a basic lighting set up, you can start from there. Then it’s time to play! Start by removing the key light. How does it look? Too dark? You can turn it back on but turn it down to a lower setting. Or if you placed your key in front of your model, put it to her side. Put a soft box on a light head, then take a V flat and cover half of the box. Subtracting light, see? It’s all about taking away the light, but leaving enough there to get a good exposure. You can also leave your key in place but remove the back light or hair light. Or eye light or background light. One of the things I love to do is to over-expose my back lighting and letting that light “fill” my model. I let it wrap around her so it is actually used as a broad key light source. It’s tricky, especially in digital where you can’t blow out your whites. But it can be done.

Duvetyne? Know it. Love it. Get it. The film industry uses it by the crates, it’s used on sets to black out windows. If they have a schedule to shoot a night shot during the day, they cover the windows with duvetyne and it creates a total blacked out set. Duvetyne , when used on a small still shoot, actually absorbs light. So if you’re model is being lit on one side, you can put duvetyne on the other side of her and you will have truly split lighting. Try it with black paper or a large black flag. Put it up to someone’s face, you’ll see it gets darker where it’s reflecting. And it’s the same theory as reflectors just the polar opposite.

Or, as I mentioned before, you can also try black V flats and flags. They work wonders in subtracting light. I use flags everywhere. I use more flags than lights, actually. I flag my camera for back light flare. I flag the model. I flag the lights to subtract light. The flag is your friend.

Another thing you can try is moving your models around and away from the light. One of my tricks is that I will place the model about a foot in front of the key light. I then duvetyne one side of where she is standing and over expose between a stop and a stop in a half. Throw a wind machine on her, and voila! It’s a pretty interesting shot. Practice makes perfect and it’s hard to get it perfect until you can actually “see” the shadows lighting the models. Again, though, when you’re just starting out, light a set and then start taking away lights and test each phase. You can look at your results and start to train your eye on what works and what doesn’t work. Try it and let me know how it works for you!

Melissa Rodwelltodo