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Make the Shot: Shooting in Mixed Light

It's not all love poems and white dresses behind my lens. In fact, I'm way more of a tech nerd than I let on. I assume most people following my work don't want to dive into the details behind each image but I thought this little BTS (behind the scenes) narrative might shed some light (pun intended) for people learning about environmental portraits and off camera lighting. This is an image I shot as a recent project for UConn (Nikon D750, 1/250 f/2.8 ISO 250 @ 16mm).

Now...let me say this isn't the most amazing image ever shot. I know there are technical elements and preferences that certain people won't like. But this is a great sample for discussing mixed light and the many moving parts there are in a seemingly simple image. The assignment was to photograph a subject and include elements of his teaching, music and somewhat zany office.

Gear Selections:

Gear Choice 1: wide angle lens: This gives a much larger angle of view in an otherwise small space. It helps with the leading lines and can gather all the elements in the scene without crowding them into a narrow field of view (compared to something like a 50mm). I used a Tokina 16-28mm f2.8. Love this lens.

Gear choice 2: off camera light with incandescent filter. I tried a few shots in natural light (window light and office light) and wasn't altogether pleased. The subject blended in with the background too much and didn't "pop", plus the color was off. Adding a color filter was a must since I was shooting in both daylight and harsh office light. I opted to balance for the office light since that was what reflected on his skin the most (because he was facing away from the window). If he were facing toward the window, I would have used a different filter. Note: when shooting with the incandescent filter, switch white balance over to incandescent to get close to proper skin tones. The walls were  blue because of the daylight but the skin tones were right, and that's what matters. This was from a Nikon SB910 triggered with Pocketwizard Plus X's

Gear choice 3: Rogue Grid. I always have this in my bag because it allows me to focus the light in a very narrow beam. In this case, I could light my subject's face and torso without putting the light on other elements in the room. A softbox, for instance, might have illuminated the books, pencils, picture frames, etc. It would ruin the purpose of lighting my subject which was to separate him from the background.

Image Creation:

Lines: there are a ton of horizontal and vertical lines in this image with the primary line being the desk that comes in from the edge of the frame and brings you towards our subject. The lens selection had a lot to do with this since it was a small space. Notice, subject is primarily in the first 1/3 of the image. This was balanced out with another elements (books) which took up most of the right of the image, but because they are slightly out of focus and underexposed, they don't clash with our main subject on the left. 

Color: The bulk of the space in this image is neutral in color. That's on purpose. In fact, the walls were tinted blue (from the outside light) and I selectively desaturated it in post production. This created less of a clash with the skin tone on our subject's face and hands. Since we already shot the image to balance his skin tone, all we had to adjust was a little bit of the environmental light and tint. If we wanted to complete control this, we could have shut the window and added our own fill light to the camera left...but then you're dealing with two lights and a super tight space. Wasn't going to work for my shoot.

Time: I was not able to have ultimate creative control over this scene because this was quite literally a five minute photo-shoot in someone's office. As much as I like my artistic license, I also like to challenge of shooting a scene as it stands. It can save time and is less invasive. I only asked to move one thing- a pair of headphones that were coming out of his ear. We let Legolas hang in the background. Creeper.

Elements: the article isn't released yet, but it discusses this professor's unique approach to helping students remember particular concepts by putting them to song on his blog. Hence...there is a webcam. There is a guitar. He is in an office. There are law books. This was all thought of ahead of time and were included them in the image without seeming too forced. 


Even a simple images takes a lot of thought. The more you shoot the less time you need to think about all of this but I don't think any pro has the luxury of going autopilot. We're always learning and every shoot is different. Next time you go to get a shot, take the time to examine how you're going to approach it. What do you want your audience to see? How can you take them there? What colors/elements are important? How can you make your subject stand out?

When shooting in mixed light, balance for the light that is mostly hitting the skin of your subject. You can balance by changing your white balance in camera, or by adding a filter, like I did. It's best to get it as close to your final product as possible, in camera. Less editing later.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments. 

Final Note: the subject's skin tone is a bit more red on the web than when I view it on my screen. I'll try to change that.