Tuesday, July 8, 2014



The problem doing portraits by natural light, two hours or even one hour before sunset, is NOT that there is not enough light--it's that there is TOO MUCH!  There's light bouncing all over the place and from multiple directions. So, how do I see many, self-proclaimed, natural light photographers solve this problem?  They bring in MORE light--using flash and it's usually on-camera flash!

What they most often create with this technique is a VERY unnatural look and FLAT LIGHTING--where all the shadows are gone--which means they loose the three dimensional effect that we as artists seek to make our subjects look real.


SUBTRACT the extra light, creating a nice shadow side on your subject's face, using an OPAQUE BLACK LIGHT BLOCK, which I call a GOBO or FLAG--terms I learned many years ago when Kathi and I were doing independent short films.

NOTE: If you want to learn lighting I suggest you study the work of great CINEMATOGRAPHERS like:

Freddie Young  (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter).
John Alcott  (Barry Lyndon).
Jordan Cronenweth  (Blade Runner, Altered States).
Frank Tidy  (The Duellists)
Andrew Lesnie  (Lord of the Rings--The Fellowship of the Ring)

These are just a few of the MASTERS of lighting ( and their films) that I suggest MY students study instead of the mostly clueless drivel being taught by most still photographers these days.

O.K., getting off my soapbox and back to the practical use of the GOBO….

If your outdoor location has no usable trees or structures, where you have placed your subject, the light you'll most often encounter will be flat and directionless--there's TOO MUCH LIGHT.  I see some photographers, in this situation, try using a REFLECTOR.  That does not solve the basic problem--it's adding more light from another direction, creating another catch-light in your subject's squinty eyes!

Enter the GOBO  (from: to go between) which is the more generic of the terms since ANYTHING can be a GOBO---trees, scrubs, buildings, and the like.  While the FLAG or BLACK FLAT usually refers to something hand-held or on a stand. Whatever you call it the principle of the thing is what is important.  We are BLOCKING LIGHT with an opaque device.

With that said, some photographers have been asking to SEE how I use a GOBO in a portrait session.  I'll begin with the image below of the young man in a less than ideal spot out in the open. There's strong light on both sides of his face even though the sun is setting BEHIND him. It's just FLAT LIGHTING.
 Image with NO GOBO used

In the next image you can see how to correct the lighting.  Kathi, my wife and partner, is holding  a 42" black FLAG close to the subject creating a dimensional shadow on the young man's face.

Image showing use of the GOBO
As the final portrait shows, just that simple modification, of the direction, of the natural light, creates a nice THREE DIMENSIONALITY on this young man's face.

Image of subject with GOBO used
In this next example, we have our high school senior model, Jasmine, in a popular alley (called "Freak Alley") in downtown Boise. The sun is setting on camera left--and was striking her face which is something I usually avoid. The sun was also reflecting off a tall, mirrored, building on camera right. So, I had Kathi block the direct sunlight, on the left, with a 42" black flag, creating a nice shadow side on Jasmine's face.

f5.0 @ 1/125 sec. at 400 ISO
Removing the much brighter sunlight coming from camera left (over 2-stops brighter than the reflected light on the right) also meant that I could open up the lens and slow down the shutter enough to record the dim light in the doorway behind her.

Using true natural light, modified with the subtractive technique, will produce superior portraits that will ALWAYS look more natural than ANY flash technique. In addition, with the money you save NOT buying speed lights , soft-boxes, stands, weights, and radio triggers, you can invest in a REALLY nice portrait lens. How's that for a WIN-WIN!


Larson still has the 42" square rig that I use ( plus other sizes ) and THEY call them GOBOS.

f.j. Westcott has their Scrim Jims that you can get in a Flat Black Block or their Illuminators in blocking black.

Chimera has nice Panel Frames (like the old Lightforms in design except these are made of Aluminum-alloy) in many sizes.

Or, you can make your own GOBOS using foam-core painted black.  Use your imagination!

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer - Certified
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com

No comments:

Post a Comment