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How to Photograph a Lie

A Guest Post by Roger Overall


You’ll have to trust me on this one.

This photograph was taken on a kitchen floor.

On a very wet winter’s day.

After the sun had set.

No really.

Let me show you.

The Challenge

A friend of mine in London runs a catering business. She needed some publicity pictures for a new idea: fun bags for children at weddings. Thing is, she needed them well ahead of the start of the summer wedding season. She needed them in January – when the British weather is typically at its most miserable. There was no budget, so we wouldn’t be jetting off anywhere bright and dry. Nor would we be hiring a studio. Her kitchen would have to do.

We were also going to have to make do with limited equipment. I was travelling to London from Ireland to photograph an annual report, and was bringing minimal lighting gear for the portrait pictures: two flashguns and a brace of stands. Whatever we did would to have to be simple.

Not that we had time for anything elaborate. Commitments on both sides meant we had to shoehorn the shoot into tight schedules. We’d have about an hour-and-a-half to complete the photograph. That’s 90 minutes from the time I arrived to the time the shoot needed to be completed.

Worse, we didn’t have a plan. We were going to wing it. We knew we had a model – Felix, the three-year-old son of a neighbour. Beyond that, we’d agreed nothing. We were friends; it wasn’t a paid job; there was no pressure; we’d figure it out.

I was thinking we’d go for a head-and-shoulders shot and not do anything ambitious. Play it safe. Get a result.

But where’s the fun in that?

Somewhere over the Irish Sea, an idea was born.

Removing the location

My friend’s kitchen wasn’t huge, but big enough to lay down a picnic blanket – which she had. Better still, she could it find quickly.

Being able to get rid of the floor tiles meant we’d be able to produce a photograph that didn’t necessarily have to show an indoor scene. Shooting from above would eliminate the kitchen cabinets, stove, oven and so on. As far as the camera was concerned, we were anywhere but a kitchen.

That overcame the challenge of location.

Next, we needed to overcome the issue of lighting. What would sell the photograph would be the feel of the light. If we could recreate summer light, or at least the sense of it, we’d be in business and the photograph would work. Fortunately, that’s achievable with two lights.

The First Light

One of the flashguns was pointed at the kitchen ceiling. It’s head was set to a wide angle of light distribution – 17mm. That gave us a nice big primary light source.

Let’s just sidetrack here for a moment to talk about some of the mechanics of doing this and what the light does for you.

By bouncing a flashgun off a ceiling, the flash itself isn’t the light source from the subject’s point of view. The big patch of light on the ceiling is. Because it is big, it is also diffuse. It lights everything evenly. That makes shadows nice and soft. In fact, they are barely detectable. It’s like shooting under a massive soft box.

To get the exposure level I’m looking for from a flashgun bounced off a ceiling, my own preference is to set my camera to its quickest flash synch speed (1/200th on my cameras) and the aperture to around f/5.6. Then, using the flashgun’s manual settings, I’ll play with the flash output until I get the feel I want. I might want a bright base level, or a relatively dark one. It all depends on the mood I’m aiming for. However, you don’t really want to be at more than 1/4 of the flash’s full output in my experience. If you try to squeeze any more out, recycling times get a bit sluggish. At 1/4 power, the flash can keep up, even if you get a bit trigger happy.

Being able to shoot constantly is especially important with children. They are quick and they have short attention spans. You want to be Jonny-on-the-Spot when the right moment comes along, not waiting for the flash to catch up.

If 1/4 of the flashgun’s output isn’t doing it, you don’t immediately have to go to 1/2 or full power. You have two other options to play out. Firstly, you can bump up the camera’s ISO. These days, you can comfortably go to ISO 1,600 or 3,200, maybe 6,400 – especially if you’re shooting something that won’t be reproduced beyond A4 or is intended for screen use only.

Your second option before moving up the flash output scale is to open up your aperture. A bigger hole in the lens means more efficient use of the light from your light sources.

As an aside, a longer shutter speed won’t do anything for the amount of flash that reaches your camera’s sensor. Because the flash duration is very, very brief, the camera’s sensor is getting the same amount of flash at 1/25th of a second as it is at 1/200th of a second.

Adding the Second Light

Back to the photograph.

Once the base level of light was set by the flash bounced off the ceiling (in this instance, quite bright), we brought in the second flash to add nuance. You could say the first light acted as the canvas for the second light to paint on to.

We put the second flashgun behind Felix, slightly to the left, and pointed it straight at him. Direct light from a small source is much harder, and it gave us nice rim light on the side of his face and body, adding a feeling of late afternoon sunlight.

Gels and White Balance

The final tweak was to add some warmth to the light. The sun would be lowish and a little golden on a late summer’s afternoon.

We could have done this a number of ways. In this particular instance, we covered the flashes with colour temperature orange (CTO) gels. We could just as easily have set the camera white balance to give a warmer feel to the photograph. Or we could have put a warming filter on the lens, or added the warmth in post-production afterwards. Photoshop has built in photographic filter options, for instance. It all depends on what you have to hand and your workflow preferences.

The Giveaways

For a photograph produced in under an hour-and-a-half, we were pleased with it. A casual viewer would, I think, take it at face value.

Look harder, and it betrays its origins.

In the actual frame, some of the kitchen tiles are still visible. To get rid of them, I used a segment of grass from an image from a previous outdoor shoot. The angle of light on the grass isn’t quite right. Maybe the Photoshop work is suspect too.

The other big giveaway is the specular highlight on the balloon. It is in the wrong place and it is way too big – seriously way too big. By the time Earth has moved close enough to the sun for that kind of highlight, anything living on it will be very crispy indeed.

The light bounced off the ceiling has also created catchlights in Felix’s eyes. I’m sure there are other things that you could pull at to help unravel the falsehood further.

Nevertheless, it does show what you can do with a couple of lights and a bit of imagination when you really need to.

Roger Overall is a professional photographer based in Ireland. He specializes in food and documentary photography, and hosts The Documentary Photographer podcast.

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