Create Drama In Your Photographs By Taking Away The Light

“In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”
-Francis Bacon

restricting light

Humans like light. We like being able to see everything around us clearly.

However, very often what makes a photograph is not what is there, but what we can’t see. To focus our attention within a single motionless flat image requires some serious magic.

Restricted light is dramatic. It’s cinematic. It’s full of life. And it’s a natural way to bring your attention to things you want your viewers to focus on.

Creating focal points with light

When our photograph is full of information, and full of light, our senses become overloaded. We stop paying attention. And all this happens in half a second. Remember the old adage when you first started shooting, “Get Closer”? The whole point of getting closer is to take away those distracting elements.

So what other tools do we have to cut away the distraction? My favorite one is a mindset of starting with nothing. Nothingness happens to be black.

So when we have a canvas with no light at all, then whatever we ‘paint’ or allow light to touch becomes worth noticing. By throwing light on each element of a photograph we intentionally include every element.

restricting light

Looking at the photo of our biker here, we can see there are three major elements aside from the background here. There’s the biker, the scaffolding with caution tape, and then the bike itself. And even more specifically there’s the bike’s headlight.

I lit each one of these elements separately using three strobes. For a non-commercial image, this might be overkill, but you can easily see here how highlighting each element brings a the viewer’s attention to it. Background elements are much less prominent because they are in the darkness.

For reference, this image was lit with one hidden hotshoe flash and two studio strobes. Any traces of the lights themselves were removed in post-production. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get the light exactly where we want it, but that’s what makes a photograph sometimes.

Create depth and dimension with light/dark

Photos are flat. But we see the world in 3d! To get back that depth, we often need to create dimensionality and a sense of depth with light. While other factors also contribute to a sense of depth, like a low depth of field, using light is a great way to isolate and define.

restricting light

Let’s check out these boxers. Outside of the boxing ring the background is mysterious. It’s dark, looks like they’re boxing after-hours in the gym for practice. But both our boxers have dark hair. By using a little light thrown from the side we simultaneously separate them from the background and give their hair and faces some dimension.

Look at the way the light wraps around the muscles of the fighters as well. Light coming from the side (from the left or right relative to the camera) works well to shape and define because we produce shadows in the valleys. If we were to light from in front, all the valleys would be filled in and the shadows gone taking away all our visual cues for dimensionality.

You’ll also notice that there is virtually no light that spills onto the background. That’s because all my light sources are restricted– they are setup with softbox grids that direct the light only where I point them and nowhere else. That leads us onto the next section, which is tools and techniques for restricting light.

Light Restricting Tools

For some reason in still photography, we don’t tend to think much of controlling light in a natural way. Because still photographers often use strobes, we can’t see the light itself and so never try things that would be intuitive if we could see that light. But thanks to the film industry, lighting sets is alive and well, and we have the tools (and jargon).

restricting light
A set of fancy studio flags and a cucoloris (cookie).

In this section, as we talk about various ways to restrict light, go ahead and turn on your desk lamp. Then take a piece of paper and use it as one the following various light- restricting tools.

1. A flag is basically a black rectangle used to block light on one side of a light. Although there are expensive c-stand mounted flags, you can use virtually anything you can put in place. Matthews makes a portable flag kit called Road Rags which is expensive but amazing. When you flag a light, it hides whatever is in the shadow of the flag. You can use multiple flags to create a focused light effect. You can use a wall corner or a door or a piece of cardboard to flag as well. In the dark portrait at the top of this article, I used a corner of a wall to flag the majority of the image, resulting in only my subject’s face (as he leaned forward) being clear and well lit.
2. Many artificial lights offer barn doors, which are 4 essentially easily adjustable flags arranged around the light head. Although convenient, barn doors are not nearly as flexible in allowing the light’s apparent size to be modified. Multiple flags tend to give you a lot more options, but require much more thought and setup time.
3. A cookie (officially called a cucoloris), is just a bunch of shapes cut out of a flag. Think of the bat signal. Cookies allow fine control over not only where the light and shadows go, but also the specific shape of the light. They are often used to add texture to a background or to help use the light to add interest to a subject.

One of the best ways to use a cookie is to find what would be a natural cookie like a set of blinds, a windows with separate panes, or even a tree with close branches. We are used to seeing the shadows cast by these natural cookies so they don’t draw attention to themselves.

restricting light

In this portrait of the weightlifter, you can see the beams of light distinctly as they shine through the dusty haze of the room. These light beams are created because the window’s panes act as separators that carve out beams of light. In this scenario the beams of light are themselves interesting, but what is also interesting is the pattern of light that is cast on the floor (which you can’t see in this shot).

Transition Zones: Hard edges vs Soft Edges

Since this article is all about where light does and doesn’t fall, it makes sense to talk about that critical area where dark becomes light. You know how on some days you really notice the shapes of shadows and other days you forget shadows exist? Well that’s the start, but shadow definition is about much more than the intensity of the sun and the time of day.

restricting light

In the two photos above, the two shadows are different although the same elements exist in both. I didn’t change the light source at all, or get closer or farther with the camera. The shadow changed because I simply moved the piece of paper closer and farther from the light that casts the shadow!

Soft shadows and soft shadow transitions exist when your light restrictor (flag, or cookie or hand or wall) is closer to the light source. Harder shadows exist when the shadow- caster is far away from the light source. Try it yourself. Turn on a single lamp, and stand between it and a wall. Walk closer to the wall and away from it. The closer you (shadow- caster) are to the light the softer the shadow becomes and vice versa.

This is often completely ignored because for the most part we are generally more concerned about how the weather affects the sun instead– by inserting clouds between the sun and the earth the light becomes diffused etc… But all things being equal, when you have a consistent light source (cloudy all day), the control you do have over your light comes from where your light restrictors are.

Natural Gobos

So the real magic lies in the ability to restrict light without lots of fancy tools. It’s about using the environment around you. Not only do you get the ease of not needing more stuff, but you also create light that feels very natural and you’ll have the ability to put your natural light sources in the shot!

1. Windows are obvious, but we often underutilize interesting windows in favor of big open windows. Try using stained glass windows, or small windows in basements, or frosted glass blocks. The effects you get from smaller window or from strange glass can very creative.
2. Trees, for some reason, are something we regularly ignore when it comes to light shaping. But we often see light dappling through trees. The key is to either be extremely nitpicky about your subject’s position within the dapples of light, or to shoot a lot and quickly. This takes shooting a lot to get an intuitive sense and to hone your speed at composing quickly.
3. Walls can be found indoors and out, and block light especially well near the corners of rooms. Outdoors you can find stone walls, fences– which can cast very interesting shadows.
4. You, the photographer, can use your own body to block light to either reference yourself as a photographer in the scene, or to creatively break up light coming from behind you, especially when you are closer to the light source.

Conclusion

So there you have it– one more crazy thing to think about when you are out shooting. Hopefully restricting light adds not just a tool in your box but give you a strategic element to help you tell your story. And remember, once you’ve used light restriction for the drama it can create, reign it in a little. Let subtlety tell your story as well so that your work doesn’t become about technique, but about an overall mood. Now go forth and sculpt some drama.

About the Author
Kiliii Fish is a commercial photographer and cinematographer from Seattle specializing in sports and environmental portraiture. He is currently working on a multi-year portrait project of indigenous peoples and traditions in the modern world. You can see more of his work at www.kiliii.com.

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  1. dave Buchanan

    Use of negative and positive lighting is essential in portrait photography and editorial work … these are some really good ideas . cookies and flags are easy to make for strobes with Cinefoil … lots of creative possibilities

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