Back to basics; Light.

Back to basics; Light.

  • 17th May 2015
  • Blog

I think sometimes it is easy to start going too deep into the ideas behind your work, loosing touch with the basic elements particular to the medium you work in. Recently I have been at a bit of a dead end, Ive started to work with the concept of mindscapes, initially having some success. I wanted to go into a bit of a metaphorical playground, trying to create abstract ideas about what is going on in the sitters mind using subtle props and compositions. Despite being fuelled with lots of enthusiasm from my first successful attempts, I have quickly found I am running out of ideas for future shoots.

This image above which I love, is one of my strongest images from recent shoots. At the time I was only focussed on the lighting. Shortly after this image, the light started to fade, I reverted to artificial side light and captured this image below. Ive been struck by how the lighting has made wetplates really sing and come into a world of their own.


My core goal with all my images was to try and really get to grips with what makes a portrait speak, the quest for trying to capture the soul of the sitter. Whilst this image may not have the subtle concepts of some of my other work, it does have a feeling of intimacy in the bucket load. Ultimately Im now feeling a little drawn away from having to create endless conceptual ideas and I feel a comfort in relying on good lighting and working with models to capture arresting portraits. Its a recipe that seems to be working for me with more success.

I am now beginning to think that light has a far more important part to play in portrait photography, light is after all; what the camera captures. My current thinking is how the sitter is revealed by the intimacy of lighting effects the viewers response far more than I had previously considered. A good example of this is ‘The Angel at the Tomb’, by ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’. The light adds a spiritual quality to her image, it is the interplay of light and sitter that gives this image its power. Ideas based around revealing the model with light also by nature are far more telling of the model, rather then the model becoming a prop for a more abstract idea, which could actually go against all that is important within portraiture.

Light however isn’t the only factor at play here, A lot of the impact of the image is down to the models expression. I did notice a strong shift in the models expression when she was ready for the image to be taken. It took 3 attempts to expose this image correctly and each time Raphaella pulled off the exact same expression which was perfect, it really made the image have the connection it does to those who see it.

From my experience with wetplate; images seem to be very evenly lit in most daylight conditions. This has the effect of making people look a bit strange as their facial features have little modelling in their tonality. It appears that blocking light is actually more important with wetplate to create the effects I’m after.

Ive always been aware that realistically the chances of getting great light in the UK combined with booking a day with a model in advance is hit and miss affair. Ive come to regard good natural lighting as a rare bonus when in reality it is an essential element. Ive become resigned to the feeling that its best to take some shoots with what light you’ve got than simply take nothing at all. Unfortunately controlling the daylight to the extent I want to may involve a lot of DIY but I do feel I could with some effort, make great improvements.

The main light that needs to be blocked is overhead light, this has the effect of drowning the model in light, leaving no plane of the face or body in shadow. Whilst a well controlled film image could capture all the subtle tones from overhead light, either on a sunny day or overcast, my wet-plates seem to create rather flat facial features. In order to control the lighting to the extent I want I would need to have an overhead structure that blocked out all overhead light; you would then selectively allow light in from the sides. Im toying with the idea of a buying a small Gazebo which may be more practical than having to build something large out of wood and fabric.

Ultimately the success of any images will only partly be due to the quality of light, and the bulk of any images success will be more due to the model photographed rather than other factors. Lighting does however evoke a mood which strongly effects the reading of any image and is a tool that I should use with continued consideration.