Stunning Model Shots by Controlling the Light

November 22, 2017

As a Canon Explorer of Light, I . . . explore the light, indoors and out.

Exploring the light involves finding, seeing, controlling, creating and processing the light – the main element in every photograph.

In this article I’ll share with you some of the images I took while I, and several dedicated and talented photographers, were exploring the light on my recent “Face to Face” Canon photo workshop at the Canon Experience Center in Costa Mesa, California.

This photograph illustrates how we can create cool lighting effects when photographing in flat lighting conditions.

The scene, only illuminated with ceiling lights, looked like this before we created the cool, blue effect. That’s Canon’s Mason Higa holding a cardboard cutout in front of a Canon Speedlite 600 EX II-RT (RT stands for radio transmitter), onto which I have attached a blue gel. That’s our model Lea in the middle. On the right you see another Canon 600EX II-RT, onto which I have attached a grid (a third-party light modifier, which narrows a Speedlite’s output) to focus white light on our model, and prevent it from falling on the background. Both Speedlites were triggered by the Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter, which was mounted in our camera’s hot shoe. The ST-E3 allows you to control the power output of the Speedlites, which were set on E-TTL (for all the photographs in this article). Sure, manual flash control is an option, but E-TTL makes Speedlite photography fast and easy – and fun!

In case you are not familiar with the term E-TTL, it’s an acronym for Evaluative Through The Lens metering. It’s Canon’s method of automatic flash control, where the camera is reading the flash exposure through the lens.

This is a perfect example of the first step in making all the Speedlite images you see in this article. Shoot a picture using ambient light only, before you even turn any of your Speedlites on. The idea: you need to set your camera (not the Speedlites!) to the Manual exposure mode, and select a shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting that will give you a totally black photograph — so no available light is illuminating the subject and scene. Here my settings were ISO 100, f/5.6 and 1/200th of a second.  With the camera set so that no ambient light is visible, you now have total and complete control of lighting via your Speedlites alone.

Here’s what happened when we switched to a red gel. It totally changed the mood and feeling of the photograph — and it’s the mood and feeling that is the most important element in any photograph.

These images were taken with the Speedlite Transmitter set to Group Mode, which allows up to five different groups of Speedlites to be independently controlled, right from the ST-E3-RT Transmitter.  Used this way, you can set any Speedlite group to fire at a brighter or dimmer level than “normal” E-TTL exposure.  And, it makes it easy to have one group appear brighter or more dominant than another in your pictures.

For both the blue and red shots, I set flash exposure compensation of the Speedlite on the right to 0, or normal E-TTL brightness, and adjusted flash output of the Speedlite on the left to -2 stops, so as not to blast the background with light. In fact, any time you shoot flash with colored gels, expect boldest color at reduced flash power levels. Raising flash power with a color gel tends to weaken the color, and produce light effects closer to white in color. Experiment with the settings to vary the light until you find the desired look.

Here’s a fun shot that actually happened by accident when Mason walked away from the set with my cardboard cutout. The cool shadow was produced because the Speedlite on the right overpowered (by my design) the power from the blue-gelled Speedlite on the left.

By the way, lighting the background is most effective when you use a light (white in this case) background. Use a black background and it will “suck up” all your light. Here’s a behind-the-scenes shot that shows the natural light Just be sure, if you use a white or light-gray background, that you keep any and all white light off of it, if you are using colored gels to get rich, deep color on the background.  This is yet another reason to perform that test I mentioned earlier, and ensure that no ambient room light is being recorded on the scene.

One of the advantages of using a Speedlite over constant light is that you can “freeze” a fast-moving subject at low ISO settings and small apertures. Here my settings were ISO 100, f/11 and 1/200th of a second.  The 1/200th shutter speed is not what freezes this movement — it’s the flash alone, which usually fires at around 1/1000th of a second, or faster!

One of the cool things about participating in a Canon photo workshop is that you get to make the photographs that you want to make. Here you see one of our participants working with our model on the timing, so he got a great action shot!

Light stands are cool, but voice activated light stands are cooler! That’s Mason again, this time holding a softbox over the model for dramatic top lighting. A 600EX-RT Speedlite is securely mounted inside the softbox. Notice I said “securely.” If you try this technique, make sure the Speedlite is securely attached to the light stand, and that any modifiers like softboxes are likewise fitted securely. You do not want it to fall on the model’s head.

By the way, for this shot, we switched to a black background for a different effect.

Thank you Mason! You held the light in the perfect (above and slightly behind the model) position for a cool shot. If you try this technique, experiment with the placement of the light: directly above, behind and in front of the model. You will see that a slight difference in the position of the light will make a big difference in where the shadows fall.

And remember, when you use large light modifiers like softboxes or umbrellas:  the closer the light is to your subject, the softer it will appear.  This is why Mason held the softbox only a couple of feet above our model.

Because there was not a lot of color in the scene, I converted my image to black and white in Photoshop® for perhaps a more creative image.

Speedlites in a small studio mean you can truly control and create! Here’s a photo that shows the making of the following image. In this available light photograph, Mason and I are spraying baby powder behind our model to create a smoke effect. When the Speedlite (covered in an ordinary plastic food bag for protection) behind our model fires through the powder, it looks as though smoke is billowing behind the model.

Once again, E-TTL rocks. Our main Speedlite was set at normal, 0 exposure level, and our background light (in a separate Speedlite Group) was set at -3, again so as not to blast the baby powder with light, which would have resulted in a loss of detail in the “smoke.”

Depending on, well, a lot of things — including how much of the subject fills the frame, what the subject is wearing, the amount of baby powder in the frame and your exposure preferences — my settings may not work perfectly for you. That’s no problem, again because you can easily control the intensity of the light from the Speedlites with the ST-E3 Transmitter. Group Mode, or traditional Ratio control, make this easy to do, and you never have to touch the Speedlites to change their exposure level.

As with the top-lit model shot, I thought black and white was the way to go here.

All the preceding photographs were taken with the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. In this type of studio environment, many Canon lenses that could be used to create the same type of images, even lightweight “kit” zoom lenses.

On the second day of the workshop we had a quick outdoor shoot, using one of the participant’s vehicles as a prop. Unlike the studio session, this outdoor event is using natural light only. Here Mason is controlling the light with a reflector, which is bouncing light onto our model, softly lighting her face and reducing the contrast range in the scene.

After all the participants took their photographs, I grabbed this shot with my EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens — set at f/5.0 to put the background slightly out of focus. I further blurred the background in Photoshop.

Here, too, you don’t necessarily need that lens to get cool model shots. I was at 248mm on my full-frame camera (Canon 5D Mark IV), so you could get similar results with a 70-300mm lens or a 300mm fixed lens set a wide aperture.

Well my friends, I hope this article has inspired you to find, see, control, create and process the light. I also hope it inspired you to attend a Canon photo workshop, which are held at different locations around the country.

Explore the light,

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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