Sunday, March 17, 2013

Photographing Martial Arts Part II - Studio Lighting

Basic Lighting for Martial Arts Photography
Basic Lighting for Martial Arts Photography

In an earlier article, Photographing Martial Arts, I discussed some of the things that can effect getting good martial arts photos: in the class, during testings, or at tournaments. In this article I am going to focus on getting good martial arts photos in a photography studio setting.

First lets talk about a few basics which really help photos to stand out. Lighting, is of course one key factor, and in this article we will be dealing a lot with lighting. Composition is another very important thing to consider. As is timing, when you are setting up and shooting action photos such as kicks. I talk about this more in Photographing Breaks.  

Lets take a moment to look at composition. Many people tend to view composition in terms of the subject. It is much more then just the subject though. It can be quite easy to spot photos taken by amateurs simply by looking at the background. Many beginning shooters are so focused on their subject they do not notice what is behind the subject. Photos flatten everything out and it can make it look like that potted plant is growing out of a persons head. Bright patches of light, or unexpected people moving though the background, especially if the person is in bright clothing, will also draw focus away from the subject. It is important to remember that composition is the combination of foreground, subject, background, and flow. Flow is something I will go into in much more depth later when I talk about posing, but remember the direction a person is moving is also going to be an important element to the overall composition.

One of the great things about studio shooting is the ability to have absolute control over the environment. This allows us to remove potential spoilers and stop photo bombs before they happen. This is one of the main reasons for shooting on a backdrop, but carefully selecting a portion of the room with no distracting elements can work just as well. With a little practice you can then move on to include other elements to help tell a complete story, such as a weapons display or trophy case.

Lets look at Lighting - Studio Lighting for Martial Arts Photography

Ok, so lets talk about light. For this article I am going to keep the light fairly simple and approach Martial Arts Photography as if it were a product. This is for a couple of reasons, first it will adapt easily to anything else you are shooting, and second because you wont need to think about what the light is doing as you shift your subject from pose to pose to pose, making learning this skill easier. 

For this discussion I am going to explain it from the perspective of shooting on a backdrop, but it is very adaptable to using a blank section of wall as I mentioned above. I am also going to speak in terms of strobe or studio flash as this gives the sharpest cleanest results but it is also possible to use constant lights or even household lamps provided they are all using the same kind of bulbs, the same color temperature.

For this style of shooting we are going to be using three sources of light: a Key Light, a Fill Light, and a Background Light. It is important to be able to adjust the intensity of these lights independently and to control where the light falls. It is possible to do this by moving the lights closer to or farther away from what they are lighting and using a lamp shade to direct them. However professional lights are certainly the easiest and most adaptable for this purpose, it is what they are designed for.

Lets look at the Background Light first. This is just as it sounds it is the light being used to illuminate the background of the picture. You will want this light to only fall on the background and illuminate it so that it compliments your subject. This will require a little bit of practice but in time it will be quite easy to see what intensity you need. One of the reasons to be sure the light source does not also fall (or spill) on to your subject is the use of color. A splash of complimentary color in the background can really help bring a photo together and help the photo to really pop. In general you will want to illuminate as broad an area as possible as evenly as possible for this style of shooting. This is so it will not matter as much where your subject is in relation to your background, for ease of shooting.

Next lets talk about the Key Light, this is the main light that will be falling on your subject. For a moment, think about most places where you see people, and where the light is usually coming from. Generally this will be outside or in a room with overhead lighting, for this reason we expect the light in a photo to come from a higher vantage then the subject. This is one of several reasons on camera flash tends to generate poorer photos then those using light sources from other locations. The Key Light should be located on a stand that is taller than what you will be shooting and the use of a large reflector is a good idea. The larger the apparent light source the softer and more flattering the light tends to be, this is why photographers use umbrellas. Usually I place the Key light to camera right cutting across the subject and casting the shadows down and away from the backdrop. Shadows falling on the backdrop can be an interesting compositional element, but in most cases they are distracting and it can be quite challenging to use them well.

This brings us to the Fill Light. The Fill Light does just that, it helps to fill in some of the shadows. Again it is a good idea to use a large reflector. The softer (larger) the light source the less pronounced things like blemishes and wrinkles will be, it will also help to cut other shadows, which is the primary purpose of Fill Lighting. In this style of lighting it is usually standard to place the Fill Light at an equal angle on the opposite side of the camera from the Key Light and with a lower vantage so that it reduces the amount of shadowing created by the Key Light. It is important to not completely remove those shadows though. Think back to art class, how do you make a circle look like a ball, add shadows. For this reason the lights will generally have a 4/3 or 3/2 Key Light to Fill Light ratio. There is no specific magic number, just be sure that some shadowing occurs with out lots of detail being lost in the shadow, it just takes some practice.

Studio Lighting - Putting it all together.

Once you have your lights set it is a good idea to have a subject stand where the photos will be taken and then look at each of the lights independently. Start by just turning on the Background Light and seeing how much coverage it has, then switch it off and see how each the Key Light and Fill Light respectively cover the subject. This is the easiest way to see what adjustments need to be made. Once you have looked at how the lights are working independently switch on both the Key and Fill and see how they are working together and then finally add the Background light. This process will give you a very good idea of what each light is adding to your photos. Once you have done this a few times you will have a feel for how the lights work and will only need to occasionally check them independently, this will mainly only be needed as you adapt the lighting to create different moods in your photos.

This is a basic rundown of how to do Studio Lighting for Martial Arts Photography. This is really just the basics. I have heard it said that it takes five years to really begin to see light. Certainly some people learn faster then others, that learning will also be effected by the types of shooting you do. Getting the basics of Studio Lighting down will be a big step in learning to see light. The more you experiment with what the lights do independently the more you will understand lighting in general, which will provide you a tremendous working knowledge of the kind of lighting you will need for any situation.

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