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• pictureperfect.co.za DIY photo newsletter

Softening light

Our last newsletter dealt with coping with the small studio. This time, a related subject - coping with harsh lights forced too close to the subject BECAUSE OF the small studio.

Frustration. I know the feeling. You have only so much space to work with in your studio, and the light on your subject's face is just too hard - typical symptoms are blown-out highlights while you start developing noise in the shadow side of the face.

I recently had a similar situation when photographing wine in the studio. After a week of tossing about trying various reflectors and poly boards, I finally managed to get it right. And the solution was sooooo simple I could kick myself - a piece of opaque white plastic sheet I had lying around. I propped this up in front of my soft box, pushed the softbox and sheet right up to the wine to limit the spread of light to the immediate vicinity and not the entire studio, and finally got my pictures.

While this setup was still in the studio, I did a quick experiment by placing myself in the spot where the wine bottle stood, and was surprised to see that with a couple of minor tweaks, one could use the same setup for shooting portraits. The quality of softened light from the combination of opaque sheet and softbox was unbeatable - soft, flattering, with a gentle wrap into shadow on the other side of the face. This technique is also described in more detail, with pictures, in my new studio lighting course at www.pictureperfect.co.za/coursestudio.html, and I will be using this extensively during the shoots for the next course we're producing, the nude lighting course. (We're starting on the planning of this today, and hopefully will start shooting next week!)

But back to the plastics - I bought mine from Maizies Plastics in Paarden Island, Cape Town, but these sheets are available quite widely. They are made of polypropylene. I suggest getting the 2mm thickness - enough stiffness to stand them up by themselves. They are quite wobbly if thinner, and very heavy if thicker. I stand mine up between two light stands, and use battery crocodile clamps to hold them in place. One can also alter the shape and spread of light by bending the sheet. And one last tip - be careful not to put your light source too close to the sheet if not diffused by a soft box first. It creates a hot spot in the middle of the sheet, which defeats the object of softening the light.

If you're using continuous light in your studio, the sheet also works beautifully. Just be careful of bringing those hot lights too close to the sheets - you might just melt them!