High-key black and white

One of my favourite photo styles is this: high-key black and white, against a simple white background. This reduces the clutter to a minimum and starkly emphasizes the subject. Like in this image from the 20 November Mono, Ontario all-day workshop:

Tara, by Michael Willems

What I would say if I were to discuss this:

  • The image screams out “black and white”.
  • Clothes (white)  and wall (white) both disappear. I like the emphasis this gives the subject and the pose.
  • I like the 1970s feeling. I added a little grain to this image in Lightroom to emphasize that.
  • Slight, very slight, soft beautiful shadows are important.
  • Light is simple: one flash bounced behind me.
  • Of course you use exposure compensation and the histogram to check your exposure. But you knew that. Hit the right side (just).

Try a portrait like this! All you need is a white wall, a camera, an on-camera flash, and a model in white.

Reader post

Joel, a reader who came on a recent Creative Urban Photography walk with me, says the following – and I thought it worth it posting this today, to emphasise what I have said before:

Just circling back after the Urban Photography walk in Oakville that I did with you and the group on Oct. 23rd.
Despite the rain, it was a nice blend of technique and discussion.  I putzed around after we wrapped up down by the waterfront.

I had been on the fence about purchasing a flash after the Henrys show, but spending an afternoon with the Speedlighter had me sold.   Your quick demo about flash compensation and CTO was enough to push me over the edge.

[…for Canon users: Joel then points out there are cheap deals on for the 430EX: price match the Adens Camera offer at $274.99. I believe Henry’s also has a great offer on this flash…MW]

Not that you need any proof yourself, but I took a quick comparison shot (attached) to bring back to the camera guys here at work.  Images are unedited (but very compressed).  Left side is bounced behind me with the 430, right side is standard pop up flash.  Both shot at ISO 100 in my poorly lit living room at night.  Very happy with it and excited to learn more.  Keep posting on your speedlighter site – lots of good advice…

Thanks, Joel. Here’s your two shots:

Bounced vs Straight

Bounced vs Straight

(Click to see them larger).

As you can see,

  • The bounced shot is much warmer (note, if due to wall colour it is too warm, this is easily adjusted with one little tweak in Lightroom).
  • Its shadows are softer. Look at the dog on the right and at the annoying shadow on our right.
  • Its background is not inky black, unlike the direct image’s background.
  • The catch lights are more natural (the straight image has an unnatural looking tiny catch light right in the centre of the pupil; the bounced image has a much more natural looking and much more naturally positioned catch light).
  • The dog looks more natural in the left image. On people, this would be even more dramatic: the right image would have oily, overexposed skin highlights. The dog’s hair helps shield us from this.

Images like this are taken as follows:

  1. Attach the flash to the camera.
  2. Turn it on, and ensuring it is set to TTL mode (its default).
  3. Use program mode on the camera; or manual (preferred for more advanced users) or even “night portrait” mode.
  4. Turn the head so it points 45 degrees upward behind you.
  5. Shoot!

Joel adds, in a follow-up email:

Camera is Canon XSi.  Standard Kit Lens 18-55 EF-S. I’ve never seen this level of detail out of my equipment before.  It was so sharp that when zoomed in, you can see my kitchen in his eye.  Like you said – ‘A bright pixel is a sharp pixel’  J

Exactly. That is Willems’s Dictum: “Bright Pixels are sharp pixels”. Noise, grain, cockroaches and bedbugs all hide in the dark areas.

All this is subject of my next November 20 all-day course (see www.cameratraining.ca) – you will learn these techniques and many more, and go home with some great portfolio shots using a professional model.

Flash consistency – a note

So you are surprised that your flash pictures always turn out differently and unpredictably, especially when using automatic (“TTL”) flash?

Then this may help:

A. First, worry about the background, ambient light:

  1. First, decide “should the background light do any work?”. If you are using an automatic or semi-automatic mode, like P, Av/A or Tv/S, the camera will try to light the background well. so it will not just be the flash doing the lighting.
  2. Realise that there are limits to the previous: on Canon always in P mode, and on Nikon in P and A when “Slow Flash” is disabled, the camera will limit shutter speed to avoid blur.
  3. So if you want total predictability of the background, use manual, and set your meter to the desired ambient lighting level (I recommend you start at -2 stops, i.e. the light meter points to “-2”). See a recipe below.

In a typical room, a starting point might be 1/30th second, f/2.8, 400 ISO, and the flash pointed behind you. Auto ISO is not recommended!

B. Then, concern yourself with the flash:

  1. The foreground is mainly lit by flash, not by your Av/Tv/ISO settings.
  2. Canon cameras in particular try to avoid overexposing part of the picture, so even a small reflective object in the flash picture can result in a dark, mainly underexposed photo.
  3. The flash exposure metering is, on most cameras, biased toward your focus points. So the camera looks mainly where you focus.
  4. If you take a picture of something bright (a bride in the snow) the camera will underexpose it to give you a grey bride. If you take a picture of a dark object (a groom in a coalmine) the camera will overexpose it to give you a grey groom.
  5. To fix this, you can turn the flash up and down using flash exposure compensation (“Flash Exp Comp”).
  6. Play with the light: aim your flash at walls or ceilings if you can. and create a “virtual umbrella”.

Try it and see if you get more consistent!

Here’s a typical recent flash picture, of a nice photographer I met recently:

Flash picture

A flash photo - yes really.

Doesn’t look like your usual “deer in the headlights” snap? That’s because I was following my own suggestions above. Note I also used a Honl Photo 1/2 CTO gel, to make the flash light look a bit more like the background Tungsten light. I like warm backgrounds, but I often make them a tiny bit less warm this way.

Go wild.. and get creative

Creative lighting is all about what you do not light:

A chiaroscuro picture of a model, by Michael Willems

Recent chiaroscuro picture of a model

I used one bounced flash and a prime 35mm lens on a full-frame body.

The camera was on manual of course, and shutter, aperture, and ISO were set to make sure the background was dark, but with colour showing in the background.

Flash was on TTL.

I wanted to emphasise the girl’s striking eyes and hide her face, and emphasise her look, so I bounced off a black ceiling above her. Yes, even a black ceiling will reflect some light! And 1600 ISO and the lens wide open ensured that “some” light was “enough” light.

Not your typical party picture – precisely because I did not light all of the girl.