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Christopher Grey

Creating a Wall of Light

By Christopher Grey
Published by Sekonic

Christopher Grey explains how to create a clean, white background that serves as a large light source while retaining separation with the subject.

Photographer Chris Grey is an expert on lighting. He's written seven books on the subject, teaches classes and workshops, and is a strong advocate for precise control in the studio. To see more of his work, or to find his books and DVDs, visit his Web site.





Photography is as much about opportunity as it is about technique. As photographers, we constantly explore the opportunities each shot presents to us—the play of light upon the subject, the body language of the person in front of us, shutter and aperture combinations, etc. The list of things to think about as we’re working is a long one, to be sure.

What about when we’re not working? Many of us will come across places we might want to use for a shot “someday” or see an object that we think would make a dynamite prop. Sometimes we follow through, but often we don’t, content to file the idea away for later and then forgetting about it entirely.

But if we manage to when there's a value in waiting for the right moment. an opportunity that presented itself almost a year before it became reality, and investigate t

During a break in the cover shoot for my book Canon DSLR: The Ultimate Photographer’s Guide, my model told me the story of her failed marriage and bitter divorce. The experience was so traumatic for her that she had destroyed every physical remnant of the relationship except her wedding dress. She explained that she had kept it because she wished to destroy it on camera and was waiting for the right concept to come along. She also said she’d mentioned this to some of the other photographers she’d felt comfortable working with and that it wasn’t a contest but, obviously, there would be only one opportunity to get the shot.

The image that immediately popped into my head was a sequence of her tearing the dress off her body, but I knew it would be premature to present it. I didn’t yet know how the sequence should begin or, more importantly, how it should end.

I didn’t want to rush the thought process, but I didn’t want to forget about the job, either. Over many months I let the mental visual develop slowly, like a print in a darkroom tray, until I saw the entire picture in my head. At that point, I not only knew the beginning and end of the story, but I also knew how I had to pose it and even how to light it.

I wanted to begin on a happy, hopeful note, so the first image would be a formal bridal portrait of her. What would happen after that I could only imagine, but I knew it would be emotional as she ripped her elegant (and expensive) gown to shreds. The sequence was to end on a note of elation and release.

I contacted her immediately to present my concept. To my surprise and delight, she still had the dress and loved my concept.

On the day of the shoot she was nervous and apprehensive. She wasn’t sure how she would react but warned the makeup artist that there would probably be tears. We tried to keep the atmosphere light, but couldn’t stop the rush of emotion when she put the dress on. After the artist repaired her eye makeup, we moved to the set, where we discussed the sequence and pre-stressed certain seams of the dress with X-acto knives so that it could be ripped as planned.

I know this is a long prologue to the image, but what we got was worth your wait. The images below show the sequence of the shots. We got one good bridal portrait before emotion washed over her: Hope, fear, anger, rage, release, and elation—all captured beautifully over the course of 17 extremely intense minutes and 89 fun-filled frames. What you see are full-frame, uncropped images. The only shot that was repeated was the very last shot, as she walked out of frame, to get the correct position without cropping.

This shoot proved to be a truly cathartic experience for my model, whose demeanor became light and sunny as soon as we were done. It may be remembered as the moment she was able to put her bad experience behind her, once and for all.

So, what’s the bottom line? Take the time to think the shot through and let the concept gel in your mind. Whether you have minutes or months before you have to pull the trigger, you have time to think, to plan your shoot strategy, and to create imagery that goes above and beyond. If you need more time, tell your client and take it. Don’t let your clients rush you. It’s in their best interests to let you do your job.

Here’s how it was lit, along with some background.

One of the techniques I wrote about in my book Master Lighting Guide for Portrait Photographers was a way to turn the back wall of a studio into a light source. I wanted a huge, broad source that wouldn’t create any specular highlights, but would fall off between the subject and the background just enough for there to be a sense of separation and distance between the two.

The example I showed in the book was also a bridal portrait and actually quite simple to create. I set three equally powered lights on stands at a height of seven feet and aimed them directly at the white wall at the back of the studio. Each was set at the same distance from the wall (about five feet), and angled up at 45 degrees so the light would bounce off the back wall and onto the ceiling traveling from there to the model. A Custom White Balance took care of any off color light. Here’s a diagram showing what just one of those lights looked like.

The skirts of wedding gowns are usually wide, so it’s difficult to put distance between the bride and the background and still keep enough background in play to guarantee a pleasing crop. This lighting scenario allowed for even light with minimal, and very open, shadows even though my bride was only a few feet from the sweep.

I’ve used this same scenario for fashion photography and with great success. The light evenly illuminates the model and the clothing yet still provides some modeling of her shape, something that’s quite important for fashion and glamour. I also added a hairlight that skimmed her without hitting the floor. See photo 3

Notice the darker floor? That’s because the light is hitting it at a different angle and is more noticeable with darker backgrounds. Now that I’ve pointed it out, I’m sure you can see it in the first photo although it’s not an issue and actually adds interest to the image.

You can substantially reduce that effect by adding an additional light, centered behind the background and aimed at the ceiling. You must be certain to raise that light almost to the height of the background in order to avoid any light that might shine through the paper. Power this light so the exposure is equal to that of the key as metered at the hair.

My shot of the cathartic bride added an additional light to the back wall as well as a backlight aimed at the ceiling. The shadows were opened up even more and the floor was also lightened. Here’s the final, overhead, diagram and one of the images.

This technique works quite well with smaller back walls as well. The trick is to evenly space the multiple lights. Give it a try—it’s another trick I think you’ll like.

Category: How-To
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