Backlit Art Shoot
Front light. Back light, side light - Light is everything so we have to use it appropriately for whatever we’re photographing. When artist and designer Helen Nikandrou said she needed some photos of her “Coral Wreath” piece for the Royal Academy, I knew I had to bring you guys along with me for a bit of guerilla style ‘think-on-your-feet-backlit-shooting...
Photographers often ask what the definition of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ light is, which is not the best way to think about it. Good and bad imply at least one kind of light is wrong and another is right. But what is good for one shoot will be bad for another and vice versa. Instead of good and bad, think about different types of light (also known as light quality) in terms of whether or not it is appropriate for the subject you’re shooting and your desired outcome..
This video is about backlighting a piece of textured artwork, so does that mean all textured artwork should be backlit? As always it depends on what you want to achieve and the materials are used.
I’m sure you’ve seen photos and film of coral reefs, maybe you’re lucky enough to have dived one. We had to re-create the feeling of warm, blue, bright, sparkly water that undersea feeling so it contrasts against the shock value of what the little creatures are made from. 1st we want “Coral Reef and the colourful happy creatures who live there” - followed up by “Shit! It’s all made from plastic rubbish...” That’s the intention, but how do we fulfill it?
When you backlight translucent materials they come to life, as you saw when Helen put the lightbox behind her work. But it wasn’t big enough to evenly light the entire piece so we had to find another way to backlight it with whatever we had available.
That only comes from knowledge and experience with using light, which you can only get through practise, trial and error. Here’s a great Lighting Exercise for you which will help you.
Backlighting isn’t just about the quantity of light, quality is the most important, but quantity can mess up the quality sometimes. Think about what might happen had the sun been shining down from right behind the artwork. The difference in quantity (light level) between under the pagoda and out in the garden would have been much greater, so we’d have needed to either remove some of it - or increase the light in the pagoda.
See how this is like a row of dominoes. You move one and it knocks over the next, and the next and so on… Photography is like that all the time. So you have learn how things will affect an image and how to think your way through the falling dominoes so you can manage everything from environment to settings to get what you want.
Had the sun been shining, how could you decrease the brightness behind the artwork? Or how could you increase the level under the pagoda? I love solving these riddles. It’s like when you did puzzles when you were a kid. Sadly adults are much less likely to challenge themselves with Rubik's Cubes or those little flat plastic thing where you have to roll ball bearings into Mickey Mouse’s eyes, so our problem solving faculty atrophies. You have to get those neural pathways rocking and rolling so you can manage your row of dominoes… if you get my meaning!
I can teach you how to master this in 7 weeks with my 7 Building Blocks of Photography. Imagine how much more exciting and fulfilling it’d be to know how to work with whatever environment and which settings to use for the situation you’re in. Like how to lower the light in the garden or increase it under the pagoda to reduce the differential between the two sides of the artwork.
There are lots of ways if you think about it. How about hanging a white bedsheet a few feet back from the canvas artwork? If one isn’t enough, try two! What about putting a shadow over the canvas with a sheet of cardboard or something? That alone would remove around 2 stops of light. Or what about increasing the light under the pagoda.. You’ve got a light box kicking around after all.
Yeah sure, you can do this in a studio if you have one and it is probably easier to manage the differential with controllable lighting. But the desired outcome is exactly the same regardless of where it’s being shot. You still have to think through how to spread the light evenly and avoid hot spots, how to hang it flat etc. Photography doesn’t happen in the camera - it happens in You…
Until next time….
I am now looking at light - I never saw this and am amazed - I can now see light hitting trees which has been transformational. I can be driving along, looking off into the distance and seeing how light hits the distant landscapes...
- Jeff Cooper -