Behind the scenes

By Megan Goodacre

Behind the scenes

Hello! How's winter treating everyone? It's still snowing here. I'm digging my way out of the studio after a massive project. I can't say much about the project for a while, but it is book-shaped, and it involves sweaters.

Since I can't yet share what I have been doing 24/7 for the last 4 months, I thought I'd talk a little about the process for setting up the studio for taking photos. You might recognize my lovely model from Grenache and Lexicon.

It's a tricky business, photography. Unless you are going to go All In and invest in lenses, a space, lights, backdrops... you run into some limitations very quickly. Some limitations force you to think creatively, and that's great. It's a Crisitunity, as Homer would put it. Not enough light? Get close to the window. But, let me tell you, natural light is pretty scarce in my little studio, especially during a Long Cold Winter. Weak light trickles in and it's passable for still shots where I can use a tripod and a long exposure. But if I want to take pictures of people wearing sweaters, I need light.

It doesn't matter how good you are, or how good your lens is, light is a requirement. Natural light is ideal for knits, and wool does look great outdoors. But it's often -30C here (that's -22F if you swing that way), and most humans don't look their best in those kinds of temperatures. Runny noses, shivering, etc. So I had to research studio lighting. There are 2 categories of lighting to choose from: strobe (or flash), and continuous. Strobe seems to be the studio choice of most pro photographers, and for good reason. It (can be) very bright, allowing you shoot with a low ISO setting (which means less noise, or graininess), and fast shutter speeds (which means the subject can move and the pictures are still crisp). But strobe lighting would mean a learning curve for me (the light doesn't trigger until you take the picture, meaning you have to set your camera for lighting that you can't see), it wouldn't work for video and generally it's aimed at pros. Continuous lighting, on the other hand, is more intuitive. It's light that you turn on, and you see what your camera sees. But it's not as powerful as flash lighting, so you have to use a lot of bulbs to get enough light. And up til recently, continuous lighting was either fluorescent or incandescent, both of which tend to add a colour to photos. The colours can be adjusted in camera or Lightroom/Photoshop, but it's not ideal for me, since I want to mimic natural light as closely as possible.

But now, you can get LED continuous lighting for your studio.  LED has many advantages: it's efficient, the bulbs don't get hot, the light is bright, and the bulbs last a very long time. Also, LED are offered in something very close to natural daylight. Not only does this mean the photos look natural, but you can use the LED light in conjunction with natural light.

I ended up getting a starter LED kit with 2 lights (and soft boxes and stands and all that jazz). You can even run the lights on AA batteries, which would be good if you were far from a plug. Here's shot of them in the studio. The name (ProMaster) makes me feel professional and masterful.



For my project, I knew I would be taking a lot of photos, and my models would be regular (albeit very attractive) folk, who wouldn't want to stand around for hours while I fussed with lighting. So I wanted to have a process that went as smoothly as possible. Thank you internet. After quite a bit of research, I found an extremely informative photography blog, by Swedish photographer Stefan Tell. I appreciate how generous his posts are; in many cases, he explains his entire set up for a portrait. And, he doesn't shy away from minimal use of lighting (perfect for me, with my 2 lights and one weak window). In some cases, I added a household lamp with a diffuser to the set up, usually to get a little extra light on the back of a shoulder, under the chin, or on the hair. Another nice thing about LED is that you can buy very bright bulbs from the hardware store in the same colour temperature as the professional photo lights. Most household LED bulbs are a warm temperature; this is a nice everyday light, and it mimics the yellowish colour of light that we're accustomed to from incandescent bulbs. But you can also buy cooler temperature LED bulbs, that give a more neutral light. When you're buying an LED bulb, the package should tell you the Kelvins; the higher the Kelvins, the cooler the light. "Daylight" is around 5500k, but of course actual daylight depends on time of day, clouds, etc.

I also invested in a digital grey card (that's what the model is holding in the main image). It can help me decide on the right exposure when shooting something very light or very dark. But mostly, it helps me adjust the white balance in Lightroom. With a coloured background, different light sources, and light bouncing off surfaces, it's nice to have a test shot with the grey card as a point of reference. It helps me to keep the photos consistent.

The other thing I did was tether my camera to my computer. Another tip from Stefan Tell's site: take some test shots with a grey card, adjust the exposure, white balance, etc in Lightroom. Then save those settings as a user preset. When you start a "tethered capture" in Lightroom, you can have it automatically apply that user preset. That means the photos from the session are imported in a semi-processed state. This is a huge timesaver.

So, with my two lights, a little bit of light from the window, I could shoot without a tripod at 800ISO at 1/100 - 1/125. Tethered to Lightroom, I could check my photos quickly as they came up on the screen and adjust my set up or angle right away and reshoot.