Experimenting With Light

Sometimes when I’m feeling in a creative rut, as I did for pretty much all of 2016, I will look to buy a new photographic toy to rejuvenate myself, try some new things, and bring back the spark of creativity. It usually works, at least in the short term, and usually will add a new piece of kit to my arsenal for creative endeavours down the line. A few pieces of my kit can arguably fit into this category, including now-stalwarts such as my macro lens and 50mm f/1.4, as well as lesser-used peripherals such as my cable remote, flash soft box and Triggertrap.

Around Christmastime, I bought myself an assortment of things to utilise during my winter break to try to get my creative juices flowing. Most of what I bought could be considered props, and despite my best intentions I’ve not really used them yet (they are residing in a dedicated box of props for future experimentation). I did however also buy a ring-flash adapter to take my portraiture photography in a different direction.

A ring-flash adapter is a piece of equipment that attaches to your normal flashgun to move the light into a ring around your lens, creating a softer more even light without the harsh shadows you can often get from a camera-mounted flashgun, but at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated standalone ring flash (in which the light is generated within the ring itself). I’d been eyeing one up for a while and took that opportunity to bite the bullet.

When I sat down to play about with my new toy, I had a very particular image in mind, which was a shot of me, decently lit, with some fairy lights (something from my box of props) contributing to some lovely bokeh in the background.

I started by figuring out ways of ensuring I could get a sharp focus, especially for my eyes, whilst shooting at a wide aperture. This was just lit using the ambient light from the lightbulb in the room.

1/500sec, f/1.6, ISO 5000, 50mm

From here the next step was to put up a white sheet over my window to neutralise the background a bit, then kill the lights in the room and try shooting only with the ring-flash. In order to give something for the autofocus to be able to lock on to me, I used the light from my computer to illuminate my face. A few over- and underexposed shots later, I was becoming distracted by the fact that I preferred the look of the sans-flash, iMac-illuminated frame I was seeing in my viewfinder. The light obviously not being that much, I cranked up the ISO to try to capture it.

1/60sec, f/1.6, ISO 5000, 50mm

As is my current wont, I decided to put a version through Color Efex Pro to add some cross processing.

1/100sec, f/1.6, ISO 5000, 50mm

With that tested, I set up the fairy lights, and tried a shot lit by the computer.

1/200sec, f/1.4, ISO 5000, 50mm

Having another go at dialling in my flash settings, and continuing in the vein of playing about with flash and light, I pulled out my soft box and took a shot, which I then put through Color Efex Pro to add a golden hue to.

1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 100, 50mm

As you can see, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted from the fairy lights. I took them down to adjust them and in my playing took a picture with them in front of me, out of frame, and returned to using my iMac as a light source.

1/40sec, f/1.4, ISO 4000, 50mm

Eventually the way I found to get the fairy lights where I wanted them was to hold them there, whilst using my other hand to fire the shutter.

1/125sec, f/1.4, ISO 4000, 50mm

I soon figured a way of securing the lights to something, meaning I could free up a hand from something approaching creative expression.

1/160sec, f/1.4, ISO 4000, 50mm
1/60sec, f/1.4, ISO 2000, 50mm

I also tried getting more unusual shots of myself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the side of my own face before, let alone photographed it blind and still got it in focus.

1/125sec, f/1.4, ISO 2000, 50mm

At this angle the background is clearly becoming a bit less ‘blurry colours’ and more ‘blurry shapes resembling some fairy lights hanging off a bookcase’. I moved back to filing the frame a bit more with my body, although to be honest at this point this could become more a post about modelling than photographing.

1/40sec, f/1.4, ISO 2000, 50mm

Feeling like I’d shot all I could out of the set up, and pleased with the results of the tangent, I packed things up for the evening. The following day I returned, determined to get some pictures with the new piece of kit I’d just bought.

This time, I set up the flash in wireless mode and dialled back the power bit to have more flexibility and hopefully get the results that I wanted.

The first shot I took wasn’t perfect, but I put it through a high-contrast monochrome filter which gave a result that I liked.

1/8sec, f/1.4, ISO 100, 50mm

With the flash in wireless mode I had the freedom to fire the light from all sort of unusual directions. This one was underlie, and then run through a Color Efex recipe.

1/125sec, f/1.4, ISO 100, 50mm

As you can see from the lack of detail on my nose, this was overexposed a bit. The same is true of the next shot, which I took whilst talking to myself just for a different expression.

1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 500, 50mm

Whilst editing these pictures, I developed a recipe in Color Efex Pro I quite liked, which gave me a grotty, dirty look. I named it ‘coal miner’ and I used it on most of the shots from this ring-flash powered session. It turned out to be the perfect name, as when I started using one of these images as my office communicator photo at work, the very first comment was ‘you look like you’re stuck down a mine’.

1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 500, 50mm

As you can see, I’m shooting at f/1.4, and in the image above this has resulted in me not getting both of my eyes in focus, even though they’re relatively close together. Despite shooting at a similar angle this wasn’t a problem in this next shot, so my point of focus must have been slightly closer to the camera.

1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 500, 50mm

At this point, I started using my phone to light up my face for focussing, using the screen to put a soft but wide light on my face then using live view on my camera (at maximum magnification, which is why I was only focussing on one eye) to manually focus – and then adjusting my head as necessary to make sure it was absolutely in focus before firing the shutter. Continuing to play with different poses, I left the phone in frame for a shot.

1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 500, 50mm

A couple more attempts at poses followed.

1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 100, 50mm
1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 100, 50mm

With most of these shots, I was on my knees to match the height of my camera (my tripod doesn’t do so good at getting up to my 6’5″ height). At this point my knees were hurting, so I stood up and crouched into the frame of the camera, which gave a different angle on things and a bit of a different look.

1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 100, 50mm

Which, of course, I played up to.

1/250sec, f/1.4, ISO 500, 50mm

At this point, a bit of déjà vu, as I noticed the way the light was looking in live view before the flash fired, with a slightly green glow (caused by the image on my phone’s lock screen) contrasting against the orange hue cast by the streetlights onto the closed curtains. So naturally, I followed the tangent like I had the day before and took the shot with the available light.

1/5sec, f/1.4, ISO 2500, 50mm

I liked the result, and so the poses came that aimed to match.

1/5sec, f/1.4, ISO 5000, 50mm

At this point, I realised that using the iPhone’s Wallet app forces the phone into maximum brightness, higher than the user can otherwise set (which in the iPhone 7 is pretty bright), and by using a mostly white card I could get a nice bright but neutral light.

The shots that follow were all shot using only the light coming from the iPhone screen, with the posing being, in my head at least, styled after stock photography of people using their phones.

1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, 50mm
1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, 50mm
1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, 50mm
1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, 50mm
1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, 50mm

I also found a filter that reminded me of candlelight, so I put a few of these shots through those.

1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, 50mm
1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, 50mm

The former of those two shots it seemed entirely logical to me to my Twitter avatar, so of course it now is.

Very pleased with the results using my phone, which to me are amongst the more logical of the self-portraits I’ve taken, I decided to take a few more passes at using the ring-flash before I packed everything back up.

1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, 50mm
1/50sec, f/1.4, ISO 100, 50mm


Despite buying the ring-flash, I’m actually more pleased with the results from shooting using my phone as a light source. The results to me are more interesting and actually make sense rather than the random poses you usually see in when I practise photographing on myself. Next step is to find some other people to practise on.

5 thoughts on “Experimenting With Light

  1. Great post man.
    So many different faces


    1. Thanks Ben. Hopefully a post full of my face hasn’t been too disturbing for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really great work, Rob. I love the way you’ve detailed every stage of the process, and you’ve definitely given me food for thought. I’m currently working my way through an online photography course and, aside from helping my fill my Amazon Wish List with camera tech, it’s got me thinking about how I can build on the photos I have taken. It’s also introduced me to Google Nik, something I’ve not heard of before, but now you’ve mentioned it too. Your post is as if you have taken one of those workshops and brought it to life! Great work, and I hope you don’t mind me pinching, sorry emulating, some of your ideas!


    1. Much appreciated, Richard! I’ve been using Nik for quite a few years now, and I think without exception every black and white image I’ve posted on this site in the last two or three years was processed through Silver Efex Pro. I’ve recently started experimenting more with Colour Efex Pro (and to a lesser extent Analog Efex Pro) and I’m really pleased with the results. The challenge is not letting photo processing software like that become a crutch, which I’ve been guilty of before.

      Feel free to pinch any ideas, I’d love to see the results!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve always veered away from things like Nik, and have stuck stubbornly with what I know (Photoshop Elements 11). But the course has opened my eyes a little and, while I’m not going to convert to Lightroom, I’m liking some of the tweaks I can make to my shots with little effort.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close