The following schematic shows a lighting set-up which is very simple but highly effective. It can be adapted, with minimal equipment, to produce either beautifully soft light with gradual transition between light and shade, or dramatic hard light with immediate transition.
Subjects, placed in front of a background, are lit by a single source of light, a window (south-west facing) which is 45˚ front left of the subject (viewer’s point of view). Diffusion material (approximately 1.3 stops) is used as required, and light reflected from the room’s interior surfaces provides soft fill.
The key to success, in image terms, is in making the light from this source appear like light from a north facing window.
So, what’s so special about north facing windows anyway?
Direct sunlight, as observed from a south facing window is extremely bright, resulting in washed out colours and high contrast. Additionally, as the sun progresses through the sky during the day, the quantity and quality of the light varies enormously. Sometimes this harsh, volatile light can suit the subject or the mood of a painting and was widely favoured by the Impressionists.
But not always …
Indirect, or reflected light is a more stable in terms of both quantity and quality: having a steady output throughout the day and a colour temperature which is much more consistent.
From an artist’s point of view, indirect light has significant advantages over direct light. Reflected light has a strong diffused characteristic which bathes both the subject and the painting in the same light, greater control over values (the lightness or darkness of a colour), subtle colour changes (hue or saturation) and contrast (determined by the difference in the colour and brightness of an object compared to other objects within the same field of view).
Diffusing harsh, direct south light, giving it the characteristic appearance of north light, is relatively simple – at least in theory.
A variety of diffusion equipment is commercially available, but speaking from experience “one size does not fit all” – whatever size window aperture you have, the diffuser will either be too big, or too small, and whatever fittings the diffuser comes with, they won’t integrate with your window.
And that’s before you even start to consider adapting the diffuser because it only comes as a 1-stop diffuser and you calculate you need at least 2-stops of diffusion … …
As discussed, the set-up shown in the schematic is simple but effective. It is also repeatable.
What it is not, however, is robust.
I need to carry out further research, evaluating systems which are modular so that they can be adapted to fit different window apertures and are easily fitted – to fit into different window types.
They also need to customisable in terms of the amount and type of diffusion – clearly the number of stops of diffusion makes an enormous difference to the finished image, but so does the type of diffuser used.
And the final requirement is that the systems are robust enough to withstand repeated use.
Photographer Sue Bryce is highly skilled at creating mini-environments from wallpaper, textiles and other materials – the images she produces place the viewer in the scene, for all intents and purposes we are in the room with the model – and the room has presence. The reality, however, is that the scene extends only a short distance either side of the model. Bryce is also highly adept at working with natural light, modifying it to be beautifully soft with gradual transition from light to shade whilst retaining its ability to reveal form and value.
The following still image, taken from CreativeLive’s “Natural Light with Sue Bryce” shows one of the various types of diffusers available commercially (possibly a Lastolite Skylite Rapid).
“Natural Light with Sue Bryce” (CreativeLive, Photoweek 2015)
See also: Looking West