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The Power of Short Lighting & Backlight

Lesson 10 from: Wedding Photography: Capturing the Story

Rocco Ancora, Ryan Schembri

The Power of Short Lighting & Backlight

Lesson 10 from: Wedding Photography: Capturing the Story

Rocco Ancora, Ryan Schembri

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Lesson Info

10. The Power of Short Lighting & Backlight


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


Define the Goals of Wedding Photographers


The Importance of Wedding Photographers


Shooting Philosophy


How to Build a Shot List - Bride, Groom & Formals


Tye the Wedding Story Together


Capture Stories in Wedding Pictures


Get the Right Exposure


Lesson Info

The Power of Short Lighting & Backlight

So we are gonna concentrate on two very, very specific lighting styles today. Because I think we've only got today to shoot, for one. (laughing) So we can't do everything but we're gonna concentrate on the two that we love most and the first one being short light. So what do we mean by short light? It's the light at the shorter side of the subject or the body or the face and to shoot into the shadow. And it does a couple of things for us, short light, which we're gonna explain in full detail but to give you a glimpse of what short light does for us, let's think about a bride's gown for instance and predominantly, what I see photographers do is to find light, let's pick those windows over there as light, that's the light direction and it makes sense, doesn't it? If the light direction is coming from over there, that I place my subject in to that light. That kind of just makes sense. Short light works the other way though. Short light works when you actually turn the body away from that ...

light to create what, is to create shadow. And it's all about shadow placement and that shadow falling across that bride's dress does a few things for us. Yes, it can make them slimmer and all the rest of it but it does more than that with a bride's dress. It increases detail, texture and dimension because as we explained with chiaroscuro, that light and dark increases that three-dimensional quality of the photo. So essentially, think of it this way; we need to create shadows. So it's the presence of shadows that gives depth as opposed to light so we need to create shadows and we need to place shadows in a certain way to create a particular look or a particular lighting style. In essence, what Brian was describing was the short light. So this is the diagram, if we look at the diagram, we've got window light, we got the body turned away from the main light source, the face turned back into the light and we're shooting into the shadow side of our subject, short lighting. Now the degree of how deep our shadows are can be controlled a couple of different ways. The most obvious is with a reflector. Other not so obvious ways are with flash and of course, with our continuous light source like a nice light but that has to be decided by you. I mean this is what you bring to the table and how deep you want these shadows to be, how dramatic you want your images to be. I mean, we like dramatic things. If you haven't noticed through a lot of our shots, we like dramatic deep shadows. Absolutely. But you can soften those out and there's times and places for that as well. For those who weren't aware, that little carrot on the end of this subject's faces is the nose so it's just a-- I was drawing a snowman. It's just a little carrot. So let's show you some real-life examples of this short light, so turning the body away, turning the chin back to the light, as we turn the chin back to the light, what are we illuminating first? We're illuminating the face and that's what we want to illuminate first because that's where everything draws us into, the expression, the feeling of this shot will come through that most definitely. So we wanna illuminate the face. We wanna bring that shadow across the body to increase texture, depth, dimension and there's, yes, again, there's varying sort of, you know, lighting ratios to that I guess that we can do. On this particular image, you see a very subtle light just where the top of the hair is and then coming across. So just outside of shot, there was a nice light placed there, very low power, just to give us that little hint of light being present there, just to define the hair from the background. Imagine if that light isn't there to correct that little accent, then that hair would just blend into a very dark background and we don't want that. So once again, you make the decision visually as to where you place that light and how that is gonna achieve number one, your volumetric kind of appearance to the image but also separation. We use light to separate subjects from backgrounds. Yeah. So whether your subject is standing up or just getting ready shot of the bride laying down, it's all about the dress, of course, with the bride's but in this case here, she was turned away from the light, going through her speech. Again, you'll see that the short side of the face has been lit by the window and the shadow side, there's light being reflected back there from her bedspread. You can just see a glimpse of it up at the top but you can see there's light thrown back into the shadow. It's quite obvious interplay between light and pose as well and that will be the second sort of segment to this part, is the pose but just to play on it a little bit is that what we constantly do as well is we're pushing the upper part of the body, being the face and the expression into that light. So as we've got that body turned away, let's call our main light source direction is coming from this way, we've got the body turned away from that light, what we're doing turning the chin back in but we're also pushing, we're pushing the face into that light because if you think about it, that directional light and where that light plane comes in, whatever the first part of the body to hit that light is, will be the brightest point. So whatever the first part of the body is to hit the light will be the brightest part. What do I want the brightest part to be? I want it to be the face. Because I want people to go there first. If it was the other way, if we did this, what would be the first part of the body that would hit the light would be, all of here which we don't want so much. The other thing with wedding dresses in particular, I sometimes call wedding dresses light suckers because they can suck the light from anywhere and they attract it like anything. They become this bright blob of whiteness. So I wanna keep pushing that into the slightest shadow, away from where the chin is, away from where the face is. So you can see in here, I've pushed her chin into the light to make her face the brightest point of the image. The light's then falling off from that point. There will be light fall-off and it will come from there and go down across the dress into these subtle shadows, which again, increase that detail and show all that beautiful texture and everything else that these brides pay an absolute fortune for, would you agree, yeah? They don't pay us to photograph their wedding dresses and then be blown out bright blobs of white. I've seen it, I've seen it. This is a more subtle sort of diagram or example of it all but still, there's that light direction coming from the right-hand side in this image, falling across her body is still turned away from the light, her chin turns slightly back to. Yes, in this case, I've decided to leave the veil over the bride but it just added so much more detail. This is an incredible piece of art of a dress and it deserved to be treated in a way that would show all that beautiful detail, texture and dimension. We can do it in so many different environments. This is the thing, light will always have a direction to it so it's you choosing what that direction should be to your subject. Now the important thing there is that yes, we can't move the light source in this case. If this is available light, we're just not that powerful enough yet. Not yet. So one day when we're able to move the Sun, we will but we can't, can we? But what can we move? Is we can move our subject and we can move ourselves and that can dictate the light direction. So it's always the light then before choosing a background or choosing the placement of where these people are, it's always how the light's falling first. We can even do it when it comes into details. I mean, I do detail shots in this type of light, where I've got a beautiful detail of the bride's ring but I'm also incorporating all the gorgeous detail of the gown there as well but you can see, her shoulders are slightly turned away from the camera plane and away from the light, her chin turned back too, even though we can't see her face, we still are illuminating just that beautiful bottom of the chin there to bring it all in. What are we doing when we're doing that? It's all about shadow placement. It's all about increasing that shadow and there's a couple of different ways really to increase shadow as well or to find shadow. That's right, I mean, essentially, you want light direction and we work a lot with what we call subtractive lighting or taking light away. Now subtracting lighting can be done a couple of different ways but the most obvious one is looking at say this building here and looking at these archways and the veranda down below. The veranda above is actually taking light away. So if I placed myself inside of that and shoot perpendicular to the direction of light, which is coming directly from the open sky outside, what we get is this. So now I've got light direction and I've got shadow, highlight, once again shadow, highlight. And here's another example of it; same sort of thing. So you see light's being taken away from the right hand side of the image so light's got direction on the left hand side of the image. Now if I was to move the bride outside, I've got no direction. It's just flat open sky lighting with no direction whatsoever. The minute I use the building to take the light away, I've got a shadow, I've got a highlight. Now that can be done, like I said, with the building, it can be done with a tree. Underneath the canopy of a tree, the open part will be your light direction, the opposite part will be your shadow. You could use a black reflector. You know, if you're doing a very close portrait, placing a black reflector just above the head, all of a sudden you have light direction coming from one side, shadow on the other side. So you're lighting with black or subtracting the light from the actual subject. So when you have flat lighting, don't despair because by taking the light away, you can actually start to create shape, you can start to create highlight, you can start to create shadow but most importantly, you've got light direction because if you have light direction, you have a three-dimensional rendition in a two-dimensional world because you've got highlights, you got shadows. And this is why some people say to us and I'm sure you've heard it before as well, you get to a wedding and there's a gray overcast sky and someone says to you, "Oh my God, "it's the best day for photography, isn't it?" And you look at them and go, "No." It's actually quite creepy. It's very boring really. Yeah. Yes. Yeah, this is really boring. I've had photographers come up to me and said, I've been at a venue before and they came, "Hey Ryan, a great day for shooting, wasn't it? "It's like one big soft box." I'm like, "Mate, I've been bored out of my brain all day." And I've been subtracting light all day, or I've been overpowering it to give me more directional light, I've been adding flash or I've been adding adding continuous light source to give me some direction, some depth. That flat look or running into the shade to get after that flat light is just something that we try to avoid because it gives nothing to the print, it gives no volume, no shape, no direction, no detail. Yeah. All the rest of it. So these are just, another example on the right-hand side of this picture is actually a door and the black door is taking away light from that area and giving me shadow on that one side so still playing with the direction, still turning the chin back into the light to illuminate the face. Yes, the groom's chin is turned away from the light, I do realize that but let's face it, the grooms aren't as important as the bride so everything's good but he's still got a little bit of reflected light coming back into him from actually the bride's cheek which just starts to illuminate him. Yeah, absolutely. The safe bet for most photographers is that you put the light behind you because you put the light behind you then you've got nice even lighting, you got even lighting, what you don't have is-- Volume. Volume, you don't have that nice beautiful highlight shadow. So subtracting light once again using something like the Omega reflector that has a hole in it, it's a square hole, some glaring through a window, not the ideal condition to perhaps take a shot but using just the opening, cut out, to allow a shaft of light to come in and we get this, pretty cool, yeah? So very different, normally you'd look at that and you go, "Oh, now I'm gonna stay away from bright Sun," but you can use all these light-shaping tools and like I said, probably the reflector is probably one of the most understated pieces of equipment that you could have in your bag and it's probably the cheapest. But it does so much, especially using it in black or using it in white to pump light into the shadows. One way we never we use it is really in silver or anything like that. We just wanna keep things as natural as possible, be either white or black or reflected with a hole. (laughs) It'll help you to do all sorts of things, which is awesome. Let's have a look at how we deal with light. So here, I've taken this shot and you can see that light is being reflected off a building, in through this window, giving me some very, very strong, harsh light which allowed me to create this very dramatic portrait of the groom. Now one thing to note here is that the shadows are very deep and the shadows are very, very cut and defined. That tells me a lot about the light source. So if you wanna find out what the light source is doing, just look at your shadows. So soft muted shadows equals a softer light source. Deep hard shadows is a harsher light source. So I wanted, you know, this groom could pull off a shot like this because he's very chiseled himself so the lighting matched the kind of look that I was going for. So then and this is the importance of looking at light holistically, having a look at what light is doing and stepping back from a situation and seeing how the light reacts or wraps around a particular subject. So in this shot here, you'll see that where I took my initial shot, the groom was facing the other way and I turned him around I'm about now to bring the bride into the shot and we had a scenario like we had here this morning and we still have now, we have two windows and a gap in the middle and you saw me do a shot and we accentuated the light coming in with this light. So as the bride was getting ready and you see my assistant here getting the bride ready with the veil and so on. I'll zoom into the center area and we get this and this is just available light. So we have the light source now from one window, illuminating the groom on one side and the light source from another window illuminating the other. The little hazy bit you see on top is a little lens flare coming in, which I think kind of adds to the shot. So now I've got two light sources by bringing in the bride into that scenario. I've got light source coming in from one, lighting the groom and a light source come in from the other. So now to complete the series, as Ryan was explaining this morning, you need to create the page and there has to be the ta-da shot at the end. We choose the-- Ta-da! Full-length shot of the bride. Now think about this very carefully. The dress has been illuminated by? The window, the light coming in through the window which was that harsh light illuminating the dress. The bride and groom though aren't. The bride and groom now, we have an artificial light source, coming in to illuminate their faces. To give us the perception of, this is still window light but it's not really. It's an artificial light source and here we use a nice light with barn doors to be able to create that very bright, the harsh light too, extremely bright. So then-- I just think you can see now how by building those album pages there, it makes sense, doesn't it? Like Roc had the shot of the groom, bringing in the bride and then completing it with that full length. You can almost see that spread done in front of you and I can guarantee you, he wouldn't have sat there and rattled off 25 images to get it. It's the fact that knowing that bang, I've got that one, I can move on to the next, shoot it, done. I can move on to the next, shoot it and it's done. That way, we can now go on and build more album pages so, yeah. That's right, absolutely. Yeah. So moving on to, I guess another favorite of ours is again, to use backlight and looking for backlight and there's ways and Rocca alluded to it in terms of seeing what the light's doing and its direction is very easily obtained by simply looking at the shadow. And actually, as I was learning photography, my dad, I shot with my dad for my first four or five years of my career; in fact, for the first couple of years, he didn't even give me a camera. That's how much of a drill sergeant he was sometimes but he didn't give me a camera. All he said to me was, "Ryan, I want you to go "and find the light for me." And I was 12 at this stage. Could you imagine this little 12-year-old kid, walking around a wedding going... And people were looking at me going, "Mate, are you okay?" (Rocca laughing) And I'm going, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, "just trying to find the light." Do you know, I must have walked around for about 12 months like that at weddings until dad finally said to me, "Ryan, you're looking the wrong direction." "So what do you mean dad? "I've been looking to the light, the light's up there dad "because look at the shadow. "The shadow will tell you where the light's coming from." And it was basically, it was that ta-da moment that went off in my mind. So looking for backlight is very easy. Look at where the shadows are coming, look at where they're falling and the direction of how they're falling and we can place people from there. Absolutely so here we've got, we see these patches of light, we've got light direction, we can see where the Sun is. Now we're placing people within that light and shooting it as a backlight, we get this. Okay and these are straight outta camera. So these haven't been adjusted or touched in anyway, just to show you what it looks like; so the wide angle lens version of it looks like this, which might sit on the left-hand side of the page but then the beautiful key moment that'll sit on the right-hand side of the page is one shot with a 70 to 200, coming really close and compressing that beautiful expression with the bride and groom to then give us this. Okay, beautiful gorgeous rim lighting okay and you notice here that there is light on the groom's face because it's been reflected off the bride's face. So when you have a situation like that and you're placing your subjects like looking at each other, offset one from the other. So, if you're the bride. No. Gorgeous, so if I move this way slightly then this side of the face becomes a reflector for me and this is exactly what happened in this situation so the bride here slightly turned ever so slightly to just give us a little bit of reflection and kick back into the groom to accentuate that beautiful light you see on the cheek, that's very subtle but very effective. Now you can imagine like our job here in post is very simple, get rid of a couple of those flyaways, that's it, we're done. A little bit of vignette, bit of contrast, no more and some skin softening, which we'll go through all this tomorrow. But it's not a difficult position then to get to the final image. So skin contrast, vignette, colors are really good, we've nailed it in-camera, color's awesome. I mean, color we can tweak a little bit more. We'll talk about that, how we do that through Lightroom tomorrow but it's essentially done. There's many different ways we can obviously use this backlight and we've got quite a few examples to go through. Oops, too far. But it's basically, it's placement of the subject between you and that light here and what we always look for is that where are those heads placed within the frame, is really important. Those heads must be placed in an area in the frame that's darker okay as soon as you place them into a lighter part of the background, what happens to their heads is that they disappear and you can't get a visual sense of where their heads end and where they begin. These people could have the biggest heads in the world, you wouldn't know because all they see is white all the way around. It becomes more prominent when you photograph people with blond hair. So it's okay maybe with a darker head subject but even even the boys here, placing them all in different areas and darker backgrounds, what's reflecting back into them is actually a car that's sitting in front of me. So there's a white car in front of the boys and that's giving me a reflected light to come back into the boys there. I tend to use this light because it's my get-out-of-jail-free card. When you're at a wedding and it's mid-morning and you got this harsh overhead light and you've gotta go outside to take family photographs because dad spent six months preparing the gardens and everything else, it's my get-out-of-jail-free-card. Now I can place my subject between myself and the Sun. I'll have a beautiful rim light as long as I reflect light back into them, I can expose well for the subjects. Okay as long as I can reflect back into it. I look for it everywhere. I look for backlight everywhere and it might even just be at there reception and the receptions sometimes have those lights that sit up in the roof and they'll give a beautiful, gorgeous throw of light down. The other thing I do is if I'm working with a videographer, is I'll always shoot opposite to where he is because most times, they have lights on their cameras or lights just off to the side of their cameras and I'll use that light as my backlight and in fact, most times I say to videographers that I'm working with, "Don't stay near me, don't try and follow me. "I'm gonna be opposite you," because I wanna use that light as a backlight source and it just gives a beautiful feel to the picture. It allows me to shoot available light or to what was falling within the scene, as long as I expose for them, that brighter highlight in the background isn't important to the image. It can be overexposed if I really want it to, as long as they're sitting in a darker part of that background. Absolutely. So at the end of the day, I mean backlight is great but backlight using the surroundings to reflect light back in is very, very important. Makes the life really easy for you. Without even bringing out a reflector. Here, I've got a door, reflecting light back into the groom. Now I'm gonna shoot perpendicular to where I am here and we get this. So I've got that light beautiful direction of light coming in through the right-hand side of the groom, giving us a little bit of light direction but essentially, it's backlit. So just making things nice and easy for yourself. Ryan used the car, I'll use the door. You can use a wall, you can use anything to just pump light back in and sometimes even using, believe it or not, a wall that's say a brick wall that's warm in color, can bring back some really warm light back into the subject, almost giving a really nice, beautiful sunset feel to the shot. It's really, really nice. So look for things like that. So look at where the Sun is. Look at a reflection off a subject over like a wall or a door or anything that will bring light back and just shoot opposite that and you will get that nice beautiful opposite effect. Sometimes Sun is very bright and we need to be able to compensate using a stronger light source. That stronger light source, of course, being a flash or a Speedlight. And in this next setup, you'll see the light is, we've got here light coming into the groom. Now, I've shot this using a 200 mil lens but I wanted to shoot through the water so I've got very bright highlights through the water that I wanna control. So now I wanna totally take away the ambient light. So I totally underexposed that by about three stops until the ambient is really not rendered any more; exposing for those bright highlights, bringing the flash really, really close. And I mean really, really close and we get this. Look at the direction of light, once again at 45 degrees, we get that nice beautiful shadow on the cheek, which is very, very important. So expose for the highlights to set your base exposure and then flash becomes the key light. So your flash comes in and that becomes your key light and I had these beautiful droplets that I've just rendered as little bubbles of goodness, falling in from above, giving us this nice, really beautiful portrait of the groom. And this is once again straight out of camera, hasn't been touched. You can see skin hasn't been retouched or anything like that but it's important to show you what can be done straight out of camera because we can play with this in Photoshop and within two minutes, we have an amazing image. It's already amazing but we can just make it to a totally different level with just very, very simple techniques as opposed to trying to fix things once again. Yeah, absolutely. And there's many ways of getting this done, like there's many different examples but I think controlling of that ambient light and then using the flash to be a key light can really add something to the image. So in this case I've got the Sun illuminating the back of the dress for me but then I've got a grid on the front of my Speedlight that's just concentrating the light just onto that bride's face and bringing her out of the image, being the key light of it all but I mean, even just turning, we can turn daytime into nighttime if we really wanted to by underexposing all of the ambience that's left and using that flash as the key light to really bring out something quite different and we do it in a number of different examples-- The flash here I shot it through a grid, through a honeycomb grid so it gave me direction, gave me almost like a spot effect and this was shot in the laneway and totally underexposing the ambient, the ambient wasn't even recording at all. So the entire illumination there in the middle of the day was done through a flashlight, really. And the same thing here, I mean shooting now a flashlight through a window, in the middle of the day. Oh, this was a sort of afternoon, wasn't quite the middle. It would have been about three o'clock in the afternoon. We get this and underexposing, underexposing the ambient and then introducing the groom to this, we get this, nice little thing. So the power of flashes is awesome. Now, it's important once again to be really, really attentive to your surroundings not only for moments but also for what the light is doing. So this is an area that I saw at the wedding that I was at a couple of weeks ago. Now you'll note I've got light coming from the left-hand side and I've got light filtering in through above. So I liked what the light was doing here and I wanted to construct a shot, whereby I could put the bride and groom with that and use the two directions of light or that play of light to create something quite, quite interesting. I wanted to create a reveal that was gonna be a little bit interesting. Now unfortunately, by the time I got there, those two light sources didn't exist anymore because the light had moved. But I recreated it and I took it a step further. So on the left-hand side, to create the soft light you see from the candelabra, I use the Speedlight through a soft box. On the right hand side I wanted to create a really, really interesting shadow of the groom as he was coming down the stairs through a grid and this is what we got. So that light on the left hand side is a soft box. The light on the right hand side is the Speedlight through a grid, just to give a strong directional light to be able to to give us that beautiful, defined shadow. This one here, the same sort of thing. Now I've placed the flash so the bridal, I'm indoors, we've got frosted glass windows. On the other side of that frosted glass window, I placed the bridal party and I got them all to have drinks and pour champagne and all that sort of interesting stuff. Beyond them in the garden, was my assistant hiding in the bushes with a flashlight. So shooting from the inside and totally, you're making the ambient light totally irrelevant, that's the shot that we got. And this is the same technique here, the same sort of thing. This was shot in their hotel room, something a little bit different as a bridal thing.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Posing Guide Book Chapter

Ratings and Reviews

Jerry Willis

Ryan & Rocco, in my very humble opinion, are THE best wedding photography instructors in the entire industry! I've been watching their work for years now, which just so happens to win a most grand-scaled competitions, and they somehow continue to keep getting better! I first drilled Ryan at WPPI inquiring about what made his workshop different from all the others. His response, me paraphrasing, "If you're looking for tools to learn, come to my workshop. If you're looking for inspiration and smoke blowing, don't come." That's exactly what I needed to hear. Straight tools, no fluff. THE BEST photography workshop I've EVER taken, by far. You want the best photography education, learn from the best. This CreativeLive workshop is the PERFECT complimentary refresher and companion to what I learned! Thank you so much for having them! It's not the same as the workshop, which it shouldn't be, but they ARE reinforcing many things that have slipped my memory! I'm for sure buying this! :-)

Neeraj Arora

WOW!!! I have started a few CL courses but not finished as I got distracted by "life" and it took me a while to get back and finish them. But these guys!! They were simply superb. I finished this course really fast. Amazing artists, they explain things so well, Ryan is such a charmer and engaging teacher, Rocco is a fountain of knowledge. I am an enthusiastic photographer with aspirations to start my own business soon. I learn't so much from this class that will help improve my photography even if I don't become a professional wedding photographer. Great job guys, keep it up. I will need to come back to the lessons and I very much appreciate the key note pdf. All CL courses should include the slides like they did here. Thanks CL.


I am a newborn photographer by trade, but I really want to venture out and photograph more weddings so I decided to purchase a wedding class on creative live. Of course when I typed in wedding, quite a few classes came up. But when I saw the image and title "capture the story" I was definitely intrigued. I've always been touched by the photographs that have emotion and that's what I'm passionate to photograph! Always a little nervous when you purchase a class because you don't want to feel like it was a waste of money, but this knocked it out of the park for me! Thank you to Ryan and Rocco for explaining so much, showing the pull backs, and moving your subject and explaining why! This has opened my eyes so much to how beautiful photographing a wedding can be and not so terrifying as I've been making it out to be. I'm really so thankful to hopefully being a great wedding photographer and making more income for my family, while having fun creating something beautiful

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