Text by Peter Kolonia Photos by Stephen Poff
Want to learn lighting? Shoot yourself.
In late 2006, Stephen Poff, then 32 and a television producer from Montgomery, AL, was frustrated by what he didn 't know about photography and lighting, so he challenged himself: Every day for a year, he would make a self portrait. Why self-portraits? "Because the model is always available, and he works for free," answers Poff.
Each portrait would have character and personality (not necessarily his own), and be radically different from the others. Each would tell a story. Each would also force him out of his comfort zone and teach him something new about photography, image editing, and/or lighting.
The portraits, which he uploaded to his Flickr page daily, were so successful that they have spun off their own Flickr group (www.flkkr. com/groups/365days). now more than 10,000 members strong. Its devotees post podcasts and tutorials that help photographers around the world produce their own self-portraits.
Clever and entertaining, Poff's hundreds of portraits are also a de facto textbook on photography, image editing, and lighting. In detailed captions, he explains how he conceived and executed each image. These exemplify how lighting creates mood and suggests character, as well as flattens, expands, or otherwise sculpts space within a photo.
The creation of this "textbook" was itself an educational process. "When I first started, I was afraid of strobes," says Poff. "I was familiar with hot
STEPHEN POFF'S TOP LIGHTING TIPS ■Get your flash off-camera. ■ Light indirectly, by bouncing off large, white surfaces. ■You can get great results with inexpensive lights.
lights from my work in video, but hot lights weren't bright enough to stop action or to allow smaller apertures, so I put together a strobe kit with a single Canon 430EX shoe-mount Speedlite. I used it off-camera on a lightstand, and fired it with an inexpensive radio remote system I found on eBay."
As Poff's inventory of lighting tools grew, so did his skills. He started by using flash from the Speedlite, diffused through or bounced off a cheap umbrella. Then he graduated to bouncing flash off walls and ceilings, and feathering its output to create subtle shading and shadows in the backgrounds.
Eventually he developed a more cinematic, three-point lighting techique that encompassed key, fill, and background lights. This added depth and gave objects more modeling and dimension.
"The fun started when I began mixing up my sources," he says. "Often the key light would be strobe, but the background or strong rim light would be my video hot lights. It's a great way to suggest that there's a world outside the frame of your picture, and just like the real world, it's lit by many different colors of light."
Finally, Poff mastered the art of using light to unify elements in image composites. "Controlling the direction, intensity, and color temperature of the lighting," he says, "was the easiest way to combine three or four images and have it appear to be a single take."
Want to try Poff's self-portrait route to learning lighting's fine points? Start by studying his
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