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Portraits at Night by the City Light

When things go wrong we can do one of two things. Sit and pout about it, or fine the good in it and make the most of it.  Sometimes when I’m doing a shoot, things don’t work out exactly as planned. When that happens, I look at it as an opportunity to create something new.  It forces us to find a new approach or to see things differently, to find the opportunity in the obstacle.

Recently I decided to do some portraits of artist Shastina Meyer, painting an art piece. However, we ran out of light before even getting started. It began raining a bit as well. So, we decided to go with the flow and turn this into an experimental session of shooting available light only, in downtown Grants Pass, Or.

I find the best way to be inspired is to approach a situation completely open, my mind clear, yet very present and aware of all of the beauty in the natural and constructed elements around me. I allow myself to see all of what is there, yet in a new way. I see light. I see line, form, shape, color, tone and texture, and how various elements work together.  I am conscious of the impact of various scenes on me. When I see something that strikes me as particularly interesting, or that makes a strong impact, I shoot it. Whether I’m out doing nature photography, landscapes, or photographing people. If I’m open, present, and simply enjoying the beauty of the moment, the  photographs tend to come to me, by my simply being present and aware.

Shooting in manual mode, and using “spot” metering is essential for the challenging yet interesting light in these urban night scenes. In this  image (Figure 1)  I knew I had to meter for the highlight side of her face, and that it should read +1 on the exposure meter in the camera. ( That means one stop brighter in value than the 0 in the center of the exposure scale, as 0 would give a perfect exposure for an average middle tone value, (18% grey) half way between black and white on the histogram. I knew this would be too dark for a highlight on skin. The only way to get an accurate meter reading of that small area of the image was to set the camera meter to “spot” metering.

If your camera doesn’t have a spot meter that reads a very small area of the scene, there are other ways to accomplish the same result. One way is to shoot a test image, look at the histogram ( that’s the graph or curve you see when you select “information” on the camera settings while viewing the image.) This curve is a representation of the tones in the scene. By viewing the histogram, and comparing the image, I can tell whether my exposure is accurate, and know how much I need to correct my exposure, by adjusting f stop, shutter speed, or iso.

The “split lighting” effect is just what I wanted for this edgy urban portrait (figure 1) and fits the mood of the scene quite well. I probably spent less than two minutes at this spot. I saw the light, asked the model to look back at the camera, metered, and bam! I got the shot.

In the image with the red dress, we decided to shoot the subject barefoot and walking in the rain. I wanted the shadow on the wall so chose to use the car headlights as the lighting source.  There were a good number of images from the shoot that I was really pleased with. I came back renewed creatively, and looking forward to doing more of this soon. Shooting in these conditions reminded me of why it is important to know how to shoot in  manual  mode. It would be very difficult to get these shots in one of the auto modes, particularly the first one. ( figure 1)

Thanks for reading,

Michael Newcomb

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