Light and Shade

This time, the analysis of the picture is from a studio photograph. I use “studio” in a wide meaning. Many people believe that a studio is a place designed specifically for photography, but I tend to consider studio any place where I can control the light, the location of the subject and any decoration with enough time, without having to worry for the environment. It doesn’t matter if it is an object in a three light scheme or a picture of a house room for a sales page. What it is important is that, in both cases, I can fiddle with the light and the surroundings to arrange it, in opposition to urban or nature photography where I can barely change anything that doesn’t belong to the camera or me. This picture was taken and released on 6 February 2016, and although apparently simple, it hides a surprise.

Light and shade

Explanation to Light and Shade

Let’s begin with the technical part. One of the secrets to achieve a good quality picture is illumination. In this case illumination is also extremely important for composition, not only for quality, but we will see this in a moment. The illumination used for this picture is a continuous light (halogen bulb) situated in the same plane as the camera, illuminating the Venetian mask with an angle of around 30 degrees. The exact angle was carefully chosen in the composition step, and I used a continuous light instead of a flash because it allows me to see the effects that causes a change on light on real time (and not just in the picture). The light has to be strong enough to allow a correct exposition, which was not a problem on this case as the picture was taken using a tripod. This allowed me to use shutter speeds as low as needed (0.5 s on this case) and the lower sensor sensitivity possible (ISO 100), to achieve the best quality the camera could offer. It is a very good practice to take any studio picture of a still subject using a tripod, as it allows optimizing the parameters for quality.

The recipe for glory with any portrait is focusing on the eyes (#1). A mask can also be seen as a kind of portrait. In this case the focus was carefully placed on the eyes using the Live View mode and the manual focus ring (if you don’t understand the procedure, you can read this post about focusing tricks). Aperture was set to the lowest possible f value (f/3.5) that allowed the desired depth of field, in order to isolate the mask from the background and help to blur the shadows behind the mask.

Finally, some care must be taken in the moment of arranging all the elements in the picture, as it is a good practice to avoid the camera to appear reflected on any reflective surface of the subject. In this case, the reflective surface is the metal of the jingle bells (#3), and the dissimulated its presence using the distortion the curvature of the bell provides.

That’s all about the technical part. But the place where the strength of this picture arises is in the composition.

First of all, a first plane with symmetry was chosen to include an “order” factor on the picture. The plane of the nose (#4) separates the picture in two, almost symmetrical, halves.

But the key point of the picture is contrasts. On the front we see the mask, symbol of joy, which brings memories of dancing and laughs. This is encouraged with the very intense and bold color of the parts that form it (#2): gold, white, intense magenta… Which was softly increased in post-production to achieve an even bolder look than the original. The mask by itself represents the beauty, the luminous side of the picture.

But behind, on the shadows, the dark side arises (#5). The shadow formed by the mask form the figure of a mysterious specter with no color, only grey and darkness. This contrasts with the cheerful color of the mask. Also, the contour of the shadow is blurred, opposing to the perfect sharpness of the mask, and is situated on the back of the picture, opposing to the front leading position of the bright side. The shadow not only represents all the opposite of the mask, but also breaks the symmetry that was previously designed, as a form of bad behavior, making both halves of the picture different. In order to have an appealing shadow that looked exactly the way that was planned the light had to be moved and changed until it fitted on the scheme. In this case the light not only appears as illumination, but also as a character of the scene, and has to be treated and considered as such.

Both sides, together, constitute the main composition of the picture. Usually, the spectator will only focus on the mask and its bright colors. Is after a while, while he or she keeps looking at it, when they may realize that there is something else, the contraposition of the shadow, representing all the opposite that was seen until that moment on first place. This is a surprise factor, an unexpected reaction that only appears a few moments after the observation began. Not only contrast tends to increase the appeal of a picture, but the surprise effect also contributes to increase the attention of the spectator, as the unexpected reward satisfies the mind as if a jigsaw was just solved and makes him or her remember the picture for a longer period of time. In case that the effect is too subtle, the title (“Light and shade”) works as a hint for the spectator, suggesting that perhaps both sides of the composition may be important, and not only the bold and pretty one in which he focused.

Did you saw both parts before the explanation? Was the relationship of the shadow with a specter subtle, or it just hit your mind since the first moment? Share your opinion on the comments.


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