Portrait – Final Submission

Portrait – Final Submission

Having researched and chosen the painting to interpret it was time to build up a setup and position lights in the studio. I was very lucky to have beautiful model and fellow student Jola to volunteer for the project and equally beautiful Paola to help with styling and makeup! Jola also provided all the important accessories as headscarf, clothing and earring that resembled the original as close as possible. Big thanks!

The idea in my head was to recreate the look and feel of the painting first and then get creative and enhance it with some modern age props, once I was happy with the set up as such. Having analysed lighting in Vermeer’s paintings I had more or less established idea of the direction of light and positioning of the model. To achieve a pure black background without detail I would have to position the model far enough from it to have it fall into complete darkness behind her. Also positioning and angle of the key light would have to be carefully considered to have illumination on the face but not letting too much of the stray light hit the background and pick up unnecessary details.

Key light (also known as the main light) is the primary source of illumination on the subject in the scene. It could be studio strobe, as in this case, but also flash gun or even natural light. Usually it is the most important light and determines the exposure of the whole image. It also sets the mood in terms of quality, direction and relative position to the model.

Quality of light is modulated by the use of light modifiers attached to the light source. The larger the surface of the light is in relation to the subject the softer quality light it produces.

Hard light (ie. studio strobe without modifiers) manifests itself in shadows with crisps, sharp edges, and typically contrasty image. Soft light on the other end (ie. strobe with large softbox or umbrella) has more diffused shadows with a longer transitions between highlights and shadows. Of course there is infinite variety in between and many types of modifiers.

The direction of light dictates the direction of highlights and shadows on the subject. Positioning of light should be considered on the vertical axis (up and down) and also 360 degrees around the subject. Generally speaking the more to the side of the subject the light is the more shadows and contrast will be created. Usually positioning light about 45 degree up and 45 degrees to the side of camera-subject axis produces the most natural looking results. (Our brains evolved to viewing world this way, naturally illuminated by the sun high in the sky)

Of course again there is a whole spectrum. Starting from full on front, flat light – with least amount of shadows and contrast (called butterfly or Paramount); through loop light – with a little shadow under and to the side of the nose. Moving light more to the side will produce so called Rembrandt light – where one side of the face is fully lit and the other only partially lit, forming a triangle of light on the cheek on the dark side. Most contrast will be achieved by positioning the main light 90 degrees to the axis camera-subject, so called split lighting – where one side of face is lit and the other is in complete darkness. Again there will be a a point where one type gradually becomes another and infinite variations of camera – light – subject position.

Finally we come to the subject of short light vs broad light distinction in portrait. Vermeer’s portrait is an example of short light – meaning the side of the face that is more visible has more shadows. The light is illuminating fully the far side of the face, which appears to be narrower and “shorter”, hence the name. It is also preferred in portraiture if visual slimming of the face is required.

Opposite scenario would be the broad light, where “broad” side of the face receives the most light, and shadows are falling away from the camera’s view. Needles to say this type of illumination would make the face visually larger and more round. Lighting aside, whatever is closer to the camera appears larger, and broad lighting would only accentuate it more.

Having gone through the theory my first choice of light modifier would be a larger beauty dish, with white inside, diffuser and possibly a grid. It would be set at approximately 45 degrees up and to the camera left, approx 45 degree to the subject. Unfortunately there wasn’t one available. I don’t know if it would work as I anticipated, but I’d expect it to give a nice contrasty and edgy light, with white colour and diffusion helping to soften the light. Grid would help with precisely directing the light and avoiding spillage on to the background. The only beauty dish available was small and silver, no diffusion or grid. I anticipated too harsh light, as the source would be too small in relation to the model, silver colour lending itself more to producing specular highlights and harsh shadows rather than gradual transitions.

The next best choice of a light modifier was a softbox. As the name suggests it softens the light (but as we know it could still produce hard light if positioned far from the subject, and its relative size diminishes). Most of the softboxes have protruding edges, which help to direct the light in a precise way and avoid the spillage to a certain degree. They can also be fitted with grids as an option.

There was a range of sizes and Zigg suggested choosing the bigger one. Taking into consideration Vermeer’s studio, clearly visible in his paintings, his light source was a row of reasonably sized windows, so in my opinion it was quite a good approximation, both in size and shape.

Once I positioned the light source where it looked good on the model and took a few tests shots it was time to find the exposure value. Knowing that the best quality image is produced at the lowest ISO, I set my camera to it’s native ISO 64. The next parameter to set in the exposure triangle was in this case the shutter speed – anything down to 1/250 sec. I set it to 1/200 to be on a safe side in case of any sync speed issues. Using light meter I found the aperture value to be at f/5.6. I was happy with that, as I aimed for slightly shallow depth of field. Also the lens is quite sharp and the sweet spot extends from around f5.6 to about f/11. The studio strobe was set somewhere around number 2 mark, which meant there was room to go up in power and the aperture could be closed further if there was a need for it. Finally I switched the transmitter off to take a test photo without strobe and check if any ambient light was visible in the picture (main lights in the class were on). It was ok, with only a slight hint of the figure in the shadows, which was negligible.

I have to say that I’m not very good at giving directions to the model and posing, and this is area where I need to improve. To help a little bit with the task I printed 2 copies of the Girl With The Pearl Earring and gave one to model and I kept one at hand so we could both be at the same page so to speak. Once again big thanks to Jola for being patient with modelling and actively helping to dial in the pose. And of course the same goes to Paula who helped adjusting the headpiece and generally was checking if everything was ok.

To get the perspective right my lens of choice was 70-200 f/2.8 zoom, set at about 85mm, and adjusted as the shoot progressed. Slightly surprising, finding the right point of view proved challenging, with constantly moving the camera up and down. Health and safety was observed, although in hindsight I would have made sure that all the tables were moved more out of the way, as I kept backing into them.

Soon after establishing key light it became apparent that in order to sculpt the highlights and shadows on the face as in painting, it meant that the earring by default was in too dark shadows. As an important part of composition it needed separate lighting. With help of Zig, second strobe light was modified with snoot and positioned to camera right, giving additional illumination to the earring. It worked very well, but introduced another problem – being a small light source, it cast the hard, contrasty shadow of the earring on the neck and white scarf underneath, clearly visible and criss-crossing the direction of the main light. To remedy this Zig helped with another solution – a piece of cardboard positioned beneath the snoot to flag (block off) part of the light beam coming from the snoot. It didn’t eradicate it completely, but together with the reflector placed to camera right, made the offending shadow almost invisible. It was good enough and made getting rid of the remains of it in post production easier.

At his point everything was set, and the only thing to do was to keep taking pictures until the pose and expression on model’s face were just right.

The Girl With a Pearl Earring as shot in the camera, jpg without any adjustments
The Girl With a Pearl Earring, final edit

To me this was the challenge and a creative process in itself, but the brief called for the interpretation of the classical portrait and not a copy (a shame in my opinion). So to fulfil the requirements some modern day props were introduced, re-interpreting The Girl With The Pearl Earring as The Girl with an iPhone and The Girl With The Headphones. Thanks to Simon for lending great looking pair of headphones!. It was fun, and I ended up with a few good images to choose from.

My personal favourite interpretation was the series with headphones, and in particular the last picture. So I printed the selects on a home laser printer (not a great quality, just proof of concept) and took to the next class to submit to the popular vote. And just as I thought the class preferred the different one. Overwhelmingly the choice was the one with a smartphone taking a selfie (or maybe reading a message, who knows?)

So the chosen image went to post production. As a raw file it was converted from Nikon’s native .nef file format to Adobe’s .dng (digital negative file) format for archival purposes automatically on import into Lightroom. Then Adobe Camera Flat profile was applied along with lens profile corrections to remove any possible distortions and chromatic aberration if there was any. Than all important white balance correction (sampled the white point from neutral grey of a phone back), cropping and basic tonal adjustments. Raw file is flat as it comes out of the camera and it needs adjustments. It needed adding highlights, reducing shadows, a little bit of contrast, vibrance and saturation. Tonal adjustments in Lightroom work on a global level – effectively it brightened the whole picture, so the radial filter in combination with a brush was applied to darken back all the areas around the subject.

Once the basics were done it was time to export the file to Photoshop for more advanced retouching, skin smoothing (using frequency separation technique), and applying creative filters to make it look a little bit more like a painting. Finally save as .tiff and open in Alien Skin to add that elusive film look, contrast and colours (Kodak Portra 160NC) and texture.

Final edited copy of The Girl With an iPhone

Assignment criteria: 1,2,3,4


Lindsay Adler – Seeing the Light, Learning to read and decode lighting – pdf companion to Creative Live course

Tim’s Vermeer – 2013 documentary film by Penn and Teller

Phlearn.com  and other Creative Live courses

Universal Principles of Design – William Lidwell, Rockport Publishers, 2010


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