February 13, 2014

In the Spotlight


Today there was a discussion on dramatic lighting in one of the photography forums I lurk, specifically having your subject fully or patially illuminated and the background dark. At first I was all easy peasy, been there, done that. Dark background, large aperture, single light source, right? Nope. Turns out there’s a completely different way to get the same effect!

Of course, I simply had to give it a try. As soon as Nicki was in bed I grabbed my camera.

The goal is to create a large differential of light on the subject vs the background. This doesn’t mean it needs to be dark out. In fact, it’s easier to focus on the subject if there’s ambient light. (I have a faulty lens that has difficulty focusing, so this is an important discovery for me.) Usually one uses softlight boxes to illuminate the subject and create that differential between subject and background. Light boxes are more focused light than what I used – sun streaming in from a window. I don’t have soft lights, but I do have a good craft light with a very bright, natural color light bulb.

Spotlight diagram. No need to worry what’s in the background, as long as your light source is focused away from the background. The above photo? Nicki’s red train is in the background.

The first thing I noticed was the metering light could not be trusted. This is not one type of photo were auto is your friend! I had to change the settings to shoot much darker than the camera wanted. You also want to set your F-stop fairly high, for nice crisp edges.

Lily was fascinated by what I was doing. She kept rubbing up against the lamp, and sniffing at the bulb, so I decided to try and photograph her next. Alas, that’s where I started to struggle. The craft light is meant to be a desk light. It generates a narrow beam of light than a softlight box would, which means I had a small area to work with. Little movements from Lily generally meant most of the light wouldn’t fall on her. Inanimate objects are usually much more cooperative.

71 frames, maybe 5 good ones. Not ready for prime time

If you want to try this type of photo, and you don’t want to purchase a softbox, I recommend a directional lamp with a really bright, natural light bulb. This is the one I used. Don’t let the sales price fool you, I’m pretty sure it’s always $20. If you’re shooting anything larger than a cat, you probably need something more substantiation.

I think I prefer this technique to the one I used in the past. I’d like to try it on Nicki one day, but I will need to figure out a better lighting situation first.

Posted in Photography | Tags:



  1. […] in the spotlight, only this time achieved with an open window and not a desk […]

  2. […] my last post on using a spot light to create high contrast, I kept thinking back to my accomplishing the same shot. Specifically, could I use a natural light […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *