A Case Study In Available Light

Dr. Thomas Dolven: The "Promo"

Dr. Thomas Dolven: Case-study, badass physician.

What do you do when you need to do a location portrait in a dark hospital with not a speedlight in sight? Just look for the light. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Last week in Copenhagen, I had an impromptu “commission” come up that I couldn't pass on; even on vacation I couldn't help but squeeze in a job.

I was visiting my friends Thomas and Camilla in beautiful Denmark, and Camilla made the kind request that I photograph her husband when we stopped by the hospital one evening.

The Challenge:

The task for this portrait was simple: An available light portrait of my friend Thomas. Expectations? Very dim lighting.

The Approach:

Not knowing what to expect, I packed the Tokina 90mm f/2.5 and the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 along with the D700 and we headed out to see Thomas.

While I didn't know the quantity or quality of the light I could expect, I anticipated low light and shooting at wide apertures. With the full-frame D700, I love the way defocused elements are shaped in the corners of the frame, so the basic plan was to go in blazing wide open, both to satisfy aesthetic preferences and in response to the anticipated ambient light.

The Set Up:

Overall, the lobby of the hospital was quite dark, with down-lights punctuating the space, which made for deep shadows and high contrast – not exactly the look I was going for.

However, opposite the front desk, there were two display cases featuring artwork, and I was immediately drawn to these fixtures.

Even though they were lit by basic fluorescent tube lights, the two inner faces of the displays made the perfect light banks for the quick portrait. Though the tubes themselves were only casting indirect light, the relatively large and white backgrounds of the displays provided a nice bounce for the light.

Here's a setup shot of the cases that Thomas had the presence of mind to snap the next day.

Dr. Thomas Dolven: The "Promo"

Note: This setup shot was made in daylight, while the portrait was shot at night. Here, there's a good deal of light coming in from the windows (seen reflected in the glass of the front desk). At the time of shooting the portrait, the sole light sources were the display cases and the down-lights in the lobby.

I positioned Thomas in the middle of the cases, which provided soft cross-lighting in the lead image. Shooting wide open with the 90mm f/2.5 at ISO 1600 and 1/125 did the rest. In post, a manual tweak to the white balance finished it up.

Thomas was standing toward the back of the cases, roughly 3/4 back from the closest side in the above image. This placement resulted in more fill/spill in the cross-lighting; moving him up or even in front of the cases would have created a much more dramatic treatment with more emphasis on the side-lighting.

In addition to the display cases, one reason for choosing the location was to shoot into the front desk and its grid of down-lights. Shooting at Tokina's maximum aperture of f/2.5, the defocused background elements provided another layer to play with in the composition of the shot.

End Notes:

First off, a big thanks to Dr. Thomas Dolven and Dr. Camilla Martens on this fun photo shoot.

In general, for shoots like this, I'm always on the look out for the light source or modifier that can be re-purposed. This could be anything from a diffuse artificial source like we had for this shoot to sun reflecting off a building window or a piece of fabric acting as a scrim. Shooting available light portraits means just that – using whatever available light you might have, or, more likely, can find and conscript into active service.

Happy shooting.