Recreating the Magic of Ambient Light

Sharon can be defined by 2 characteristics – she is a compulsive renovator, and she hates having her picture taken. The day Sharon got married, she was sanding and plastering right up until the last minute. Her friends finally tore her away and got her dressed 15 minutes before the ceremony. I had wanted to make a portrait of her for a long time, but she resisted. Finally, when she was renovating the halls and staircases of her building, she said if I shot her working, she’d let me make a portrait. It didn’t seem like much of a setting, but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.

Even in recent years Sharon could be dressed up and on her way out, but if she noticed a spot she’d missed, she’d have that paintbrush in her hand, and there was no stopping her. This was the story I decided to tell.

The first trick was how to make it interesting. Often when I let a challenging idea mull in my head for a few days, life drops the solution right in front of me. Walking down 23rd Street, I noticed an array of brightly colored work lights. Bingo! I would replace the ugly fluorescent with a bright blue bulb. Once I had the bulb in my hands, I dropped by to see Sharon and asked her to stand on the stairs, so I could take a high ISO ambient test shot:

The fantasy look of the light is a playful contrast to the actuality of the renovation mess. It looked great, but Sharon, the subject, was poorly lit. The trick was to use strobes and flashes to recreate the magic of this ambient light AND create beautiful lighting for Sharon.

I began by exposing for the blue light bulb. I didn’t want it to be blown out as it was in the “real” ambient test shot above.

The key light came next. I wanted it to appear as if Sharon were being lit by the tungsten ceiling light on camera right. In “reality” the light from that fixture was being overridden by the strobes. Chasi Annexy, my assistant, stood in for the tests.

Recreating the blue glow and balancing it properly with the tungsten effect was the most difficult. It took 3 lights and a lot of patience. Chasi had to hand hold one of the lights in front of the camera pointing down the stairs.

The portrait turned out to be Sharon’s favorite picture of herself. A prize that had not been easily won!

Fortunately, Chris Newhard, who was also assisting that day, had free hands when we started shooting. He used his pocket wizard to capture a few great shots of our final set up:

About Carol Dragon

Carol Dragon is a New York City photographer who focuses on portraiture. Her dramatic approach to capturing the essence of her subjects is done in a style reminiscent of master painters and yet is very much her own. Carol is one of the featured photographers in the recently released 100 New York Photographers by Cynthia Dantzig. She has a BFA and a MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. Her client list includes CBS, Scholastic Publishing, AOL Time Warner and Anson Mills. She is available for commissioned work worldwide.
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One Response to Recreating the Magic of Ambient Light

  1. Lili says:

    Gorgeous!!!
    xxoo Lisa

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