Painting with Light

While we were in vacation, we came across an interesting situation, that a non-photographer probably wouldn’t even notice.

We were in Santa Cruz, California walking near the beach.  The first thing that I noticed when getting out of the car, a photographer with 2 soft boxes and a couple cameras heading toward the ocean.

Young Surfers in Santa Cruz, California

We then stopped to watch some surfers for a while.  Once we got past the surfers I noticed a photographer taking pictures of a dancer.  She was striking various poses that aren’t normally held in dance, but they make a good photograph.  This photographer was using natural light without flash.

Then as we moved on we watched another photographer that was getting a picture that to me looked like either an engagement picture or a set the date type of picture.  The hard part about this was that they had a small dog with them that they obviously wanted in the picture.  But, every time the photographer crouched to get the proper angle, the dog would go running to the photographer.  This photographer was using an on camera flash, but holding it away from the camera with his free arm.

surf Museum-08274
Young Surfers in Santa Cruz, California

I apologize for not getting pictures of these photographers, but at the time, it didn’t occur to me that this would turn into a blog post.

The question that many people might ask, which method is better?

Using the soft boxes creates as the name implies, a soft diffused light, with very gradual shadows.  This is the type of lighting that is usually used in a studio or indoors.  It is bulky and this photographer had several people with him carrying equipment.  They were on the beach for a considerable time, but we didn’t see them, so I assume they were below us hidden by the cliffs that we were standing on.  It is difficult or impossible to overpower the sun with soft boxes, so it makes perfect sense that they were taking pictures in the shade of the cliffs.  When we did see them come up from the beach, they started taking pictures in a shady area a ways from the beach.  The pictures that they took on the beach probably resulted in some very nice soft faces with a fairly contrasty background.  The pictures in the shady area probably allowed the photographer to make his subjects considerably better illuminated with a darker but blurred and non-distracting background.

The dancer pictures without flash most likely resulted in a nice environmental portrait showing cliffs, and/or breaking waves and the dancer.  Contrast in the bright, although evening, sun may have been more harsh than some would like.  But, for photographs of sport, gymnastics, and dance can effectively use this higher contrast.

The pictures of the couple and their dog where the photographer was holding a flash at arms length from the camera probably came out nice.  The extra flash probably softened the photo some.  But, if you want to have a picture of a couple walking on the beach, you really don’t have any other option (soft boxes just don’t work in full sun, until almost sunset).  Holding it arms length would have a more softening effect than mounting the flash on camera.

So which is better?  It depends upon what you want for an effect.  The photographer with the soft boxes should have been able to create some nice pictures in the shade of the trees near the beach.  The other two photographers probably created some nice pictures with beautiful ocean and cliffs in the background.  Adding the flash should have softened the couples pictures a bit, which would be a nice improvement.

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