How To

Painting With Light
Cast a new light on your subject.

By Jon Cox

Shooting alone for just an hour in the prison gave me the feeling of what it must have been like to be captive. I know I would have gone mad in those cramped cells and I started exploring ways to articulate that feeling. During the long exposures I began moving the camera to create some motion. My favorite technique was using my 12-24mm lens set at 12mm for about 10 seconds then in the middle of a 15 second exposure I would zoom the lens to 24mm for the remaining 5 seconds. This simple technique gave the effect of a double exposure lending confusion and mystery to the scene.


A small skylight was the only natural light illuminating this depressing scene. Itâs hard to imagine how the caged prisoner of this cell would have felt in such a dismal light day after day. My flash was crucial to lighten up the prison cell door lying in total shadow. I first metered the exposure of the decaying cell in natural light. My camera was on a tripod enabling me to use the highest possible f/stop on my 12-24 lens and a shutter speed of 15 seconds. For my first shot I used one TTL dedicated flash, which fired after releasing the shutter. The shutter then stayed open for the rest of the 15 seconds. I wasnât happy with the single flash on the cell door so I tried something new. I took my flash off the camera and put it on manual mode and lowered the flashes output. During the 15-second exposure I fired the flash 8 times in different directions to soften the harsh light. What I was left with is a cool blue natural light in contrast to a warmer light on the rusty door.

Photographers have a tendency to get caught in a rut ö weâre always photographing the same subject. Whatâs a nature photographer doing in the middle of Philadelphiaâs abandoned state penitentiary photographing ruins and the human form? Iâm trying something new. My subject is completely out of my typical focus allowing me to break away from my ănormalä way of shooting. This is a wonderful exercise for any artist. Place yourself in uncomfortable territory and allow the creative side of your brain to take control. Starting the day with no firm idea of how to approach my new subject became my ace in the hole. Changing my subject matter was just what I needed to try techniques I would never have used on subjects found in the natural world. Painting with light, varying my focal length and using multiple flashes were just a few of my newly found techniques.

An old red leather chair in the middle of a jail cell is not your typical scene. Include a vibrant young nude model and you have something truly bizarre. However, natural light was not doing my model justice and my electronic flash appeared too harsh for my subject. The solution was to arm myself with two flashlights one for each hand. It sounds like taking the photograph would be out of the question with my hands already tied up . . . not so. Using the self-timer and a tripod enabled me to paint light on my subject. During the 10-second exposure the model remained perfectly still, not an easy task in 45-degree cell. While the shutter was open I used the flashlights to cover every area of her body and chair that I wanted to pop. Since I was using a wide-angle lens I was able to be in the tight cell with my model and capture the entire scene.

When you have some free time try shooting ăOut of Focusä something completely different from your comfort zone. This is the time to try new camera and lighting techniques. You may surprise yourself with what you come up with. Think of it as a creative exercise. You may look back at your preferred subject matter in an entirely new light.



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