pictures from the edge | the art of feathering

When I write about specific photography topics or shoots on this blog I usually assume a pretty broad knowledge of the subject, simply because I know a lot of you reading this are working photographers as well.

Sometimes I actually stop myself from writing about certain things, thinking they might be too simplistic. It’s a bad habit and I need to stop. After all, I still read about this stuff all the time myself and never mind even the simplest topics. I just like seeing what others do and how they do it.

So with that in mind: lighting.

Finding the zone

It’s an immense, all encompassing subject. Books, websites, an entire industry dedicated to the sole purpose of creating, controlling and sculpting this holy prima matera. It is, after all, what photography is all about: we write with light.

Usually, the first reflex when you start out in photography is to work with available light. Obvious reason: it’s there. Doesn’t cost anything. And given that the alternative is usually a forward facing, character killing, on-camera flash, that reflex is not only normal but entirely warranted. Eventually though, you come to realize available light isn’t always… well… available. Or workable. Or anywhere near pretty. You also realize that eyes are incredible machines that cameras, no matter how expensive, can barely even begin to emulate. So you start hanging out at The Strobist and you buy Joe McNally’s books and browse through Zack Arias’ site and slowly, quietly you start getting it. You start seeing differently, anticipating the results of doing this or that, using this technique over that other one. And the world opens up, filled with possibilities.

You’ve stepped into the zone. Out here, limits have magically dissolved.

a feather in your cap

It’s easy to get caught up in gear overdrive, in bazillion-gel-gridded-flashes-pocket-wizarded setups. And it’s cool and gets the juices flowing and — let’s admit it — makes the Tonka-driving little boy (or girl) in a lot of us happy. Nothing wrong with that. But sometimes simple works. It just does. One light, one umbrella. No rim lights, no fill, no punching up something or other with one more speedlight. Just one light in a big umbrella - and a big chair. If you’ve got one.

The pics below were shot with the venerable and very cheap - read inexpensive - Nikon 50mm 1.8D (B&H). The sharpest plastic-encased lens money can buy. The scene was lit with a single Elinchrom BX500ri (B&H) in a 60in Softlighter II (B&H) used in classic reflective umbrella mode (no front baffle). This makes the light a bit more specular - although at this distance it’s barely perceptible. Camera settings: f8@ 1/160, ISO 200, 50mm.

Here’s the important part though: it’s not aimed at the subject. Well, not directly. It’s placed about two feet in front, camera left and aiming completely towards the right making the bulk of the light pass in front of the chair. This is called feathering, a technique that uses the very edge of a light source instead of its full straight on power. The difference? A much steeper falloff, a light that won't fill every shadow and something that tends to feel more natural. In life, unless we’ve done some pretty bad things and managed to get the entire police force on our backs, we don’t usually walk around with lights pointing straight at us. So we’re used to seeing this type of lighting. We basically live in it.


Light is a lot like mercury: it just scatters. So while it may seem odd to be pointing away from what you’re shooting, remember that even the very bottom of that softbox placed over the head of a subject will be sending photons its way. A lot of them will also reflect and bounce back which also emulates the real world. It adds up.

This technique is pretty basic but it’s not always obvious in diagrams and can easily be overlooked when you begin on your quest to study lighting. The next time you see pictures of a shoot, try and notice not only where the lights are positioned but how they’re aimed: chances are that big softbox high up front is also actually aiming slightly over the head of the model.