September 2, 2009

Pancake Session: Lighting

**photo credit:

We held hands and strolled down cobblestone side streets. The whole world smelled of fresh bread and chocolate, and in the distance you could hear the faint “Meee-Maaaw” of a Parisian police siren as a sleepy city collectively yawned and stretched its arms over its head. A new day had indeed begun. In front of us a delivery van lumbered out into traffic and sat crossways in the street. The driver, who apparently couldn’t seem to understand why anyone would ever have a problem with this, began shaking his fist and hurling obscenities at the flower stand lady whose tulips were now wilting in the heat of the exhaust. She gathered her skirt tails around her and wound up into string of expletives so raw and unfettered, that I felt a hot embarrassed flush start to creep up my neck and onto my earlobes as I looked away. It was angry and muddled and marred in broken French…and I don’t actually happen to speak French…but even I knew it was naughty.

He grabbed my hand and we ducked into a nearby cafe, past a young woman shaking the dust out of a rug on the steps below. The tables were covered in vinyl tablecloths with a red checkerboard pattern, and a single daffodil drooped in a vase with no water. The sun beamed through the doorway and lit up a million specks of dust floating up through the air, apparently from a half-beaten rug below. The same young woman sashayed over to our table and pulled out a flip notepad from her apron.

“Qu’est-ce que vous voulez manger?”

We both smiled up at her blankly and batted our eyelashes in that same “I’m sorry…we’re American!” stare that had gotten us by all week.

She stared back.

“Uh…..voulez vous….uh…..have an American menu?” We smiled sweetly and pushed our heads together. You could practically see the *ting* from our pearly whites bouncing off the windows.

She just shook her head and shrugged her shoulders… and continued to stare.

I started getting flustered and frantically looked for something familiar on the menu. Baguette, croissant…Lady Marmalade. C’mon, give a girl something to work with here! I pushed my eyebrows together in my most concerned “I’m SO sorry” face and barely eeked out an “ummm….crepe?”

“Ah crepe, Oui.”

I sighed audibly with relief and handed the menu to Justin. Who, with some solid 7th grade French under his belt, was decidedly more confident.

“Glace, si vous plait.”

She cocked her head to the side. “Glace?”

“Oui, glace.”

She shrugged her shoulders as if to say “well, ok” and headed off to the kitchen.

We passed the time sipping our cappuccino and wiping away the drool dripping from our bottom lips as the smell of chocolate and bananas filled the air. It was almost too much to bear. When she finally came back, she sat down in front of me the most perfect golden brown crepes ever made, filled to the brim with all things delicious.

And in front of J…..well in front of Justin, she sat….ice cream.

Yes, ice cream for breakfast. Glace, parfait, gelato, tofutti….any way you slice it, it was still ice cream for breakfast.

And it was HI-larious! Uh pardon, hilarant!!! :) :)

So in honor of that story and all things hilarous, I thought today we’d serve up some ice cream crepes instead of our usual old boring pancakes! What do you say? See, I feel like this story goes to the heart of what pancake sessions are all about. About the funny mistakes we make (well, maybe not so funny at the time, and when they’re happening to US!) when we’re just learning to speak a new language, and we’re not really sure how to get our questions answered. Because it feels like everyone else around us already speaks the language. Fluently. Native speaker, even. And they’ll think we’re stupid if we don’t yet know the translation. Well, that is NOT the case around here!! You can just consider us your walking, talking English to French dictionary!! Uh, photographically speaking.

Now, let’s get to conjugating!

This installment of the Pancake Sessions is all about lighting. And I’ve got admit, I’ve sort of gone all zen with lighting this past year. I’ve really started thinking about it in a different…um y’know….light. I guess I always used to think about lighting in terms of just getting a good exposure or being able to get your camera to fire at all. Room’s too dark? Fire a flash off at the ceiling and then you’ll be able to get the shot. But now, I’ve got this whole new understanding and appreciation of light and how it impacts a photograph. It breathes life into our work. Creates depth. Makes you feel like you could walk right into that moment in time. Gives you the feeling that you were actually there. This is the power of light. So let’s dig in.

Joe & Tiernae wrote to ask about what kinds of lighting we’re actually using.

JOE HENDRICKS: I love your passion and your work and that you shoot Nikon! My question is, do you two ever shoot with a flash? You come up with some great pictures that I can’t tell if you dodged them or used a flash… which is a great compliment to your work of course. Every time you guys post something on your blog, it makes me happy, because I know I am going to see some great work :)

TIERNAE SALLEY: Hello Justin and Mary, I am a huge fan and an aspiring photographer. Your photographs are the kind that I want mine to look like. They are beautiful, absolutely gorgeous and creative. Do you use studio lighting, fill lighting, no extra lighting? And do you have any extra advice for a photography student? Or intern positions? Haha. (Doesn’t hurt to ask). Keep on shooting.

The answer is that we have, at one point or another, played around with all of the above. Everything from bouncing a flash to using a reflector for fill to a full on studio set up. But I would say that we are primarily natural light photographers and prefer most of the time to go with found light rather than “artificial” light. That being said, anytime we’re using any kind of light (i.e. ALL the time), we’re thinking about how to use and manipulate that light to create a deeper image. Just because we walk into a getting ready room and see that we have big, beautiful window light doesn’t mean our job is over. We have to think about where we’re placing our bride and where we’re positioning ourselves to get the most out of that light. For example, for most of our makeup/portrait shots we like to have the bride sitting facing a big, soft window light straight on about five feet back so that the light is even across her face. Then we’ll position ourselves in the corner beside that window, so we can shoot from the side. I’m going to come back to this point at the end, so more on that to come!

But if we’re shooting something like the dress being put on, and we’re aiming to show more movement, moment, and emotion, then we like to use that window light to create directional lighting. So we’ll place the bride & her girls about ten feet to the left of a big window light. We put them this far back so that the highlights don’t get too hot (blown out) or the shadow detail doesn’t get lost by exposing for the dress. Stepping them back just a little bit, lowers that contrast so you can keep both. Then we’ll usually start with the bride facing the window and the girls behind her helping her lace up the dress. That allows us to do two things: 1) shoot the wider side angle view, with really beautiful directional light adding depth to the image and also creating wrap around light on the details of the dress and profile and 2) we can swing around front and get awesome portraits with nice even light on the bride’s face.

The point is, whether it’s window light, reflector, flash or studio light, we’re setting that light up in a way to create either soft, even light for portraits or awesome directional light for our more candid stuff. If I’m using flash, I actually hardly ever bounce it straight up and down off the ceiling anymore. I’m usually bouncing it at an angle or off a side wall to make it directional and bring in more depth to the image. And I can really see a difference now, because the ones that were shot straight up and down ending up feeling pretty flat in the finished product.

Lisa, Navy Sou & Yuka Photo Art all had questions that come back to what I was talking about with even window light for portraits:

LISA CHANG: Hi Justin and Mary, let me just say I love your blog – both the pictures and the personality. I’d love to meet you guys some day, because it’s easy to imagine what great people you are. :) I have a question for a future pancake session, and it’s basically about lighting. For example, I love your photos of Lindsay, and so many of them simply *glow* – how are you able to work that lighting magic?

NAVY SOU: Jimminy freakin’ Christmas!!! How in the world do you get such creamy complected skin??? Inquiring minds wants to know!!!

YUKA PHOTO ART : Wow! Amazing photographs! How do you reach this warm skin color?!

The answer to all these questions about a “glow” on your subject and achieving really creamy skin tones really has three parts: sharpness/shallow depth of field, lighting, and post-processing. I’ve already talked about it in terms of sharpness/shallow depth of field in this Pancake Session. So now I’ll pick up with lighting. Whether it’s a bridal portrait lit by window light or an engagement shoot in a parking lot, what we’re looking for first is to find and use nice, even light. We get that with window light by having the bride face it straight on, and we get it with our engagement shoots by finding open shade. But then we want to go the extra step and use the light (either the light from the window or in an open shade situation, we will either bounce light in with a reflector or use the reflection from another building as a natural reflector) to start creating depth. What we’ll do is either have the bride face the window but then turn her face slightly toward us to create some direction & depth like this:

Or in an outdoor/open shade situation, we’ll use a reflector to bounce light in ever so slightly from the side. That light just comes in and creates shadow and depth on the cheek, and also bounces in a little hair light on the side to make it feel like the picture has dimension. And then what happens is that capturing that nice even light, with just a little bit of depth sets us up to really bring out a beautiful skin tone and “pop” to the pictures with post processing in the final product. We’ll be doing a follow-up Pancake Session on post-processing very soon! So stay tuned for that.

But for now, the short answer on lighting is that we work with all sorts of light, but the point is to go in and make the light work for you. Make it become a part of the image. Let it breathe life into your pictures. If you can do that, if you can start thinking about light in that way, then it will totally change the way you shoot!

Bonjour!!! And Happy Pancake Day!

**OH! I almost forgot! I can see from our little stat machine that there have been a lot of new people to the blog the past couple months. We just wanted to say thank you so much for dropping by to hang out with us. Feel free to say hi and introduce yourself. We can’t wait to meet you and I promise we don’t bite! Well, y’know…unless you ask us to! :) Also if anybody has a pancake question you wanna ask, feel free to email us at

  1. Michelle Sidles

    You guys are at the TOP of my list with your LOVE CAT ways! Thanks for sharing your genius!

  2. Megan Beth

    Awesome post guys! I’ll take one crepe with strawberries and Nutella pllleaasssssssse :)

  3. Ray

    That crepe looks so good. =P And I love how you’re willing to give tips and to teach other’s on your craft. So nice of you to do that. ;o)

  4. joan.solitario

    i just got a craving for some ice cream and crepes! thanks a lot :o)

  5. joan.solitario

    i just got a craving for some ice cream and crepes! thanks a lot :o)

  6. Amy Clifton

    Thank you thank you! Great post. :-)

  7. Feuza

    Merci Merci! this was great and what an introduction, I felt I was back at college reading literature books! thanks for the session, keep them coming guys..hope to see you at partner con

  8. Barnas

    Thanks for the great tips. Can’t wait for more…. : )

  9. Lisa H. Chang

    Thanks for answering my question! I’m taking some family pictures in the next couple weeks and will definitely plan on bringing a reflector along!

  10. dorelies

    Love you guys!!
    Merci beaucoup de vous être donné tout ce mal et au plaisir !
    Until your next pancake.

  11. rachel darley

    thanks for the ice-cream/crepe session! These tips are certainly amaaaaazing. I’ll be looking forward to putting them to use! thanks J&M!

  12. Alison

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I have been struggling (fighting) with using light more effectively lately. This has been a tremendous help!

  13. Audrey

    yep, new blog stalker here. you caught me! I love your work and effortless writing style – and thanks for all of the great tips for us wannabes out there!

  14. Tira J

    Great post! Can you let me know next time you come to the west coast? I can’t wait to meet you guys! Hugs from Southern California!

  15. erin harvey

    You guys ROCK! Looking forward to the processing segment. =)

  16. Valerie Acosta

    Thank you so much for this posts. This is great.

  17. Valerie Acosta

    *post*….. I know how to spell. Don’t hate.

  18. Kathleen

    Love the pancake session! Thank you to you both:) Did Justin really mean to order ice cream??

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