How to Light Large Dark Spaces for Character Portrait Photography at Night

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In this video we go on board the USS Constitution, a magnificent frigate built in 1797 and docked as a museum in Boston Harbor. This is an ideal setting to showcase the video’s tutorial on lighting large, open spaces. This is usually a daunting task for photographers of all levels, as not only the subject needs to be lit, but the entire ambient scene around them. More importantly, it needs to have the believable appearance of light which would really be cast in such a situation – in this case, mimicking small gas lanterns that would be spread all along the deck. This is a much bigger chore than simply imitating a single massive light, such as the sun:

Surprisingly, photographer Jay P. Morgan uses only three reasonably-sized strobes in this shoot, and deftly shows us how the task isn’t nearly as difficult as it seems to be at first blush. In fact, he makes it look downright simple, relying on strategic placement of his strobes, established industry tricks, and post-processing. He lights an area of the ship only as he needs to, and centers his shot on a specific location in order to perfect the lighting for the shot he’s going for, and not confuse things with multiple camera angles or lighting situations.

dark area lighting

Light placement to cast light on a large area

character portrait at night

Final shot after post-processing

The key thing in a shoot like this is preparation and visualization. Large tasks benefit immensely from imagining exactly what the finished product will look  like, and taking specific steps to create the image in your mind, without becoming distracted by all the possibilities that present themselves in such a huge and interesting location. With big jobs, let your mind run wild in the planning stages, but when it comes time to do the work, the best thing we can do is simply to focus.

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