In a previous article—“Park it right here,” Professional Photographer, February 2013—I discussed how to set up a portable background in a typical residential garage and rotate it for various lighting effects using the open garage door as your main. But garages offer more than a large light source and a place to put a background. They offer a wealth of fun stuff to use for themes and backgrounds, such as tires, tools, sports equipment, vehicles, walls, windows, and random things that can inspire you in ways you’d never expect.
You’re already familiar with the lighting techniques I use in garages, so let’s apply that skill with some real backgrounds.
In the first image, I used an open door as the sole source of main light. No other light control devices were needed. My back was to the open garage door. This light can be a bit flat, but sometimes low-contrast light is perfect for the result I want. I added a slight texture to the image to enhance the “oldness” feeling. This image was done in 2006, and textures were more in vogue at that time. But as long as the technique is done appropriately, without drawing attention to itself, enhancements should be able to stand the test of time.
The next image was lit from the open garage door, but with the door at a 90-degree angle to my camera. This causes more contrast and “modeling.” I had the subject turn his head toward the light to avoid a shadow problem on his face. The refrigerator suggested a nostalgic theme, and I noticed in their house that they had an old Coke bottle to use as another prop.
The next photo was set deeper in the garage, which produces a bit more specularity in reflections, but it's still flat, which can be an interesting combination. Because of the theme, I gave it some edginess with Nik’s Tonal contrast and reduced the saturation to complete the old, gritty feel. But with the addition of an accent or separation light that was caused by a window. It’s important to recognize and properly utilize existing light sources.
I love walking into a situation not having a clue what to do, and discovering buried treasure. At one location there was some construction materials were leaning against the wall, but I spotted some peeling drywall behind it and thought it might offer an interesting background. I moved it, and liked it, so I asked the senior to wear something white. All she had that was white was a robe, but it was perfect. Seniors have lots of great clothing … just not always what you might have had in mind. Those surprises and tangents are what makes working at their homes a treat. I wanted to accentuate the details, so I chose LucisArt Sculpture, but still wanted softness on her skin and used Imagenomic Portraiture.
Let’s turn our attention to secondary lighting. I created the next image on film in 1998. I want to point that out because good lighting, composition, and quality don’t change. Clothing or hair styles may, but an image should not be dated by a photography fad. There were two open doors contributing light for this image … the main to my left and the accent to my right. I placed her in between them, allowing the right garage door’s light to accent her figure.
Let’s shift our attention and point of view to using an open door or window from the side. There was skylight and sunlight coming through a window to our left in photo below. Sunlight striking the wood floor reflected back up to the shadow side of the young man’s face, giving me a more unconventional result.
It's a good idea to walk around our original setup to look for other viewpoints and options. Other vantage points can give us a different style to the lighting, pose, and composition.
Part of the process of working on location is to not only create images in a proactive way, but also to be open to inspiration that will let you see possibilities in a reactive way. If all we do is go in with preconceived ideas, we’ll produce images that are simply repeats of what we’ve done before. The beauty of working in new places with every session is the endless stream of discovery.
The capture below happened because I saw the shadows on the wall from the stairway. I asked the senior to find a simple shirt that he’d use to work on a car. The open garage door from the right provided the main light, and the accent light was from a window on our left.
Garages offer a wealth of “stuff” to use, but the lighting where that stuff is isn’t always ideal. I use many different kinds of lighting for my senior portraits because throughout a session, there are many different challenges to overcome. For Image 9, it was easy enough to reflect the light coming through a window behind him onto his face using the mirror side of my Fuzzyflector. Converting the image to brown tone and adding a bit of Nik Tonal Contrast, combined with the low light direction, gave me the tough look the image suggested.
I don’t always use a low reflector as a main light, as in the previous two examples. Here I used it for fill light (below). A window to my right already provided a good main light, in a split light pattern. Since that leaves the other side of the face in shadow, we can fill it with any kind of light we like. I happen to like a low reflector for that touch of drama. I loved the old tools in that workshop/garage.
Garages are usually filled with not only tools and clutter, but also vehicles. When it’s something a bit more interesting than a minivan (sorry, minivan owners), I like to incorporate it if possible. This subject's dad’s Harley definitely qualified. I reflected the open garage door light with my Fuzzyflector for the two images images below. I thought some smoke below the Harley might be fun, so I used a bug sprayer with fog fluid in it for the second image. Even though there’s a trigger to send fog, this kind of fog machine sprays pretty much when it wants to and longer than you want to! I use a battery-operated leaf blower to clear the fog between shots when there isn’t enough of a breeze already.
Clients often ask if they need to move their vehicles out of the garage for the session, but I usually decline because I can work the light better that way. I use all kinds of lighting techniques, depending on whatever gets the job done. Sunlight through an open window gave me plenty of light for my subject, below, but he needed sunglasses to avoid squinting. The back of the Corvette was in deep shadow. I wanted more definition to show it’s a car, so I fired a small strobe in Auto. I usually start in auto eTTL, and if I need to make change, I will. The second photo shows the effect of that additional flash.
The next two images were done later in the day, without a lot of ambient light. As seen in the pre-lit image below, there isn’t anything about the light that’s good for portraiture.
I set up a main light, a Canon 580 EXII with a Larson 22 inch soft box. I also added an accent light with another canon 580 EXII without any light modifier. The accent light touched her cheek and lit the side of the old Stingray. Tonal contrast and some Photoshopped grease on her face, arm, and leg completed the story.
This image with the bike and pink umbrella was done in a garage, not a high key studio. As shown in the setup photo, I used a main flash, fill reflectors and two background lights to evenly light the white drywall. Why the umbrella? I don’t know! I guess because the colors matched.
We can easily gel small strobes for creative color. Just don’t illuminate the surface you want to gel with the main light. The first image below shows where I started, using a strobe behind her to gently light the drywall. But because the jukebox suggests a more neon feel, I wanted more color. I moved my main light more to the side so the jukebox would shield the drywall from the main light, and I put a blue gel on the background strobe.
We can experience a fun color shift when using tungsten light in an environment where there is some neutral ambient light. The first photo shows the traditional capture that I started with, but I was bored with all the beige and wanted to try something else. I grabbed my tungsten spotlight and lit her face. Partially compensating for that warm color means that any ambient light will shift toward blue. You can also create this effect by placing a gel on an LED main light. Try different colors, but be sure to start with a gray balanced image to make your life easier in post production.
Most important, have fun discovering the endless potential of working in garages.