The anime figure hobby has come a long way since I started my collection. The number of manufacturers has greatly increased, the quality of the products has been improved dramatically, and the variety of characters to pick from is now very impressive. However, the most remarkable aspect of the hobby has been the growth of the collecting community. All across the internet, throughout the entire world, there are discussion boards where members can converse with one another, news sites where fans can get glimpses of upcoming releases, review sites where prospective buyers can visit to judge whether a certain figure is worth the cost, and image sharing sites where collectors can make their photos available for viewing.
Photos indeed; the popularity of photography has exploded with the advancement of digital imaging technology. Almost every contemporary phone has a camera built in. Professional-grade DSLR cameras are nearly ubiquitous. It may be that photography is now the most widely-practiced creative activity in the world.
Figures are, of course, designed primarily for visual appeal and thus it readily follows that they make for good photographic subjects. However, despite the increase in the number of collectors interested in photographing their collection, there is remarkably little guidance on the internet on this subject. On the surface, it might seem that getting a good picture should be easy; after all, one need only to press a button. However, as anyone who has seriously attempted to pursue an interest in photography, getting a good picture can seem positively arcane.
In reality, it’s not actually that hard, and this post is the first in a series that I hope will help figure collectors learn more about photography and make better pictures of their favorite figures. This particular set of posts will focus on creative lighting – which sort of lights to use, positioning lights, and altering light quality for tone and impact. We’ll look at each of these aspects in detail, in turn.
Expressing Mood with Light
The first goal of photographic lighting is sufficiently illuminating your subject, at least to the degree that you desire, and I will assume that anyone reading this already knows how to properly expose their photographs (if anybody wants a complete beginner’s guide to getting started in photography, feel free to leave a note in the comments). Instead, what we will talk about are the creative, evocative things that you can do with light. To illustrate this idea, I’ve used Buddy, one of my favorite figures, for the following examples.
Soft, even light and an unobstrusive background focuses attention on the figure itself. This sort of clean lighting configuration is typically used for product shots and by review websites like foo-bar-baz, who often shot in this style and did it better than most.
This is a similar arrangement, except that the fill source has been removed, darkening the left side of Buddy’s body and emphasizing the direction of the main light. A rim light placed to camera right (that is, to the left side of the figure) and behind the subject gives the image a little more drama, but not so much that it becomes a prominent element of the picture.
Using a smaller key light placed closer to the subject still generates soft light, but with far quicker falloff and reduced light coverage, leaving much of the figure darkened in shadow. This creates a much more mysterious feeling than in the above two pictures; the mood is heavier, and the deep shadows focus more attention on the figure’s single lit eye, thus amplifying the intensity of her expression (which, in this case, is fairly placid, admittedly).
Moving the key light to the side and employing two hard rim lights generates a sense of boldness and drama. The directionality of the light is strongly felt. This type of aggressive, high-contrast lighting arrangement often works very well for an action-oriented figure in a kung-fu pose, and sometimes looks odd when used on friendly doe-eyed schoolgirls gazing lovingly at you. That is not to say that it couldn’t work, however; if that’s the sort of look you want, you should experiment with it to see if you can make it happen.
These are just a few examples, and we’ll look at putting together these sorts of pictures later on. One thing I would stress, if you are a beginner, is to not worry too much about establishing a style. Anyone who has followed this website for a while might guess that I am a big fan of the lighting style shown in the fourth picture, whereas I don’t use the first lighting style all that often. However, I never consciously thought that I wanted to pursue that kind of high-drama look; it came naturally to me over the course of years. Style is, intrinsically, the way that you like to shoot, and you will not know the way that you like to shoot until you have attained a degree of experience. Don’t worry too much about picking a style; your style will find you.
To start, you will, of course, need a figure and a camera. If you are just getting started, the type of camera you use doesn’t really matter; don’t think that just because you don’t have a DSLR that you can’t get good pictures (conversely, don’t think that using a DSLR will do anything by itself to improve your pictures; the internet is full of proof that demonstrates otherwise). If all you’ve got is a little cheap point-and-shoot camera, go ahead and use that. Here’s the thing: if you’re a beginner, that automatically implies that you don’t have much experience or knowledge, and that means you’re going to make a ton of crappy pictures at the start. If you’re a beginner with an expensive DSLR, that means you will make high-resolution, low-noise, optically-sharp pictures that are nonetheless just as crappy as the ones you would have made with a cheaper camera.
That said, a DSLR is still a very useful tool, and if you want one, I would encourage you to get one. In my case, I started photography with an inexpensive DSLR, and purchasing it got me committed to pursuing this hobby in a way my old point-and-shoot camera could not. (Most of the pictures that I took with my first DSLR camera still sucked, though, and not because it was an inexpensive camera with a kit lens.)
You will obviously also need a light source. Light sources are often classified in two ways: continuous or flash. Continuous lights remain lit throughout at least part of the exposure, and they are usually lit for the entire duration of the shot. Sunlight and light bulbs fall into this classification. Flashes emit very brief (typically less than 1/1000 of a second) light pulses; studio strobes and hotshoe flashes are grouped in this category. These light sources generally require different procedures to use, but in the end, they all basically do the same thing. Light is light, and you should feel free to use whichever type of light source you feel most comfortable with. This tutorial will assume you will be working indoors with electrically-powered lights, but the guidelines presented here will still be applicable to natural light.
Speaking of which, I sometimes see people assert that sunlight makes for the best light. This is not correct, and saying so typically reveals a level of romanticism and inexperience on the part of the speaker. Through much of the day, raw sunlight is actually one of the worst light sources you could ever use. Further, there is no such thing as a universally “best” sort of light. If you’re a night owl, sunlight will obviously be of no help. If you’re a landscape photographer shooting a mountain range, there is not a flashgun big enough to help you out, short of a nuclear bomb. The circumstances that you shoot in and your level of comfort in shaping and controlling (or, in the case of sunlight, dealing with) that light will dictate which is the ideal light source for you.
How Many Lights?
I’ve posted some of the setups I’ve used to make pictures, and one sort of comment I consistently get is, “Wow, you use a ton of lights!” I have to admit that this is really not the sort of comment I’m looking for, particularly because it logically leads to the idea that the more lights you use, the better your picture will be, or that the more lights you have, the more skilled or sophisticated a photographer you are. Neither of these things is true and I really do not wish to abet this line of thought. Therefore, if you are just getting started, I really recommend that you use just two light sources: one desk lamp (or the sun) and a fill card (as you learn more about photography, you will find that there are many fancy names for fairly simple concepts. A fill card is just a white surface used to reflect light. Like many people, I get a lot of junk mail, so I often use envelopes as fill cards. I’ve also used comic book backing boards. Printer paper also works well.). The reason for starting with only one light is that it’s much easier to see what the light is doing, and it’s much harder to screw it up. With multiple light sources, you can often get shadows and highlights in places where you don’t want them, and it can be maddening to track them down, if you even notice them while shooting.
Also, I really don’t recommend starting out with flashguns. Flashes provide some capabilities that light bulbs do not, but they also come with the huge drawback of not being able to see what you will get until you take the picture. Now, this is less of a problem with figures, being that figures aren’t going to move while you’re shooting and thus you can shoot and adjust until you achieve what you want, but it can be enormous frustrating to get to that point, and frustration is not what you need when you are just beginning. I use flashes, but we’re not going to talk about much that is flash-specific.
Eventually – or perhaps very quickly – you will feel limited by using one light and will want to explore the creative possibilities afforded by a more complex setup. When you get to this point, you should absolutely feel free to add more lights. But if you’re just beginning to shoot seriously, I’d start with just one light, at least until you feel comfortable with some of the concepts we’ll be talking about here.
That wraps up this intro post; in the next post, we’ll look at some of the basic components of a lighting setup and how they integrate together.