Basic Photography #18 Cheap Lighting Part 4 - MickeyRountree

Basic Photography #18 Cheap Lighting Part 4

Let's forget about speedlites, strobes and reflectors, and talk about some really cheap lighting - candles. With a little attention to detail, and the sensitivity of modern sensors, it is fairly easy to shoot good portraits by candle light.


By nature, candles aren't very bright. So to increase the light, keep these points in mind; the closer the light, the brighter, and the more candles the brighter. Remember you're working with open flames, so watch out for burning hair, skin, clothes or any nearby flammable materials. Have the candles securely mounted so they won't fall and ignite your model or home. Having a fire extinguisher close at hand would be a good idea.


People look best with light coming from slightly above the face. Lighting from below the face results in "monster lighting" and while it may be the natural position of a candle it's not often flattering. I prefer to have my model hold the candelabra and move it around until I like the light on the face. And I should mention to shoot in an otherwise dark room. Even dim household lighting will completely overpower candle light.


The color temperature of candles is low on the Kelvin scale. You might try auto white balance (AWB) or I usually set tungsten balance in the camera. Regardless of your camera setting you will most likely have to adjust the color balance in post processing. You can make this much easier and more accurate by shooting a shot with the model holding a gray card at the start of your session and using that to set your white balance for all of the shots in post processing.


You will most likely need to use a very high ISO like 3200, 6400 or even higher, and be at a wide aperture to be able to hand hold. Just realize and accept that there will be some noise in your images. If you have a choice use a tripod but remember that while a tripod will hold your camera steady at slow shutter speeds, your subject may move and be blurred. Try to keep your shutter speeds above 1/30 sec or preferably 1/60.


The combination of very low light and shallow depth of field make focusing critical and difficult. Shoot a lot of images and expect some out of focus shots. Also with very shallow depth of field, both eyes may not be in focus. If this is the case, it's important that the eye closest to the camera is in focus.


It may take some practice to get everything right, but portraits by candle light can be very romantic and moody so they are worth the effort.


For the shots below, I found a 3 candle candelabra at a thrift store for $5 and three candles for about $1 each. That's lighting for under $10! The first picture was shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and an 85mm lens; the second shot was with a Canon 5D Mark II and an 85mm lens and the third with a Canon 5D Mark II and an 135mm lens with a star filter.

The image below was the first portrait I ever did by candle light. And it was the ultimate in cheap - the model brought the candles. The starbursts that you see with pinpoints of light usually don't appear until the lens is stopped down to f/16 or f/22, and that is never going to work for a candle light portrait. For this shot I used a six point star filter which has lines engraved in the glass to produce the stars and the diffraction colors. It also softened the image slightly and decreased contrast. Today I would probably not shoot with the star filter, but would add them later in post production with Topaz Star Effects. This shot was done with a with a Canon 5D Mark II and an 85mm lens.

So go find some candles, candle holders and a subject and start experimenting. Your subject doesn't even have to be a model either; I've seen beautiful, moody still life images illuminated only by candle light.