April Milani – Featured Photographer

Lighting From My Perspective

As a military wife that homeschools two pre-teenage boys in Olympia, Washington, I am constantly challenged during my photo shoots by the lack of abundant ambient lighting. Famous for its rainy season, Washington State has forced me to learn how to recreate sufficient lighting in order to create the shot in my camera that I’ve created in my mind. This article will share some of those tools that I use in the hope that others may benefit from my experience.

It all started in my Grandmother’s kitchen with her Polaroid camera. She made me really think about the shot before I took it. Before each shot I took, she would always remind me that “You only get one shot; make it count!” I later attended Mesa Community College for black and white film after high school but was forced to delay my dream of becoming a photographer as a young adult. Fortunately, photography found its way back into my life, and I began to fall back into love with taking pictures. It allowed me to see my kids through an objective lens which inspired me in a number of new and artistic ways. Like most everything that enters my life, I became passionate about this hobby and eagerly sought new ways to challenge myself to improve my skills in this art. The more I learned about photography, the more I yearned to know! I didn’t want to just learn the basics and move on – I believe in fully immersing myself in everything I do. So, after the spark was reignited, I graduated from the Complete Course in Professional Photography offered at New York Institute of Photography (NYIP).

Up until four years ago I was solely a natural light photographer. It wasn’t until we moved to Washington State that I had to deal with lack of direct sunshine and weeks upon weeks of rain. It was severely limiting my options to create art the way I wanted to. The old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention” couldn’t have been truer for me and I realized the need to learn how to shoot in situations that lacked quality lighting. Challenged to learn more about ISO settings, I resolved to spend 31 days shooting in low light situations and to use a different source of light for each of those days. I used common household items ranging from a candles, flashlights, and lamps and then moved onto video and studio lights. This month long challenge forced me to learn how to make each light look natural and soft. This simple yet challenging exercise expanded my photography skills immeasurably because it demonstrated that I can impact my shot through the use of all available lights within an environment. It also expanded my understanding of how my decisions affected different camera settings, and how to maximize the impact those variables created into my fine artwork.

Before you ask; I shoot auto white balance. That setting works fine for most of my shots, however, I did pick up an expo disk and am learning that in certain mixed lighting conditions it does create problems. These blemishes are fixable in post but I try my best to get it right in camera before the shot (thanks Grandma!). It affords me more creative options in post than if I didn’t think about it before the shot. But that is a whole different topic.

Below, I’m going to show you some of the ways I use artificial light mixed with natural. Any of the studio or video lights that I use are continuous. I haven’t embraced strobe lights; at least not yet. Some of life’s hardest learned lessons have taught me to never-say-never.

1. “Alice Caught Her Rabbit”
This is a two light set up where I used a video and a LED strip flashlight. I had the child’s mom hold one light on the side of the jar while I move the other until I got the look I wanted. Watch for reflections and make sure it can be cloned out without disrupting the pattern or writing on the glass.

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2. “When You Just Need to Dance”
Even though there was a chandelier this, it is a one light set up. The studio light over powered any other light in the room. I wanted to make a statement with light coming from the side. As if it were spot light on her.

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3. “Obsession or Perfection”
This is a two light set up; window and video. The window was behind me and the video light was on a tripod to the side of him. One light would have worked here. This is when bringing in another light source adds dimension to your shot.

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4. “Blind Faith”
This shot used only the natural window. Ok yes the candle was lit but it didn’t add anything to the end result. I had to be very careful with this set up to avoid blowing out my highlights but still wanted the powerful single source light coming in for effect. I always love to work with natural light; just be mindful that it changes quickly and to change your settings to keep pace with the changes.

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5. “Jake”
I placed my son in a dark room and used a video light for contrast. This was a tricky shot because I had the camera in one hand and the video light in the other; all the while in the dark. I prefer when possible to hand hold my light because I can control the catch lights to ensure the shadows are hugging the face.

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6. “Time Out!”
I diffused the window with video light. This is all about casting shadows and then highlighting them. I covered the window with tinted sheer curtains and placed a video light in the window ledge to boost the highlights. This resulted in a very dynamic photo to bring out the model’semotions.

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7. “Thing One & Two”
I used one light for this shot. I placed the light alongside my boys and then moved it around until it created the shadowing I was looking for. This is one of the easiest set ups for me to do in terms of time and energy spent. I can take my time because the light will not change so I do not have to keep metering and checking my settings. I also am not pressed to take the shot with multiple things in my hands. Hey, a camera isn’t light! (Pardon my pun)

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8. “Peace”
I used natural light for this shot in a pool. This is a shoot that I really had to push myself in many ways but will only discuss the set up here. The pool had terrible lighting. I was standing on a diving board hanging over my amazing model. I’m so glad she knew what to do because I was focused on the way the light fell over the body and trying not to fall in on top of her. This is one of those times I had to push my ISO without getting to much grain.

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9. “Forbidden”
This was shot with studio and natural light with a reflector. This is one those times when your white balance can get crazy. I placed my model in front of a doorway so she was back lit by natural light. This posture resulted in a side lighting with both the natural and studio light and I then used my reflector to bounce light back onto her face. I fixed the W/B in post but it did take a bit more time. This experience gave me the motivation to buy a expo disk.

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10. “Powerful”
I tried something new here and used two light lights and a reflector. All though the lighting was a lot like the previous photo, the set up was really unique. I’ve learned that bouncing my light instead of facing it directly at the subject can dramatically change the ambient lighting in order to create the shot that wouldn’t have happened otherwise in Washington. My hope here was to recreate natural lighting with other means, so I bounced the studio light off the white reflector.

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11. “Story time”
I used a 12 volts Coleman camping light in this picture. Story time during camping is a special time for us and I wanted to capture that essence. Besides, I had to get one last shot before lights out!

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This is my take on the complexity of using different lighting into my photos and how I’ve been able to use these techniques in order to create dynamic and emotional digital artworks. In no way do I claim that I know it all. If any of my tips help you, please use them. If not, I’d love to hear about what works for you. I’m continuously learning something new about this wonderful craft; I welcome any of your thoughts. While there are hard and fast rules that we should follow, I believe that we should challenge ourselves to think outside the box so we know when to break them. I’d like to close by saying never stop learning, growing, and inspiring others. Have a blessed day!

The artist: April Milani
The biz: Milani Photography
See more of April:
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