Everyone talks about beautiful light, but hardly anyone does anything about it. People talk about strobes that can overpower the sun, and that can be cool. Expensive, but cool. Sometimes you can get a cool result without a lot of expense.
Jesus And The Bulls
This is where we begin. Our group of intrepid photographers stops at Raul's farm in Viñales, a city in the Pinar Del Rio province of Cuba on the western end. This is tobacco-growing country. The place is very primitive, so it wasn't surprising to come across Jesus driving a pair of bulls to carry a load of…hell, I don't know what he's carrying. I just know this guy is a man's man and he's working hard in the harsh sunlight.
It seems that Viñales has become a popular tourist destination. In fact, the only traffic jam I saw during my entire stay in Cuba was in this village when too many tour buses tried to fit on the same small roads.
The farmers realize there's money in tourism, so they accommodate folks who arrive by the busload. Raul made fresh mojitos (for a price), a pair of girls rode horseback for some photos, and Jesus graciously and quite patiently posed for us. Beats hard work in the midday sun, I'm sure.
As you can see from the snapshot above, the light absolutely sucks. Harsh shadows abound. You can't even see his eyes under the brim of his hat. This is not what you'd call beautiful light for a portrait.
What do you do? There's a shade off to his left, but it's a drastic change from the background. Most tour bus visitors aren't equipped with a decent flash, much less a strobe that can overpower the sun.
What we have here is a problem to solve.
Joe Solves Problems
Joe McNally describes himself as a general assignment photographer, a guy who can solve problems. I've definitely watched him do that many times, and I'm only just now beginning to really understand what he's doing. Scott Kelby describes Joe as a “Magical Unicorn of Lighting.” I keep waiting for the day when Joe shows up wearing that phrase on a t-shirt, but it hasn't happened yet.
Here's how Joe solved the problem and shared it with our group of photographers.
That's right, it's a small child's bedsheet. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive. He and Jennifer (one of the folks from Sante Fe Photographic Workshops) are holding the bedsheet about a foot away from the face of Jesus.
If you ever watched Joe's DVD – The Language of Light – you may recognize this from one of the lessons. In that case, he uses six-foot silk from Lastolite. Same concept. As the diffuse material comes closer to the subject, the light starts to glow on the skin. That harsh sunlight turns into a beautiful light source.
The lesson is one we've consistently heard from a number of instructors. The sun is a small light source relative to the subject. If you want flattering light, you need a large light source relative to your subject. For some, the answer is a powerful strobe with a big softbox. With a little help (or a way to mount it on a stand), you can get a very flattering light with some diffusion material – even a bedsheet.
Beautiful Light From A Bedsheet
I nearly missed this shot because I was up at Raul's stand getting a mojito. As I basked in the glow of a rum-fueled drink, I noticed the scene above and thought, “Hey, this would be good for a blog post. Show some of the stuff behind the scenes.”
When I was ready to order another mojito, it dawned on me that I should get my ass down there and take a portrait. What good is a behind-the-scenes shot if you don't show the result? Hence, here's my quick portrait of our Cuban Cowboy with beautiful light from a bedsheet.
Then I got another mojito.