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A BRIEF NOTE ON LIGHTING EROTIC SUBJECTS

By Association Member China Hamilton.

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I am well aware that I have a distinctive, signature style of photography, which beyond its content is also identified by the way I light and present an image. I am also aware that my style and approach is not the only solution to the problems of the photography of this wonderful subject. However there are I think some uncomplicated, basic rules and ideas that must apply when it comes to lighting. My fundamental rule, learnt over some fifty years of making pictures, has always been... keep it simple! From what I say below, you will see that it can be exactly that.

Things all started with the basics of monochrome photography. [Remember that digital cameras are based upon film cameras in the way they see light]. This medium is of course all about blacks and whites, lights and darks, chiaroscuro. It can be a highly technical medium for the clear and detailed presentation of complex forms, such as intricate machinery, for it has a visual precision that colour does not possess. The lighting of such subjects must be diffused, even avoiding any shadows or darkened areas.

This technique, does not however lend itself to erotic subjects unless the bland display of every nook and cranny is the aim?

Such an approach though, almost always these days in colour, is that used by our friend the top shelf magazine. Here, usually with the use of soft box flash or a bright summer day, we are given the naked form with the clarity of a packaging image. This I’m sure is what the punters want. They are not buying art or emotion, certainly they are not buying sexual mystery, they are buying and expecting to see every little bit of beautiful young women. It is a market led image form, lit the same way since the re-touched pictures of the essential Harrison Marks.

I think that if erotic photography is to extend beyond pornography, then it must present a more imaginative face. Lighting is the key. Of course the poor use of the subject will also dam the picture but nothing dams it more that the lighting.

I have always considered that the true source of inspiration for lighting lies in the cinema. There are of course depressingly lit mono and colour films as much as there are bad films. Fortunately, there are some fantastically lit films from both the black and white era and later in colour. In essence the rules of lighting have not changed, only the film stock.

Rule one, is mystery / drama. Just as sinister and mysterious moments in films drew from the skilled lighting cameramen the use of limited, single source lighting, so sex is so often mysterious or dramatic and benefits greatly from not seeing everything but instead eluding to the possibilities.

[Example A] Here, the subject is photographed almost into the single tungsten light source of one thousand watts.

Rule two, is sensitivity. Emotion plays a big part in films and being soft and sensitive to an erotic subject is often vital if trying to convey perhaps submission or vulnerability or just plain tenderness. Here dramatic lighting may need to be replaced with something more gentle.

[Example B] Taken still using one thousand watts of bare tungsten but keeping it at a distance, we get a softer treatment. Close lights will give intense highlights and shadows, more distance with drop these back to produce a even tone but still have the quality of contrast.

(c) China Hamilton (c) China Hamilton
Example A
Example B

I have always only used two sources of lighting in my work. Either bare-bulb tungsten or daylight. I have never used flash in any form. Nor do I use reflectors or umbrellas. My main reason is that flash is very difficult to estimate and evaluate in terms of the finished result, especially when before the digital age, we had to wait for development to actually see what we had taken; too late then to wish you had changed something in the lighting area. I have always preferred to rely upon ‘what you see is what you get’ as far as lighting is concerned. As to reflectors, they really don’t need to be used as they tend to produce a soft, undramatic fill-in that may suit a makeup add but it is not at least what I am looking for. It is worth noting, that the cinema can’t use flash and has always used direct lighting and daylight, often together and it can and does on a good day, get some wonderful results in the area of conveying mood.

I also feel that it is essential to be able to judge the true and full extent of highlights and shadows with the eye. Experience and knowledge permits the ability to evaluate the finial result when what seems so brightly lit, is actually very dark and moody after using the correct exposures.

Daylight can destroy a good picture or produce magic. One should be aware that it is powerful stuff. Outside, if it is a bright, cloudy day you will get perfect even detail but no real shadows, if it is a bright sunny day, then depending upon the angle of the sun, you will get all kinds of shadow possibilities. Here, the time of day and the position of subject relative to the sun will be critical.

Daylight, used within a building is dependent upon window positions and of course intensity, either bright sun or bright cloud.

In [Example C] I have taken the picture using bright sun and in [Example D] using bright cloud.
(c) China Hamilton (c) China Hamilton
Example C
Example D
In [Example E, F and G] I have taken against the external light source. Using the natural light source behind the subject can give a strange drama or equally, sensitivity. It is difficult as one must expose for the foreground and of course not use automatic light reading features on a camera.
(c) China Hamilton (c) China Hamilton (c) China Hamilton
Example E
Example F
Example G

Daylight, outside can destroy a good picture, not only does the subject have to compete with nature, always difficult but the level of lighting can be too searching.

In [Example H and I] I have tried to use both nature and daylight to advantage by the consideration of time and type of daylight, position of the subject relative to the sky and by the exploitation of shadows cast by natural forms onto the body.

(c) China Hamilton (c) China Hamilton
Example H
Example I
One specific way of using lighting encapsulates my work, that is that the lighting should be oblique or across the subject. If you light a naked person directly on, all the wonders of the human form are lost. What is exciting and of course erotic are the shapes and tensions that the muscles, tendons and curves promote, male or female, Only shadows and highlights will show them at their sexy best. The most beautiful living form, the bottom needs this attention most of all to demonstrate the gradations of tone that the curving shape has and to provide strong definition of the cleft between the cheeks. [Examples J and K].
(c) China Hamilton (c) China Hamilton
Example J
Example K

This article is not intended to be a major treatise but rather a nudge to the thinking process of creative erotic art photography. I’m sure you will all have your own ideas?

I leave you with three recent pictures of mine where I feel that the lighting has made the major contribution, but you must of course judge?
[Examples L, M and N]

(c) China Hamilton (c) China Hamilton (c) China Hamilton
Example L
Example M
Example N

 

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