I recently did a photo session where we experimented using one or more candles as the primary light source. Here is one of the resulting candlelight photography images:
First: safety. When we did the photo shoot, we had a fire extinguisher nearby, just in case something went wrong. Also, because we are working with fire, we also have to think about temperatures. Soy wax candles burn at around 115-119°F and the wax makes a good hand lotion. They also burn cleanly, so there are fewer health issues associated with breathing in the same area where they are burning. Paraffin wax, which is used in traditional candles, melts at between 115 and 154°F, so it can be much hotter. And, when paraffin burns, it tends to produce chemicals associated with lung cancer and asthma with long-term exposure (CNN’s similar information). Finally, not a safety risk, but also worth considering is that soy wax is a renewable resource, whereas paraffin comes from petroleum.
Light (or lack of it)
The primary issue associated with candlelight photography is that candles are dark. Our eyes adjust, so it is less noticeable to us. However, the low light means one or more of the following:
- Exposures are longer. This means no moving, including breathing. It also means that the camera has to be on a tripod. Since I normally prefer hand-holding the camera, this is not my favorite way of working. However, as you will see, the results are probably worth it.
- The sensor ISO setting has to be higher, leading to more sensor noise. I shoot with a full-frame camera that has good low-light capabilities, but the noise goes up with the ISO for all cameras (digital and film). Also, with higher ISO settings, the image sharpness drops. To some extent, these can be handled with post-processing, but you cannot make data where there is none to begin with. The result of a higher ISO setting is that prints might have a smaller maximum size. Since my normal maximum is around 2x3ft, this is not a big deal.
- The exposure needs wide apertures (low f-stops), which leads to shallow depth of field. Since many boudoir, sexy, and glamor photos have a narrow depth-of-field, this might be OK. However, it is something that I have to be aware of as I create the images.
The next issue is that the color of light produced by a candle is very red-orange-yellow (warm) compared with most other light sources. This means that white balance is important, even if I decide to keep some of the warm colors in the final image.
One advantage of candles is that they tend to produce soft light, especially when several are combined to produce the light. When I took the photo at the top of this post, not only was the dual-wick candle you see in the photo at the top of this post burning, but there were several others burning nearby. I had lit them at the beginning, because some candles get brighter after they have burned for a few minutes. They added some extra light to the image. Here is an example:
Blended light sources
Another interesting thing to do is to not rely on the candle as the only source of light. This requires setting the exposure so that it shows the candle (as mentioned, not a bright source of light) with the other light. It also means that the different sources of light need to be similar in color. Simply adding in daylight or a flash will mean that the image has a very warm light from the candle and daylight and flash are much cooler (bluer). Mixed light sources can cause shadows to have a color cast, something that can be a real pain to deal with. Blended candle light will be the subject of a future blog post.
After taking care of safety, candles produce a warm, soft light that makes for beautiful photos. However, because it is not very bright, it also brings with it some challenges. I look forward to doing more candlelight photography in the future. Contact me to schedule a candlelight photography session!
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