Candlelight illuminates subjects in such a romantic way. When used for portraits it can produce both amazing shadows and soft skin textures. If light sources were dances, candlelight would be the tango. The light that dances with our souls and fills us with love.
Some cameras work very well at low light and you can shoot using just a single candle. For other cameras, this will produce only a very noisy photograph. If this happens, you may choose to add more candles or another light source. You can try an out of frame ambient light, or “kiss” the subject with a very soft flash. I prefer a diffused flashlight as my fill. It is an easily controlled source for both amount and direction.
Warning: Fire is hot. Glass breaks. Candles are dangerous.
Take precautions when working in this medium. At minimum, we have a good fire extinguisher at the location we are working and we take precautions with people, hair, clothes, paper and any other flammable objects. In addition, when using a candle taper, hot melted wax may drip on things. It hurts if the things it drips on are hands.
Candlelight: Intensity, Direction, Color
Intensity: While candlelight is intense at the source, it is much less intense than most modern light sources and single candle produces significantly less light than the average light bulb.
Direction: The candle is omni-directional throwing light in all directions. However, we primarily sit candles below the face. Watch that the light and shadows cast don't give you the look you get when holding a flashlight under your chin. Subtle adjustments in candle position can make a huge difference in the final photograph.
Color: Candlelight is warm. You may need to address white balance issues. In camera, try setting for inside, or tungsten. In post, you can adjust the warmth or coolness of the photo to your taste.
- Use a tripod
- Use a fast lens at an open aperture. f4, f2.8, f1.2. The smaller the number the larger the opening for light.
- Light loves white. You can get more light into the photos with reflectors or light surfaces. These will bounce the light back.
- To get a sharp drop off into black, sit your subject away from other objects, like walls. Light will fade off and the background will fade away.
- I expose the photo to the subject. Setting exposure to the candlelight can overexpose the photograph.
- We don’t show the light source in most photography, the same can be true here. You have the option to include the candle(s) or to have them outside the frame.
- There is more power in the photograph if the composition and the subject “work” with candlelight. Think what works in a romantic way. Old books. Faces. A simple cluster of candles.
- As with all photography, you will get a better exposure if you set manual settings. Here the most important setting will be ISO. Start with choosing an ISO of 400 and work from there. Set your aperture wide open (don’t forget this will soften the field, so if that isn’t a look you want set it for f8 and compensate with shutter speed). Use shutter speed to bring enough light into the camera. On a tripod, you have no limits on shutter speed.
Lessons learned from experience:
- Hot wax drips and can get on floors, tabletops, carpets etc.
- Dripping hot wax is HOT and will burn your human subject.
- Glass containers for candles get hot and hotter as the candle continues to burn. Keep wicks trimmed to reduce the heat factor. Overheated glass will crack and shatter. It is a big fire hazard.
- Candles should NEVER be left burning and unattended.
- Assume anything and everything can catch fire. Be super cautious!! This is not a beginner’s medium.
- Pets can be curious and should be locked away in a cage or another room.
- Start simple. Keep it simple.
- Always be prepared to put out a fire. You can get a fire extinguisher at any big box store: Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes. If you don’t already own one, this is a must purchase. We have several in our home. And not as a reflection of my cooking, there is always one under the kitchen sink. ALWAYS!