There are countless challenges when picking up the camera but one of the hardest parts of learning the art of lighting has to be finding a subject who is willing to be subjected to the countless minutes spent in front of the camera while you try to get it "just right".
Family is wonderful. They're there for you to laugh with, cry with, and be there in times of need, until your obsessive need to feed your passion begins to exceed their patience level. You know you're in real trouble when the mere sight of the camera in your hands sends the kids scurrying for cover. Time for some new help.
Enter the mannequin. This is Hope, a well used half of a whole mannequin with no limbs and realistic features, who, for a nominal sum, was willing to come work with me. She came to the studio in a coat of glossy white paint which immediately proved to be too specular to be of any real use under the lights. However, a little flat primer later and she was ready for her debut. Although her porcelain white complexion did a wonderful job of showing form and shadow, it still proved to be more reflective than actual skin tone so the translation to a real person under similar lighting conditions proved to be off a little. Turns out that primer grey happens to be very close to 18% grey which also happens to be very close to most Caucasian skin tones and so, Hope became grey and immediately became invaluable when setting up lighting scenarios accurately. More than just a learning tool, Hope the mannequin also doubles as a stand in when establishing lighting for a shoot with "real" people. With a stool or a WorkMate and a few apple boxes, I can adjust her from sitting to standing in a variety of heights, set the lighting, take meter readings, make a few test shots, and pretty much dial in the set before asking the subject to step in front of the lens. Pretty cool, and easy. And did I mention, she works for cheap?
If you find yourself in a similar dilemma, pick up a used mannequin for yourself and see just how fast your learning curve accelerates and the quality of your lighting scenarios improves. Who knows, you may wind up shooting more simply for the joy of it, and trying new things because you can. And that is never a bad proposition, now is it? ;-)