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Lighting to stump other photographers

Posted by Greg Blue on Monday, September 7th, 2015

I love it when photographers shoot for other photographers by subtly altering a shot in a way that makes you do a double take. If you’re like me, the first thing I do when I look at another photographer’s shot is decide whether I like it or not – the second thing I do is try to figure out how I think the shot was lit. In order to do this, I look for all the usual clues 1) the size, shape and intensity of a specular highlight 2) the sharpness and quality of a cast shadow 3) light fall off on the subject 4) direction(s) of the lighting, etc. But sometimes photographers can manipulate a shot in a subtle way that no longer follows the rules of physics. The shot I took below of Billy is an example of this.

Billy © Greg Blue

Billy © Greg Blue 2014

If you look at the most obvious clue to the light source used on the subject – the catch light in Billy’s eyes, it is a small dot of light. There is only one type of light source that could give that kind of specular highlight – a small, point light source in relation to the subject (in this case a studio strobe in a 9-inch reflector hood). However, when you look at the quality of the cast shadows on the shot to confirm your guess, you see an immediate contradiction. A small point light source should give the image very sharp, abrupt edges to a cast shadow (hard lighting). But when you look at the shadow cast by Billy’s nose, or the shadow on his collar cast by his chin, these have a distinctly soft edge – the only kind of light source that could give that kind of shadow would be a fairly large light in relation to the subject.

It’s a subtle effect, but one that most experienced photographers would catch. The lighting on this shot is not actually possible according to the physics of light. I lit the subject with a 4X3 foot soft box, quite close to the subject, which of course gives me soft light. But once I finished the shot and was certain I had the expressions I wanted, I then took the soft box off the strobe, and placed the small reflector hood on and took another shot of Billy with his eyes wide open. I then removed the irises from the hard-lit shot and transplanted them onto the soft-lit shots. Now the image had the light quality of a large, soft light source, but the clear evidence of a small hard light source in the catch lights of his eyes.

If you’re interested in learning exactly how this shot was produced, you can view the full image tutorial here.

Another possibility (which I haven’t shot yet) would be to do a figure study or nude, and really slop the model down with oil (this can be a fantastic exercise even when you don’t have a camera). Then light the image with a smallish light source in relation to the subject. The oil on the skin will make the subject very reflective and the small light source will cause many bright specular highlights on all the curvy parts of the subject – this is how we immediately know the model has oil on their skin. Light the model with the light in a few different positions to move the specular highlights and then go into Photoshop and remove all of the specular highlights. The skin should have a very interesting quality to it because of the oil, but our only visual cue that the subject is covered in oil (the specular highlights) would be gone. Messing with other photographer’s heads can be fun.

Finally there’s this sample below. I love this shot and I’m slightly bummed it’s not mine.

child

First look at the specular highlight in the child’s eyes – this is the most usable and obvious clue as to the light source. The specular highlights are huge and very liquid, this means that the image was lit with a very large light source in relation to the child. But look at the contrast on the child’s face. Look at the child’s skin – it looks completely dry – a light source this large in relation to the child should completely light the child’s face (it doesn’t matter that the light source is slightly below the child’s face). But all we get are bits and pieces of diffused highlight. The only way that this shot could be produced is by doing some serious burning in of the skin tones either in the darkroom or in Photoshop. But the really great thing is that the photographer left all of the visible diffused highlights in the curvy parts of the child’s face – exactly where we would expect to see specular highlights. This makes the shot even more visually intriguing.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the photographer who took this image (Google Images couldn’t find a match). If you know the photographer who took this image, I’d be very grateful if you passed his/her name on to me. If you happen to be the photographer who took this image, please let me know right away – if you would prefer me to take the image down, I will understand. But my hope is I can place the correct copyright notice on the shot, link it to your website and tell the world that I think you’re a bloody amazing photographer! Also, I’d love to know if I’m right or wrong in my guess as to how you did the shot!


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Lighting to stump other photographers
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Lighting to stump other photographers
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Lighting to stump other photographers - I love it when photographers shoot for other photographers by subtly altering a shot in a way that makes you do a double take. If you’re like me, the first thing I do when I look at another photographer’s shot is decide whether I like it or not – the second thing I do is to...
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