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Using light to sculpt your model

Posted by Greg Blue on Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

There are a lot of tutorials out there showing different ways of using burning and dodging or layer blend modes in Photoshop to sculpt and shape your model. It’s pretty impressive and these are techniques that you should absolutely know. But there is also the temptation to overdo it with Photoshop – which many beginner photographers fall prey to! Shaping a subject with light however, means you can be as dramatic as you like without creating an image that looks flagrantly “Photoshopped.”

You do not have to rely on Photoshop to sculpt the shape and tones of your subject – you can (and should) do this with your lighting. Photoshop is not restricted by the physical reality of light – it many ways, this is a huge advantage for Photoshop, but it is also a huge potential problem. Many new photographers, who do not yet understand lighting, will use Photoshop as a means of adding shape when their lighting falls flat. The problem is – they can over-correct and the image comes out looking flagrantly Photoshopped.

Sculpting your subject with light means that you are working within the physics of light. You can be as dramatic as you like with your lighting, but your image will rarely look over-the-top unrealistic when you use lighting instead of Photoshop to enhance and showcase the form of your subject. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to be anti-Photoshop – I love everything about Photoshop and use it on about 95% of my work, but I prefer to use light to shape, and Photoshop to finish and refine.

The shot above of Kirsty is very much an example of this. The light source was placed in a very particular position to enhance the shape of her face as well as her torso. I placed the light in order to set the largest specular highlight on her face a little over to the right. This meant the lighting went (from left to right) diffused highlight / specular highlight / shadow (rather than specular/diffused/shadow). This emphasized the contrast of the lighting and therefore the contours of her face.

The proximity of the light source meant I was able to use light fall-off to add drama and depth to the image. Make-up was also used to exaggerate the contrast of the lighting. Finally Photoshop was used to refine the tones and remove any small imperfections. But the final contrast, tone and shape was created by the physics of light, not by Photoshop actions.

You can view the full tutorial for this image here.

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