Can we talk about lighting for a second? I mean isn't that really where it all happens?

Multiple Fresnel Continuous Lights.

I was thinking about lighting this morning because I was playing around with some flash in the studio and then I switched over to HMIs. But I wasn't just playing around because I was bored I was playing around because on Monday and Tuesday of next week I'll be making stylized portraits of about 96 people. The art director at the agency I'm working with has a very specific post production technique she'd like to use and I wanted to make sure we would be delivering exactly what she needed to make it all work. 

I talked the project over with the account manager and she sent me along to the production specialist who would be doing the actual post production on the files. This is always good. When you go to the source you get the best information and it's the kind of information you can really use. 

The entire conversation was about light. We talked specifically about the backgrounds and we talked about getting very little variation in the white seamless we'd be using. The specialist wanted the exposure on the white to "just tip over" into 255 but not be so bright as to throw bounced light forward onto the subject. Why? We are trying to hit a perfect level of deep, contrasty shadowing along with bright areas of flesh tone. It's pretty critical to the look we're trying to achieve. 

We're going to end up doing the shoot with four lights in silver umbrellas with black backing on the background. We'll flag those lights with black, 4x4 foot panels to kill lens flare which would lower the contrast. While we're at it we'll "fly" a black flag over each subject's head for the same reason. 

We played around in the studio with a number of versions of the main light but ended up with the 28 inch raw beauty dish at a specific angle. We'll use a two stop net to modify the bottom of the light so it falls off a bit quicker from the subjects' faces. We'll also use two black 2x3 foot flags to barn door the beauty dish so we don't have a lot of spill to the side walls in the shooting space. That helps us control contrast as well. You really only want the light to go exactly where you intend it to go! Anything else is just not cool. 

I shot a bunch of samples, zipped them and e-mailed them to my collaborator in Dallas. We talked through the look and feel on the phone and he gave me his feedback (which was good and good). 

I was about to say, "What was missing from this very serious discussion with a very important client?" I was about to say, "Any discussion whatsoever about cameras or lenses or gear brands of anything." But that's not 100% true. There was no discussion of lenses at all. But the specialist did ask me what type of camera I was planning on using. I told him he had his choice between Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic or Samsung but that's not what he was getting at. He didn't particularly care which camera we used but we'd need to send him the raw files for the kind of post production he has planned and wanted to make sure that whatever camera we used was represented in the raw converters in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Seems someone had handed him some Phase One files that he couldn't convert in his usual programs. No one wants to stop, buy a new piece of software and learn to use it well in the middle of a project.

Once we discussed the fact that all the cameras I'd consider using have been mainstreamed into the Adobe workflows many months or years ago all discussion of cameras immediately stopped and we moved back to important considerations like the look, feel and posing of the images. You know, the stuff that makes a difference to the audience. 

What do professionals colleagues talk about when they discuss most upcoming photo shoots? Just about everything but cameras. And that's just the way it should be.


David Liang said...

Hey Kirk,

How did you solve the request to have the background be 255?

I've never tried but I always thought bringing it that close, would cause light to wrap around the subject and soften the hard lines?

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi David, I'm a big believer in incident light meters. If I'm using a white background and it's evenly lit I start by taking a reading at the subject position with the incident dome pointing toward the camera. Let's say I get f5.6 and that's where I want the exposure to be for the subject. Now I want to get just enough extra exposure on the background to get white + a bit more to get rid of any detail. I meter at the center of the background and adjust the output of the background lights until the meter reads one third stop more than the foreground lighting. If I'm really trying to nail it perfectly I'll shoot a series of brackets for the background level in 10ths of a stop. Then I'll pull the brackets into PhotoShop and use the eyedropper to measure the white. When it's at 250 or 253 I know the next step up will be 255. I set the background lights to that setting and I'm done. The problem with using an in camera histogram is that once you hit 255 you're pegging against the right side of the scale and no matter how much more exposure you add to the image it can't be measured. You only want just enough to go white and not a drop more.

As a safety you also want the background as far from the subject as possible. The fall off between the background and your subject will also help to eliminate wrap.

Finally, the big, black flags on either side in the background, used about half way to the background from subject position keep light from the sides of the white background from showing to the subject or the camera.

Kirk Tuck said...

The flags give you just enough "window" of white to do their job in the frame and then kill all the other white light from the background. It's the light across the wide background that, if left unfledged, kills most people's white background shots. Honest.

Michael Matthews said...

Excellent answer to David Liang's question -- in fact, worthy of a blog post in itself.

A few how-to topics like this, perhaps with a couple of show and tell photos to illustrate the actions described, could lead some blog readers toward Amazon and your books on lighting.

David Liang said...

Wow Kirk, thanks so much for such an amazing and detailed response! I'm excited to try that for myself now. Thanks so much!

neopavlik said...

Blow out white is an additional 1.5 stops right ?

Can the Lee Filter Hood save you from setting up some of the flags ?
I got one a few months ago and love it.

Kirk Tuck said...

No, Neopavlik, it's at most one third stop more with an incident light meter. And, while the lens hold helps prevent some flare the flags keep the extra light off the subject.