Reverse Engineering Exercises: 1

So, I’ve picked a handful of images which we’ll reverse engineer in depth. I don’t want to examine every facet in every image, as I think that will get overwhelming, but the ones I’ve picked all illustrate those 4 characteristics of lighting, as well as showing you a few tricks that photographers keep up their sleeves.

Let’s start with a very simple image. Here’s a portrait of a pro poker player that was taken for a cover and feature for a Poker Magazine some years ago. The idea was to capture an image of Roland here “on the run” having won a load of cash at a poker game, so the lighting is supposed to look like either a police line up, or someone caught in the flash of a paparazzi or some car headlights.

If we start with direction, what does this image tell us? Well, at first glance the image is actually quite flat, with not much sense of 3 dimensions. Of course, we only have to look a bit closer to realise that the shadow is being cast against the wall behind Roland, and from that we can quickly deduce that the light must have been coming from the same angle as the camera. Look even closer, and we can tell that it was slightly above the camera too, as the cast shadows are slightly low. There is no obvious second set of shadows, so the first thing we can deduce is that there was just one light, placed above the camera, and on the lens axis.

The other aspect I want to examine with this image is quality. Do we think this was lit with a hard or soft light source? The transition from highlight to shadow is very hard to spot, since the light is so frontal, but the cast shadows have a pretty sharp outline – not as crisp as they could be, and there’s a little bit of ghosting, but they’re pretty distinct. So, we can probably guess this was lit with a fairly hard light.

Let’s look at how it was actually made – and going forward you’ll be glad to learn that every image we’re going to examine comes with a setup shot, so I can actually show you how it was done.

We can see from this shot that our guess about direction was spot on – the light is above the camera, and on the lens axis – in this case being held in place by my assistant (I was in too much of a hurry to rig a boom arm!) The reflector on the flash head (that silver dish) is about 7” or so across, so whilst it’s pretty hard, it’s not as small as, say, a flashgun, and since Roland is so close to the light and the camera, the edges of the cast shadows have diffused slightly. Don’t forget how distance can affect quality – the size of a light source RELATIVE to the subject is what makes it hard or soft, not just using a certain modifier.

The last thing I want you to look at is the black panels to one side of Roland. These are reflectors, but I’m using the black painted side, not the white side. The black side helps to accentuate and deepen any shadows

Here’s an exciting image of Bev, a golf pro swinging a club about in a photo studio – well, exciting if you’re into golf – if, like me, you’re not, then it’s just another paying job!

The main thing I want us to look at here is quality of light. Have a good look, and see if you think this was lit by a hard, or soft light source.

After a good long look, and very little evidence of any shadow or transition on the subject, you hopefully spotted the faint cast shadow on the floor. This at least tells us that the light was coming from left of camera, and a bit higher than Bev. This is pretty much the only obvious clue in the image.

My assistant is standing where Bev would be in the shot. notice the 2 lights at the front, both with softboxes on, then there are 2 more lights attached to a gantry in the ceiling, which are aimed into the back wall. Then, to complete our lighting setup, there are 4 white reflectors down the left hand side. The power of the 2 front lights is set so the the left hand one is about a stop more powerful – that gives us the shadow we spotted first, which gives us just a hint of 3 dimensions. Everything else about the setup is intended to create as flat and shadowless a light as possible.

The entire studio is basically one big white reflector, which bounces light around, and with the addition of the white boards down the side, and the 2 extra lights that make sure the back wall doesn’t get too dark, we’re able to create an almost shadowless environment. This is done for practical reasons – the brief for this job is that we’re illustrating technical parts of the golf swing, so any strong shadows might make it hard to see body parts and angles clearly.

Let’s look at an image where we bring together a couple of tricks from the last 2. You’re getting the hang of things now, so have a look at this, and work out where the light was coming from, and whether it was hard or soft

Hopefully, you could spot the light was coming from camera right – there’s very clear highlights down that side of Tamayah our model, and the fact they transition quite gradually tells us this light was probably quite soft.

But wait, the shadows go very deep and dark, so doesn’t that mean the light was hard? Well, no – think back to what I said earlier about what’s surrounding your subject, and then think back to the image of Roland, and can you guess why the shadows are so deep, but we’re still using a soft light?

OK – here’s how it was done.

There’s our main light, the softbox, and there are two more lights aiming into the back wall to make sure it stays nice and white. What you’ve also hopefully noticed is the 2 black boards on the left, which work to accentuate the shadows on Tamayah.

I apologise that this setup image is out of focus – it’s a very old one, and it would appear my eyesight wasn’t so good that day! However, it serves it’s purpose, and remember – just because a shadow is deep, doesn’t mean the light that cast it was necessarily hard.

Just to make sure we’ve got the concept well and truly covered, let’s turn it on it’s head with this image. Take your usual, by now very professional, look at it, and start to do your reverse engineering.

You can probably guess I’m trying to trip you up here, and what at first glance appears to be a very soft light, and very bright, airy and high key, was actually lit with quite a hard light. Looking at the basics, we can tell from highlights on Francesca, and the shadows cast by things like the drawer handles, that the main light is coming from camera right, and probably a fraction higher than Francesca. Now, is this light soft or hard?

Don’t be fooled by how deep the shadows are – it’s actually quite a hard light. Look at the cast shadow outline on Francesca’s arm, as well as the drawer handle shadows, and you’ll see the clue. So why are the shadows not very deep and black? Well, the answer lies in the shadow beneath the watch arm (Francesca’s right – our left) You can see this shadow quite clearly, but it can’t have been cast by the light from camera right.

Here’s how the image was shot.

Outside the window on the right you can see a beauty dish, aiming in. This is usually considered a soft light, but since it’s quite a distance from Francesca, it’s relative size has shrunk, so it’s become harder. To lift the shadows there’s a silver reflective panel – it’s side on to us in this shot, so not very hard to see, but to lift them further, there’s a second flash firing into the ceiling. By bouncing this light off the white ceiling, it’s been made very soft, and by keeping the power down in relation to the light coming through the window, it lifts the shadows rather than overpowering them.

This second light does a great job of keeping the shadows bright, and contributing to the airy, lifestyle feel of the image. A word of warning though about introducing extra light sources. A shot like this, which is supposed to feel natural, will soon look artificial if you introduce too much light into it, so use more than one light carefully.

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