Reverse Engineering Exercises: 2

OK, so we’re starting to get a bit crafty, and you know to be on the look out for a photographer trying to pull the wool over your eyes and disguise how they lit a shot. Here’s a good mystery to get your teeth into.

Portrait of Poker Player

Let’s look at the basics – we’ve got a light up top – the chandelier, and we’ve obviously got another light coming from high left of camera that Brian has turned his face up to. You can probably do your own detective work on the quality of light used, but what I want to look at in more detail is the quantity of light.

The image is sharp from the toes of Brian’s shoes, all the way to the cushions on the sofa behind him, so we can assume a small aperture was used. Yet how does this combine with the chandelier above him, which probably puts out very little light?

Look more closely at the area around the chandelier, particularly off to the right, and you’ll see that I’ve cheated. How could a chandelier inside this fold of material manage to throw light onto the other side of the material? Well, easily, if it wasn’t actually the chandelier that was throwing the light.

Here’s the setup shot, and if you look closely behind the silver reflector that’s helping to lift the shadows, you’ll see a flash head pointing up at the chandelier.

Setup shot of portrait

There’s the trick. By shining light onto it, I can give the impression that chandelier is actually lit, and casting light down onto Brian. Using flash lets me shoot at a decent aperture, rather than having to struggle with the feeble output of a household bulb.

Again, I apologise for the slightly shoddy quality of this behind the scenes shot – it was taken by my assistant, who has since been severely reprimanded! Hopefully it’s just enough to show you what the setup was though.

Let’s stick with quantity with this image from an adventure race in the Surrey Hills a few years back. Feast your eyes on this.

Runner jumping over log in adventure race

We can see straight away that there are highlights on more than one side, and cast shadows on more than one side, so we know there a probably a couple of lights on the go. We can also see that the runner is frozen mid-jump, so we can guess that a fast shutter speed was used. Look more closely, and we can also see that we’re in a wood, and that whilst the sun is out and casting shadows on the ground, our runner is probably in the shade. So are we dealing with lots of light, or not much light?

The answer is, both, to be truthful. Here’s the setup shot.

Setup shot for runner image

The secret is in the 3 flash guns you can see dotted around the fallen log the runner has to jump over. There are 2 behind him, and one to his front. The 2 back lights help to separate him from the forest behind, and the front light obviously adds light to his face and torso so he’s not in silhouette.

The real magic though, is in the quantity of light. Since we’ve managed to freeze movement, and actually got a pretty decent aperture too, how have we managed to do this in the darkness of a shaded wood. The key is the flashguns. Little, battery powered flashguns like this normally struggle to have much effect in bright daylight, as their power relative to the sun is pretty weak. However, head deep into the woods, and suddenly they become relatively more powerful. Since the duration of the flashes is very brief – mere hundredths or even thousandths of a second – and our runner is lit pretty much only by the light from the flashes, then that flash duration effectively becomes the shutter speed, allowing us to really freeze motion, even when there’s not actually much light about. Clever eh?

Portrait of Mike Causer

Here’s a portrait from a personal project I shot a few years ago. Take it all in, and do your usual detective work, but I want to take us back a few steps and really focus on direction with this shot, particularly that magical little thing called feathering we talked about earlier.

The highlights on either side of his body and arms have probably told you that he was lit from both sides, and the fairly gentle graduation of shadows says that the light was probably quite soft. So, we can count 2 lights straight away. Look more closely at the top of Mike’s head, and the weight plate. If the 2 lights are coming from each side, how is there also light on the top of his head, and the rim of the plate? And while you’re at it, what about that shaft of light that’s running down the background?

Here’s a great example of feathering in action, as well as one light being put to two uses. Look at this setup shot, and you’ll see that you were right about the two lights:

Setup shot for Causer portrait

There they are behind him on each side, with softboxes attached. But check out the angle of the third light on the overhead gantry. It’s angled (or feathered – remember, feathering is just a fancy way of talking about how you angle a light to make use of the natural fall-off) onto the top of Mike, but towards the background as well.

The fall of light from the overhead softbox is such that it’s quite dramatic towards the edges, so by angling it back this way I’ve stopped it from hitting the front of Mike, and flattening the shadows I’ve laboured to create. The shape of the fall off, along with the angle it’s at has also allowed me to create that graduated look on the background. One light, doing two jobs – and all through a careful arrangement of it’s angle, and use of feathering.

Catalogue Jewellery Shot

For our last image, let’s examine an image from a jewellery catalogue I shot about 10 years ago, with our model Sam. The sun’s just setting over her shoulder, and she’s looking forward to an evening out dressed in her best clobber and wearing some snazzy new jewellery. Or something like that.

You should of course know by now, that appearances can be very deceiving. There’s obviously a light coming from over her shoulder, and it looks a bit like the setting (or possibly rising…) sun, and then there’s a subtle shadow beneath her chin, which implies there’s another light above her too.

Let’s look at how it was actually shot.

Jewellery Setup Shot

Dealing with the overhead light first, that’s clearly lighting her face, and we can see that I’ve used a flash head with a softbox attached, and that it’s mounted on something that looks like a goal post, which is in fact what this arrangement of stands is called. Whilst the softbox is pretty soft, the quality of light is made even softer by the fact that it’s pretty close to Sam, so the relative size is even greater. All this contributes to making things look pretty flattering and natural.

Over her shoulder is the “sun”. Since I can’t control the movement of the Sun, and since the client wants a warm atmosphere to the shot, I’ve added an orange gel to a 2nd flash head, and hidden it away behind the bamboo so as to disguise it a little. Dirty little tricks like this can be used with care to augment your images, and it’s well worth having a few up your sleeve.

So, there you go, your very own toolkit to go out and start reverse engineering images. The more you practice this, the better you’ll get, but one thing I ought to stress is the importance of influences, and drawing on them widely rather than from a narrow source.

If you’ve seen my videos on the 5 habits that will make you a better photographer (and if not, why not?) then you’ll know that one of the things I place a lot of faith in is the idea of having a broad range of influences in your work. You should be inspired by other people’s work, but even when you reverse engineer their imagery, you’re not trying to copy what they’ve done. By decoding the parts of an image, you’re learning to be a better photographer, and the broader your technical and craft base, the more options you have when it comes to creating your own imagery.

You may look at someone’s work and try and copy it verbatim – I can assure you, you are doomed to failure. Unless you’re able to travel to the same location, with exactly the same subject and shoot under exactly the same conditions, along with the same post-processing, you’re going to get a different result. And why would you want to simply carbon copy someone else anyway? Inspiration in it’s truest sense means taking bits from here and pieces from there to create your own vision, and reverse engineering simply allows you to read the visual language of photography better. Get reading!

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