An Exercise in Studio Lighting

by John H Siskin

I teach a class in studio lighting. One of the problems my students have is they haven’t got a way to practice. This project is an exercise. I’ve done it with classes, and I've done it in my own work. I allow myself only one light source, with my goal being to create an interesting light without too much contrast. Then I find a simple subject, preferably something around the studio. This helps me to concentrate on the ways to manipulate light, rather than just adding more lights.

Diagram, Walking Model
© John H Siskin
All Rights Reserved

The subject is a flexible sculpture model. These models are used as aids to artists. They are fun to shoot since they take direction well! I wanted to create a special environment for the model so the final shot would be interesting. The Mexican beach pebbles were a good choice. The pebbles came from a building materials store, you can buy them in a fifty pound sack, and I already had them. Then I sprinkled some shattered glass on top of the pebbles. I knew this would pick up the light and reflect it back to the camera, creating some bright highlights. I set up the shot in a 20X24” darkroom tray. The tray kept the glass from spreading and provided a black background behind the pebbles.

When I set up a shoot I start with the relationship between the subject and the camera. This prevents putting a light where I want to place the camera. In setting this up, my first concern was to hide the wire support for the model. My second concern was to set the depth of field to create an increasing softness closer to the feet of the model; this made the model seem more human sized. Since I shot this with a Toyo 4X5 Camera and a 210mm lens a choice of f11 gives very little depth of field, perfect for this shot.

Walking Model, Set-up Shot
© John H Siskin
All Rights Reserved

The way to make more apparent light sources from one light source is with reflectors. This shot is an exercise in reflectors; as such it has a value in measured in practice, in the same way musicians play scales. The first choice about lighting is the placement of the light source. It is important to place it where we will be able to access the light in different ways, giving us different values of light. I decided to place the light above the subject. This enabled me to use mirrors to reflect the light in from the sides.

Then I pointed the light into an umbrella. The umbrella has covered ribs and the interior fabric is white satin. It is also important that the umbrella has a black cover; an uncovered umbrella would spread light through out the studio. The umbrella is marked “A” in the diagram.

We can also change the appearance of the light by using diffusers and filters. Using these tools allows us to make light from one direction look brighter or have a different color. In this case, a diffuser with two layers of white rip-stop nylon fabric was placed between the light source and the subject. I used two layers because I wanted to reduce the light from overhead; otherwise the overhead illumination would overwhelm all the other light sources. I then place a blue Roscoe Cinegel on top of the diffuser; this further reduced the amount of light from overhead and adjusted the color.

Walking Model
© John H Siskin
All Rights Reserved

The diffuser and the blue filter were mounted on a frame made from PVC pipe. This created an overall blue light on the set with a low level of illumination. You can see a reflection of this light on the upper trailing arm (right side of set) of the model. The light has a subtle effect in the rest of the shot, but it stands out on this one arm. The result of using two levels of white rip-stop nylon and a piece of blue Cinegel between the light source and the subject is much less volume of light on the subject than would be on the subject if just the umbrella is used. This makes it possible to reflect light into the subject that will be brighter than the light directly over the subject. The frame with the diffusers and the gel is marked “B”.

Next I placed a piece of Duvateen fabric opposite the camera. Duvateen is a very black fabric used to absorb light. I didn’t need this as part of the background; that is completely beach pebbles. This was placed to prevent light from the white wall behind the set reflecting white light back into the set. White light from the back of the shot will lighten the background and reduce contrast in the shot.

In order to control the way the image looks, we have to be able to control the light that spills onto the set. I added a large black card to the right side of the set for the same purpose: to control spill light. This card is a sheet of black matt board held up by a spring clamp.

Both the card and the Duvateen provide functions that are as important as adding light: they add shadow and create shape. Even lighting produces a flat look; shadows help produce a feeling of 3-dimensionality. These pieces of black material are called gobos or flags. They are marked “C” on the diagram.

Now to direct some more light onto the front of subject. What I imagined was a harsh direct light hitting the top of the model. If I used a diffused light for the front illumination I would lose the 3-dimensional effect evident in the head and chest of the model. I also wanted to add a warm color to this light to help offset the blue light from overhead. This color difference helps to make the model stand out from the pebbles in the finished piece. In order to do this, I used a Lowel Tota-flector to bounce light directly from the Smith-Victor light, before it hits the Umbrella. The Tota-flector (marked “D”) is part of a system that mounts both reflectors and flags onto flexible shafts.

In this case, I mounted the flexible shaft onto the boom arm that the light is mounted on. I bounced the light onto a piece of gold Plexiglas mirror (marked “E”) and then onto the model. Something like a two-corner-bank shot on a pool table! It’s easier to get the light where you want it than to make that bank shot on a pool table; you just move the second reflector until the light goes where you want it.

Once you know where the reflector needs to be you can mount it on a light stand. Keep in mind that we are bouncing light from the quartz bulb, not the reflector, so the light is potentially much brighter than the light coming from on top of the model. Another important characteristic of the light is that it is very warm; this is because the reflector is a gold colored Plexiglas. As a consequence of the light being reflected and the color of the reflector the image now has a considerable amount of color and value contrast in the lighting.

I set up two more reflectors to further adjust the light on the sculpture model. The first is behind the set. This reflector is another Lowel Tota-flector, that is a silver reflector 8X12 inches (marked “F”). This reflector is bouncing light from the umbrella into the back and side of the model. This light helps to separate the subject from the background, by creating a more defined edge.

If you examine the right edge of the final shot, particularly of the lower torso, you can see what this light does. The light from this reflector is more subtle that the last one because the light is reflected from the umbrella. The umbrella absorbs more of the light and diffuses the light more. The light is filtered through a lavender cinegel (marked “G”). This gives me the color and smoothness I wanted in the backlight.

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