Cine Essentials: Metering and Modifying Reflections

Scheimpflüg Digital founder and production expert John Engstrom gives a step-by-step rundown of how to meter and light reflective surfaces on a cine shoot.
Handling reflective surfaces can be one of the trickier aspects of doing a cine shoot. They can create hot spots, bounce light and color onto other scene elements, and change unexpectedly when whatever is being reflected on a shiny surface moves or is otherwise altered. Whether you’re using available light or lighting your set, you need to know how to control the shiny parts.

We asked John Engstrom, founder of Scheimpflüg Digital, to guide us through the process of metering and modifying reflective surfaces for a cine shoot.  

Tools and Information

You can use this equipment to measure and modify reflective surfaces during a cine shoot:
  • Light meter. To meter reflective surfaces, you should use a meter with a spot metering mode. One that incorporates a viewfinder so that you can pinpoint the spot you’re metering will be most effective.
  • Modifiers. Anything that changes the way the light falls is a modifier. It can be something that shapes the light or changes its direction, or it can be something that increases or decreases its intensity. You can get an overview of the main types of modifiers in this article on metering and modifying available light.
  • Light-related apps. These can include apps that provide weather predictions or tell you where the sun will be at any given time. Engstrom uses the Helios sun position calculator app.
  • Tape. Gaffer’s tape can come in handy for securing modifiers.
  • Stands. You’ll need something to hold your modifiers up. It can be a light stand, a C-stand, or your trusty assistant. Different types of modifiers will require different supports. Make sure you have the right supports for all your modifiers.
  • Sandbags. To weigh down the stands so that they don’t fall over, especially in the wind.  
  • Clamps. It’s always good to have a few clamps handy, for attaching modifiers to stationary objects and stands.

John Engstrom: “When we’re shooting things that are really metallic and we’re outside on location, that’s when I’ll get out a spot meter and meter the reflections. Taking an incident reading doesn’t really work, because what I’m metering is reflecting the sky or a big building.”

The Process

Meter the reflective surface.

Once you’ve done the general metering for your scene and your subjects, take a look around for reflective surfaces. Look for cars, windows, mirrors, shiny housewares, and people wearing glasses. You’ll need to meter each of these surfaces separately, then decide whether to use a modifier to alter its appearance.

Here’s what to do:
  1. Set your meter to Spot Metering Mode.
  2. Set your meter to the ISO you’re using for the shoot. You should use the same ISO setting for scenes that you want to have the same look, since visual noise increases as you increase the ISO or gain.
  3. If you’re using a cine meter, set the frames per second you’ll be shooting at.
  4. If you’re shooting on film and using a shutter angle other than 180 degrees, use a cine meter that lets you set the shutter angle.
  5. Stand near the camera.
  6. Aim your meter at the reflective surface and take a reading. If it’s a large surface that reflects more than one object, you may need to take more than one reading. Make sure you meter the brightest points in the reflection, so that you know whether they will fall outside of your camera’s latitude.
  7. Make a note of your meter readings. Also note the object that’s being reflected by the surface you’re metering and what is lighting that object. For example, if you’re metering the side of a car parked next to a building, you’ll note that the building is reflected by the surface of the car, and the building itself is lit by available light at 3:00 p.m. Meter the building to be more precise, if possible.

Modify the reflections.

A reflection needs to be modified if it creates any of these problems:

  • It’s too bright. If it creates a hot spot or just a distractingly bright area, you need to reduce its brightness.
  • It’s moving. If there are nearby elements that that are moving and reflect in an element of the scene, they can create a distraction and introduce elements into the scene that shouldn’t be there. Typical moving elements include traffic and pedestrians.
  • It’s distorting other elements. In some cases, reflections can distort or obscure other elements in the scene. This is a common problem with eyeglasses, which can obscure a subject’s eyes or distort the face.
  • It may change over time. Remember that reflections are created by the things reflected. Those things are bouncing light onto the reflective surface. That means if the light on them changes, the reflections will change too. And if the objects move, the reflection will change completely. If you need the reflections to remain stable over the course of the day, or over multiple days, you need to make sure that the objects reflected in them won’t change.

John Engstrom: “When someone is wearing glasses and there are windows all around, we have to get rid of distracting reflections. If there’s lots of movement around the location that’s being reflected in all of those surfaces, sometimes we’ll just hang up black everywhere to take the environment out of the scene.”

There are three main ways you can modify reflections in your scene:

  • Remove reflective surfaces. If you’re able to plan ahead, keep reflectivity in mind when you’re selecting set elements. You can use lensless glasses for characters in dramatic scenes or make sure that any glasses-wearing people who are going to be on screen have anti-glare coatings on their specs. If there are reflective elements in a location shoot that don’t need to be there and can be moved, like a car or a bike, you can just take them out of the scene.
  • Adjust your lighting. If you’re lighting your scene and not just using available light, you may be able to modify reflections by adjusting the position of your lights or using modifiers on them. By using a modifier to change the way light is falling on the object that appears in the reflection, you’ll change the reflection it creates. You can tone down the intensity of a reflection by using a diffuser to bring the light level down on the object that appears in the reflection. You can also use a flag near your light to keep it from illuminating the object altogether.
  • Create reflections. To have the most control over how a reflection looks and be able to replicate it at different times and in different locations, you can create the reflection yourself. You do this by putting a modifier between the object that appears in the reflection and the reflective surface. The modifier itself will appear in the reflection, instead of the object.

You can use a light-toned diffuser surface to bounce a nondescript but relatively bright reflection onto a reflective surface, or you can use a black cloth or flag to create a darker, less obvious reflection. You can also use a modifier to suggest an environment that isn’t really there, by creating light reflections that resemble reflections of bright windows or dark reflections that resemble the horizon or a dark structure like a building.

John Engstrom: “We create fake reflections all the time. On a car, we’ll use negative fill. We’ll put 50 feet of four-foot Duvetyne up to create a horizon line on the car. You can’t just aim a light at a car like you can a person. You have to put things around the car and light those things.

We were shooting a woman on top of a four-foot mirror ball once. Talk about a disaster. Everything was so bright. They wanted the sky to reflect in it, but it was a gray day. We had to set up blue seamless cloth all the way around it, so that it would reflect into the mirrored ball. It was very tricky.”

After you’ve modified the reflections, meter them again take notes. Meter the objects that appear in the reflections, too, and make notes on your modifier setup. That way, you’ll be able to replicate the scene or the look of the lighting when you’re shooting at another time or in another location.
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Using Gels

Photographer Ab Sesay explains how to meter gelled light to get exposure and color saturation right, and how to use the Sekonic L-478 meter's built-in compensation calculator to make the process quick and simple.
Using gels can be tricky. Many complain about not being able to get proper saturation with them, for instance having a red gel looking light pink or magenta. A meter is an integral part of getting the color you want from your gels.

To get the proper color out of your gels, you want to first meter the light you intend to use without a gel in front of it. Next, place the gel over your light. Finally, to get the proper exposure, you will need to find out the proper exposure compensation, often listed on gel manufacturer Web sites as absorption.

For example, let’s say you’re using a Lee 027 gel that is a deep red and has an absorption value of 1.44 when using light with a color temperature of 6,774K. If you metered the light without that gel at f/11, you would want to set your exposure to f/7.1 if your camera is in third stops. If you try to meter the gelled light instead of trusting your meter’s reading and the compensation number, you will get f/2.8, which will result in a washed-out red.

Remember that when dealing with gels, the color of the subjects and the lights they mix with play a huge role in maintaining a gel’s color fidelity. White is the best color, as it has the ability to reflect all colors. Other colors may not reflect red, even though they are getting hit with red light, and thus deliver undesirable results.

For this series of shots, first the Profoto ZoomSpot was used to create the triangular shape on the wall. It was metered at f/8. I then wanted to fill in the shadows around the wall with a vibrant red. I set a Profoto Magnum Reflector just above and in the same line as the Profoto ZoomSpot. The Sekonic L-478 meter has a function that allows me to store the filter compensation associated with different gels. I dialed in the Lee 027 and metered the Magnum Reflector without the gel until it metered f/8. So in reality, it was set to around f/13. But I like to use the meter function because it can remember the desired filter compensation, and it does the math better than I do when not working in quarter or third stops. With this formula you will easily be able to cancel out a good deal of the red in the spotlight as well as on the model.

A few final thoughts on the pros and cons of this setup, which is shown in the diagram above:

Pros: With only two lights, this lighting scenario is relatively easy to set up.

Cons: Equipment for this setup is relatively expensive. Focused lights of this nature are not very efficient, so at full power from a distance of about 10 feet away, you only get to about f/8. When using Profoto ZoomSpots, you are also going to want to use a heavy-duty roller stand.

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White-Line and Black-Line Lighting

Dr. Glenn Rand demonstrates how to use lights, reflectors, flags, and mirrors to create precisely controlled shots of glass objects in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Lighting and Photographing Transparent and Translucent Surfaces.

This excerpt from Lighting and Photographing Transparent and Translucent Surfaces is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.





Reflection and transmission of light create the major lighting styles for glass. Though the effects of lighting glass may be seen in all areas of the glass, the two major forms of lighting glass—white-line and black-line lighting—are defined by the way the light is seen at the edge of the glass. It can be argued that all lighting of glass is one of these two types of lighting, or a combination of both.

If there is a bright light on the side and/or on the surfaces of the glass subject closest to the camera, then the lighting is known as a white-line lighting pattern. When the light passes through the glass, some of its intensity is absorbed by the glass, and there are no reflections on the camera-facing surfaces, a black-line lighting pattern is created. White-line and black-line lighting are seldom pure. Normally, part of the lighting will have one characteristic and other portions will reverse.

The two forms of lighting glass can provide different information about the glass. With attention paid to the edges of the glass, both give good definition of shape. The contour of the glass is the most important quality in defining the subject. Since both white-line and black-line techniques can render good contour, neither is superior for that use. There are, however, two critical differences in the way the lighting looks and how we can use it to meet our needs. We’ll address these in “Determining the Proper Approach.”


White-line lighting is based on reflections. Understanding the concepts involving reflections allows us to place varying amounts of reflection on specific parts of the surface of the glass, helping to show the volume and form of the glass.

Black-line lighting exists because the light is transmitting through the glass. Because it absorbs portions of the light, the glass acts as a filter, showing the color, density, and thickness of the glass. Unlike a white-line lighting pattern, a black-line pattern tends to flatten the visual space within the glass.


David Ruderman used pure black-line lighting to show the unique color of each bottle.


In this image, the concept is to show the various tones of each beer. To do this, a black-line lighting pattern was created by backlighting the glasses. The reflection from the waxed table projects the light up through the glasses toward the camera. Photograph by Joe Lavine.

Creating White-Line and Black-Line Images

There is only one controlling factor in determining which type of lighting shows on any portion of the glass—the background. A white-line effect is achieved when the reflection on the glass is brighter than the background. A black-line effect is achieved when the background is brighter than the reflections on the glass. In this case, the lighting pattern will show color, tone, and density. Note that “background” refers not only to a fabric or paper used behind the subject, but to any area to the rear of the glass or objects that can be seen behind the glass. It also refers to the amount of the light in the background, and not just the absolute reflectivity of the materials that appear in the image. If a white object behind the glass is unlit, then it is likely that white-line lighting will occur; a dark background with bright lighting may well create a black-line lighting effect.

A classic white-line image is created by placing a vertical fill card on either side and to the rear of the glass. Each card is separately lit, controlling the light so that none of the light shines directly on the glass. The farther back the cards are from the glass and the closer to tangent with the surface of the glass and the line from the camera to the cards, the closer the lines will appear to the edges of the glass. The narrower the cards and the farther they are from the glass, the thinner the line will appear. The intensity of the light on each card will change the intensity of the reflected line, and even if only one card is used, the internal reflections will make it appear that there are lines on both sides of the glass.

Creating a tight and dark light envelope with only a diffuse light surface directly behind the glass creates basic black-line images. If the lit panel receives light from the front, the light should be controlled to prevent direct light from shining on the glass. If the lit panel is too wide, it will create white lines on the edges of the glass and can cause added lens flare. To reduce reflections from the front surfaces, black matte cards (flags) are positioned to allow only a small space for the camera to view inside the light envelope. The exposure for black-line images is critical because the camera is facing a light source. If there is overexposure, the tone created by the density of the glass will be lost, and the dark lines on the edges will be weak.

Determining the Proper Approach

The lighting approach that will work best for your glass subject depends upon its qualities and features. As a general guideline, remember that white-line reflective effects on the subject’s outer surfaces can provide visual clues that help the viewer perceive the volume of the glass. In black-line lighting, light passing through the glass gives a good indication of outside contours and emphasizes colors or densities of the glass or transparent/translucent materials. By compositing two images of your subject—one taken using the white-line technique, one taken with the black-line technique—you can reap the benefits of both approaches and maximize your images. Though it can be accomplished with film, compositing images using an image-editing program’s layers feature simplifies the task. (This will be discussed in chapter 7.)

Case Studies

For the following examples the same basic subject arrangement has been used. This will allow the comparison of the difference between white- and black-line lighting. In each photo session, the primary consideration is the color of the glass. A white-line lighting pattern was used to photograph a clear glass, and a black-line approach was used to photograph a glass with a light colorant.

White Line. This example uses classic white-line lighting to accent the shape, volume, and the sandblasted decoration of the glass. Since the glass has no colorant, using the white-line approach will make the glass look clearer and cleaner. Adding a flower to the scene adds complexity since, if we are to add light on the camera side of the flower, we cannot use the same lighting that will be applied to the glass. Also, when light is applied to the flower, it can be difficult to keep specular reflections from appearing on the glass.

This photograph shows the classic white-line approach with a flower in the glass vase. The sandblasted design on the vase is a diffuse surface and therefore will spread and scatter the light in the light envelope to the camera. Glass used for this photograph was by Mary Marshall of Crystal Glass Studio in Carbondale, CO.


A white-line approach helped to define the shape of the vase and put light into the sandblasted areas while maintaining the contrast in these areas. Black Plexiglas was used to give a reflection of the glass toward the camera and to allow reflection of the lighting controls into the glass from below the glass. This allows for the white line to wrap around the bottom curve of the vase. A black background was used behind the subject to prevent unwanted highlights from appearing in the glass.

The classic white-line lighting was created using tall, thin fill cards on each side of the glass. Each fill was positioned behind the glass in relation to the camera and lit with a spotlight that was controlled to avoid direct light reaching the vase. The left-side fill card was given more by positioning a light closer than a card. This created the differential in the light intensities on each side of the glass. Since the background is black and the vase is placed on black Plexiglas, the reflections (the white lines) in all parts are bright. The left-side highlight was metered using a spot meter. The aperture was opened up three stops, to set the reflection as white.

Flags were placed and angled away from the camera on both sides to keep reflections from appearing on the front surfaces of the vase.

Finally, the flower was lit separately to prevent additional light from reaching the glass. The flag on the flower’s spotlight was used to focus light on the flower and keep it from falling on the vase. The spotlight on the flower was repositioned to equal the exposure needed to set the white lines. An incident meter was positioned at the flower and pointed at the spotlight used to illuminate the flower.


Black Line. The black-line lighting approach was used to accent the glass’s color, and specular highlights accented the textural decoration. As in the previous example, the flower adds a second level of complexity and will be handled in a similar manner as in the discussion of white-line lighting. Unlike the classic white-line example, specular highlights and surface reflections were added on the glass.

The black-line technique was used to show the color of the glass. The shape is defined by reflections on the flat surfaces, and accents were created with specular light. Photograph by Glenn Rand.


The overall black line effect is created by the large white surface behind the glass. For a consistent look, black Plexiglas was used here, as it was in the white-line example. The Plexiglas has a polished rear edge to soften the reflection and eliminate a sharp line. With limited depth of focus, the back edge will soften further. The camera is positioned low to move the line across the back into the patterned area of the glass.

The background is brightly lit with falloff at the top ensuring even light behind the subject to create the overall black-line treatment of the glass. Exposure is determined by taking a spot meter reading through the glass and opening up one stop to give the glass a lighter tone. This will allow us to show controlled reflections, and specular accents allow the viewer to perceive density differences in the glass.

A large white fill card was positioned to reflect light into the left plane of the glass, and a spotlight was shone on the card. The intensity was adjusted to give a slight reflection on the glass that would not mask the color of the glass.

A tall, thin white card was placed on the right side to create a slight reflection. No additional light was used on this card. Without extra light on this card its intensity will be less than the large fill card on the left side of the set. Because this card is receiving less light, its reflection will be less powerful on the right side, accenting the corner shape of the glass.

To produce the specular accents on the modeled portion of the glass, a mirror was placed in the beam of the spotlight on the left side of the set. The mirror was aimed upward so that the shadow pattern created by this light source would not be seen in the image. Because the surface of the glass catching the light from the mirror was flat, any light reflecting from the surface went to the ceiling above the set, not toward the camera.

Here, a small spotlight was shown on the flowers. A gobo was used to ensure that no light from this spotlight would show on the glass. An incident light meter was used to measure the light at the flowers, and the light was moved to a distance to match the exposure for the black line.

Combining Line Effects. The photograph below illustrates the use of black-line technique to show the colored glass and white line, diffractions, and reflections to accent the edges of the fins of the glass fish to bring out the dichroic color of the fins.

Glass fish by Mary Marshall of Crystal Glass Studio in Carbondale, CO. Photograph by Glenn Rand and Mary Ehmann.


The photograph was made in a totally darkened studio. A dark-gray seamless backdrop was set up with about a sixfoot sweep from the subject to the vertical back.

A spotlight was focused to form an oval of light on the background. The shape was controlled so that the top edge of the light pattern would fall off aligned with the fins’ shape. Even though the backdrop was dark gray, the intensity of the light was strong enough to record as very light gray during exposure. The light gray background light pattern will allow a black-line treatment for the colored glass. If the background were black, it would not allow enough reflection of the spotlight to see the color of the glass. If the background were white, the falloff would not be great enough to accent the edges of the fins.

A spotlight was aimed at a long, white fill card above and in front of the glass fish. This reflected light off of the top fin, showing off its dichroic glass and creating front/top white-line effects. With the light pattern on the background aligned with the top edge of the glassware, it provided a strong white-line effect for the top fin. The spotlight was feathered to create falloff on the white card so that the card was brighter toward the rear of the fin. The varied light created better color in the dichroic glass. A second spotlight was aimed at another white fill card positioned below on the camera side of the glass. The card was positioned so that the light would be brighter and closer to the fish’s mouth. This was used to create reflections on the bottom details of the fish. Since the intensities of the reflections were brighter than the background light pattern, they show as white lines and reflect off the silvered mouth.


Bob Coscarelli produced this image using a common trick to accomplish the black-line effect for the color of the perfume and the white-line effect for the facets of the bottle and stopper. Gold foil cut to the shape of the bottle was placed between the bottle and blue background. The allowed light to reflect back through perfume, showing its color and creating the dark patterns. At the same time, the perfume and background are darker than the reflections on some of the facets of the bottle allowing the bright reflections.


The glass at the rear of the image was backlit showing the color of the beverage. This is a black-line pattern. Front light was added to illuminate the label and to create a white-line effect on the condensation on the bottle. A small light was brought through the bottle, and because of the dark color of the glass, the glow in the bottle is weak. Photograph by Joe Lavine.


This approach uses a basic black-line technique with the Tiffany glass lit by a lightbulb from behind. Photograph by Douglas Dubler.

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Pro Digital Portrait Lighting: Mixed Light Levels

Learn how slight changes in your two-light setup will affect the look of your portrait subjects with this selection of lighting diagrams and images from Peter Hince's Pixiq book, Pro Digital Portrait Lighting.

This excerpt from Pro Digital Portrait Lighting: The Definitive Reference to Lighting Setups is provided courtesy of Pixiq. To purchase the book, visit the Barnes & Noble website.

If you’re using continuous light sources for your portrait photographs—tungsten lighting, or daylight-balanced fluorescent lights, for example—then controlling how much power they output will depend entirely on the specific lighting model. Some will allow you to vary the output, perhaps by illuminating fewer tubes in a fluorescent lightbank to reduce the intensity, while others might not have any control, so moving them closer to or further from the subject will be the only way that you can control the light.

With flash lighting, however, there is often much greater control over the power output. Studio strobes may offer a range from full power down to an output of 1/32 (or lower) of their maximum strength. In a confined studio space, being able to control the flash output in this way is particularly beneficial, as it means you can get the look you want from your lights, as well as the intensity of light you need to shoot at your chosen aperture. In this section we’ll look at just how simply changing the output of your lights can transform your lighting setups.

Light 1 (Full): From 0°

Light 2 (2 Stops Below): From 30° Right

When you are using two lights at different power settings, you basically have one main light source (your “key” light) that is providing the overall illumination, and a second (“fill”) light that is there to lighten shadows. As you saw earlier, a low-cost alternative to a fill light is a reflector.

Light 1 (Full): From 0° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 60° Right

With the main light set at full power, directly in front of the subject, and the fill light at a 60-degree angle, outputting two stops less light, the left side of the model’s face is subtly lighter than the right side, preventing the portrait from looking overly flat.

Light 1 (Full): From 30° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 30° Right

Both lights have been positioned at a 30-degree angle, but the main light to the left of the camera is two stops brighter than the fill light to the right. The different power settings avoid the face being evenly lit.

Light 1 (Full): From 30° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 60° Right

In this setup, the main light is close to the camera, with the fill light coming in from a 60-degree angle. This gently lightens the shadows that would otherwise be caused if you were using a single light.

Light 1 (Full): From 60° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 30° Right

As the main light is moved further away from the camera, the effect of the fill light is made more apparent as it illuminates the left side of the model’s face and prevents it falling into heavy shadow. This is especially effective when the subject is against a dark background.

Light 1 (Full): From 60° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 60° Right

In this symmetrical setup, both lights are coming from a 60-degree angle, but the weaker output of the fill prevents the lighting arrangement from creating an overly flat image. The contrast between the two sides of the face creates a distinct three-dimensional look.

Light 1 (Full): From 90° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 30° Right

With the main light at a 90-degree angle to the camera, it largely illuminates the side of the model’s face and nose. The weaker fill light (set at two stops less power than the main light) lifts the shadows sufficiently to reveal the subject’s facial features, even against a dark background.

Light 1 (Full): From 90° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 60° Right

If you compare this setup to that on pages 112–113 (where the lights are in identical positions), you can see how using two lights at different strengths can create an entirely different look: where the previous setup delivers a bright, relatively evenly lit portrait, here the look is more sculptural.

Light 1 (Full): From 90° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 90° Right

As you have seen previously, two opposing lights set either side of the subject will invariably produce a shaded band down the center of your subject’s face. Limiting the power of one of the lamps also darkens one side of the face, reducing the symmetry of the lighting.

Light 1 (Full): From 30° Left

Light 2 (4
Stops Below): From 30° Right

Compare this setup to that shown on pages 218–219. The lights are in identical positions, but in this arrangement the power of the fill light has been reduced, so it is now four stops lower than the main light. The shadows are still lifted, but the overall contrast in the face is heightened.

Light 1 (Full): From 30° Left

Light 2 (4
Stops Below): From 60° Right

Again, the fill light is set at four stops less than the main light, meaning the shadow areas created by the main light, although filled, remain fairly dark. Increasing the contrast between the two lights is especially effective when you’re shooting black and white.

Light 1 (Full): From 60° Left

Light 2 (4
Stops Below): From 60° Right

Although the fill light is set four stops lower than the main light, its angle to the subject still produces a bright catchlight in the model’s darker (left) eye. The less-powerful fill also creates some much-needed contrast in what would otherwise be an evenly lit portrait.

Light 1 (Full): From 90° Left

Light 2 (4
Stops Below): From 90° Right

Another symmetrical lighting setup, but two lights set to output different power settings avoid the mirrored lighting effect seen on pages 114–115. However, the distinct shadows around the eyes and cheeks created by the opposed lights remains, as does the dark central “stripe.”

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The Separation Light

How do you highlight or play down specific areas of portrait subjects and make sure that dark hair doesn't merge with the background? Jeff Smith explains how to set up and meter separation lights in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Corrective Lighting, Posing, and Retouching for Digital Portrait Photographers.

This excerpt from Corrective Lighting, Posing, and Retouching for Digital Portrait Photographers is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.





Accent and/or separation lights become more important with corrective lighting. Because we use darkness/shadow to our clients' benefit, we must use small, controllable light sources to highlight only the areas we want the viewer to see. We often light a three-quarter or full-length portrait as a head-and-shoulders portrait (with our main light and reflector for fill), then use accent/separation lights to selectively illuminate the rest of the body. This gives us, as photographers, complete control over the outcome of the final image—and gives our clients a final portrait their egos can handle.

In almost all portraits, we use a small strip light overhead as a hair light. Since this light is aimed back toward the camera, it meters one stop less than the main light and yet provides a soft highlight on the top of the subject’s hair and shoulders.
Use separation light to accent only the parts of the client you want to draw attention to. Three variations are shown here, with separation light on the lower body (left), upper body (center), and head and shoulders (right).

For clients with long hair, we use two lights behind the subject. Each is placed at a 45-degree angle to the subject. These lights are set to meter at the same reading as the main light for blond hair or lighter clothing, or to one stop more than the main light reading for black hair and clothing. These accent lights are also fitted with barndoors to keep the light from hitting an area of the subject we don’t want to illuminate.

The idea is that you don’t want to see a perfect outline of the body in a problem area. For very heavy people, you don’t want to see an outline of the body at all. With the background light low and the subject standing in dark clothes against a dark background, you separate the hips and thighs (the same hips and thighs you know your client will worry about looking large). Raising the background light to waist height will separate the waistline and chest, making them more noticeable. Elevate the separation light to the height of the shoulders, and only the head and shoulders will be separated, leaving the body to blend with the background.

The greater the intensity of the background light, the more attention it draws to whatever part of the body it is separating—unless the subject is wearing lighter-colored clothing. Often a client will select a dark background and want to wear lighter-colored clothing with it. In this situation, by increasing the background light to match the brighter tone of the outfit, you will actually lessen the attention drawn to this area. By coordinating the tone of the clothes and the background (whether dark on dark or light on light), you can bring the focus of the portrait away from the person’s body and to his or her face. If, on the other hand, you create contrast between the clothing and background, you will attract attention to the subject’s body.

By coordinating the tone of the clothes and the background, you can bring the focus of the portrait away from the person’s body and to his or her face.

When the client’s clothes contrast with the background, it calls attention to the shape of the body.

Whenever weight is an issue and the subject has long hair, we leave the background as dark as possible and put a light directly behind the subject, facing toward the camera, to give the hair an intense rim light all around the edges. This draws the attention directly to the facial area and keeps the viewer’s eye away from the shoulders, arms, and upper body.

The number-one complaint from clients with dark hair is that in many previous portraits, they seemed to blend into the background. Adding accent lights angled back toward the camera eliminates this problem by creating a rim of highlights around the hair.

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