January 16, 2011
by VideoMaker Magazine, Terry O’Rourke
Learning to light products for video starts with learning how to “see” light and how it reacts to subjects. Light is to a photographer as paint is to an artist.
Full-bodied and complex. Golden in color with enticing aromas of nutmeg and gardenia. Deep, concentrated fruit flavors, interesting mineral complexity and a long, soothing honey-like finish. Yep, there it stands: a simple bottle of wine filled with some of the finest extracts and ferments from that ever-so-wonderful fruit, the grape. But there’s a problem: you don’t have a clue how to light this bottle and associated bottle opener in such a way as to liberate that delicate color and gentle nuance that your client has so lovingly described!
Where do you start? You tried the 100-watt overhead lamp usually reserved for interrogating your 10-year-old when he blasts a baseball through the window. You ended up with a teal green wine with a delicate splash of “black hole” shadows. Then came the kitchen fluorescents, and all you got were reflections resembling a blur of white noise. OK. That was bad, but not nearly as bad as the hot 500-watt bulb from your light kit that nearly set the whole place on fire!
Light – the most basic of all things natural, yet somehow it seems to mystify so many imaging professionals. Think about it: everything you see and every item you touch is a three-dimensional, physical “thing.” And that “thing” reflects back light so your eye can see it. That is the key to lighting: understanding that “items reflect back light” and your job as an imaging professional is to capture “light.”
Inspired by the Light
In the process of capturing light, you can choose to struggle with it, give up and just get the footage; put a couple of lights up and just get the footage; or you can allow that physical thing and how it reflects light to inspire you – to shape your ideas about lighting. It matters not whether your light is from the sun, an artificial source or a mixture of both. It is your job to work with light, to shape it, to fit each lighting situation to your needs, to take advantage of it and make your imagery the best it can be.
It all starts with learning how to “see” light and recognize how light reacts with various subjects and how your camera reacts with light. Just as a painter carefully applies his paint to the canvas, a photographer or videographer applies light to his set.
Think back to those times when you woke up to a beautiful spring morning with sunlight dappled through the fresh leaves and the dew on the ground delicately lit by the sunlight skimming across the surface. Or how about that gorgeous atrium in the front entrance of some office or shopping complex you last visited? Remember that beautiful lighting, where everything was just so wonderful and clearly defined? You can easily recreate that lighting right in the comfort of your own home or studio. Or you can take your show on the road and recreate any lighting situation you or your client desires, so long as you follow a few simple rules. Rules! You say, “I don’t like rules!” That’s why I became a videographer! Yeah, yeah, I know, but there are rules in lighting that one should be aware of, that one should respect, lest one become a victim of those rules each time one shoots.
The Rules of the Light:
- The smaller the light source, the harsher the light.
- The larger the light source, the softer the light.
- The farther the light source is from the subject, the “smaller” it becomes (relative to the subject).
- The closer the light source is to the subject, the “larger” it becomes (relative to the subject).
- Lighter subject values reflect back more light than darker subjects do.
- The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflectance.
I know what you’re thinking “What? I get the first five, but that last one is a bit… well…?” We’ll start with the first rules and work our way up to that last one, because it holds the key to your successful understanding of light.
The smaller the light source, the harsher the light.
If you hold your hand in direct sunlight, you will notice harsh shadows, which reveal texture on your hand quite nicely. The same is true for any pinpoint light source, such as an incandescent light bulb or hot video light. If the light source is very small, such as a bulb from a hot light or direct sunlight, it really does not “wrap” around the subject, because it comes from only one acute or pinpoint angle. This would be perfect lighting if you were asked to simulate a desert scene by shooting a few rocks in a sandy field. You would end up with well-defined, harsh shadows. The lower the angle of your light, the longer your shadows would be and the greater the texture of the rocks and sand. But the shadows would show very little detail.
The larger the light source, the softer the light.
If you move your hand over to a wall that is reflecting that sunlight or reflecting that pinpoint light source, you will notice how the harsh shadows smooth out, revealing more shadow detail and less texture. The reflected light source just became larger, and it now wraps the light around your hand, filling the shadows and softening the texture. The light is reflecting from many angles, and that allows it to wrap around the subject. This lighting would be good if you were to simulate an overcast desert scene showing the rocks and sand with softer shadows. You could still have the light coming from a lower angle, but the light would still wrap around the sand and rocks and the shadows would have some details.
The farther the light source is from the subject, the “smaller” it becomes (relative to the subject).
Well, you can’t get much farther away than the sun… and, if you think about it, the sun is really, really big. So what gives? You have the largest light source around and still pretty harsh shadows. That’s because it is so far away, and that makes it a really small light source.
The closer the light source is to the subject, the “larger” it becomes (relative to the subject).
You can’t move any closer to the sun, but you can move closer to any artificial light source you might have created. OK, so just move closer to your hot lights… yeah… that’s how you nearly set everything ablaze!
Rules three and four might still not mean much to you, but we’ll soon learn how to use them in a real-life situation. When you moved your hand close to the wall that was reflecting your pinpoint light source, what you did was create a larger light source that came from many angles and that allowed the light to wrap around your hand. You can manipulate the size of the light source by moving closer to your light source or modifying it. We already know what happens if we try to move closer to the sun, and the hot lights for that matter, but what happens if we try to modify that light, to make it appear larger?
Diffuse the Light
We already tried reflecting it, and the results were pretty good. But how about diffusing it? If you think about it, the wall was simply diffusing the light source, wasn’t it? The atrium I mentioned earlier was a big diffuser, with the light from the sun and the sky reflecting all over the place, creating wonderful soft light with beautiful qualities that revealed deep color and soft, appealing details. So, what’s the best way to diffuse your light? With a diffuser, of course! But a pro wouldn’t call it a “diffuser”… you’d just embarrass yourself. You would call it a scrim, and you can find them just about anywhere you look. The skylight at the top of the atrium may have been fashioned from a diffusing material. The drapes on your windows have diffusing qualities, and the opaque glass in your powder room is a diffuser. They are all incredible sources of inspiration, but not practical scrims to carry around.
There are several types of scrims, but we are only going to talk about simple fabric ones. There are three basic styles: umbrellas, softboxes and flat scrims. They all accomplish the same task and differ mainly by how they are assembled and the “reflection” they produce. The advantage of umbrellas is their setup speed, ease of transport and cost. They are excellent for fast shooting where lighting must be compromised due to budget or time restraints. The reflections produced by umbrellas are difficult to manage and frequently show the “bones” inside, which usually isn’t good for products. Softboxes are a bit slower to set up and require more room, but they offer better lighting control and better reflections than umbrellas. Scrims are slow to set up, require the most equipment and require more floor space than either umbrellas or softboxes, but they offer the most lighting control. You can set up umbrellas or soft boxes with only one light stand, whereas one scrim requires three stands: one for the light and two for the scrim.
The Right Angle
So, there you are with your camera, a wine bottle, a bottle opener and a client who expects perfection, which, after all is what his product is all about. What do you do?
Step One: pick your camera angle. This is where 90% of budding photographers/videographers go wrong! They set up their tripod, usually at the highest point or eye level, and they start to shoot. Each product demands a camera angle that best shows off its qualities, so you need to study what angle makes things looks good. Some things need a low angle and some a higher one. Your camera angle determines your lighting (rule #6), because where your camera stands affects how your camera “sees” the lighting. Once you have your camera position, you can start to set up your lighting.
The three basic terms for lights are main, key and fill. The main, as its name implies is your main light. It determines the overall lighting but not necessarily the type of lighting. The key light is the “money” light: it makes or breaks your lighting. The fill is just that: it fills in shadows.
With our wine bottle, the client wants a nice lifestyle shot that conveys the look of a tasting room in spring, so we will have a nice large main light from above. We are setting it from above to minimize any reflections the glass will produce. The reason for a larger main is that we want to make the set appear as though it’s in a window-lit tasting room (just like the atrium shot we talked about). This is a 5′ x 6′ scrim about 3 feet above the bottle, with one light from above at about 5 feet from the scrim. It is very close to the set and provides lots of “wraparound” lighting. We made this scrim with synthetic drapery liner from the local fabric store. Synthetic drapery liner is very thin and creates nice highlights, but it allows too much of the actual light to reflect through. So we would not use it where its reflections would show.
We want a bit of “sunlight” to splash through those “expensive windows,” so we are going to put a small key just above the set and to the left of camera. This key is a 2′-square, standard softbox, about five feet from the set. It’s far away, so it looks like filtered sunlight, but not so far as to create a pinpoint light. The whole set needs a fill light, but, in order to fill in the lighting and create nice reflections, we need to move it to a place where it will look natural and not overwhelm or compete with the label (again, rule #6). We place it just to the right of the camera. This is a 5′ x 6′ scrim with a 2′ black fabric right through the middle to create a window look. The light is about six feet behind the scrim and closer to the right side than the middle. We made this scrim of taffeta, also from the local fabric store. It is much denser than the drapery liner and therefore produces very nice reflections in the glass. The black fabric is simple rip-stop; we placed it to create a “shadow” or “minus reflection” just right of the logo. Without it, the reflection would be too big and overwhelming.
Now, everything looks good but that bottle opener. It’s too dark (rule #5). This is where you earn your money. Yep, the dark wood of the handle is just about as dark as can be, so we need a special little light just for that. But it needs to look natural, not contrived, and it cannot contaminate the rest of the set. It also should look like it came from the same direction as the key light. This little light is a raw light (no modifiers or scrims), but everything gets blasted on the set. If you look at the picture, you can see the little shadows under it; they tell you that the light is directly above the set. It’s there so it won’t reflect in the glass, but that placement is what created the “blasted” look, so we need to flag it with something. We made an aluminum sheet metal flag from painted aluminum roofing flashing. We placed this around the light, shielding most of the set from that light source. I mention “most” of the set, because we allowed some of that raw light to spill into the back of the set to create a more direct “sunny” fill on the background.
It all sounds a bit complicated, but it really isn’t if you approach it one light at a time, just as this article is laid out one light at a time. You light product shots just as you might build a deck, a house or even a large building. You visualize just how you want things to look, put in the foundation first and build from there. Just as an architect might study every nice building he comes across, you as a professional videographer should study any nice lighting you come across. With practice, you become familiar with lighting, and the best place to start is by looking around your surroundings, by noticing especially nice lighting provided by nature and by understanding how that lighting is created.
Terry O’Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients world wide.