Creative Lighting: Capturing Highlights

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

Now we turn our attention to the third and final component of creative lighting: highlights and reflections. Obviously, you will need a reflective or transparent surface like a wine glass, cologne bottle, sunglasses, vase, or kitchen utensils. The tricky part about shooting a subject like this is that you need to define its shape and reveal its details without blowing out the highlights or causing any undesired reflections. It’s a tall order for sure, but once you get the hang of it you will be more attentive to the fine details of an image and your photography will improve because of it.

For the next series, I had a particular image in mind that I wanted to capture. I wanted the image to have a dark feeling overall, yet a rich, regal boldness to it. (These are the sort of useless guidelines you get when someone tries to verbally describe something visual =) That being said, I knew in my head what I wanted, and I set out to capture it. I started with a black floor and background, and a single key light.

Fill/Key Light only.

For starters, the glass looks flat and formless. The wine (which is really just water and red food coloring) looks cloudy and black at the top, and the glass is riddled with ugly reflections and glaring highlights. Clearly a strong key light won’t work, so I turned it off and took another photo using only a backlight shining on the background.

Backlight only. Shining on background (no direct light).

Now we’re getting closer. It’s still a little too dark; there’s not much color in the wine, but at least it’s not suffering from terrible highlights and reflections now. From here, I took a series of images that combined the backlight with the fill light. I had more success in the latter half of the images where I used a reflector to bounce more light at the glass without blowing out the highlights. The last couple images are close to what I wanted, but not quite it. View as slideshow.

Backlight. Fill Light side, level, very close.Backlight. Fill Light behind, level, medium distance.Backlight. Fill Light directly above (halo).Backlight. Fill Light behind, close, level. -1.5EVBacklight. Fill light pointed at subject. Directly above lens.

Backlight. Fill light pointed at subject. Side, level, medium distance.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector in front, slightly right, very close.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector above, side, right, close.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector above, behind, right, far.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector right, level, close.

After all this, I decided that the best way to get what I was aiming for was to use a white floor and background. This means that my environment will now work as a reflector, so I shouldn’t even need any fill light. Sure enough, I changed my setup from black (below left) to white (below right), and then captured the following image right away.

Black background setup. White background setup.

Backlight only. White background. No direct light.

I also did a similar shot with a cologne bottle, but this time I wanted to emphasize the importance of White Balance. The only thing that changed in the following images was the WB.

White Balance 2357KWhite Balance 2706KWhite Balance 3191KWhite Balance 4381K

Don’t overlook the importance of color in your photos. Particularly when you’re using desk lamps the Auto WB setting on your camera will likely give the image a yellow-orange tone.

For my final example, I chose to shoot an old hard drive that I dismantled. I was amazed at how reflective the disks were –just like a mirror! I knew this would add another layer of difficulty, so I pulled together everything I knew to capture the following images. View as slideshow.

Key Light above, left, medium distance.Key Light above, almost front, medium distance.Key Light directly above (halo).Key Light directly behind.Key Light bounced off ceiling, front, left. Fill light above, right.

The biggest difference for this one was adding a “ceiling” to the environment. Since the disks were so reflective I was seeing the ceiling of my room in the reflection. The picture below shows that I suspended the second piece of foam-core as a ceiling to ensure that the reflections were smooth and free of distractions.

As you can see, the game changes quite a bit when you start shooting transparent or reflective surfaces. Backlighting no longer produces only a rim of light around your subject, but it can illuminate the body of it. Bounced lighting can do more than simply reveal detail, it can serve as the main light source in the scene.

To sum it up: Shadows provide form and shape to the subject. Fill Light reveals its details and texture. And Highlights bring it to life. All of these aspects are controlled in three-point lighting. What I’ve done here is simply isolate each one and then observe how they all fit together.

Continue to Part IV: Advanced Techniques, and Lessons Learned.

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