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Lesson Six: Ambient light -vs- Made light.

Happy Holidays to everyone!

Let’s talk about Ambient light,
because made light should explain itself, it’s light we make with big or little studio lights. Lights we turn on and off quickly as we take a photo.

But Ambient light is always on, it’s your desk-lamp in the corner, the sun coming through the window, or the moon. It’s the screen on your phone or tv, it’s car lights and lightning.  Streetlights and buildings, stars and fire are all examples of ambient light.  Ambient light is unforgiving, usually out of your control, and mostly ever changing without notice. That’s sometimes all the fun of photography and other times it’s the most frustrating part. But we learn to compensate with our made light and we find a common ground when we need to.

Natural ambient light is comfortable to look at because it’s the light we see things in everyday, while being dramatic at sunrise and sunset.
Whereas made light can be dramatic at any time with the right knowledge, and soft and subtle with the right control.

In this lesson I’ll show an example shoot that calls for particular attention to detail to get the right presentation.
We will use every trick in our photography arsenal to nail the correct exposure using:  Two Nikon speed-lights as well as ambient light.

Let’s discuss the needs of the shot:
I want to show off my phone  (not really but let’s pretend) and it’s great screen, sleek design, shiny appearance.
I want it to look clean and professional, without distraction, and perfectly lit.

The obvious distraction in any subject oriented photo is the background. In this project we will use high contrast to create a solid white background.
Overexposing the background to extreme white,  eliminates any data in these  “blown out” areas.  Giving a professional look that has zero distraction and is easy to mask out in photoshop for product placement.

There are two ways to achieve a blown out white background in studio.  One way is to use a piece of seamless paper background and overexpose from top to bottom, the entire area behind the subject.  As in the example photos below I shot for a company I work with. These are watermarked, but are unedited and came out of the camera looking this clean with pure white backgrounds.

But for this shot I want to include some texture (the hacky sack that is holding the phone)  to allow for an idea of lighting on porous surfaces as well as reflective surfaces.
So I am going to use a softbox as my background and point it directly into the camera from behind my object.
(I will cover surface textures and their light properties in the near future)

As for other distractions, you can see my phone has a lot of shiny edges and the entire screen itself is a big mirror.  A dull mirror, but given the right angle I could easily see: myself, the camera or anything behind the camera. When the phone is rotated to the left or right, the camera goes out of view in the phones reflection.  In product photography involving reflective objects such as watches, glassware, silverware… precise management of light angles and camera placement in mandatory. Below is a standard diagram showing the setup we will use to create this shot.

Things to consider when looking at the setup are:
~  The light inside the umbrella at camera left will cause a glare on the camera lens an needs a GOBO to shade the lens.  A GOBO is anything that will block light from entering your camera lens.  If you don’t have a stand for a GOBO, use can just use your camera’s lens hood.
~  The camera is in the vertical position, or Portrait position. since the subject is tall and fits that framing naturally.
~  I’m using a waist high guitar stool with a round top.  Consider working at a height that is comfortable as you might spend long periods at one setup.   Also, since you can’t work in the dark, you should setup in an area where the ambient room lights won’t cause you any harm.
~  Lights inside of softboxes point backwards to disperse light best. They loose a few stops of power as a result of this. Also a stop or two is lost as the light passes through the translucent sheeting of the softbox. This happens with shoot-through umbrellas too. You also loose some power as light falling outside the umbrella drifts of into nowhere. A softbox holds light inside, using the power more efficiently.

To find the correct exposure for a setup like this, we have to consider the needs of the photo and adjust the camera and light settings at our disposal to suit those needs. At the same time we have to find our Balance between the two speedlights, the ambient room lights, the ambient screen of the phone.

Looking at the needs of the photo: ~ It has to be very detailed and in pure focus.  ~ SO = We use a depth of field (DOF) theat has a good amount of depth (f 8 – f 11+)
~ It should have good clear resolution and we want to start out with our best file quality.  ~ SO = we set our iso low ~ (iso 200)
~  We want to see the phones screen in the photo. ~ SO = We need a longer shutter speed, this always depend on the amount of ambient. (Just start somewhere below 1/250th sec (because your camera or trigger’s sync speed is probably 1/250th sec, but check your manual)
~  We want to present the phone “as is”.  ~ SO = We make sure to use a focal length above 35mm, otherwise the distortion of the wider lenses  will balloon the straight lines and dimensions of the phone.

Once these considerations are met, we start to play with the finer details.

Lets look at a test shot to see how it looks with these settings:  iso: 400 ~  f /5.6  ~  1/250th  ~  62mm ~   (no umbrella light)  ~  Softbox at 1/64 power.

We need to start somewhere and this shot tells us we have almost killed the ambient light from the ceiling lamps (working light) a faint glow of light on the stool and a small highlight on the top right corner of the phone still exist with these settings.
Bumping down to iso: 200 will get rid of that remaining ambient on the phone and stool. The DOF is a bit shallow, going up to f /8 was the obvious choice.
After settling on iso: 200 and f/8 , I turned on the phone’s screen and ran an app so the phone would stay on while I worked with it.
A shutter speed of  1/2 of a second was needed to correctly expose the  screen from the distance the camera was setup from the phone, as light falls off over distance; and the phone throws off a very small amount of light as far as power goes.

Lighting our scene is the next step and takes playing with light levels and positions until a perfect mix is found.

Lets have a look at how these lights affect the photo:
Play around with the light buttons on the Flash movie and see how light changes the look of the phone as you turn them on and off.

In the end we have with both lights on;  an effective photo that shows the contours and features of the phone while keeping distraction to a minimum.
The ambient light has been tamed and used in the photo to provide a realistic look.
The backlight is balanced and provides the clean professional look desired, and the detail light (umbrella) accents the finer points of the phone, without creating distracting glows, reflections or shines.  “specularity” and “refraction” is in control.

So through proper planning and careful tweaking, using our knowledge of light and our camera:  A perfect success.

Stay tuned for lesson 7 and feel free to suggest lesson topics, pose questions or comment below, and share these lessons with your friends and family.


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