Thursday, December 24, 2009

Reverse Engineer the Light

(photo above by Dan Winters)

One of the things I enjoy most about photography is learning different techniques. One of the ways to accomplish this, is to find works by other people you enjoy, and try to duplicate them. I'm not saying try to blatantly copy another person's work and pass it off as your own, but by trying to duplicate works that you appreciate, you can learn new techniques and can save them for when you want to try something different.

Reverse engineering a photo is a very clever way of learning new techniques, especially with lit portraits. Some photographers are very skilled at creating subtle lighting setups to flatter their subjects. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of people like Dan Winters, Gregory Heisler, Joe McNally and the likes.

Lit portraits by these guys can be very hard to decipher but with a little practice and trial and error through your own work, you can become very adept at figuring out various lighting setups which will in turn, give you valuable information for lighting your own portraits.

The portrait above of Tom Hanks was taken by the very talented Dan Winters, a notable and famous portrait photographer. He has taken portraits of many well known actors and figures and is known for his ability to create very sophisticated light on his subjects that doesn't call attention to itself. This portrait was part of a lengthy discussion on the Flickr Strobist group about how it was lit. After I offered my opinion on how i thought it was done, I decided to set about re-creating it to see how accurate my own perception of his lighting technqiue was.

Looking at the portrait above, the first thing I decided to figure out was his background. It is definitely lit separately than the subject and has a nice gradient (fall-off) from bottom to top. To accomplish this, I used an SB-600 with a Stofen diffuser, about 2 feet away from the background and pointed slightly upwards.  I knew by using the diffuser it would give me more of a spread out light and by placing it in close, I knew it would create the gradient I wanted.  This light was at 1/4 power.

Now on to the harder stuff.  Man oh man did this shot give me fits and while I will admit that my finished portrait is not quite like Dan Winters' I feel its pretty close and I really liked the finish result.

So how to trouble shoot the main light(s)... well, in any lit portrait, the first thing I do is look for the shadows and catch lights in the eyes.  These two things can tell you a lot about the lighting used, including the quality of the light (hard or soft) and the direction of the light, two very important components.  So if you look at the shadows on the subject's nose, you can see two distinct shadows, one soft shadow at the bottom of his nose at about 7 o'clock, and another slightly harder shadow coming off his nose at about 9 o'clock.  This would appear to me that two light sources were used, one slightly harder than the other.  Also you will notice that the shadow on the lapels of his jacket are quite hard.  This honestly left me baffled as to how there could be a soft and hard shadow on his nose and a harder shadow on the jacket.

I know that Dan Winters will frequently use ring lights in his portraits to fill shadow areas but I couldn't tell if that was the case in this particular portrait, and furthermore I don't own a ring flash so I had to try to come up with another solution.  Also you will notice a slight highlight on the subject's right ear (camera left).  That could either be from the a ring flash fill or from a reflector.

On to my lighting solution... I decided to use a Lumiquest SBIII with a Nikon SB-800 in close and up high at 45 degrees almost immediately to my left (camera right) and angled down.  I wanted this to duplicate the 7 o'clock shadow on the subject's nose and on the lapels of his jacket.  Since this was a fill light and not my key I dialed the power down to 1/32 and took a test shot.  This was giving me just enough light to get the result I was looking for.

Now for that glorious spot of light on the subject's face.  I'm still not sure how Dan Winters did this, but I decided a grid or a snoot would have to be my solution.  I took another SB-800 and opted for the snoot, placed it camera right and pointed it towards where my face was going to be.  Since this was a self portrait and me not shooting someone else, I had to take many test shots before I got the light right where I wanted it.  After looking at my results, I decided this light was simply too hard on my face, so the next question was, how to soften it?  I thought of putting tissue paper over the end of the snoot, but then I had (what I like to think of as) a stroke of genius!  Why not put a white shoot thru umbrella in front of it?  I had never tried this before but thought it would give me the look I was after, a spot of light with soft edges but still yet defined.  This light was at 1/8 power.

Bingo!  That was the ticket, it took a few shots to get everything lined up but I also noticed that by using the umbrella with the snoot, I was actually getting a little more frontal fill which brightened the shot up just a teeny bit ...which was nice.  I tried using the zoom feature on the speedlight and choking it up on the umbrella, but the spot wasn't very defined with either attempt and went back to the snoot and the umbrella.  This gave me the look I was after.

For that little bit of light on the subject's right ear (camera left) I used a silver reflector in very close.  It picked up the light from my umbrella/snoot combo and a little from my fill light (both camera right).

Below is my version of the portrait above and while I will be the first to admit, it is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing to me as Mr. Winters' is, I still liked the result and learned a new lighting trick to boot!

Self Portrait No. 42 a-la Dan Winters

In Photoshop, I adjusted the color tones a bit to more closely match those of the original portrait.  However I discovered that since I'm so pale (darn Irish/English roots) I preferred a little more reddish hue to the cheeks so I left that and just adjusted the color tones of the background.  A quick black border on the print and that was it.

This was an incredibly frustrating but rewarding experiment and if you're itching to learn new techniques then I suggest you start collecting images of inspiration or that you enjoy and start trying to replicate them.  Its one thing to sit and try to reverse engineer the light, but when you actually try to physically do it, you will be amazed at how your perception can change when you see things first hand.  You will learn a lot in the process and it can be a very rewarding experience.

Thanks to Mr. Winters for the inspiration and the Flickr Strobist group for bring the subject up.

Hope you try this and Happy Holidays to everyone!


For another great article on reverse engineering light, check out THIS ARTICLE by David Hobby of the Strobist blog.


Ceece said...

John, I think i say this every time I comment, but wow, your lighting skills are just insane. I think you did a hell of a job and like you said learning a new technique is fabulous.

well done!

Unknown said...

Hey John,
Good job reverse engineering the shot of Tom Hanks by Dan Winters...great use of our SB III. There's a LumiQuest Flickr group that is going to start a photo contest using LQ accessories. Your shot would be a terrific candidate.
Quest (Couch, CEO of LumiQuest)

John said...

Thanks guys! Good to know there are a few folks that read this. :)

QUEST ..thanks for the head's up on the Lumiquest Flickr group too.

Photography By Danni Valdez said...

John, this is so awesome! I'm confused on your description where you positioned the Lumiquest Softbox III when you stated "…almost immediately to my left (camera right)… "


John said...

Thanks Danni!

This was a self portrait so I guess explaining where the light is can be confusing. :)

The Lumiquest SBIII is camera right, up high and almost directly beside the subject (me), pointing down at a 45 degree angle. So, if you were looking down from directly above the seen, the SBIII would be somewhere between 3 and 4 o'clock and pointing down.

Hope this helps!

Photography By Danni Valdez said...

It does. Thanks! What color was your background? Is it a fabric backdrop and/or did you gel it?

John said...

The backdrop is a Botero #023 collapsible background like the one David Hobby of the Strobist blog uses in his DVDs. Its a dark mottled gray on one side and a light mottled gray on the other. Its really easy to light and/or change the color with gels.

Photography By Danni Valdez said...

Appreciate the info. I will get one. Do you recall the Rosco gel number used? I really like the color.


John said...

Honestly, best as I can remember, I think I didn't use a gel, I believe I just tweaked the color a bit in Photoshop.