If you look in any of the key fashion magazines at the moment you will see… a plethora of studio images shot with a grey background. It’s these images that are creating buying decisions in the retail market place and it makes good sense to cash in on the demand they are making for this kind of photograph. Essentially grey is in fashion right now.
When I use my look book for ideas I always start by dissecting each image to understand how it is lit, paying special attention to the hardness and direction of the lighting sources. One of the most challenging things to work out is how far a light is from the subject. A distant soft light and a near harder light can produce a similar shadow gradation from umbra to penumbra. The trick is to look at the fall off of in intensity. A light nearer the subject will be noticeably ‘intimate’.
In the real world light rattles around rooms. Even if there is only one window on one wall of a room the light in the room comes from all angles as it gets reflected around. A white or light room will give the most fill light to key light ratio. To recreate the same effect in the studio with a single softbox we need to use big reflectors, white painted panels or have white painted walls.
I’ve never had a white walled studio because it is difficult to get clean crisp deep shadows when light is bouncing off just about every surface, and shadows are what we need to define shapes in photographs. With white painted walls, the only way to reduce the reflections and strengthen shadows is to use negative reflectors (matte black).
An ideal photographic studio is a black box and any light that is introduced is under our control, even in a daylight studio we need to have window blinds that allow us total control of the light. My system for setting up studio lights is to set up one light at a time switching off all the others while it is being set. Once the direction and hardness quality of each light is set I will then switch them all on and adjust the lighting balance using the power controls on each head. The final stage is to control the contrast in the key areas of the picture with reflectors as necessary.
My own studio is usually f/16 at ISO 100 with my monoblocks set to quarter power. This is just a starting point for my camera settings and once the lighting balance is right, I only need to adjust the lens aperture from then on to give me the correct exposure. I never use a light meter as it doesn’t know how moody I want the shot to look, so I always use the camera screen to asses exposure.
In order to accurately asses exposure in camera I use a closed loop system to set the screen brightness. I take a jpeg of an average scene like my house and garden. I download it to the computer, and open it directly in Photoshop. I don’t use RAW, a jpeg is best for this. I then put the memory card back in the camera. I press play on the camera and view the same picture on both screens side by side. I then adjust the LCD brightness of the camera using the menu system and set it to a value that gives me the best match of highlight and shadow tones on both screens. This does rely on my computer screen having been correctly calibrated using my i1 calibrator first. The result is that pictures I shoot in the studio give me no surprises when I bring them into Lightroom.
A really useful addition to the grey background arsenal is the ability to use coloured gels and get really saturated results. When you put coloured light onto a white background the resulting shots have a pastel quality to them. Even if you under light or under expose for the background, the images can still look washed out and dull. On the other hand with a neutral grey as a base for coloured light the results are particularly vibrant. Gels cost under £5 for a large sheet and this is a fraction of the cost of having to stock a range of different paper colours. It’s easy to create colour gradients with gels too.
If you want a day learning how to be creative with light why not join me on my next studio lighting workshop on the 7th May. See here for details.