Why use flash?

Before I moved to Virginia and started my own photography business I spent years working as a designer for Ford Motor Company. After spending the better part of a decade I learned a lot about how people see shapes and how I can be more effective with my lights when I’m taking pictures.

I used to work 50 hour weeks in the design studios and a lot of my time was spent working in Photoshop. I’m still good friends with the designers at Ford and I even do special assignment work for Ford Design every so often. I credit my time at Ford with helping me to achieve my current understanding of flash photography and it continues to influence my personal photographic style. With this blog entry (and a few more after this one) I hope that I can explain a bit about how shadows and reflections of light create a three dimensional look on a two dimensional picture.

I remember sitting in my cubicle in the basement of the Ford Design North America building in a studio called 2000X. All around me were digital animation experts and teams of designers coming and going as they checked in on one of the different projects our group was working on. My team included a photoshop expert that was an incredible artist (not a photographer) and I can’t draw a thing. I had a project and a deadline that I wasn’t sure I would make.  I was new to the team and in way over my head.

But with patience, steady leadership and lots of teamwork I did manage to finish my project and I learned a lot about how artists and designers communicate shapes. The lessons I learned at Ford Design helped me to change (for the better) the way I use lights when I’m behind my camera.

That first project involved extracting a car from one image and placing it into a studio environment background we created from scratch. My assignment was to make it look like the final image was captured by a professional photographer. I know how easy this sounds, but believe me when I say that it’s not. My starting image was of a car that was outside with lots of reflections and lighting that didn’t match up with the studio environment where I put it.

I also had to make the final color of the car a neutral silver (I think it started as blue). This is also a lot tougher than it sounds since desaturating the color doesn’t come close to simulating a real silver paint job.

I was struggling with the lighting, the shadows, and the color. It just didn’t look right and I wasn’t making progress. Then a designer came by to help me get over one of my hurdles by teaching me to draw a cylinder. His explanation of light, shadow and reflections helped me to better understand how to communicate shape with light. I’m no artist, but here’s a quick summary of what he showed me.

This is three rectangles I created in photoshop. If you look at them they look very flat and two dimensional. It doesn’t look like a cylinder in a photo studio. Why not? There’s no light, no reflections and no shadows. In the real world if we see a cylinder there must be some light on it. The round shape of a cylinder wouldn’t reflect all the light back to our eyes evenly. There would be a gradual reflection of the light and shadows as the light doesn’t get around to the back of the cylinder. The designer used his pencil to shade the edges of the rectangle and the drawing started to look like this:

That’s a pretty night and day difference if you ask me. Now, this isn’t what I’d call a perfect drawing of a cylinder in a studio but I think it makes my point. Shapes are defined by the reflections of light and the shadows created in areas where the light doesn’t reach. Some shapes reflect more than others and some shapes make more dramatic shadows.

What’s important about this lesson is that when ordinary people look at a shape they don’t see the reflections and shadows. They see shape. Great photographs of people have plenty of shadows but viewers don’t see shadows, they see the shape described by the light.

I used what I learned and successfully communicated the shapes of the cars in my project by creating shadows and highlights (with lots of dodging, burning and other techniques) to better represent what the imaginary lights in my imaginary studio environment would create. My project was completed on time and the design team used my work successfully. I learned a lot on that project that I use whenever I’m lighting something. After that first Photoshop project I started to really study shadows and highlights like crazy and now I see them everywhere.

To give you an example of how this thinking helps me take pictures I’ll use by favorite Pixar character, Dug, on a black table with a white background photographed using only on-camera flash:

It’s properly exposed but I don’t think that it does a very good job of communicating Dug’s shape. Once you get past the harsh shadows (especially the shadow cast onto Dug’s tail by his ear) you see a very flat image. To me this is the equivalent of a point and shoot camera with a built in flash throwing light everywhere. Not very exciting if you ask me.

Here’s another shot of Dug but this time I used two off camera flashes:

With the main light to camera right and up high you can see how Dug is well lit and you can see that his head is casting a soft shadow on his front leg (opposite the light). You see that his head is above his leg because of the shadow.

To separate him from the background I used another flash as a rim light (behind Dug and to camera left). I usually set the power of this light to be a bit brighter than the main light to help outline and define the shape of my subject. On Dugs head there is a transition from the bright rim light to the softer main light. This transition of light is telling us the shape of Dugs head. To further define Dug’s shape a second rim light to camera right would really add some dimension. Here’s what it looks like when we add the third light:

You can see that I prefer to communicate shape by placing lights  in places where they will create shadows and highlights. And I like to use exposure settings and light modifiers to help me control the brightness of the background. Here’s one final shot that replaces the white background with a black background.

For this shot the lights were the same but the black background forces you to look at Dug first. This  background also keeps you looking at Dug since nothing bright is leading your eye out of the image. In my opinion this final image communicates Dug’s shape and does a much better job of engaging a viewer and keeping them in the shot by controlling the unconscious eye (which I’ll talk about more in a future blog entry).

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