Module 35


Updated: 02/14/2017

Module 35   




Altering Appearances

There are situations when you will want to consider special lighting approaches to accommodate difficult subject matter or to alter the look of a subject.


Minimizing Surface Detail

First, let's look at how you can combine what we've covered to completely minimize surface detail.

Although we've previously seen how quality (coherence) of light and flat lighting can do this, now we're going to combine three approaches to further enhance this effect. Three are -

  • decrease the key and fill angles
  • use soft light sources
  • reduce the lighting ratio

This lighting plot shows these modifications.soft light setup

1. Note that here the front lights have been moved as close to the cameras as possible. In the process, the detail revealing shadows have been virtually eliminated.

2. Next, note that the soft light sources are equipped with spun-glass diffusers. The resulting ultra-soft illumination further minimizes detail-revealing shadows.

3. Finally, the lighting ratio between the two lights has been reduced from the normal 2:1 to 1:1, which means that the two front lights are of equal intensity.

Keep in mind that you only need to change front lighting; the position or intensity of the back light and background light (if needed) will not change.

In most cases you will not want to go to the extreme of making all of these changes. (Note below this approach makes the chocolate chip cookie on the left look pretty dull and lifeless.)

chocolate chip 1 chocolate chip 2

For example, you may decide to stay with a 2:1 lighting ratio and just move the lights closer to the camera and use diffusers; or, you might want to check the effect of just using diffusers.

Of course, for the ultimate in soft lighting you can use a lighting tent as illustrated in an earlier module. However, this approach is impractical for lighting people or large areas.)

Now let's go in the opposite direction and maximize surface detail, as shown on the right above. This can be done by reversing all three previous modifications.

  • increase the key-to-fill angles.
  • use a hard light source for a key
  • increase the lighting ratio

1. Note in the drawing below that the key has been moved to about an 85-degree angle to maximize shadows and surface detail.

2. Next, you will want to use a hard source of light for a key. A focusing light such as the ellipsoidal spot we talkedhard light source about earlier will create the desired effect.

3. Finally, we would want to increase the lighting ratio to at least 4:1. By eliminating the fill light altogether we would go considerably beyond 4:1 and maximize the lighting ratio.

Again, it's generally not desirable to alter the back light position or intensity, or the intensity or position of a background light.

The photo on the left below shows how effective side lighting is in bringing out detail in this ancient carving. Without the effect of this type of light, much of the detail would be lost.

edge lighting 1  

edge lighting 2  

Two hard key lights, one on either side of the coin, lit the close-up of a 50-cent piece low angle keyabove.  The angles of these lights are so oblique (and precisely aimed) that only the raised portions of the coin are illuminated. This keeps the background areas dark.

We are used to seeing primary light sources coming from above subjects -- typically, sunlight, or the 45-degree angle of a key light.  

When the primary (key) light is placed at a low angle, a dramatic or even mysterious effect can be achieved. (Note photo above.)

High Key and Low Key

Two terms that are often misunderstood in lighting are high key and low key.

These terms have nothing to do with overall light intensity; instead, they refer to the angle of front lighting (generally the key light) and the resulting presence or lack of shadow areas. The photos below might help in seeing this distinction.

A high key straw_hk.jpgscene would be an evenly lit scene, one that has no intrusive shadow areas. (Note the surface of the strawberries.)

Sitcoms, variety shows, etc., are normally lit high key. The first cookie shown at the beginning of this module was lit in a very high key fashion.

On the other hand, a scene lit in low-key would havelow-key lighting pronounced shadow areas.  (Note photo on the right.)

It's important to remember that in all these examples the intensity of the key light could be exactly the same.  We are not talking about "bright lights" in high key setups and "dim lights" in low-key setups.

In actual fact, under "dim light" we would simply have to open the camera's iris in order to achieve adequate exposure, and then our so-called "low key" effect would disappear. It's only the angle of the key and the lighting ratio that make the difference between high key and low key.

>>If you already haven't done so, check out the examples - shown here to study how lighting affects the appearance of subject matter.


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