How To Fake A Full Studio Using A Single Light
As many of you know, I earn my living as a wedding photographer, It’s a job that I wouldn’t trade for the world, but occasionally I get the opportunity to do something a little different. In this case, it’s about as far removed from wedding photography as you can get. If you remember at the end of last year I showed you how to photograph a World War Two machine gun, this time though, we’re going after something just a little bit bigger.
Once again, I have to send a huge thank you to the South Carolina Military Museum for allowing us to have access to these beautiful machines. Mike Lott and his staff gave my team and I full reign of the museum’s largest space and were more than generous with their time. If you get a chance, please check out their website and if you have the opportunity to stop by, please do. It really is a cool place.
That being said, on to the job at hand.
The job at hand was fairly straightforward, we needed to photograph four Jeeps, a Dodge Command Car, and a gigantic Half Track, and we only had access to them for about 5 hours. These images were going to be a part of their marketing campaign, as well as made into massive posters. This may sound like a challenging task, but using this technique we were able to get in and out with plenty of time to spare.
The room where we were to photograph them was a large warehouse that had been converted to house the Military Museum’s vehicle fleet. It was windowless and the interior lights could be controlled with ease. This meant that I had the option to turn off all of the lights and use a long exposure instead of a single short exposure and still remain completely free of ambient light. This gave me the freedom to fire my strobe multiple times to highlight individual sections of the vehicle over the course of 30 seconds.
To begin with, I wanted to do a quick comparison shot and see what the vehicle would look like if I shot it using only the lights in the room. The results weren’t spectacular. In fact, I’d have to say that the hideous magenta tinged fluorescents made everything look terrible.
So from there I turned off the lights and went about trying to create a dynamic image using multiple flash pops. Since the image was created almost entirely in camera (with the exception of the background) I broke down my process for light positioning into several steps. Keep in mind that in the actual image, all of these positions were combined into one 30 second run, creating the perfectly lit car in camera using only one strobe light in a single exposure. The key to figuring out how you want to shoot an object using this method is to consider each time you fire the flash that it is taking the place of a strobe in an imaginary studio. So if I fire the flash 5 times, I’m thinking in terms of a 5 light set up in a regular studio.
I always fired the flash from behind and towards the camera to create a rim light that would separate the vehicle from the background. This shot also includes a flash fired directly to the left of the vehicle .
And finally from directly to the right of the subject.
All of these positions combine to give you a final image that looks like this:
So there we have it. After a little bit of photoshop magic to clean up the background and the floor, we have a completed image that only requires a single light, not an entire studio full of lights and equipment. I had a team of 4 helping me out, but that was only because we weren’t allowed to actually start the cars, so we had to push them into position which took a surprising amount of muscle. You could very easily do this by yourself, it just might take a self timer to allow yourself to get into position fast enough.
So now that we’ve looked at the technique and looked at how the lights were placed, let’s take a look at the gear that I used to make it happen.
All of the images were photographed using a Nikon D800, locked off on a Manfrotto 055xproB Tripod and tethered to my aging Macbook Pro. I almost never shoot tethered, but in this case it was almost a requirement as it is nearly impossible to judge color and tone correctly (at least to the degree that was needed here) on the back of the camera. Colors, especially when shooting RAW, tend to be much duller and less contrasty than on the back of the camera so it was important to take this into consideration and make sure that the proper exposure was achieved.
In addition to this, the strobe that I used was an Alien Bee AB-1600 paired with an Alien Bee Medium Softbox, which I mounted on to a monopod, allowing me maximum control of the direction and intensity of the light throughout the exposure time.
Finally after everything had been photographed, the RAW files were processed in Capture One Pro 7 (which is absolutely amazing if you haven’t tried it) and finalized in Photoshop CS6.
So for those of you of a TL;DR disposition here’s what you need to know on how to fake a full studio using only a single light.
- You’re going to need a dark place, either an outdoor space with no light pollution or an indoor space with no windows. I know this can be tough in some areas, but ask around and I’m sure you can find somewhere.
- Lock off the camera on a tripod that isn’t likely to be bumped or moved. (Even a tiny move will make combining images in post impossible)
- Tethered, Tethered, Tethered. I can’t say this enough. You’ll regret it if you rely solely on the back of your camera.
- Use a lens that stops down sufficiently far enough. (I used the Nikon 60mm Macro which stops down to f/32)
- Stop down your camera until you can achieve a sufficiently long exposure for you to make the move that you need to make while still remaining free from ambient light.
- Plan your lighting set up, imagine that each position you move to is a flash that you have placed there
- Press the shutter, move to each position firing your strobe at the preplanned intervals and locations
- Examine your shot and make adjustments accordingly
This really isn’t rocket science, the key is to just think of each position you hold your light in as another strobe in an imaginary studio.
If you’re looking for more information on a light painting variant of this technique, take a look at how Fstoppers visited Blair Bunting and watched him shoot the Aventador!