This version of HIWS is going to be pretty in-depth because I had several problems to solve, and I figured it might be helpful to do a step-by-step breakdown of how I arrived at the final photo. The first problem (always a problem in my home) was finding enough distance between my subject and the background so that I could make the background go black. Eventually I’ll buy a big piece of black posterboard or something but until then I seem predisposed to keep banging my head against the wall by trying things the hard way. I like to think that it’s making me a stronger photographer. Yep, that’s it.
I shot it in our basement studio because that seems to be the only place in the house where I can get some sort of distance separation happening. It’s almost never enough but in the case of this shot it worked pretty well. To the right is the initial setup shot so you can see what I’m working with. Behind me is a wall with a fireplace and I don’t have much more room to work. I suppose I could go into the fireplace. Like Santa except with no gifts. I did end up moving the whole setup back about another foot which was really as far as I could go without going into the fireplace, and also without introducing new background distractions closer to my subject (like the large desk on the right).
As far as the lighting, my goal was to create a black backdrop with flash-lit specular highlights on the trumpet. I’m using a PocketWizard-fired SB-25 on a lightstand to camera left and an optically slaved SB-26 bungeed to a music stand to camera right. Yep, I have one lightstand. Working on that… The pieces of folded white paper are my light modifiers so that I can get some larger, smoother specular highlights on the horn than if I shot with bare flash. Umbrellas would be a nightmare because the light would be flying everywhere, and I don’t own any softboxes… yet. So the paper gives me fairly large apparent light sources, yet with a bit of control. More on this later.
As you can see in the setup shot, my second problem is the ambient light. It’s straight-up hideous and… everywhere. It’s actually a combination of old-school incandescent and those new curly-fry incandescent-ish light bulbs in an overhead fixture. There’s also another one of those curly-fry bulbs in a light fixture on the wall at the bottom of the steps. This would have been fairly annoying to color-correct with gels as it’s not a true tungsten orange. Luckily none of this proved to be a real problem because the look I was going for in the shot required zero ambient light, so I just set my camera to 1/250sec (max sync speed) and eventually turned off the lights altogether. I actually did have a minuscule amount of daylight coming in from some tiny basement windows which was enough to allow me to use autofocus, but not enough to show up in my exposure. The lovely shot to the right is my exposure with zero flash, but before I turned off the lights. If you look closely, there is a tiny bit of light in the top center which is coming from that light fixture at the foot of the stairs. This is why I eventually turned off the lights in the room.
Back to the lighting setup, and my third problem. This is a test shot of my flash exposure. I’m looking for two things here: brightness level and specular highlight size. For brightness, I’m using the blinkies (highlight clipping warning) on my camera as a guide. I don’t mind some blown highlights, but I don’t want the whole specular highlight to be blown. As far as the size of the speculars, I want something that will appear fairly large on the trumpet. I experimented with getting the pieces of paper as close as I could without them showing up in my shot.
After adjusting some power levels, paper positions, and choosing to shoot with my wide-angle lens (explained later), I arrive here. You can see that I still hadn’t turned off the light fixtures yet, as the overhead is appearing at the top of the frame. It didn’t really matter as I was still tinkering and trying to find the right look. I liked the specular highlights on the bell of the horn but I wanted some more light hitting the top, so I added my trusty SB-24 on top of the music stand (camera right) with another piece of paper.
Why the wide-angle lens? I wanted the horn to appear larger than life, almost as if the viewer is standing at the base of it and looking up. The wide angle (11 mm DX, 16.5 mm full frame) when combined with a low shooting angle distorts the bottom of the horn and makes it appear larger than it normally would.
Cool, now I more or less have the look I’m going for on the horn. Next problem, how do I get those light sources out of my frame? I didn’t really want to shoot any closer as I wouldn’t be able to fit the whole horn in the frame, and if I shot at a more severe low angle there would be more distortion than I wanted. I could always just clone them out in Lightroom but I didn’t want to resort to that just yet. There’s something satisfying about getting things right in-camera.
You’ll see that in this shot (left) I finally switched off the overhead light fixture, but that’s not the reason I’m sharing it here. If you look closely at the right side of the frame, you’ll notice that part of it is completely black. This is because I started experimenting with pushing the shutter speed beyond my 1/250sec max sync. I am effectively “erasing” any flash-lit portion of the photo where the shutter gets in the way. I tried 1/320sec, 1/400sec (the photo at left), and 1/500sec. 1/400sec seemed to be the sweet spot where I could get the horn positioned where I wanted it, but also erase a lot of the actual light sources on the right. I eventually gave up on trying to erase all of the light sources because I couldn’t get the framing just right without creating more distortion on the trumpet than I wanted. I figured that black strip on the right would at least give me a clean clone source for later Lightroom work.
After a little more exposure tinkering, I decide to add the final touch: gels. Because I have three fairly distinct zones of light on the horn I start getting greedy. “Ooooh I can light all three of them with different colors and get some cool effects!” I’ll show that evolution in the images below:
In the end, I opted for the last look in the progression which utilized a cerulean blue on each of the lower flashes and an exotic sangria on the upper flash. Nothing fancy, just trial and error. Throw something at the wall, see what sticks.
This was the final shot before Lightroom edits. I believe there was even more tweaking of exposure on my part, just to get the light levels where I wanted them. I did also re-orient my light modifiers (8.5×11 printer paper) from landscape to portrait. I wanted the specular highlights to cover a little more territory on the subject (compare the photo on the right to the last photo in the series of gelled shots). I really don’t know why I didn’t think of that in the first place anyway! You’ll also notice that the light sources reappeared a bit on the right in this frame. That is because I had to reposition my camera to get the angle on the subject that I wanted.
Finally, a walk through the Lightroom edits. I didn’t tweak white balance at all because I was shooting in daylight white balance on the camera and I was perfectly happy with the look I was getting. Shooting metal is much more forgiving than shooting people in this regard! I raised the clarity to about +30, vibrance to about +20, sharpening to +70. I can’t remember exactly on these. I left the contrast alone because I was creating a ton of contrast with my lighting anyway. I didn’t want the darks any darker or the lights any lighter.
As far as my plan to clone out the light sources, I ended up finding it easier to just burn the crap out of them. I used the adjustment brush and turned exposure and highlights all the way down. A little more burning around the rest of the frame was done because some of the background was still slightly present. Actually, raising the clarity to +100 while doing this enabled me to see what else was lurking back there. Then I just lowered the clarity back down when I was finished burning.
You might notice that I also toned down the amount of sangria (gel, not drink) hitting the bottom of the bell. It was a little distracting, so I just used the healing brush a little. In the end I probably didn’t need to clone out the light sources because the logo aspect ratio for WordPress would have ended cropping them out anyway. It’s nice to have a version of the shot as seen at the top of this post though, and I kind of like that the trumpet is not centered in the frame. The final adjustment was to do some slight distortion control by enabling the built-in Tokina lens profile corrections. Again, I was shooting wide-angle and from below to create a distorted perspective, but using the correction helped to keep it from looking too much like it was shot with a fun house mirror. I’ll close with a final pull-back of the setup so that you can see the gelled lights and paper, etc. Thanks for hanging in there!