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Friday, March 21, 2014

How To Shape Hard Light

The tools that tame a contrasty specular light source

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Softboxes and umbrellas—and the soft light they produce—really seem to get all the love. You're building your lighting setup, and what's the first thing you add to your strobe and light stand? An umbrella or softbox, of course. They're great modifiers for turning hard specular light into beautiful soft light—which looks great for a variety of subjects, especially people. But once you get beyond the primal basics of "soft light looks pretty," you might be ready for a bit more challenge—like working with hard-edged specular light to give certain subjects a little drama, a bit of pop. To do that, you need some specular source modifiers. These are the tools that allow you to artfully shape hard light.

A grid is a honeycomb-shaped metal cover that fits over a dish reflector on a studio strobe head or monolight, or a plastic cover fitted onto a hot-shoe flash. They are used to focus light into a directional, circular beam. The honeycomb-shaped openings prevent light from scattering in a variety of directions and instead align it all into a unidirectional column. How wide the light spreads is a function of how large the individual openings are. Smaller openings produce a tighter circle of light, typically measured by the degree of spread—from 10 degrees to 40 or more.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Another tool for focusing light into a tight column is a snoot. Whereas a grid's edges are softer, fading gradually from light to shadow, a snoot's edges are harder and better defined. Snoots are cylindrical or cone-shaped metal tubes that affix to the front of a dish reflector. The thinner the tube, the narrower the beam of light. The longer the snoot, the harder its edge will be. This well-defined circle of light makes snoots perfect for controlling spill and for creating special effects with a distinct circle of light. (A great DIY option for the snootless is to make one out of black wrap—non-reflective aluminum foil that can be easily molded into any custom snoot shape.)

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Fresnel lenses gained popularity in the golden age of Hollywood when they were used to turn hot lights from wide floods into focused spots. They've retained that use as a standard option in tungsten hot lights, and they've even recently regained popularity as attachments for strobes, as well. Available in clear or frosted (the former producing a harder edge, the latter producing a softer transition from light to shadow), the fresnel is a fairly thin piece of glass (at least, as far as the typical lens is concerned) that changes the focus of a light based on its position relative to the source. Some portraitists say there's a sweet spot at the edge of a fresnel-focused light that creates amazing beauty lighting—much like the semi-soft portrait light modifier known as the beauty dish.

Another popular shape effect is selective focus, which can also be created on its own layer and modified by a radial mask. Duplicate the image layer and then use a Gaussian Blur filter to make the new layer fuzzy. Click the quick mask icon in the layers palette and use the same radial fill approach to reveal the sharp center of the frame via the layer below, and/or a soft-edged paintbrush to position that sharp focal point wherever the center of interest might be within the frame. To fine-tune the overall blur, simply reduce the opacity of the entire layer.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Another hot light staple, barn doors are hinged metal wings (or doors) that affix to the front of a light fixture and can be angled to flag light from spilling onto a specific area of a scene or to shape the light into a well-defined wedge of light. Barn doors are most commonly utilized to fight spill, but in doing so they're also a great special effect light modifier, allowing for the very precise placement of illumination in a way the relatively rigid circles of light produced by snoots and grids can't replicate. The aforementioned black foil also works great for making your own custom-cut barn doors that fight spill and flag light in any shape you can imagine. And that's the beauty of hard light: it comes in many shapes and sizes, and there's no end to its usefulness, as long as you know how to mold it with the right light modifiers.


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