The Big Light
By Dave MontizambertHow do you meter and light an 80-foot truck? Dave Montizambert explains.
Photographer and author Dave Montizambert lectures internationally on lighting and digital photography. His studio, Montizambert Photography Inc., has been creating imagery for international and national clients for over 25 years. To learn more about his photography and books, visit his Web site. You can also find his video courses on Software Cinema.
Receiving an assignment to light and photograph a gigantic shiny object such as an 80-foot orange semi-trailer truck would put the fear of God into most us, but it need not if you employ the correct principles of lighting to the challenge. The image above, for Allied Movers/Quality Move Management, was created to appear in brochures and on billboards. The creative brief for the image was up to me, since no advertising agency or graphic designers were involved—it was a client-direct job. The only direction they gave me was, “Give us a dramatic image of one of our trucks set against a cityscape of Vancouver, BC.” There were certain logistical problems to overcome, the main one being that a semi-trailer truck cannot just be shot anywhere. Finding an area with downtown Vancouver as a backdrop did not work out; since the subject was so large, the best areas to shoot for the cityscape were impossible to get shooting permits for. The solution was pretty obvious: shoot both the truck and the city separately at optimal locations, then composite in Photoshop.
Now getting back to the fear of God thing: When it comes to lighting eighteen-wheelers, size is everything. A 3x4-foot softbox light source placed close to the subject is a large source of illumination for a head-and-shoulders studio portrait, but not for a truck. Size of source is relative, so if we want to have a pleasing, soft wraparound light on the truck, then we need a source of illumination that is larger than it. Since the shot was to be set in an outdoor environment and not in studio, this made the whole job simpler and less expensive. If we had shot indoors, a huge flat or jumbo softbox larger than the truck would have had to be constructed and then suspended above the vehicle. In addition, an indoor space large enough to accommodate such a large subject would have had to be sourced and rented for a couple of days. None of this was necessary because the shot was to be in an outdoor environment. I just had to find a large, wide-open area that the city officials would let me shoot in, then pick my time of day and weather to create a massive light-source from the sky.
Wide-open space was essential so that there would be no buildings, trees, or telephone poles obstructing the sky from the truck. To have a large source of illumination outdoors, you need to shoot either on an overcast day or at sunset, when the sun dips towards the horizon. The added benefit of shooting on a sunny day around sunset is you get two lighting scenarios for the price of one:
- When the sun is really low in the horizon you get a beautiful balance between the sun and the open sky.
- Once the sun sets, you get lighting from open sky creating a beautiful, soft light sheen on objects like our shiny truck.
In the first of these two scenarios, the sun creates hard light while the open sky creates soft light. When the sun is so low on the horizon, the light rays have to travel through so much atmosphere that the direct sunlight is diminished in brightness to the point that it cannot overpower the open sky lighting as it does from late morning to late afternoon. This is the equivalent of lighting a subject in the studio with two light sources at the same time—a relatively large softbox and a relatively small light source such as a bare strobe head powered down to match the softbox intensity. This kind of lighting creates lots of sparkles (small, intense specular highlights) from the direct sunlight, as well as a beautiful sheen (large-sized, low-intensity specular highlights) from the open sky over the surface of a shiny object such as our truck. The cool thing is you can catch both scenarios if you set up in advance of sunset. Take some shots while the sun is just above the horizon, and then again once it dips below the horizon.
At the time of scouting the location, four days before the shoot date, the sun was setting at the perfect point. However, four days later, mixing setting sun with open sky was not possible; the sun was setting four minutes earlier and so did not travel around as far west, which gave some rather large hills an opportunity to obscure the sun from the truck before the official sunset. But the open sky lighting was all I really needed. The other consideration with this lighting scenario is color or white balance. Many photographers with digital SLRs set their white balance to automatic or better still do a custom white balance off a neutral tone or from an Expodisc. Using any one of these solutions would normally be fine, but in this image I wanted to preserve the flavor of warm magic-hour light. Using either automatic white balance or a custom white balance neutralizes the golden color balance of a sunset. To solve this minor problem I set the white balance to daylight. That captured a beautiful, warm white balance, giving the open sky lighting a warm glow on the truck.
The color of the light rapidly becomes warmer as the sun dips lower in the sky; every few minutes the warmth increases significantly. If you feel that the warmth is too much, you can easily notch it back during processing of the files in applications such as Adobe Camera Raw or Adobe Lightroom. If you find changing the color balance and tint sliders a little challenging, consider making two versions of the image, one with full warmth as captured and one in which you neutralized the image in Adobe Camera Raw or Adobe Lightroom on a neutral color in the image, by clicking on it with the white balance selector tool. With both image variations open in Adobe Photoshop, hold down the shift key on your keyboard as you click and drag the background layer of the neutralized image into the open window of the warm image. Turn down the layer opacity (the slider at the top right corner of the layer’s palette) of the neutralized image until just enough warmth shows through. This method will ensure that you keep the exact balance between color balance and tint as you lessen the warmth.
The final consideration for the capture of this image was exposure. An incident meter was positioned with its back to the truck and the front facing the open sky, above the camera. As the sun dropped lower and lower, which happened very rapidly, so did the exposure. But, because the sky is so far away from the truck it of course made no difference whether I walked the 160 feet from the camera to the truck to take my readings or took them beside the camera. The further away the light source, the more light depth of field there is. That means if the light source is far enough away—and the open sky was—then no measurable brightness difference will occur between two points, even though one might be closer to the light source than the other. This made my job easier; I was able to take incident meter readings (about one every minute or so) and adjust the shutter speed without having to step away from the camera.
Once the image was opened into Photoshop on my workstation back at the studio, I selected and deleted the background behind the truck and trees, then pasted in one of my stock images of the Vancouver skyline. To make the truck really jump out of the image and to create a surreal feeling, I selected the truck, inverted that selection, created a Hue and Saturation Adjustment layer, clicked on the Colorize option, and then dragged the Hue slider to 241 and Saturation to 15. This gave everything but the truck a steel blue tint and completed the image.
As you can see, having to light and photograph a large shiny object like this 80-foot semi need not send you to your knees as long as you can shoot outdoors with unhindered open sky using these few simple principles.
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