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Christopher Grey

Shooting through Cloth

By Christopher Grey
Published by Sekonic

Christopher Grey discusses how to use fabrics in studio portraits as a barrier, a design element, or a way to convey the mood of the image.

Photographer Chris Grey is an expert on lighting. He's written seven books on the subject, teaches classes and workshops, and is a strong advocate for precise control in the studio. To see more of his work, or to find his books and DVDs, visit his Web site.




It’s always fun to play with some concept we may have heard about or seen samples of. One of my favorites is to shoot through cloth, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking through fabric stores for cloth that was transparent enough to shoot through and that would impart a certain air of mystery and beauty to my images.

There are many types of fabrics that will work for exercises like this: glitter organza, lace, bridal underskirt, tulle (pronounced "tool"), and many more. I’ll leave it to your own exploration of the fabric store to find what works for you. One thing to note: If you’re thinking of covering the model with fabric, be sure to get the widest you can. Many of these fabrics are available in 42” widths, with some as wide as 54”. Wider is always better.

Cloth as Mood

Almost any cloth you can find will be available in a variety of colors. As you know, colors often set the mood. Cooler, bluer colors can connote "inwardly directed" emotions such as thoughtfulness, peace, or even depression, while warmer, redder, colors can connote excitement, enlightenment, and attractiveness.

This first image was made through a large piece of colored tulle, hung over a boom arm between the model and the camera. There were actually four layers of cloth in play here, as the cloth was doubled over the boom arm. This was done to keep the background color consistent with the foreground color and to further soften the light reaching the model. A single light and medium softbox provided the illumination, creating very soft light and coloring the model with the color of the fabric. The light was set on the outside of the fabric to light both the model and the fabric. The extra emphasis on the fabric adds to the soft mystery seen in the model’s face. Metering the light falling on the cloth meant the fabric would be perfectly exposed but the density of it would slightly underexpose the model, adding to the mystery.

Cloth as a Barrier

When she's lit from the side or from behind, the model’s shadows (thrown onto the fabric by the direction of the light) can create design elements that add visual interest to the image. When the model places parts of her or his body into the fabric, they will draw the eye to them because they're darker. It will take a little visual investigation for the viewer to actually see the details in front of the shadows. Such a technique can be very useful for those of us who do boudoir or fine art nude photography.

Note that the weave of the fabric, when it overlaps, will create an interesting moiré pattern. The size of the weave will determine the amount of moiré.

For an image like this, first aim a light (any light) at your meter and take a reading. If necessary, move the meter toward or away from the light until you measure a whole stop or perfect third. Without moving the meter, lay the cloth over the dome and take another reading. The difference is the correction you'll make to the camera after you light the subject from behind the cloth to the ratio you want. Note that there is no light falling on the cloth from the camera side.

Cloth as Design

You can use a lace fabric, especially one with a large pattern, in at least two ways to get terrific results. If you use just one light, like the beauty bowl modifier I used for the image below, shadows will be formed from the pattern in the cloth as projected onto the model. (A small softbox or umbrella will work too, but the shadows will be different.) The light was overhead and slightly ahead of and to the right of the camera, throwing shadows slightly down and to the left. This is not the only position for the light, of course, but it’s a good place to start.

Stretch the lace fabric across the set and set two small softoboxes or strip lights under the cloth so that no light spills across the top of the fabric and you’ll get a wonderful sidelit outline of the form underneath. Broken up by the lace, the model’s shape becomes nicely abstracted and the form beautifully delineated.

The light that fell on the cloth was metered for the first shot. The second was metered for the lights on her body before the lace was stretched over her.

Semi-Opaque Cloth

Cover your model with a semi-opaque cloth and direct her or him through a series of movements. The fact that minimal body details are evident will only add to the sensuality of the image because your mind will have to fill in a lot of details that you can’t actually see. In the case of this image, the model’s arm is in a position that’s not initially indicated by the folds of the cloth. It’s small details like this that make for an interesting composition.

A Grayscale Photoshop Trick

Find a fabric with color that’s close to the values of any of the RGB channels. In this case, I used a piece of cloth very close to pure red. A "pure" blue or green would also work.

Take the image into Photoshop. Select Adjustments>Channel Mixer>Monochromatic. In this case the default is 100% of the red channel. If you were to use a blue or green cloth you’d merely change the selection to 100% of the blue or green channel. The results show a very delicate form under the cloth, which now looks very light.

Tweak Levels if you need to. The results are beautiful.

Category: How-To
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