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Dave Montizambert

Putting the Devil into Your Shadows

By Dave Montizambert

Dave Montizambert reveals all his tricks for bringing evil out of the shadows and into your portrait studio. Learn how to take your metering to the dark side.

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.





When lighting a subject, should you brighten the shadows more than required and then darken those shadows during processing to ensure that the best shadow information is captured? Or should you light the shadows at the exact level you want in the final image? The former certainly gives you more flexibility to change your mind after the fact, but does darkening the shadows during raw image processing or using Curves or Levels in Photoshop yield the same results as placing the shadow brightness with lighting? Let’s look into this with a series of images of Terrance Toogood, a.k.a. Rich Reynolds, a fellow photographer, actor, and friend.

For the theatrical portrait above, I used “devil lighting.” It’s achieved by lighting the subject from underneath to create up-cast shadows. To further portray Terrance Toogood as the villain he truly is, I made the up-cast evil shadows in the finished image quite dark relative to his fully lit skin tone. But how evil (dark) should those shadows be? This question worried me; what if I had second thoughts about how dark the shadows were after the set was struck? Could I brighten those shadows during processing or in Photoshop without too much banding and noise appearing in all of the dark tones of the image? Ironically, I found the answer to this “evil” conundrum in a quote on the marquee of a local church: ”Worry is the darkroom that negatives are developed in.” It seemed prudent to limit my worries by shooting two versions of the portrait: one with low shadow contrast and one with high shadow contrast. Shadow contrast describes how much darker the shadow side is than the lit side. High shadow contrast shows a big difference between the two, and low shadow contrast shows a less pronounced difference.

Image 2. This image shows Terrance with low shadow contrast (fill light’s power turned up causing lighter shadows).

Image 3. This image was created from image 2, using different raw processing settings that dramatically increased shadow contrast to create darker shadows.

Image 4. This image shows Terrance with high shadow contrast (the fill light’s power was turned down, causing darker shadows).

I processed images 2 and 4 with my default settings in Adobe Camera Raw, including the tone curve setting shown in image 5, screenshot A.

Image 5

Image 3 used the more extreme tone curve shown in image 5, screenshot B.

When you compare image 3 with image 4, it’s evident that attaining high shadow contrast after the image is captured yields some challenges in dark areas that are not necessarily shadows. That is, parts of Terrance’s dark hat, tie, and brown eyes lose detail. On the other hand, dropping shadow densities through lighting prior to capture allows us to drop shadow densities without any effect on fully lit dark-toned areas. So in the end, which is the best way to go? If time is of the essence, you know exactly what you want, and you’re sure you won’t change your mind afterwards, then place shadow density where you want it with lighting. Otherwise, over-light the shadows and fine-tune shadow density during processing or in Photoshop with Curves or Levels. Keep in mind that the trade-off you’re making with the latter option is that you’ll probably have to do some Photoshop work to bring back detail lost in the dark tones. This is exactly what I did with image 1 at the top of this article, which was shot with the same low shadow contrast lighting as in image 2, and then given some really heavy contrast boosting in Photoshop, followed by layer masks to hide some of the darkening effects from eyes, hat, etc. The final touch was to convert it to black and white with an adjustment layer in Photoshop.

Lighting Terrance

To create lighting that would portray Terrance Toogood as the dastardly villain he is, I enlisted lots of rich shadows. The best way to make lots of shadows form on a subject is to move your lights away from the camera axis. (Hint: On-camera flash makes for the worst main-light position, since it’s almost directly on axis with the camera lens.) To really get great shadow form on a face, place the main light to the side, or directly above or underneath the subject. All four of these light positions will skim light across the subject, thus projecting lots of dramatic shadows and bringing out his or her “character.” Terrance Toogood’s character absolutely required him to be lit from below as though by the fires of hell. But not wanting to open up my studio floor to the fires of hell, I placed a 3’x4’ softbox on the floor below and to the camera-left side of Terrance, as in image 6, diagram A.

The power of this light was adjusted until an incident meter, pointed dome-directly at the light and held near Terrance's eyes, read exactly the same as the camera’s f/5.6 at 1/60th second setting. My choice of background was very dark indeed, making it necessary to add separation lights on Terrance to prevent his shoulders from blending into the background too much. There were two lights placed behind Terrance for this purpose, one to his right and one to his left. The separation light on the camera-left side of the frame (see image 6, diagram A) was covered with a frosted acetate gel to even out its hotspots. The power of this light was adjusted until an incident meter, with its dome pointed directly at this light and with its back against Terrance, read one stop darker (f/4.0 at 1/60th second) than the camera’s f/5.6 at 1/60th second setting. You can see the effect of the separation light and main light on Terrance in image 7A:

Image 7

The second separation light, on the camera-right side of frame, was fitted with a 3’x4’ softbox, as shown in image 6, diagram B. You’re probably wondering why I had one separation light bare and the second fitted with a softbox. My reason was to ensure that if the second separation light cast any shadows, they would draw as little attention as possible. To make a shadow less noticeable, all you need to do is make its edges softer. Larger light sources see further into shadows, thus eating away at shadow edges and rendering them softer. As it turned out, these shadows did not appear with the final poses used, but I felt it was better to be safe than sorry. The positioning of the first separation light relative to Terrance’s pose was in no danger of casting unwanted shadows on his neck, so I felt no need to fit it with a softbox. Using the same metering method as with the first separation light, I set the second separation light to give an incident meter reading of two stops below the camera setting (f/2.8 at 1/60th of a second). To see the effect of this separation light on Terrance, look at image 7B.

A fourth strobe head, placed to the right of the camera, was used to fill in the shadows to ensure some detail, as shown in image 6, diagram C. I added a frosted acetate gel to its front to even out hotspots. The power of this light was adjusted until an incident meter, with its dome pointed directly at the light and with its back against Terrance’s face, read two stops darker (f/2.8 at 1/60th second) than the camera’s f/5.6 at 1/60th second setting. To see the effect of this separation light on Terrance, look at image 7C. Still on the topic of fill light values, let’s look back at image 2. There, the fill light was turned up to read one stop darker than the camera setting, at f/4 at 1/60th second. Looking back at image 4, the fill light was turned down to read three stops darker than the camera setting, at f/2 at 1/60th second. Keep in mind that when you add in the fill light it will add some exposure to the main light’s mask of light, and so you need to compensate to maintain a correct exposure. For a one-stop under fill, notch up aperture by a half a stop (5.6 becomes 5.6 and 5/10ths); for a two-stop under fill bump the aperture a quarter stop up; for a three-stop under fill, take the aperture an eighth of a stop up.

You may be wondering why no softbox was used on the fill light. I kept it bare and far away so that it would create some “sparkle” on the flesh in shadow areas such as his nose and under his shadow-side eye. In addition to this, the reflection of a small fill light source on the subject’s eyes is easier to hide or retouch away than the larger reflection caused by a light source such as a softbox, umbrella, or scrim. The downside to this technique is that any unwanted shadows cast by this light will have hard edges that draw attention. I did have a little of this happening from Terrance’s hat casting a shadow on his forehead.
Category: How-To
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