The Double Main Light

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It’s both possible and practical to use more than one light and modifier, together, to create a main light that will give your images a look that’s beautiful and unusual. Yes, it does take a little more time because you’ll need to correctly meter the situation, but it’s worth it. You’re reading this because you want to learn some tricks that will outsmart your competition. If an extra few minutes does that, it’s time well spent. If your competition never buys this book, well, that’s even better (for you, not for me).

I’ve created my test setup with one light fitted with a medium softbox and a second with a basic parabolic reflector and 10 degree gridspot. I first set the light with the softbox in place, using the modeling lamp to get the correct angle for a good shadow. When I was satisfied my model’s face would be nicely rendered, I placed the second light at exactly the same angle, directly in front of the softbox and butted up straight ahead of the first light. See image 7.1.

With only the softbox light turned on, I metered her face and made note of the exposure strength. This is important only because, even though the next light will determine the actual value of the light, I always try to power this first light to a perfect whole stop or perfect third. Adjustments will be more readily accomplished if I don’t have to make more than minor (e.g., 1/10- or 2/10-stop) changes. This first image was made at what would be –2 stops from my final target aperture. Note that it doesn’t matter what your target exposure is— f/5.6, f/8, or whatever—that’s up to you and depends on the limitations of your system or what you want to portray.

Next, I turned the softbox off and powered up the parabolic to 2 stops brighter than the reading from the softbox. A parabolic reflector is a strong source, throwing relatively hard shadows that really need to be softened for most images. When a softbox is used as an additional modifier, it will negate some of the hard look associated with a basic reflector while adding light to the periphery generated by that first light. See image 7.2.

Finally, I turned the softbox back on and metered the two lights together. Because the effects of light are cumulative, the resulting light meter reading was brighter than either light alone. I adjusted the softbox down, until I got to a perfect reading on the model’s face. The light from the softbox is not as important as the light from the parabolic, but the final, working f-stop must be perfect to guarantee a correct exposure. See image 7.3.

So little light falls on the background that “tonal merger” is evident almost everywhere. Tonal merger occurs when the exposure value on the subject is the same as the value seen in the background. It primarily occurs when shadows merge with unlit backgrounds but can also be seen in high key photos, when light on the edges of the subject blows out to pure white and blends with a white background. Unless tonal merger is a planned part of the composition, it should be avoided.

I set a strip light off to camera left, behind the subject and aimed at the background, feathering the light across the surface rather than aiming it directly at the wall. When feathered, a light will evenly light a larger portion of the background. In order to keep the background light subtle, it was powered 1/3 stop less than the combined exposure of the two main lights. See image 7.4.

My model’s hair is quite dark and still shows areas that could be considered too dark, even though the shape of her head and body are visibly separated from the background. The lighting scenario was completed by the addition of a hair light, in this case a beauty bowl with a 25 degree grid, powered 1/3 stop over the double main light. The final sample (image 7.5) is a very interesting mix of highlights, subdued highlights, and shadow.

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The use of the hair light presents additional options. Because of its angle and because it was positioned almost directly over the model, the light spread. Turning the model into the light spilling over her shoulder creates even more highlights and definition, without diminishing the overall effect of the double main light. See image 7.6 and diagram 7A.

You’re not limited to standard parabolic reflectors when creating this scenario, nor are you bound to place the light close to the softbox.

My second scenario used a beauty bowl as the brighter of the two lights. It throws light in a broader arc than a standard reflector, so it was moved into the model’s space until I saw an effect I liked, about 3 feet away. The model was standing only 5 feet from the background, a position I chose because I wanted enough light to hit the background to illuminate it enough so as to not need a hair light. See image 7.7.

I used a large softbox, set 3 feet farther back, or about 6 feet from the subject. As you know, a large softbox placed so close to the model will produce very soft light. Image 7.8, lit by the softbox alone, is quite lovely.

I followed the same lighting and metering regimen as in the previous example and, as before, the difference between the two lights was 2 stops. Even though the final light, at first blush, looks much like the first example with the beauty bowl, closer examination reveals softer shadows and less harsh highlights on the model’s hair along with a snappier light on her face that’s softer than that of the beauty bowl by itself. See image 7.9 and diagram 7B.

Of course, you’re not tied down to a 2-stop difference between the lights. Depending on how bright your subject’s clothing is, and the ultimate effect you want to see, you could power the softbox as high as a 1-stop difference or as low as 4 stops, if you want the least detail possible while still being able to see “something” in the shadow areas that face into the light.

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I set two strip lights in front of the camera, one on each side, separated by about 6 inches.My model stood about 5 feet in front of the two lights while I shot from between them. Both lights were powered equally and set vertically. I also set the height of the lights lower than usual because I wanted to see multiple catchlights that ran fully over the curve of her eyes. Shooting from between the two lights guaranteed a catchlight on each side of her pupils. See image 7.10.

When setting lights like this, the only problem that I can see is the creation of a double nose shadow if the subject is looking straight into the camera. As soon as she turns her head in either direction the problem is solved, and a single shadow is created from the two lights. See image 7.11.

Angling the two lights into an inverted V creates the same look but produces a different, angled catchlight pattern. See image 7.12.

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