Ian Brenes is a photographer in Vancouver, Washington whom I stumbled on while researching shooters on the Internet. When I found out he is only 21, I felt like I had stumbled in real life. His work is professional and mature far beyond his years. More than that, the writing on his blog is clear, informative, and valuable for photographers of any age. He is impressive, and we will be watching his career with anticipation.
It also turns out Brenes is simply a nice guy. He very happily was willing to break down a session of product photography he did with a pair of problematic footwear. Here is how he surmounted lighting issues and came up with a final shot, in his own words.
I work almost exclusively with off-camera, multi-light setups. Not only do I compose the subject, I compose the light as well. To create a realistic looking image, you have to be able to set your strobes in such a way they emulate the way real light would interact with the subject. With this added level of creativity comes a greater degree of difficulty to achieve an accurate exposure. As someone who aspires to one day get into high-end commercial photography, accuracy is everything. Even with shoots that I do for fun, I hold the mentality that there is no do-over, and so I aim to get everything as close to perfect in-camera as I possibly can. Having a light meter allows me to do this much more efficiently and easily because I am able to directly measure the output of each light source as well as get a 100% accurate overall exposure reading.
To illustrate the difference that metering can make, let’s do a shot comparison of a particularly difficult subject to work with: my Creative Recreation Cesario Lo’s in solar/black (solar being CR’s term for ridiculously bright yellow). Not only are they obnoxiously bright, large portions of the shoes are made out of a very shiny plastic material that reflects light easily. If I could compare it to anything I would say it was like shooting a car – the angles the lights hit had to be just right or else reflections would be cast all over the shoes.
Here is the original image, shot before I had a light meter:
I used a four light setup consisting of a strip box on either side of the shoes, a beauty dish overhead, and a snooted and gelled strobe behind the shoes. I knew I wanted the strip boxes to be the main light and the beauty dish to be the fill. That way, any reflections appearing would be on the sides of the shoes instead of in front. Beyond that, I had to resort to trial and error, setting my camera to the highest sync speed and adjusting the aperture and strobe power levels between test shots. Not at all an efficient process, and as you can see, not very accurate. There are still blown out highlights, underexposed shadows, and the lighting is a bit uneven. Despite being such an unorthodox looking pair of shoes, they came out looking flat and dull. Overall the photo is nothing to write home about.
Now let’s look at the redone image:
Highlight to shadow transitions are much smoother with no over- or underexposed areas. The colors are even, with no washed out areas, and fine details like the textures in the leather and stitching have been preserved. The shoes really pop and have a more three-dimensional look in this version. Although the background is different, I used the same lighting setup as before, which can be seen below:
To create a slightly dramatic look and add to the depth of the shoes, I decided to go with a 4:1 lighting ratio, meaning the key light is two stops brighter than the fill. Again, I wanted to use the strip boxes for the key light because light reflections were pretty much unavoidable. Having the reflections appear on the sides does two things: one, it adds to the 3-D effect; and two, the view of the Creative Recreation logo on the strap and tongue remain unobstructed. I metered both strip boxes to double-check they had the same output, which happened to be f/8 with the camera being set at 1/200 shutter speed and ISO 100. Two stops down from f/8 is f/4, so I adjusted the distance and power level of the beauty dish until it metered at f/4. Next, I took a reading of all three lights to get the final exposure value of f/7.1. Since the gelled flash was set to its lowest power setting and zoomed all the way in, I did not bother to meter it since it did not affect the overall exposure significantly enough to warrant doing so.
The whole process of metering sounds a lot more complicated than it really is; all of it was done in about a minute or two and the results speak for themselves. When it comes to working with multiple light sources I would say using a light meter is a borderline necessity, especially when the subject you have is difficult to light properly. Lighting ratios, especially subtle ones, are difficult to visualize. Unless you have super light sensitive eyes, or get really lucky, you will not nail the exposure on the first shot…or the second…or the third. I have had my Sekonic L-358 meter for only about a month now, but I can easily say it is the most valuable piece of equipment I have invested in for that reason. It allows me to quickly and precisely adjust multiple lights and get a 100% accurate overall exposure the first time, every time — literally at the push of a button. However, as awesome as a light meter is, keep in mind that it is not a magical, cure-all solution. A light meter will guide you on how to expose an image, but it is entirely up to you to compose it.
As I mentioned earlier, I changed the background for the second shot. I thought the first one was too distracting and didn’t have enough contrast with the shoes, so I went with one darker and all one color instead. You probably noticed the change in the position of the shoes between the shots as well. Remember what I said about getting the angle just right so the reflections would be in a specific spot? That is exactly what I did. It took a few tries, but I eventually got the lights and shoes set in a position creating flattering reflections. The final change was the type of lens I used. The first image was shot with a 50mm f/1.2L lens, which I had just received in the mail and wanted to see what it could do. The second image was shot more appropriately with a 70-200mm f/2.8L lens, which allowed for a tighter frame from further away. I attribute the improved sharpness and visible details to the lens change. The 50mm is great – just not so much for shooting products.
In summary, a good imagination paired with a few speed lights and a light meter will allow you to create practically anything quickly and easily. The efficiency and accuracy metering provides is an invaluable asset, especially with the heavy use of off-camera lighting seen in commercial work. Rather than wasting time through trial and error, you are instead able to directly measure and control each individual light, take a test shot, and create a consistent, properly exposed set of images. By getting it right in camera you not only speed up the workflow, allowing you to take on more assignments, you also end up with better quality imagery, thereby wowing current clients and showing potential ones that you’ve got what it takes to make an awesome visual statement for their brand.
All images and quotes in this post are used with permission and ©Ian Brenes, all rights reserved; story is ©Sekonic. Please respect and support photographers’ rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or repost elsewhere without written permission.