Combining lighting techniques, part 1

This tutorial is about combining some of the lighting techniques we’ve covered in other tutorials into a single shot.

I thought about this for a while before choosing to photograph a small hunting rifle. Firstly, there are always the hoplophobics who hate firearms, and then there’s the fact that most of the people who read this won’t ever actually photograph one – but even the people who suffer from hoplophobia must accept that rifles are superb examples of precision engineering, and even if you’re never going to photograph one yourself, the complex shapes, the mixture of shiny and non-shiny surfaces and the telescopic sight all create a lighting challenge because each one of those ingredients needs to be lit separately and very precisely, and the principles involved carry over to less complex subjects as well.

A rifle like this looks at its best when photographed ready for use, that is with the bolt in the firing position and with a magazine fitted to it, but safety is the only thing that really matters where firearms are concerned and because of this I carefully checked that the rifle was unloaded, that the magazine was also unloaded and, for good measure, I applied the safety catch too.  And my No.3 son, who also holds a Section 1 firearms certificate for this class of rifle and who was here at the time, checked my safety procedures.

A subject like this is complicated because, as well as the different textures and shapes, it’s black. The trick here is to light it in such a way that the detail in the black isn’t lost. This requires both accurate lighting and dead accurate exposure. Near enough isn’t good enough, and the answers lie with the lighting and the exposure, not with Photoshop. And certain parts are a bit of a mismatch, for example the magazine is made of mild steel with a totally different quality of finish and colour, and the telescopic sight has different qualities too.

The easy way is to photograph it against a neutral background and to then cut it out in Photoshop, to make the background black, white or something else but I chose to create a white background in camera.

All of this has of course added to the complexity of the lighting, and I appreciate that you may not have enough lighting equipment or enough space to do exactly as I’ve done in this tutorial, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is that by the time you’ve worked through the various stages of this tutorial, you’ll know exactly how these results can be produced!

For anyone who wants to know, this is a .17 calibre HMR rifle made by CZ. The ‘woodwork’ is in fact ABS, it doesn’t look as pretty as wood, and certainly doesn’t photograph as well as wood, but it’s more practical and is a popular choice for hunting rifles, which have to be used in all weather conditions.

The links show the Lencarta equipment that I used, but similar equipment is of course also available from some other manufacturers.
I used a large still life table, simply because I wanted to underlight the table to create a white background, but if the background isn’t going to be white (or even if it is) you can manage without one. Rifles are difficult to support for photography, and I used a spare lighting stand to hold it in position.  This will result in a tiny bit of PS work, but it doesn’t matter. As with all white background shots, it’s very important to have as much space as possible between the subject and the background, to avoid both flare and the destruction of fine edge detail from the white background, and it’s also important to use the absolute minimum of overexposure on the background – something like 0.7 of a stop is all that’s needed for digital.

I used a full frame DSLR fitted with a longish lens, so that I had plenty of working distance between camera and subject and because that distance allowed the rifle to be at an angle to the camera without creating obvious perspective distortion. The camera is fitted to a stand, and I had a second camera, fitted with a wider lens, fitted immediately below it. This camera has produced the ‘step back’ setup shots.  It would have been better to show the lighting arrangements with a video, but there are both legal and practical difficulties involved with having other people present shooting a video of this, so I have had to rely on a still camera for the setup shots. This will involve splitting this tutorial into two sections, but it can’t be helped.
I initially set the aperture to f/16, to get enough depth of field to get most of the subject sharp with it  at an angle. The lens hood supplied with the lens is pretty useless, so I used a rubber lens hood that belongs to my Mamiya RZ67 instead. Not using a lens hood in the studio is crazy, regardless of the subject, and not using one where there is backlighting aimed more or less towards the lens is a recipe for disaster. A lot of different lighting equipment was also used, I’ll explain that as I go. The exposure changed slightly as the lighting progressed, all lighting is additive in nature so extra light from different sources inevitably changes the exposure.

Setting up the shot
As with all studio shots, the first thing to do is to arrange the product, because the lighting has to be adjusted to suit the subject, not the other way round. Most product shots of  rifles show the whole product, but I felt that for this shot it was more important to show the fine detail, so I went for a closer shot. I didn’t see any point including the ‘ends’, everyone knows that the rifle has a muzzle, so I cut off the end of the sound moderator (which the media calls a silencer) and which in any event was obscured by the support.

Camera height
The second decision is always about the height of the camera. Just experiment until the viewpoint shows the bits you want to show at their best. Generally, looking down shows a 3-dimensional view, with depth, but looking up (called a heroic viewpoint) makes it look more dramatic. With the camera looking neither up nor down, it result is technically more accurate, but doesn’t look very creative. With this shot, the camera was looking down, but not very much.

Now we can start the lighting process. Many years of experience gives me a pretty good idea of the lighting that’s needed, but I ignore this and always light every subject in exactly the same way – I start with one light, and then add other lights, individually, until the result matches my vision.

I started with a strip softbox, complete with a honeycomb, fitted to a flash head and mounted on to a boom arm. This was placed behind the subject, to rimlight the top edge, which helps to create some separation from the background.
That in itself is quite dramatic, but it’s not the result I’m looking for. Note the light on the underside, this is unwanted light bounced off of the white table. Note too the apparently crazy angle of the softbox, the rifle had to be held at the angle shown in the setup shot below because the light stand wouldn’t go any lower, and the camera was tilted to get the angle I wanted. It’s vital to get the softbox lights absolutely square to the subject, otherwise the highlights will ‘taper off’ and look wrong. The exposure for this light needs to be perfect, otherwise the highlights will be too bright. I used an UltraPro 300 flash head for this light, because it’s easier to adjust using the remote control Commander unit than flash heads that need to be adjusted manually. But if you don’t have any remote controlled flash heads you can manage with manually controlled ones.
Then I added a single large softbox overhead on another boom arm. This was slightly in front of the subject, pointing back towards it, and the reason for this is that I wanted to create a diffused specular highlight on the top/front of both the barrel/action, the telescopic sight, the sound moderator and the bolt.

Basically, that’s the main subject lighting dealt with. All that now needs to be done is to identify the bits that need to be accented, and to light them…

Please click here to go to part 2