Tutorial: Black on black, part 1

This tutorial is about creating diffused specular highlights on a shiny subject, and then lighting the detail as needed. As it happens, I chose a fairly shiny black flashhead as my subject here, it’s our SuperFast 300, and I used other SuperFast 300’s to light it,  but the principles involved apply to anything that’s shiny and with a similar shape, and even to most things that aren’t. The SuperFast is a high end, functional bit of gear and  the appearance isn’t important to it’s function, but we still need to make it look OK.

Lit with bottom sofbox only

Lit with bottom sofbox only

With anything shiny, we need to control the specular highlights (the inevitable reflections of the light source) and the principles that apply are set out in this tutorial on creating diffused specular reflections, which are reflections that are large, that aren’t bright and that you can see through, to the subject beneath. So, let’s make a start…

Whatever we’re lighting, we must always start with just one light, to create the effect we want and then add any other lights, as necessary, building the lighting up around the subject, one at a time – only complete beginners use any kind of ‘standard’ lighting arrangements and bring the subject into an existing lighting setup. So, I started with the light that lights the underside of the flash head and that creates its diffused

Strip softboxes top and bottom

Strip softboxes top and bottom

specular highlight.  Mounting the softbox as close as possible to the subject creates the largest and softest possible diffused specular highlights, and also causes the intensity of the light to fall off quickly, making full use of the Inverse Square Law. I used one of our strip softboxes for this, mounted on a low level lighting stand, which was essential because a standard light stand is far too high. As you can see from the video, the strip softbox was very close to the subject and was at precisely the same angle as the subject – essential if we want to avoid an uneven strip of light. Because the strip softbox is longer than the subject, some light has escaped into the inside of the reflector, which isn’t a bad thing, even though I later lit this separately.

Time now to light the top, and again I used our strip softbox for that, at exactly the same angle, power setting and distance as the first one. It’s mounted on a boom arm, and much as I like to bodge things, a boom arm really is essential for this. The overhang of the upper strip softbox has added a bit more light to the inside of the reflector, but it still isn’t quite enough, so I added an extra light, fitted with a 10 degree honeycomb, simply because I could – but if there isn’t an extra light available, a workaround with this particular subject would have been to switch the modelling lamp on and use a long enough exposure to capture its effect. If you do that you will of course need to adjust the colour temperature in PP, because the colour temperature of the modelling lamp is much lower than that of the flash.


Rear lit with standard reflector, the light goes where it isn’t wanted and also creates flare

Finally, I needed to separate the rear of the black subject from the black background (which incidentally is a grey background butsf_right_final which photographs as black because no light is reaching it) and this involved placing another flash head, fitted with a standard reflector  left and behind the subject. But as you can see, there’s far too much light spread and light reaching the lens has also created flare, so here is the same shot but with a 20 degree honeycomb fitted. A small softbox, fitted with a honeycomb, could have been used instead.

Not that it’s especially important, but these shots were taken with a full frame Nikon camera, 200mm lens (to provide adequate working space) set to f/16, to provide adequate depth of field.  This type of shot is typically taken with a tilt/shift lens, to ensure that the entire length is in sharp focus, but the Canon camera that takes the tilt/shift lens was needed for the video so I couldn’t use it 🙂

Part 2 of this tutorial will show how the subject was photographed from a different angle, this time showing the back panel.


With lighting added to the reflector and the rear panel