Tutorial: Building up the light

This tutorial is about my basic approach to lighting,which never changes regardless of subject – it doesn’t matter whether the subject is a beautiful girl, a product, an ugly old man like me or, as we did in this shoot, a motorbike. The approach must always be the same. In my experience, the only people who do it differently (who use some kind of a standard lighting setup and who introduce more than one light at a time) are the people who haven’t yet grasped the basics of lighting…
The correct sequence:

  1. Decide on the style and look that’s wanted in the finished shot, there needs to be a clear concept of what’s wanted before you start.
  2. Decide on shooting distance, background, camera height, lens aperture/depth of field, before thinking about the lighting, because each of these will affect the final result, and especially the camera position/height.
  3. Use ONE light (the key light) and position it to create the effect that you want. The key light is the light that does most of the work.
  4. Add any other lights or reflectors that are then needed, to deal with problems caused by the key light, or that haven’t been cured by the key light.

Shot with room lighting only

It’s really that simple.
The subject here is a motorbike. My licence says that I can take it for a spin, but the owner says that I can’t, so I just photographed it:)  I decided, right at the outset, that a 650cc bike is a pretty macho thing, and the lighting needs to be pretty hard, to make it look attractive rather than pretty. The first job was to clean it as thoroughly as possible, because although in an ideal world I would only photograph brand new products, I didn’t have a new one available so I did what I could with what was available, and got its owner to get it  as clean and shiny as he could. Just so that you can see what it looks like, here is a quick shot of it using just the normal overhead lighting.

I decided to photograph it against a black background. I didn’t actually use a black background for this because I didn’t want to struggle to find some of the detail, such as the underside of the bike, when editing it later, so I used a grey background which of course photographed as black behind the bike because there was no light reaching it. I decided that the rear tyre needed to merge into the background, but I knew that it would be very simple to do that at the post processing stage.

You can see the positions of the various lights in the video, but please bear in mind that the video camera can’t be in the same position as the still camera, it’s off to one side so the viewpoint is a bit different, and allowance needs to be made for this.

So, the first shot, with the key light, was an overhead softbox mounted on a boom arm. The petrol tank definitely isn’t an ideal shape for photography and it’s complex and irregular shape makes it literally impossible to find a sofbox big enough to produce soft, diffused specular highlights – so just use the biggest one you can, and get it as close as you can.  It’s all very well for people like me to talk about getting diffused specular highlights,  but with something like a fuel tank, which has a shape that is both irregular and convex, we just have to accept that perfection is impossible. As you can see, all that this softbox is doing is lighting the petrol tank, seat, rear wheel, silencer and handlebars, and because it’s angled forward it isn’t doing anything at all to light anything else – that’s fine. The level of exposure (or the amount of light used) is subjective, and I decided to use enough lighting power to create the right amount of light on the handlebars, silencer etc even though that also meant that there would be a lot of light on the fuel tank and seat.


Shot with an overhead softbox only

For the second shot, I added a 70 x 100cm softbox off to camera left, to create a general light on the side of the bike.  And I put it on a low level lighting stand so that it pointed slightly upwards, where it wouldn’t add any light to the top. This added an unwanted specular highlight (reflection of the light source) on to the left hand side of the petrol tank – easily removed in post processing, so I didn’t worry about it. There is also an unwanted specular reflection from the nearside mirror – I had angled the mirror downwards to avoid reflecting our studio in it, again knowing that any unwanted reflection could be easily removed.


Another softbox has been added, front left

The third shot involved highlighting the detail on the engine block, number plate and so on, and for this I wanted a really hard light, skimming along the length of the bike, so I used a 10 degree honeycomb fitted to a standard reflector, behind the bike. Only a tiny amount of light caught the number plate, it looks like a lot, but only because the number plate is reflective.


A honeycombed light has been added from behind the rear wheel

And the fourth shot involved adding another 10 degree honeycomb from the front of the bike, and pointing at the brake disk. This light was really only needed because the bike isn’t new and the brake disk looks pretty dull and worn without it, in other words it probably wouldn’t have been needed if the bike had been new. The brake disk would have looked better if I had set the power a bit higher, but this would also have over-lit other detailed bits.



A honeycombed light has been added from in front of the front wheel

And finally, I wasn’t happy about the lighting on the handlebars and the instruments, so I added another light for this. Again I used a boom arm, which supported a flash head fitted with a 40cm beauty dish, complete with honeycomb. I used a beauty dish because I wanted the light to cover a fairly large area, and I added the honeycomb to ensure that the light didn’t spread too far. The light was angled forward, so that it lit nothing behind the handlebars.

A general point here – I shot at f/16, and took care to get the exposure right for the first shot with the overhead softbox. After this point, there was no need for metering, because there is no such thing as “correct” exposure for the parts lit by the other lights – “correct” is whatever looks right.


A honeycombed light has been added, above and slightly behind the handlebars

Each of the shots above is literally straight out of camera, so that you can see exactly what the lighting is doing, because this is a tutorial and post processing of images used in tutorials stops people from seeing the full picture. But here is a photo of the finished result, retouched as necessary.



Motorbikes are strange machines, in a way, because they have all sorts of engineering bits on them that detract from their otherwise clean lines, so one of the things that we did at the post processing stage was to clone out some of the bolts and bits and pieces. We wanted it on a black background, but we didn’t want it to “float” so we left a small area, complete with tyre marks, to make it look grounded. The actual background used was grey, it was a long way behind the subject and as none of the lights was pointing towards the background, it has of course photographed as black. Here is a video, showing how the retouching/post processing work was done.