- April 21st, 2011
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Gatorade and a few other sporting brands have taken to dramatic lighting in their ad campaigns for several years now. The number of times I’ve read questions about how to achieve such lighting answered simply with softbox has grown so large I’ve decided to go ahead and answer the question with an explanation I hope someone will find more useful than softbox.
First of all, you don’t need a softbox. Any spill-controlling light source you can get close to your subject will do. Zach Arias likes to use a collapsed bounce umbrella and a hotshoe flash like a small softbox. You can make a softbox out of a cardboard box lined with foil and covered with a white trashbag if you really want to. Do you have a large beauty dish with a diffuser? That will work too. Your options are only as limited as your imagination so long as you’ve got a means of providing a large apparent light source that controls spill and can be placed very close to your subject.
Why does the light source need to be close to your subject? If you take light intensity as a function of distance the value decreases rapidly as distance increases. Outside of my engineering courses I don’t know very many people who even remotely care about the science behind that fact, or the math used to describe it, so I won’t go there. If you want a quick practical example turn the lights off in your room and shine a flashlight at your hand, then shine it in the far corner of the room. It’s going to be significantly brighter against your hand. Your flashes emit light, and light is light. It all behaves the same way.
Now, let’s review some basics of flash photography. Aperture controls flash. Shutter speed controls ambient light. Shooting at your max sync speed (1/200s on my Canon 5D Mark II – ask Google if you don’t know your max sync speed) will kill the ambient light, leaving your flash to do all of the work. To make this work, go with a small aperture – say f/8 or smaller. Combine all of that with a light source very close to your subject and you’ll get light that goes from bright to dark in less distance than the width of my head.
Example #1 – ISO 250, 1/200s, f/8, 50mm, 2x Vivitar 285HV hotshoe flashes @ 1/4 power into collapsed Westcott 43″ Soft Silver umbrellas:
Lighting Diagram for Example #1:
Example #2 – ISO 100, 1/200s, f/8, 50mm, 1x Einstein 640 @ 1/96 power (-6.5f) into a 28″ Fotodiox beauty dish with diffuser:
Lighting Diagram for Example #2:
There you have it. Get in close with a large apparent light source, shoot at your max sync with an appropriate aperture. If you want more light to spread across your subject open the aperture up, if you want it to spread less close it down. Alternately, you can control how far the light travels across your subject by varying the power of your strobe. For reference sake, you don’t need a huge room with black walls to do this. Both shots above were taken in normal bedrooms. The first was taken during the day with a window open, and I forgot to reduce the ISO from the product photos I took moments earlier. Post-processing was limited to a preset that simulates Kodak Tri-X black and white film. Honestly, the preset overdrives the highlights far more than it kills the shadows. Control the spill, and get in close – you can get this effect nearly anywhere.