The basics on light quality with a speedlight, an old piece of ceramic tile, a plastic storage box and a sheet of paper.

My wife has been working on a jewelry project for the past couple of months and needed photos to help promote it. The project is to help victims of human trafficking get their life back together and start over; to find out more about this worthy cause you can head over to the Breaking Chains Network’s website. I decided the tasking from CINC-HOUSE (Commander in Chief – House, for you non military types) would be a good opportunity to demonstrate what could be done with just one speedlight, an old piece of ceramic tile, a plastic storage box and a sheet of paper.

The objective for the photos was to create a simple image that could be used to sell the item online or in a flyer. Based on that criteria we could have just did what everyone else does and just use a camera phone, but that just does not do the subject justice now does it. The photos must stand out and give an accurate representation of the object, showing every little detail and sparkle we can. Obviously I could have pulled out a few strobes and maybe a softbox and a reflector, but we could do it with much less gear. Time for a refresher on a few basic principles of lighting.

Lets start by talking about light quality; I know you always hear the pro’s talk about it, but why is it so important. Here is a good little test that lets you see why light quality matters. All you need for this test is a lamp with a removable shade (or a desk lamp with an exposed bulb), a piece of printer paper and a willing subject. Have the subject sit by the lamp (about 2 or 3 feet away), remove the shade (or point the desk lamp at the subject) and turn it on. Look at your subject, there are very pronounced and deep shadows, and the subject is probably annoyed at you by now. Place the piece of paper about 5 inches from the bare bulb, between the lamp and subject. Now look at your subject, you should notice first off it’s slightly darker but also notice the shadows are not as pronounced or deep. The paper is doing two things. First it is diffusing or softening the light, but more importantly your light source just went from 3 inches to 8.5 by 11 inches. The size of the light source in relation to your subject is a very big factor in light quality. Have you ever noticed that portraits taken outside on an overcast day look so much nicer than the ones on a sunny day? Think back to the test, on a sunny day the sun is a little dot of light in the sky, on an overcast day it is as large as the whole sky. Now lets do one more little test, move the paper from 5 inches from the bulb to 5 inches from the subject, still between the lamp and subject. The light should be noticeably better since the size of the light source just got bigger relative to the subject.

Now with that out of the way how are we going to take these photos? The basic setup was a piece of ceramic tile 12 inches by 24 inches laid out on the kitchen table. My wife carefully placed a bracelet and matching ear rings on the tile and I took a photo with just the ambient light. The photo was what you would expect from a camera phone, made instead with a Nikon. I set a Nikon SB-700 speedlight on a CD book (to give it a slight downward angle) and put it in remote mode, group A. The Nikon D7100 built in flash was set to commander mode, group A was set to I-TTL. A test shot was made with no other light modifiers in place, just direct side light from the SB-700. The photo was properly exposed as you would expect from Nikon’s Creative Lighting System, but there were very harsh shadows, not pleasing at all. See the two photos below, the first shows the setup and the second shows the results.

The basics on light quality with a speedlight, an old piece of ceramic tile, a plastic storage box and a sheet of paper
Strong un-diffused light from a speedlight creates deep shadows.
The basics on light quality with a speedlight, an old piece of ceramic tile, a plastic storage box and a sheet of paper
Looks like like on camera flash, albeit from the side.

 

Next I took a white plastic storage bin and placed it on its side as a reflector, opposite the speedlight, to reflect light into the shadow side of the subject. The shadows in the second photo were not as harsh as the first, and there was more detail in the shadow side of the subject, subtle differences, but noticeable. The next two photos show the differences in the setup and the results. Pay close attention to the shadows and the part of the subject that are in the shadows, the shadows are not as dark and there is more detail in the shadow side of the subject.

The basics on light quality with a speedlight, an old piece of ceramic tile, a plastic storage box and a sheet of paper
Using a white plastic container to add light back into the shadows.
The basics on light quality with a speedlight, an old piece of ceramic tile, a plastic storage box and a sheet of paper
Softer shadows but we can do better.

The photos still do not meet our objectives so we must keep on working with the lighting to get the desired final image. Right now the light source is approximately 1 inch by 2.5 inches and is 20 inches from the subject. Based on the test results from above we need to improve our light quality. Taking the piece of printer paper and holding it between the speedlight and the subject, 6 to 8 inches from the subject, we took another photo. The third image really demonstrates how the size of a light source and it’s distance relative to the subject matters. There are no harsh shadows, you can see slight reflections in the surface of the tile and there is plenty of detail in the subject.

The basics on light quality with a speedlight, an old piece of ceramic tile, a plastic storage box and a sheet of paper
Using a piece of paper to diffuse the light and effectively increase the size of the light source in relation to the subject.
The basics on light quality with a speedlight, an old piece of ceramic tile, a plastic storage box and a sheet of paper
Much better!.

 

 

 

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