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The Elegance Network: Browsing Ariel - Tutorial: A Cold Dungeon Cell
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Ariel Anderssen
Ariel - Tutorial: A Cold Dungeon Cell

This set was shot by Ricky and Eric, two members who came to one of our recent tutorial sessions. We ask everyone who attends to come up with an idea for a set and this was Ricky's - he wanted to shoot a set in the dungeon, with a single dramatic light source, making it look quite cold and very dramatic.

Flat Light

As this was the first set of the day, we started off by showing the basic three-point lighting set-up which is the core of nearly every lighting patterm we use. We started off setting up an extreme example, which photographers call "flat light". We placed two strip softboxes either side of the camera (and either side of Ariel), and adjusted the intensity of each until they were the same. These are the key and fill lights. Then we added a harder hairlight from behind and above Ariel, to bring definition to her hair and make her stand out from the cell walls better.

If you look at photo re7DSC_8737d.jpg you can see the result, straight out of the camera. Several things to note...

  • It is slightly over-exposed. This was probably due to metering the light before Ariel started posing, and her ending up slightly further forward than we'd allowed for. With a digital camera you always want to err on the side of underexposure rather than risking overexposure. This is because you can always rescue detail from the underexposed areas (although it might get very noisy if you have underexposed by too much) but if a shot has overexposed and a tone has gone to white, you can't recover it.
  • Nikons have a vivid colour setting, which turned Ariel a strangely luminous orange. We turned this off!
  • The lighting is fine, but curiously two dimensional. This is why we call it flat light. There's hardly any drape of light on Ariel's figure. There's a little on her face: one side is slightly turned away from the key and the fill lights and so is a little less brightly lit. The background wall looks very flat and the whole shot looks rather drab and uninteresting given that Ariel is there in her full naked glory.
  • It lacks drama and interest in the lighting. We can do much better. The lesson here was that even when you are aiming for glamour lighting, your key light should always be a bit brighter than your fill light. If a photographer or model says the light looks a bit flat, this is what they mean. Flat light is bad.

    What each light is doing

    We then took some shots to show what each light was doing. We turned the fill light down a bit, so the light wasn't quite so flat, then metered for the scene with all the lights on. Then we took some shots with each light on its own to show what it was bringing to the scene.

    re7DSC_0010d.jpg shows the key light on its own. It is immediately more dramatic, but still a bit ;acklustre. If they key light is quite close to the camera, it can end up looking a bit like a cheap on-camera flash, which this does a bit.

    re7DSC_0014d.jpg shows the hair light on its own. You can see that it is kicking a lot of light onto Ariel's hair, making it glow around the edges,and also adding a rather attractive highlight down her back and onto her feet in this pose. As you can see in re7DSC_0015d.jpg you can get a really dramatic shot with just one light, but it is critical to get it in the right place for the shot. Otherwise your model's eyes will be lost in the gloom.

    re7DSC_0017d.jpg shows just the fill light. As we've turned it down, it is clearly underexposing, but that's fine, this is how the shadows are going to look, with the other two lights taking care of the hightlights.

    re7DSC_0025d.jpg shows the effect when all three lights are on. It is still very glam and even, but we've made it a little more interesting. It is still quite flat, and not really what we were after for this set.

    Single Light

    So, can you achieve the single light effect with a single light, pointing at the right place? Of course you can. We moved the key light right around so it was pointing through the cell bars, to throw shadows of the bars on the wall. We swapped the softbox on the from of the key light for a honeycomb as well, to give a soft-edged pool of harder light. (That doesn't make any sense until you've seen what a honeycomb does, probably. Sorry!) This also highlighed the relief on the wall blocks, to get away from that dreaded flat light.

    re7DSC_0043d.jpg shows that with Ariel facing the right way, you can get a very good effect. Suddenly, the cell has some real depth to it. The wall looks like it is behind Ariel, rather than being a flat thing right next to her. The shadows of the bars give a feeling of space.

    So, job done, right? If you want it to look like a single light source, use a single light in the right place.

    For a single shot, where you can shoot 20 attempts at the same shot until you get it right, that's absolutely right. But for RE, we always need to get a set of shots, and a single light really only has a single angle at which it all works. It limits Ariel's posing possibilities considerably.

    re7DSC_0045d.jpg shows why. Same light, but Ariel has turned her face away. Suddenly she looks like ablack eyed Panda. We've lost her eyes in pools of shadow and the result looks a bit freaky. You soon learn that eyes are very important in photos, and you really need to be able to see the twinkle of a catchlight in the eyes or the person looks curiously like a zombie. It is subtle, but important. Other poses, like re7DSC_0056d.jpg just don't work at all.

    Three Lights For A Single Light

    So, maybe we need to turn on at least one more light. How about the hairlight? You might expect that putting ligt in from completely the opposite direction to the single light might wreck the effect of being in the light from a prison cell window. In fact, as re7DSC_0069d.jpg shows, turning the hair light on can actually enhance the effect. The cell looks even colder and bleaker, and Ariel seems even more isolated from the remote monolithic stone walls.

    This helps enchance the effect, but still risks the zombie-eyes effect of not having catchlights. So we turned the fill light back on at a lower power setting, just enough to lift the shadows on Ariel's skin from black to shaodw-on-skin tone, going from re7DSC_0081d.jpg to re7DSC_0100d.jpg. As you can see from re7DSC_8814d.jpg the illusion of a single light source is definitely preserved at first glance by making sure the key is significantly brighter than the fill. (The hairlight can be about the same strength as the key but we usually tone it down a bit to preserve the single-light illusion).

    The difference is quite subtle, but is the final piece in the jigsaw for letting us succesfully shoot this as a set of photos from different angles, without having to stop and reposition the lights for every shot. That's important when your model is tied up and the clock is ticking until she needs to be untied. And the funny thing is that the shots look almost more like a single light source than the ones which actually were shot with just one light.

    The Blues

    When Ricky and Eric had shot a good set's worth of Ariel in her chains in the cold stone dungeon, we decided to try one more variation on the light. We put a blue gel over the key light. Looking at the effect on the camera LCD, we thought it was subtle but cool. Seeing it on the computer screen it is not subtle at all, in fact it is overdone even though we only used a weak colour correction filter. As re7DSC_0156d.jpg shows, the effect is dramatic and attractive, but hardly naturalistic. An even milder colour gel would have made a more subtle job of it.

    The main lesson of this is that subtle colour casts do not show up on the small LCD screen on the back of a digital camera. There is no substitute for looking at the shots full-size.

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