Subject Centric Lighting: The Five Areas of Light Presentation

Cover image by Project 52 student, Gabriel Alvarez.

When the lighting choices we have made are used, the light is ‘presented’ back to the camera in expected, and controlled ways. There are five parts of the light presentation, and we use them in every image we make.

True Subject Value:
What the subject looks like when not in specular or shadow, this is the area that shows us the color of the subject as well.

The exact or absolute reflection of the light source.

Specular Transition:
The point where the specular reflection transitions to the true subject value

Shadow Transition:
The transition between True Subject Value and Shadow

The places on the image that are not lit, the opposite side of the light source.

These areas of light are found in nearly every subject. By understanding what they do, and how they are controlled, we can understand much more about the light that is used to present these areas in the ways we want to show them.

In other words, knowing what causes a shadow transition, how to present true value, and how to control a specular highlight means we have control over our lighting and we can create the looks we want. Whenever we want.

Photographers and artists use these representations of light to show texture, shape, dimension, color, clarity and mood. Illustrators use highlight and shadow in their work to create their own light. And they use the same tools to light their drawings, although quite imaginary, as photographers do.

We can see all the presentations of light in this image of Inaudia.

Lit with two strip lights (one on each side), the one on camera left is behind Inaudia and aimed forward just bit. The one on the right is slightly in front of him, and angled at an oblique angle.

This renders two different kinds of specular presentations, the absolute one on his neck and left side, and the softer one on the right side.

All of the transitions are there, and these transitions are what we see when we are determining soft light from hard light. A fast transition is a hard light, where a softer transition – as in the picture below – is a softer light. We would call this image a hard light image because of the fast fall off in the transitions between highlight and true value, and true value and shadow.

This image shows a lot of true value skin tone. One of the reasons is that the model is not shiny (wet) or perspiring to cause a shinier surface. Powder is used to intensify the diffuse skin (true value) so the speculars (in red) are presented softly. The blue speculars, however, are presented with very sharp transitions. Note that the specular on the shiny lips is absolute, with no soft transition. The gold jewelry on the dress shows as highlight/black because the reflection of the light source from the shiny metal is absolute.

Lighting: Very large softbox directly in front of the model, and back 5 feet. White cards are positioned on either side of her, but pulled back to a point where they will not reflect in her eyes.

Photographer Anne Stephenson shows how to control the specular, true value, shadow and transitions in this seemingly simple table top product shot. As you can see, nothing done well is simple. Every kind of surface is in this shot.

Let’s start to put all of this together now.

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