Subtractive Lighting: Creating Drama with Contrast

Subtractive Lighting for Dramatic Effect on Lighting EssentialsThere are times when you want to create more contrast in an image… mitigate the reflections or make sure that the shadows are as deep as possible. These situations can occur with natural lighting, but in the studio you may have to add a bit more to the shot to insure the contrast is sufficient.

Everything reflects. That is something you will hear me say all the time. Whether at the workshop or working one on one with a photographer, one of the most important things to drive home is that everything reflects. Skin, silver, blue sweaters… they all reflect, but at obviously different qualities.

Subtractive lighting can increase the contrast of an image
In this photograph we wanted a very deep shadow to create more mystery around the already mysterious image. The model with luscious lips emerging from behind the mask. In my mind, I wanted her to be emerging from the darkness as well. The mask is very glossy, so I knew a large, liquid highlight was called for so that the curves of the mask and her face would be smooth and soft.

Using a large softbox very close to the subject provided a large reflection of the source on the mask, her fingernails and her skin. This light, quite powerful, also provided some fill on the shadow side of her face because it simply lit up the wall. Even thought the wall was quite a distance from her, the fact that her skin reflected the light on the wall was problematic. It also provided a nice kick of reflection on the mask… one that I didn’t want.

To mitigate the reflection and increase the contrast I hung a 6′x6′ black cloth just to the right of the image and in as close as possible. This black cloth provided two qualities: it blocked the light from hitting the wall, and more importantly, it gave the skin and the mask something dark to reflect.
This diagram shows the lighting setup for this image

I essentially ‘subtracted’ the light from the shadow side of the image. Please note that there is no Photoshop on this image to darken or ‘burn’ that area in. The transparency is perfectly black and the contrast is as you see in the image.

You will notice that just on the edge of the mask as it disappears into the darkness, there is a little edge light going on. That is caused by the ribbon catching the light and creating a little fill of its own. I thought it was very subtle and added to the image by providing a point of diminution… where the final vestiges of the mask and the subject go into total shadow. Sometimes little things can really make the shot come alive. Look for them in your shots.

(I shot this on a 4×5 view camera, but you can do the same thing with any camera setup.)

This shot is another subtractive lighting still life. It was shot for a client who wanted the feeling of strength for their software tools. The theme was bodybuilding and they came up with the idea of a body builder with light coming in from the side. Yeah. Never seen that before. I pushed for a still life and they said go ahead and shoot it cause they could use it for something else if they didn’t use it for the brochure cover.
Subtractive Lighting for a still life on Lighting Essentials

The light in this case is quite different. I will explain and add a diagram to show how different it is. I call it edge light or feathered light. The camera is focused down on the still life which is an old rusted weight, some weight lifting gloves and chalk that they use for working with the iron. All is on a 4×4 sheet of ‘stone’ slate. The camera in this case is a Deardorff 8×10 with a 375MM lens. Shot at f32 I would have loved another stop, but this was optimal for what we could do.

Diagram of setup:
Oblique Softbox with Subtractive Lighting on Lighting Essentials

You can see where the dark shadows play at the right side of everything. Deep and mysterious, they help create the drama. It also creates a nice light for revealing texture. Whether it is the leather or the slate background, the textures make the shot richer and more interesting. Notice the white chalk. I deliberately placed it on the far side from the light so that it wouldn’t be too bright or lose texture. The addition of the black subtractive card increased the contrast. Without the subtractive, there was nearly no texture in that lump of chalk.

When I delivered the shot, I made a presentation holder with the 8×10 transparency mounted in it. (I always shoot two sets of transparencies or more on shots like this.) The client went nuts. They ended up making some really cool large wall graphics and I shot 3 more similar still lifes for them. They tripled the shoot fee and it was a nice job. Oh, and I didn’t have to shoot some bodybuilder dude with the side light.

Recommended:
I keep a 4x4ft square of black cloth with me in my kit. It comes in handy on many shoots where there is a little glare to be knocked down, or I need to darken an area or do a little subtractive lighting. It packs very small, and can be invaluable… oh, and it is big enough to do a headshot against black on location if you need it. And a little bit of speedlight and ambient light mixed against a dark background can be very dramatic.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

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