How to Photograph a Lie - Digital Photography School

How to Photograph a Lie

A Guest Post by Roger Overall

DPS-LightArticle-RogerOverall.jpg

You’ll have to trust me on this one.

This photograph was taken on a kitchen floor.

On a very wet winter’s day.

After the sun had set.

No really.

Let me show you.

The Challenge

A friend of mine in London runs a catering business. She needed some publicity pictures for a new idea: fun bags for children at weddings. Thing is, she needed them well ahead of the start of the summer wedding season. She needed them in January – when the British weather is typically at its most miserable. There was no budget, so we wouldn’t be jetting off anywhere bright and dry. Nor would we be hiring a studio. Her kitchen would have to do.

We were also going to have to make do with limited equipment. I was travelling to London from Ireland to photograph an annual report, and was bringing minimal lighting gear for the portrait pictures: two flashguns and a brace of stands. Whatever we did would to have to be simple.

Not that we had time for anything elaborate. Commitments on both sides meant we had to shoehorn the shoot into tight schedules. We’d have about an hour-and-a-half to complete the photograph. That’s 90 minutes from the time I arrived to the time the shoot needed to be completed.

Worse, we didn’t have a plan. We were going to wing it. We knew we had a model – Felix, the three-year-old son of a neighbour. Beyond that, we’d agreed nothing. We were friends; it wasn’t a paid job; there was no pressure; we’d figure it out.

I was thinking we’d go for a head-and-shoulders shot and not do anything ambitious. Play it safe. Get a result.

But where’s the fun in that?

Somewhere over the Irish Sea, an idea was born.

Removing the location

My friend’s kitchen wasn’t huge, but big enough to lay down a picnic blanket – which she had. Better still, she could it find quickly.

Being able to get rid of the floor tiles meant we’d be able to produce a photograph that didn’t necessarily have to show an indoor scene. Shooting from above would eliminate the kitchen cabinets, stove, oven and so on. As far as the camera was concerned, we were anywhere but a kitchen.

That overcame the challenge of location.

Next, we needed to overcome the issue of lighting. What would sell the photograph would be the feel of the light. If we could recreate summer light, or at least the sense of it, we’d be in business and the photograph would work. Fortunately, that’s achievable with two lights.

The First Light

One of the flashguns was pointed at the kitchen ceiling. It’s head was set to a wide angle of light distribution – 17mm. That gave us a nice big primary light source.

Let’s just sidetrack here for a moment to talk about some of the mechanics of doing this and what the light does for you.

By bouncing a flashgun off a ceiling, the flash itself isn’t the light source from the subject’s point of view. The big patch of light on the ceiling is. Because it is big, it is also diffuse. It lights everything evenly. That makes shadows nice and soft. In fact, they are barely detectable. It’s like shooting under a massive soft box.

To get the exposure level I’m looking for from a flashgun bounced off a ceiling, my own preference is to set my camera to its quickest flash synch speed (1/200th on my cameras) and the aperture to around f/5.6. Then, using the flashgun’s manual settings, I’ll play with the flash output until I get the feel I want. I might want a bright base level, or a relatively dark one. It all depends on the mood I’m aiming for. However, you don’t really want to be at more than 1/4 of the flash’s full output in my experience. If you try to squeeze any more out, recycling times get a bit sluggish. At 1/4 power, the flash can keep up, even if you get a bit trigger happy.

Being able to shoot constantly is especially important with children. They are quick and they have short attention spans. You want to be Jonny-on-the-Spot when the right moment comes along, not waiting for the flash to catch up.

If 1/4 of the flashgun’s output isn’t doing it, you don’t immediately have to go to 1/2 or full power. You have two other options to play out. Firstly, you can bump up the camera’s ISO. These days, you can comfortably go to ISO 1,600 or 3,200, maybe 6,400 – especially if you’re shooting something that won’t be reproduced beyond A4 or is intended for screen use only.

Your second option before moving up the flash output scale is to open up your aperture. A bigger hole in the lens means more efficient use of the light from your light sources.

As an aside, a longer shutter speed won’t do anything for the amount of flash that reaches your camera’s sensor. Because the flash duration is very, very brief, the camera’s sensor is getting the same amount of flash at 1/25th of a second as it is at 1/200th of a second.

Adding the Second Light

Back to the photograph.

Once the base level of light was set by the flash bounced off the ceiling (in this instance, quite bright), we brought in the second flash to add nuance. You could say the first light acted as the canvas for the second light to paint on to.

We put the second flashgun behind Felix, slightly to the left, and pointed it straight at him. Direct light from a small source is much harder, and it gave us nice rim light on the side of his face and body, adding a feeling of late afternoon sunlight.

Gels and White Balance

The final tweak was to add some warmth to the light. The sun would be lowish and a little golden on a late summer’s afternoon.

We could have done this a number of ways. In this particular instance, we covered the flashes with colour temperature orange (CTO) gels. We could just as easily have set the camera white balance to give a warmer feel to the photograph. Or we could have put a warming filter on the lens, or added the warmth in post-production afterwards. Photoshop has built in photographic filter options, for instance. It all depends on what you have to hand and your workflow preferences.

The Giveaways

For a photograph produced in under an hour-and-a-half, we were pleased with it. A casual viewer would, I think, take it at face value.

Look harder, and it betrays its origins.

In the actual frame, some of the kitchen tiles are still visible. To get rid of them, I used a segment of grass from an image from a previous outdoor shoot. The angle of light on the grass isn’t quite right. Maybe the Photoshop work is suspect too.

The other big giveaway is the specular highlight on the balloon. It is in the wrong place and it is way too big – seriously way too big. By the time Earth has moved close enough to the sun for that kind of highlight, anything living on it will be very crispy indeed.

The light bounced off the ceiling has also created catchlights in Felix’s eyes. I’m sure there are other things that you could pull at to help unravel the falsehood further.

Nevertheless, it does show what you can do with a couple of lights and a bit of imagination when you really need to.

Roger Overall is a professional photographer based in Ireland. He specializes in food and documentary photography, and hosts The Documentary Photographer podcast.

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  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    If you would have not told me, I surely would not have known!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://www.laveenphotography.com Doug Smith

    Great idea and great work. I am glad you pointed out the discrepancies because 99.9 percent of the people who would view this photo would never see them. People tend to see the big picture. Possibly other photographers might notice them as they try to recreate what you did. The grass, to me, is the least telling. The catch light and the reflection on the balloon are a bit more telling, but again, who notices and who cares. The expression on Felix’s face is what people will focus on.

  • http://bit.ly/oufr4c Brian Fuller

    Awesome. Yes the grass is easily identifiable as fake, but for the rest – it’s hard to see. I didn’t notice on first run, but will go back to see how quickly I spot what you wrote about.

    I need to try this, though living in TX – we have lots of light and sun.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • http://kfearlessphotography.zenfolio.com Kyla

    I wish there were images of the set up, not just an explanation! Visuals are important!

  • http://www.courierspain.org Edmund

    Hi Roger. Although I agree about the grass, I think you are being a little harsh on yourself on the other points. Many pros would have used a fill in flash in the mythical setting you describe, being largely backlit in reality, which would have created the sparkle in the eyes and a relection off the balloon (which could be toned down in Photoshop) so I think you have done a cracking job!

  • http://dewandemmer.com Dewan Demmer

    I have in recent months become a big fan of off camera lighting and am rather fond of flashguns. Flashguns are small and and give very good light.
    Once I started playing with off camera lighting I realized just how much a scene can change by where you set the light, I can turn night to day and day to night all this with a flashgun and the right setting on my camera.
    Off camera lighting is not only to correct the light conditions but to create light conditions, all of a sudden I had control of how much light I had, it is great.
    I have a series of pictures shot on a summer day which was overcast, mean stron dispersed light but no direct sunlight, so with off camera I created my own.
    http://www.dewandemmer.com/bridal-style-photoshoot-johannesburg/

    Your image may have some minor little errors but it does exactly what it is supposed to , set a summer scene from someones kitchen.

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    I love the idea. Next time show the visuals. It would make it so much more interesting. Here is an example of my turning myself into Johnny Depp. You can have added a slideshow of the process without saying you are going to have to trust me on this one.

    However the post is very good.

    http://www.jaicatalano.com/1/post/2012/1/fun-with-photography.html

  • Bill Needham

    I would like to print some of the subjects you have posted (posing woman) groups, but , I can not because there is not “print” on your sight

    thank you
    Bill Needham

  • Tony C

    The rim lighting wrapping on Felix’s right site tells the whole story of the shot. Very creative

  • http://www.waughstories.blogspot.com Tom Waugh

    I think you’re being a bit too critical Roger. You’ve done a great job with the facilities at your disposal.
    Kudos.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/jsander/ jonathan

    Good result, little dude loves that cake!

  • Scottc

    Very creative work, you did a wonderful job. I’d never have guessed!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/

  • Lokesh

    You have done a great job with this shot and even a better job with explaining your setup and giveaways.

    Thanks a lot.

    The rim lighting flash location does not seem to be what you told . Is it outside the frame or hidden under Felix ?

  • http://www.rogeroverall.net Roger Overall

    Hi All,

    Thank you all for the feedback. You’re a very kind lot.

    @lokesh – you asked about the second light. It was placed just out of the frame on the top left, slightly above Felix.

    @doug – In retrospect, I could have cloned out the catch light on the balloon :-)

    @kyla and @jai – yes, visuals of the set up would have been good. Unfortunately, at the time I wasn’t working with a blog post in mind. Rather I was concentrating on the job at hand and under a bit of pressure. Next time :-)

  • adam

    You’ve pulled it off very well. Nobodies going to look to hard past the cake-filled smile.
    Surely the specular on the baloon is too small, rather than too big. The light on the ceiling is supposed to be mimicing sky light, the direct light is mimicing the sun. Therefore, the baloon should have no real specular – it can’t see the sun and the sky is a huge soft light source.

  • Fozzy

    Great, just right for an advert to promote children having fun food at a wedding. People usually forget them.

  • Jeffrey Tull

    I think your imagination is awesome and gives credence to photography as an art form. However, I think it also points to the double edge sword of realism. The more photographs can be “staged” then the more people question interesting photographs rather than enjoy them.

    Still, I appreciate you breaking the steps down as I plan to use some of the methods. :)

  • raghavendra

    Guess this is the fun part of photography!

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • Barry E. Warren

    Good tips, The eyes of the consumer would never notice the flaws. The photo would sell the product. Now that winter is around the corner. I will have to start doing in door work. Off camera lighting is the way to go.

  • Jay

    You are a good, honest person. The techniques and the
    photograph are great, thanks for sharing with us.

  • http://www.rogeroverall.net Roger Overall

    Hi Everyone,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Some of you have asked about set up shots. I’m afraid that at the time I didn’t really have a blog post in mind. My thoughts were only on getting the job done. Next time :-)

    Roger

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphhightower Ralph Hightower

    My camera doesn’t have auto ISO; the max ISO for my camera is 12800 (which I have used). My handle mount flash’s ISO setting goes up to 800. I was using ISO 3200 film; when I wanted a boost with flash, I switched my lens aperture from auto to manual with 2 stops above the flash aperture setting. I’m anxious to see how the film develops.

  • http://gfphotography.webs.com Gerard

    Great article!
    At first glance, it fooled me! The only thing I noticed was the spot of light on the balloon. However, I think it is kind of nice because it gives some attention to “Just married.” The grass looked a little off to me but I figured that was part of the post processing (vignette, DOF, etc). It wasn’t until I read the article that I was able to tell it was shot in a kitchen. Well done!

Some older comments

  • Gerard

    October 7, 2012 09:00 am

    Great article!
    At first glance, it fooled me! The only thing I noticed was the spot of light on the balloon. However, I think it is kind of nice because it gives some attention to "Just married." The grass looked a little off to me but I figured that was part of the post processing (vignette, DOF, etc). It wasn't until I read the article that I was able to tell it was shot in a kitchen. Well done!

  • Ralph Hightower

    October 7, 2012 08:21 am

    My camera doesn't have auto ISO; the max ISO for my camera is 12800 (which I have used). My handle mount flash's ISO setting goes up to 800. I was using ISO 3200 film; when I wanted a boost with flash, I switched my lens aperture from auto to manual with 2 stops above the flash aperture setting. I'm anxious to see how the film develops.

  • Roger Overall

    October 6, 2012 06:49 am

    Hi Everyone,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Some of you have asked about set up shots. I'm afraid that at the time I didn't really have a blog post in mind. My thoughts were only on getting the job done. Next time :-)

    Roger

  • Jay

    October 6, 2012 01:01 am

    You are a good, honest person. The techniques and the
    photograph are great, thanks for sharing with us.

  • Barry E. Warren

    October 6, 2012 12:33 am

    Good tips, The eyes of the consumer would never notice the flaws. The photo would sell the product. Now that winter is around the corner. I will have to start doing in door work. Off camera lighting is the way to go.

  • raghavendra

    October 5, 2012 11:26 pm

    Guess this is the fun part of photography!

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • Jeffrey Tull

    October 5, 2012 10:12 pm

    I think your imagination is awesome and gives credence to photography as an art form. However, I think it also points to the double edge sword of realism. The more photographs can be "staged" then the more people question interesting photographs rather than enjoy them.

    Still, I appreciate you breaking the steps down as I plan to use some of the methods. :)

  • Fozzy

    October 5, 2012 07:03 pm

    Great, just right for an advert to promote children having fun food at a wedding. People usually forget them.

  • adam

    October 5, 2012 06:04 pm

    You've pulled it off very well. Nobodies going to look to hard past the cake-filled smile.
    Surely the specular on the baloon is too small, rather than too big. The light on the ceiling is supposed to be mimicing sky light, the direct light is mimicing the sun. Therefore, the baloon should have no real specular - it can't see the sun and the sky is a huge soft light source.

  • Roger Overall

    October 5, 2012 05:25 pm

    Hi All,

    Thank you all for the feedback. You're a very kind lot.

    @lokesh - you asked about the second light. It was placed just out of the frame on the top left, slightly above Felix.

    @doug - In retrospect, I could have cloned out the catch light on the balloon :-)

    @kyla and @jai - yes, visuals of the set up would have been good. Unfortunately, at the time I wasn't working with a blog post in mind. Rather I was concentrating on the job at hand and under a bit of pressure. Next time :-)

  • Lokesh

    October 5, 2012 10:16 am

    You have done a great job with this shot and even a better job with explaining your setup and giveaways.

    Thanks a lot.

    The rim lighting flash location does not seem to be what you told . Is it outside the frame or hidden under Felix ?

  • Scottc

    October 5, 2012 09:39 am

    Very creative work, you did a wonderful job. I'd never have guessed!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/

  • jonathan

    October 5, 2012 09:11 am

    Good result, little dude loves that cake!

  • Tom Waugh

    October 5, 2012 06:53 am

    I think you're being a bit too critical Roger. You've done a great job with the facilities at your disposal.
    Kudos.

  • Tony C

    October 5, 2012 03:48 am

    The rim lighting wrapping on Felix's right site tells the whole story of the shot. Very creative

  • Bill Needham

    October 5, 2012 03:14 am

    I would like to print some of the subjects you have posted (posing woman) groups, but , I can not because there is not "print" on your sight

    thank you
    Bill Needham

  • Jai Catalano

    October 5, 2012 02:58 am

    I love the idea. Next time show the visuals. It would make it so much more interesting. Here is an example of my turning myself into Johnny Depp. You can have added a slideshow of the process without saying you are going to have to trust me on this one.

    However the post is very good.

    http://www.jaicatalano.com/1/post/2012/1/fun-with-photography.html

  • Dewan Demmer

    October 5, 2012 02:43 am

    I have in recent months become a big fan of off camera lighting and am rather fond of flashguns. Flashguns are small and and give very good light.
    Once I started playing with off camera lighting I realized just how much a scene can change by where you set the light, I can turn night to day and day to night all this with a flashgun and the right setting on my camera.
    Off camera lighting is not only to correct the light conditions but to create light conditions, all of a sudden I had control of how much light I had, it is great.
    I have a series of pictures shot on a summer day which was overcast, mean stron dispersed light but no direct sunlight, so with off camera I created my own.
    http://www.dewandemmer.com/bridal-style-photoshoot-johannesburg/

    Your image may have some minor little errors but it does exactly what it is supposed to , set a summer scene from someones kitchen.

  • Edmund

    October 5, 2012 02:42 am

    Hi Roger. Although I agree about the grass, I think you are being a little harsh on yourself on the other points. Many pros would have used a fill in flash in the mythical setting you describe, being largely backlit in reality, which would have created the sparkle in the eyes and a relection off the balloon (which could be toned down in Photoshop) so I think you have done a cracking job!

  • Kyla

    October 5, 2012 02:31 am

    I wish there were images of the set up, not just an explanation! Visuals are important!

  • Brian Fuller

    October 5, 2012 02:06 am

    Awesome. Yes the grass is easily identifiable as fake, but for the rest - it's hard to see. I didn't notice on first run, but will go back to see how quickly I spot what you wrote about.

    I need to try this, though living in TX - we have lots of light and sun.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Doug Smith

    October 5, 2012 01:54 am

    Great idea and great work. I am glad you pointed out the discrepancies because 99.9 percent of the people who would view this photo would never see them. People tend to see the big picture. Possibly other photographers might notice them as they try to recreate what you did. The grass, to me, is the least telling. The catch light and the reflection on the balloon are a bit more telling, but again, who notices and who cares. The expression on Felix's face is what people will focus on.

  • Mridula

    October 5, 2012 12:54 am

    If you would have not told me, I surely would not have known!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

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