Have you ever wondered why so many photographers wear black? Sure, it looks fabulous, as in this double-the-fun selfie I shot wearing one of my favorite black, long-sleeve Ts. And of course our ebony attire can make us photogs look all artsy, deep, and mysterious (hiding my more often-revealed goofy side). But there are technical reasons why we camera clickers don the dark: catchlights and reflections.
In this blog, I'd like to show you some examples of why raven-wear fashion is necessary in the photo world, and why we lean toward the dark side (yes, photographers use "the force"). And, at the same time, I'll reveal secrets using this illuminating technique to one's advantage, enabling the reverse engineering of work by other photogs. In both cases, it's all about the catchlights (sure, sometimes the treble, and maybe about the bass). And believe it or not, there is a mix of human psychology surrounding the method for all this catchlight madness.
Catchlights are those little reflections of light that get caught in a subject's eyes. It can't be helped, and it would actually look rather spooky and unnatural NOT to have reflections in a subject's eyes. In fact, I'll often use a particular light modifier just to get a certain type and shape of catchlight in a subject's eye. That's the psychology part of catchlights: without some kind of reflection in a person's eyes, a mental trigger fires a warning that something is not right. So to make sure your subject's look their best, catchlights are necessary, but they must be the right catchlight.
Sometimes there are catchlight fails. Take for instance the photo below, which I shot many, many, many moons ago. The pet's owner is interacting with the dog to grab its attention. Notice anything fishy in the dog's eye?
Let's take a closer look, and I think you'll see what I mean:
Not only did I photograph this playful pooch, but I also inadvertently shot the owner, who was wearing a yellow shirt. If however she were wearing black, then the catchlight would be hardly noticeable. This was just one of many mistakes I made way back when (including the JPEG artifacts/coloring on the dog's fur that would not make my cut today). But every fail is a chance to pick oneself up, and try, try, try again. Which I did...for instance...
Here's a shot taken a couple years ago where catchlights worked well. Here I shot fitness model Sarah Parker with a beauty-light setup.
There's a whole lot I love about this shot, but what really makes it sparkle (literally) are the catchlight's in Sarah's eyes. Here's a shot zoomed in at 100%:
Much better! In her right eye we can clearly see a nice, round catchlight. This is a more natural looking catchlight, and is from using a beauty dish. I can tell it's a beauty dish (and not an umbrella) because of the tell-tale dead spot in the center (which makes for a soft light with no hard center). In Sarah's left eye I can see another catchlight from a rectangular softobox, which I used as fill.
From these catchlights I can reverse engineer the lighting setup...well, most of it anyway. I can see a beauty dish was used to camera left at about eye-level with the subject, angled about 15 degrees from her. I can also see the softbox for fill was angled almost 90 degrees from her as well.
Let's take a look at another, somewhat more mysterious example. This is a shot I took of actress/model Marissa Alnas, which shows a very flattering light setup for doing a headshot:
Here is the 100% zoom on her eyes...notice something different?
For this setup, I did use a beauty dish, shown by the round reflection in both her eyes. But notice also a faint oval of white in the lower part of her eyes. This was from a round, white reflector that was being held at her elbow level. This reflector is the trick to getting a soft skin look where shadows are filled in from light falling from the top (from the beauty dish). btw, there is also a softbox used slightly behind her to camera left, used for fill and hair/rim, but it is behind the subject's eyes, so is not shown in any catchlights.
Note that although you can clearly see the light modifiers used in these shots, you can't find me! My black garb (and black camera) are non reflective, so I'm hidden from view. I'm a ghost, in a good way :)
Although I've shown portrait examples here, the same rules apply to other kinds of photography. For instance, many car photographers wear all black, from head to toe, so that they won't show up as a reflection in a shiny car. And product photography often requires a photo tent to hide any exterior reflections, and as much of the camera as well.
So next time you see me shoot and I'm dressed like Johnny Cash, you'll know I'm out for more than a fashion statement; I'm doing my darndest to hide from the light.
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