I originally wanted to shoot Lacia in front of a printed sky backdrop, as I did with Charlotte Yeager some time back. Unfortunately, it looked terrible and after giving up on that idea, I did what I usually do when that happens, which is to panic and get depressed. When an idea of mine fails, I fall back on what works, backdrops that I’ve previously used that I know how to light and how they will look. For futuristic, sci-fi figures, I like to use this backdrop, which comprises an abstract, geometric design – not particularly eye-catching but I think it does a good job complementing those sorts of figures.
The background is not made of fancy materials; it’s just a couple of pieces of foam packing material with some styrofoam strips leaned up against a sheet of gray foamboard. The floor is a sheet of white foamboard covered with a sheet of transparent acrylic. Most of the interesting stuff is going to be generated by the lighting, particularly by the use of colored gels. Gels are just pieces of transparent colored plastic, and you can see that the flashgun here has a gel taped over the flash tube. Two gels, actually; one is stacked up on the other to provide a more saturated color.
The idea here is that one side of the background will be lit hard, using flashguns with no diffusion. The flashes are firing at the left side of the background, from the camera’s point of view, and are fitted with aqua-colored gels. The white foam pieces become blown out, helping to establish the backdrop’s abstract look, and the gray foamboard takes on the aqua color of the light.
The other side of the background is, for now, lit by one flash. It is fitted with two blue-colored gels and has a LumiQuest Big Bouncer attached to it, a somewhat cumbersome modifier that I got not too long ago for a really cheap price off of B&H Photo’s used store. The nice thing about it is that it’s a very big modifier relative to the size of the background and thus creates fairly soft light, which is what I want. This flash isn’t outputting as much light as the two flashes on the other side and so it doesn’t overpower the harder, aqua-colored light; instead, the blue light fills in the areas that aren’t lit.
Note that I could have done different things with this light; I could have gelled it aqua like the other lights for a more uniform appearance, I could have augmented it with another hard light to blow out the foam pieces on the right side of the background, and I could have increased its power to get more of a bluish tint across the whole backdrop. It really depends on what sort of effect I’m trying to get.
In addition, it’s important to use a lens that can sufficiently blur the background out, and that means a macro lens or some sort of close-focusing fast prime lens, or a slower lens with an extension tube or close-up filter.
Also note that I didn’t take any setup photos when I took pictures of Lacia last month, so I shot these pictures last night. Incidentally, Lacia looks a lot like Inori and man, isn’t Guilty Crown a really crummy series? Common sense would compel me to not waste any more time on the show, but I’ve never been one to pay it much attention, and I have to admit there’s something amusing about deciding who is the biggest douchebag in the cast (I actually wouldn’t pick Shu for that title). I planned on writing a post about Guilty Crown but I think I’ve changed my mind; it’d be like trash-talking a dyslexic kid in Scrabble. But anyway, what an awful show. If this is how studios treat Redjuice’s work, I hope BEATLESS never gets an anime.
Using the UltraSoft
I think everyone who enjoys photography understands that light is a very important factor in getting good pictures. It’s less important in candid photography and photojournalism, maybe, but for studio-type pictures such as this, an understanding of how to manipulate and shape light is very useful. However, you don’t see much discussion on how to control light amongst the figure photography community. My guess is that this is because light modifiers don’t offer 36 megapixels or have red rings around them. However, I have this opinion that complete noobs obsess only over cameras and lenses and more skillful photographers think about lighting – and not just types of light sources, but placement and the quality of emitted light. The type of light source doesn’t actually matter that much compared to understanding how to control light – you could do the same thing here with desk lamps with gels, snoots, and neutral density filters (you probably already have suitable neutral density filters already in the form of toilet paper).
For this setup, I used the LumiQuest UltraSoft on the key light. It looks like this:
I’ve got a velcro strap wrapped around the flash head, and the modifier attaches right to it. It’s about eight times the size of the flash head, giving fairly soft light when used to light a figure. The neat thing about it is that it’s meant to be used with the flash head tilted vertically, which sometimes makes it easier to position. That advantage is particularly important with a figure like Lacia, who is very easy to light improperly. I’ve got some pictures of her that made me cringe when I saw them pop up on the camera LCD.
The other two lights are a snooted rim light that puts a highlight along the back side of her body and an overhead light to outline her hair. I want both lights to be hard so there are no modifiers on them besides the snoot on the rim light. I’m concerned with spill on the background – it will desaturate the blue and aqua colors – but the overhead light doesn’t seem to be causing a problem in that respect, so I didn’t bother putting a snoot on it.
With all the lights fired, the background has a nice blue tone, the acrylic sheet on the floor reflects the backdrop, and the figures looks pretty good. I’ve got a good starting point for postprocessing, and the final image looks like this:
And it looks pretty good. Nothing too fancy, but the figure stands out and I think the blue color goes well with Lacia. Blue always seems to look good as a futuristic color.
Using the Mini Softbox
The LumiQuest Mini Softbox is a tiny modifier, barely larger than the flash head itself. It looks like this:
Unlike the UltraSoft, this modifier is meant to be used with the flash head facing forward, which means it sometimes takes up a bit more room. The more important difference is that because it’s smaller than the UltraSoft, it’s a harder light source. That’s not a bad thing – soft light is often thought to be “good” light and the natural assumption is that hard light must therefore be “bad” light, which isn’t correct. At any rate, the Mini Softbox is still fairly soft when used with a small subject such as an anime figure. In addition, pushed in close, light coming from the Mini Softbox falls off quickly, and that can help set the mood of a picture.
I want a darker look with more intense blues so I’ve turned off the rim and overhead lights and the background light with the Big Bounce. The result looks like this:
The light quickly falls off below her waist, and her weapon is an impressive geometric silhouette. On the negative side, one of her eyes is nearly completely black, though that also directs attention to her other eye, which is more prominent anyway. The framing is also sort of awkward with Lacia placed a little too far left and there’s a big black lump in the lower-left corner, which is the snoot on one of the background lights. Like I said, I shot these pictures quickly last night.
What would turning the overhead and rim lights on do to the picture? They make it look like this. Which do I prefer? I’m not sure. The second one has more of a futuristic look but I think I’d go with the first one, since it’s not a style I use a whole lot and I think the light falloff is more striking.
Using the Softbox III
The LumiQuest Softbox III is typically the first modifier I try out when I take pictures of a figure. It’s 9×8 inches in size and creates very soft light. How soft? Consider this: professional photographers rave about the Elinchrom Octabank. I’ve read several photographers say that using it is like cheating; you point it at your subject and you instantly get soft, beautiful light – and well you should, since it retails for over a thousand dollars (for just the modifier – no light is included). The Softbox III, on the other hand, is at the very low end of light modifiers – it’s a foldable contraption made of plastic and cardstock. However, to a 1/8 scale figure, it would look to be about the same size as a softbox 72 inches in length along its longest dimension. How wide is the Octabank? 74 inches. I wouldn’t say the Softbox III is like a cheat code – it’s a little harder to use than that, and I’ve screwed up with it more than once, and it becomes a harder light source when used with larger figures – but it’s still my go-to modifier. Here’s what it looks like:
One of the things I don’t like about the Softbox III is that the front panel is flush with the side flaps. More fully-featured (and expensive) softboxes often have a protruding rim or lip around the front panel that will cut down on the amount of light that spills off to the sides but the Softbox III lacks anything like that, and that means light spill can be a real problem when using it to light figures. To combat this, I put some velcro along the side flaps so that I can stick some flags on the sides to block light. Observant people might note that the flag attached to the Softbox III here can also be used as a flash snoot; the length of material necessary to roll around a flash head is the same as that necessary to block off one side of the Softbox III.
The larger the size of the light source relative to the subject, the softer the light, and the Softbox III is huge compared to Lacia. The coverage area is also quite large; while the Mini Softbox left one of Lacia’s eyes almost completely dark, the Softbox III gets some light onto the far side of Lacia’s face. Not quite enough for what I want, though, so I’ll use a fill card to brighten up the shadows there.
Here is the setup, showing how crowded things can get. Note the very useful can of sliced pears holding up the fill card, which is actually just an envelope, and the tan-colored “flag” blocking off light spill from the rim light. When it comes to blocking light, I’ll often just grab stuff laying around – stuff that won’t impart a noticeable color tint, that is.
And here’s the final shot. The framing is a bit awkward, since generally speaking, you should try to avoid chopping off limbs and hands and feet at the joints, but that’s hard to do with Lacia because of her pose. I don’t think it looks that bad, anyway.
A Note on Professional Products
One of the neat things about lighting modifiers is that you can build a lot of them yourself. I use a lot of home-built stuff for taking pictures, but I also use a lot of LumiQuest products, as I’ve just described. I’ve built my own softboxes before but I never got consistent exposures from them, probably because they featured front panels made of wrinkled cloth, and they were very heavy, which is a big problem for any modifier that mounts directly to the flash head. In addition, it took me at least a couple of hours to build each one; the Softbox III sells for about $30 or so, and I value my free time at a rate much greater than $15/hour. I’m very pleased with the modifiers I use and I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what each one can do. However, this is not a suggestion that buying professional light modifiers is going to automatically improve the quality of your photos. The important thing is being able to shape the light to get the effect that you desire; the amount of money that you spend on photographic equipment doesn’t have a strong correlation on the quality of your pictures.