There’s a couple of ways you can take figure photos. One uses traditional studio lighting techniques; you place the figure in front of a nice solid or patterned background, place your key light offset by maybe 30 degrees or so and your fill light on the other side, and trip the shutter. If you do it right, you can make a picture that clearly illuminates the figure, showing it off as it is.
Another way to shoot a figure is to manipulate the lighting and setting to achieve a desired effect, and this is how I prefer to photograph figures. Many times, I’m trying to convey a mood or establish an atmosphere rather than show how the figure looks. I readily concede that my pictures aren’t that useful for assessing what a figure looks like or whether it would be a worthwhile purchase, but that’s not what I’m trying to do; my goal is to make my figures and my pictures look as good as I can.
I should mention that a third way to take a figure picture is to take it outside. Definitely a valid approach, but I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically impressive or beautiful about a figure photo taken outside, and as I’m not very good at it, it’s not something I’ll be talking about here.
The first thing I do when I shoot a figure on a set is to set up the backdrop and get my lights positioned. Here I’ve got the backdrop set up how I want it, Matabei is positioned correctly, the lights are set to the appropriate power, and everything looks okay. Click.
I could use this photo in a post if I had to, but I’d rather not, as it doesn’t convey any sort of mood or drama. In addition, while the lighting is okay for the most part, there’s actually a conspicuous problem: the key light is set to camera left, but her spear casts a strange shadow on the floor, where the light source is obviously coming from the right. What’s that about? That light source is there because I was testing things out; there was an image in my mind that I wanted to create.
When I ordered this figure, I thought about how I wanted to photograph it. My first idea was to build a set in a style similar to the motifs presented in the anime – something with ink splotches and bold black outlining. As Matabei’s release date approached I decided the idea wasn’t a good one; I didn’t think I could pull it off and even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to re-use the set except for more Hyakka Ryouran (and Street Fighter IV, hypothetically) figures.
With that plan scrapped, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to photograph Matabei until I came across this image in one of my old archive directories. I’ve held on to this picture for around ten years because the mood it conveys always makes a big impression on me – the serenity of the scene, the somberness of the golden sunlight filtering through the ceiling, the way the shaft of light is directed away from the component objects in the room. I thought that something like this would make for a pretty good set.
The overhead lighting diagram isn’t exactly to scale and doesn’t show distances perfectly, but it gives an idea of where the lights were placed. The key light is a 580EX II with a snoot placed over it. What’s a snoot? It’s a very complicated contraption that looks like this:
A snoot is basically a sleeve that fits over your light to restrict its spread; the longer the snoot, the tighter the beam. I’m constrained by a lack of space so the snoot I am using is not very long – only about five inches. However, there is not much room for the light to spread because the flash is placed so close to the subject.
Let’s build this shot up one light at a time. First, the key light, straight out of the camera (besides RAW conversion and resizing):
The key light is placed to camera left so that Matabei is turning her face into the light. Note the dramatic falloff of the light; it’s basically lighting her upper body, with just a little bit landing on her hips and almost none falling on her legs. Her hair is also deeply shadowed, increasing drama. There’s a bit of spill onto the floor and the backdrop but that’s not a problem.
If you remember the inverse square law from your physics classes … okay, nobody remembers that. Basically the main thing here is that if you want dramatic light falloff with deep, mysterious shadows, position your light appropriately and push it in closer. That might sound a bit counterintuitive – normally if you want to make a light dimmer, you position it further away, not closer – but cameras work differently than human vision.
The second thing about this light is that it is gelled with a 1/4 CTO gel. What’s a CTO gel? CTO stands for Color Temperature Orange and a gel is just a transparent piece of colored plastic. The idea here is that if you are in a room lit by tungsten sources – that is, incandescent or halogen light bulbs – the ambient light will be very orange in color. Camera flashes are generally colorless, so you’ll have colorless light mixed with amber-tinted light and your camera’s white balance function may not be able to compensate for that. However, by placing a CTO gel over your flash, you turn your flash orange, matching the ambient light, and now your camera’s white balance can cool down the scene and render a nice, color-corrected frame.
That’s not what I’m after here, though. CTO gels are meant to compensate for orange light but I want orange light here. The slightly warmer skin tone provided by the 1/4 CTO gel is essential to the mood I’m trying to create.
The second light is a rim light, positioned to camera right and behind the subject. It creates a dramatic outline that separates Matabei from the background. It also reveals the texture of the floor. This light is snooted and is zoomed in to 105mm to give it a harder edge. A full CTO gel gives it a warm tone that contrasts with the key light.
The key light put together with the rim light. I felt that the key light was too bright so I dropped it a third of a stop after this shot.
Now I want to light the background. I liked the spotlight effect from the old room picture and I wanted to implement something like that here, so what I’ve done is mount a flash way up high on a Magic Arm. It’s about five feet above the desk and has a full CTO gel and a grid spot. A grid spot does a similar thing as a snoot, but it constrains the beam even more tightly. To further restrict its spread, I put a couple of pieces of gaffer’s tape on the front, cutting the size of the light source to about a square inch. I ought to write a whole post on gaffer’s tape and just how awesome it is. It is really amazing, amazing stuff and I could not get by without it.
Anyway, you can see how tight the light is; it’s landing just a few inches behind Matabei but very little of it is lighting up her body.
And if you’re curious as to what a grid spot looks like, here’s mine:
Pause for a moment and admire the obvious craftsmanship. Observe the exquisite artistry, the elegant practicality. Pay no mind to your delusions if you think it looks like it was cut out of the side of a cardboard box.
Here is the scene with all three lights. Now I could stop here, but the background is still pretty dark. I went through a lot of trouble to stain the wood panel that’s serving as the wall but you can hardly see the texture; instead, you see a big black bar at the top of the frame and another one below the screens to the left. I want to bring out that detail, so I’ll add another light into the scene.
The second background light is hanging downwards vertically with a LumiQuest Ultrasoft attached to it. I want this light to light up the background but not Matabei, and it does the job well, as you can see.
However, the light is pretty ugly. The white reflection off the top part of the wall brings out the texture but looks like the glare you get when using your pop-up flash.
You can see how the white light of the background and the warm, golden light coming from the key light do not mix well at all. To get the lights looking right, I turn to my gel collection once more.
With two pale gold gels slipped in front of the flash head, the light takes on a muted amber hue.
Now the lights are matched up well. Why two pale gold gels instead of a 1/4 CTO? No real reason, I just wanted to try them out. I had bought the Strobist Gel Kit a while back but I hardly ever use it because the individual gels are so small, and I thought this would be a good time to try out one of the different colors in the pack. I like the effect; it gives a subtly different tone than the CTO gels I typically use, I think.
Fire all the lights, get the camera low and turned to a jaunty angle, play a little jazz on the image in Photoshop and you get something like this. Shooting low emphasizes the stature of your subject; if you look for photos of athletes or pictures of comic book superheroes, you’ll see quite a few pictures shot or drawn from a low angle to give them a larger-than-life look. Shooting low also makes the legs look longer, which is important here since Matabei’s legs look a bit short in real life. I’m using a 35mm lens pushed in close, which provides additional separation between the subject and the backdrop than the 100mm macro that I use for most of my figure photos, making Matabei appear larger and more imposing.
In the end, I didn’t get quite what I started out to achieve, which was that timeless, tranquil mood from that picture of the empty room. I got something quite a bit more dramatic and vivid, which is sort of my style, I suppose; I tend to go for heavy shadows and high contrast in many of my photos. I tried to dial down the drama in some of my close-up shots, but there’s only so much dialing-down you can do when you’re shooting an angry girl holding a big spear while wearing no pants.
One thing I really hated was how the shadows of the criss-crossed beams on the screens are projected onto the white paper. That bothered me so much that I was on the verge of spiking the whole set of shots, fixing up the screens, and doing it over, but I decided that would be too much work. The hard spotlight coming from above isn’t really helping things there, and maybe I could have turned it off to see how that affected things. I also experimented a bit with some blue-colored lighting in some of the pictures, with no gels on the key light so that you can see Matabei’s natural skin color. I don’t like how those shots turned out either; I don’t think the blue light goes very well with the figure, particularly since her hair starts to blend in with the backdrop. But I like how the warmer-toned pictures turned out, and I really focused on trying to get those looking interesting. I probably spent too much time on them; always a danger when you’re trying to get fifteen to thirty good pictures and not just two or three.