On Assignment photoessay and challenge: Making a $200 watch look the business

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Today’s photoessay-on-assignment-report hybrid comes courtesy of a regular client who both makes their own and OEM watches for other companies. They’re not a big name – you’ve probably never seen the brand outside Asia, if at all – and they’re certainly not competing at the high end, but they do have mass-market volume; it’s a very different sort of assignment to the kind I normally undertake in Switzerland. It doesn’t require much skill to make an exceptional watch made with no consideration for price look exceptional; the challenge there is making it look extraordinary – otherwise your photography has not added any value or even done the object justice. My job here is very different: how does one make a $200-retail watch look like a $2,000++ one?

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Workshop report: 28 Sep Making Light in Kuala Lumpur

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Our model for the day, Aliza Kim. Nikon D800E, 85/1.8 G

Although unfortunately Kristian Dowling couldn’t co-present in the end due to food poisoning, the show must go on, and it did: an intimate and dedicated class of participants joined me for a different look at making light in the studio. We started with a deconstruction and minor reprogramming of preconceptions: the use of a studio is about total control for all aspects of the image, not just lighting; why compromise when you are in a repeatable, 100% controllable environment?

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A simple one-light portrait. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

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And setup shot for the above: only the 4×6″ softbox was in play.

The morning was spent examining firstly the basics of the principles of composition, color theory and psychology, the importance of perfect color and how to achieve it, and finally, deconstructing lighting under several increasingly complex scenarios – one light, two lights, reflectors, multiple lights, balancing with ambient…I’m proud to say that the students did an increasingly good job of figuring out what the light setups used were, even if I did throw them a few curve balls 🙂 (There’s a reason why this post comes at the end of the last week’s focus on lighting articles!)

After lunch, we moved on to replicating most of these setups, starting simple with one large softbox…

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…a variety of poses, practice with timing, framing and anticipating where to leave space when the model moved…

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…including setups involving two lights:

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…harsh contrast…

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…strong backlight (that’s the 4×6 softbox serving as backdrop in the left edge of the frame)…

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…the addition of beauty dishes to balance out the background to provide a clean white look with flattering light bleed around the edges of limbs and torso…

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Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar

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Setup shot

…some occasional theatrical emoting from the coach…

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…and the use of a single-beauty light from a more oblique angle to create interesting silhouettes:

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One more costume change later, and I demonstrated the versatility of speedlights for location work and ease of creating completely different effects by mixing diffuse and harsh light. Here, we used a three-light setup to create a very edgy, moody, feel; later on adding a cinematic and emotional element by varying the color tone of the final shot, or omitting it completely. The speedlights were set to manual output, triggered and controlled via iTTL for the Nikon shooters, and switched over to SU4 slave mode for the Canon shooters (and lone Sony RX100, the B-roll camera of yours truly.)

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Flash cunningly triggered by the built-in on a Sony RX100, shot in manual mode

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Sony RX100

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Nikon D800E

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Nikon D800E

We finished up the day with a quick Photoshop postprocessing demonstration to clean up a few files for print by the studio’s resident print master, Wesley Wong of Giclee Art – thus completing the imaging chain, and showing just how much further you can take your images when you’re in control of all of the elements. Even at 13×19″, the RX100 images were virtually indistinguishable from the D800E – we would have to go even further, probably to 25×40″ or so, before a significant difference would be discernable. Score one for the argument for sufficiency! I’m pleased to report that everybody had a great time and learned a lot (or at least were polite enough not to say otherwise 🙂 – in the words of one participant, “I think my head just exploded.”

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Our group and model.

I’d like to conclude with a quick note on equipment: we were using Profoto Pro heads, a D4 pack, one beauty dish with and without 25deg grid, 4×6′ and 1×4′ softboxes, three Nikon SB900s, umbrellas and a whole array of clamps and stands for lighting; the model images in this post were shot by me (except for the one ‘Charlie’s Angels’ shot where noted) using a Nikon D800E, Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 and 2/100 Makro-Planars. B-roll, documentary, and one of the model images was shot using a Sony RX100, except of course the images of me which were shot by the students as the camera made its rounds to be fondled…

I’d like to say a big thank you to the participants, and Shriro-Malaysia/ Profoto for the use of the studio and lighting equipment. Stay tuned for more upcoming workshops!


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Lighting equipment: a primer

One of the overwhelmingly popular requests I seem to get is for an article on lighting – specifically, how I achieve what I achieve with my images. This article will be the first in a series of five, covering various aspects of lighting and deconstructing the source. It’ll also serve as a useful prelude to my studio lighting workshop tomorrow.

Before we do that, it’s important to establish a baseline: if you don’t know what it is you’re using, then it’s going to be both time consuming to explain, and difficult to understand. Thus, we’re going to begin with an explanation – a quick 101, really – of common lighting sources, tools and modifiers – and an explanation of what they’re useful for, and how one would deploy them. Please excuse the crude line drawings; I don’t have a lot of these objects myself, hence a lack of source images. We’ll go down the list in alphabetical order.


Barn doors
Moving plates fixed to a light to control spill off. Useful for creating strongly directional light and preventing too much from reaching the background behind the subject.


Beauty dish
A set of nestled reflectors fitted to the end of a studio strobe to create a ringlight effect for portraits/ faces – soft, without shadows, but still with some definition.

diffuser dome

Diffuser dome
A clip on bit of translucent plastic that goes over the end of a flash to soften its output. Usually makes almost no difference but eats a lot of power.


Diffuser panel
Any sheet of semi-translucent material that goes in front of a light source to soften the directionality of its output; varies in thickness and opacity.


Flash/ Speedlight
Small, portable, self-powered light source. Usually mounted to the camera, and communicates with the camera’s meter using electronic contacts to control output power. More sophisticated models are capable of wireless operations, triggered optically by another flash and with metering taken care of by the camera. The flash head itself has some modifiers built in – usually zoom, which controls beam spread, in addition to being aimable.


A piece of transparent, colored plastic that filters the output of any light to balance it with ambient sources; usually yellow/orange or green to balance tungsten and fluorescent sources respectively.


An opaque piece of material with a cutout to permit light to pass through; usually with a shape or design. Used more frequently for productions than photography. The best example of a gobo is perhaps the Batman sign…


Exactly what it sounds like – a grid of panels placed at right angles to the light source. Acts like an array of 90 degree barn doors; controls light spillage and ensures that most of the light goes in one direction, but without the hard edges that barn doors produce.

HMI light
Very bright incandescent source in the form of a studio strobe – used for video production. Compatible with all normal accessories, e.g. softboxes/ gobos/ diffusers etc.

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LED Panel
Continuous, low-temperature light source. Nowhere near as bright as HMI lights, but also nowhere near as hot. Useful on location when you have to operate off batteries, or when you have to photograph temperature-sensative objects – ice cream, for example.


Any self-contained studio light that doesn’t require a separate power source or transformer. Plugs directly into the wall.


Radio triggers
Wireless trigger for flashes or strobes that isn’t restricted by line of sight. Requires one controller on-camera, and one for each flash unit.


A piece of material – usually white/ silver or gold (warm) – held below a or to one side of a subject to provide fill light on the shadow side by reflecting the primary light source. Softens out the shadows. Usually requires an assistant, as in, ‘Tilt the reflector down a bit more, thanks.’


Ringlight/ Ringflash
A flash with a circular tube, or a light shaper in the form of a ring that simulates the effect of a circular tube. Once again, useful for portraits.


A tent of sorts – usually fabric – which the light source fires into at one end, with a semi-translucent window at the other end. The insides are usually reflective to minimize light loss. Creates a large, soft, diffuse light source; comes in many sizes. Useful for anything and everything. Can be used in conjunction with grids, barn doors, etc.


A cone-shaped object, open at both ends that goes over the end of a light source to create a very tight, intense beam of light – effectively a spotlight.


Anything used to hold your lights or accessories.

Large studio flashes – much more powerful than portable flashes/ speedlights, but require mains power or large lead-acid battery packs to run.


Umbrellas come in two varieties: shoot through and reflective. The former act as diffusers; the latter produce a slightly harsher, more directional (but still diffuse) light. Usually deployed in conjunction with flashes or smaller studio strobes. More light loss than a softbox because the sides are open; not always a bad thing because sometimes a little ambient illumination is required.

zoom head

Zoom head
The part of a flash that allows control of the beam spread – it’s called a zoom head because it allows the photographer to match the angle of coverage with the field of view of the lens, with minimal power wastage.

Stay tuned for subsequent parts – we’ll cover reverse engineering setups, and some more advanced techniques and tricks. MT


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