Lighting Technique: The Grid Reflector

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Josh Hornbeck

My assignment was to create a portrait of writer/director Josh Hornbeck, and our meeting place was an old theater he worked in at the time.  There were no constraints or specific requirements, so I was able to “do my thing” and respond to what inspired me.  In the theater, I didn’t see anything interesting to me, so I took a look at the lower level of the building.  Once downstairs, I walked into a dark dingy room, and I knew right away I was in the the place I wanted to use for the location.  The room felt like an interrogation room rather than a theater, but it was perfect.  A lamp hung just slightly off to one side, and it seemed to hold a story on it’s own.  I was fascinated by it.

Right from the beginning I had an idea of how I would light this picture, and I was pretty sure it would involve two lights.  For the sake of time, I set up both lights right away, but I didn’t turn them on yet.  I knew I wanted the lamp in the shot, and I also wanted the lamp to be on.  For this to happen, the light bulb would dictate the exposure of the picture.   If my exposure was not long enough, the lamp could appear to be off, or very dim.   If the exposure was too long, the lamp would be blown out and there would be no detail.  The image below is my exposure for the light bulb without any strobes.  1/40 at f/10.0 on ISO 100.


Key Light:
For the key light I used a 7” grid reflector with a 10 degree grid.  This gives a focused beam of light with very little spread.  The narrow grid also helps keep your key light from lighting up unwanted areas of the frame.  I experimented with several different positions for the key light until I decided on the one in this image.  I love the light falloff from grids.  It is like dropping a pebble into a smooth pond.  The greatest disturbance is at the point of impact on the water and as the ripples move out in a circle they gradually fade.  It is the same with a grid reflector.  The light is the brightest at the center, and it  fades as it moves away from the center.  If you position a grid reflector just right, you can use the light spread (dimmer light away from the center) to light closer objects without blowing them out.  For example, the white lamp above Josh.  If I were to use just a regular reflector on a strobe without a grid from the same position, the white lamp would be completely blown out on the right side because it is closer to the light source than the subject.  The grid allowed me to direct the light at my subjects face so the exact center was on his face.  This is the brightest spot of the light, and the light begins to decrease in power quickly as it spreads.  Although the lamp is closer to the key light than the subject, they are both getting the same amount of light.

Once the key was set, I had some definition on the lamp, both on the inside from the light bulb, and on the outer right side from the key light.  I also had my subject lit, but the shadows were still a little too deep.

Fill Light:
I already created the shadows I wanted with the key light, but I needed to use a fill light to add some detail to some of the shadows.  What I did not want to do was add new shadows.  The entire left side of the room (camera left, not pictured) was a white wall, just like the background.  Because I wanted a soft and subtle fill, I decided to bounce the strobe with a 7 inch reflector off of the white wall.   Think of the wall as a large softbox you don’t have to set up or tear down.  Depending on how close you place the strobe to the wall, you can increase or decrease the size of the light source.  I experimented with the light and tried a few different angles to get the right look.  The first few angles I tried caused the left side of the image to be too bright.  Eventually I angled the head so it was pointing more behind me than toward the subject.  I lost a lot of light by doing this, but it gave me just enough light to gently fill in some of the dark areas not touched by the key.

Here is a list of the equipment I used to create this shot along with links to the product pages:
Camera: Canon DSLR
Lights: Elinchrom Ranger Battery Pack and Head x2
Light Modifiers: Elinchrom 7” grid reflector
10 degree grid
Elinchrom 7” reflector

Thanks for reading!  Feel free to start a discussion or ask questions in the comments.

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Thanks so much, John! That was great. Now can you go back and blog how you lit ALL of your photos?? LOVE your lighting SO much!!

POSTED BY John Keel on 9-28-2009

great pic, really love your work.

POSTED BY Alex on 9-28-2009

John, Thanks for sharing your setup. Your work is an inspiration and it's wonderful to get a sense of your thought process and the techniques involved.

POSTED BY Patrick La Roque on 9-28-2009

Quick question while I'm at it: I'm guessing your key is coming from camera right? If so are the shadows on the right-side of the image simply due to the angle of the reflector or did you accentuate them in post?

POSTED BY Patrick La Roque on 9-28-2009

@ Patrick - Comment 4 The key is on camera right. If you trace a line from the top of the shadow on the wall to the top of the head creating the shadow and continue on, you would run into the key. It was pointing across the room, away from the right side of the wall, so that is why it is darker on that side.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 9-28-2009

Another great post John.. Do you ever shoot stills of your set up? I do from time to time, just so I remember what I did with the set up. Kevin

POSTED BY Kevin on 9-28-2009

This has always been one of my favorite images of yours. Thanks for the insight.

POSTED BY Chris Camargo on 9-28-2009

Thanks John! Makes a lot of sense... love the setup.

POSTED BY Patrick La Roque on 9-29-2009

Darn nice shot! I really like the setup.

POSTED BY canon5dshooter on 9-29-2009

great feeling in the picture! The grid is a great tool!

POSTED BY wilhelm on 9-29-2009

Thanks for sharing. This blog really was helpful.

POSTED BY David on 9-29-2009

Thank you John. I also do like your lighting very much, please don't hesitate to post more tutorials like this.... :) Thank you again!

POSTED BY Frank on 9-30-2009

Great walkthrough, thanks a lot. You've just gained yourself a new subscriber/fan!

POSTED BY Stefan on 9-30-2009

There are so many things to like about this--the mix of hard and soft light, the desaturated colors, the shadow behind Josh. Mainly, though, I'm delighted that I'm not the only one to see a white wall and think "Yes, I don't have to set up a softbox!"

POSTED BY J.P. on 9-30-2009

Valuable post John. And a good demonstration of how smart use of light makes a mundane location something special. Thanks

POSTED BY Gavin Jowitt on 9-30-2009

Does anyone have a link to what a 7" reflector and grid setup looks like? I've only been playing with speedlights. Thanks

POSTED BY Chris on 9-30-2009

I love starting out my morning reading good blogs about people creating good things. To learn about how different people thought process is when shooting is the best. Ill keep an eye on your blog from now on:)

POSTED BY Grady Layman on 9-30-2009

Did you leave the exposure the same? Mainly the aperture setting -- getting f10 off the key light? Did you measure the fill or just based how it looked on the screen?

POSTED BY Steve Crawford on 9-30-2009

John, what a great set-up and effort on your behalf in sharing your technical wisdom! Thank you for paying it forward to the photography community. I would be interested in hearing the approximate timeframe from when the talent stepped in front of the camera to when he walked away? 3 minutes? Was this the first time you had done a setup like this... most cases when I shoot something I've practiced several times with the lighting technicals before brining in the subject, so that I can focus on the subject and less on the lighting.

POSTED BY R. J. Kern on 9-30-2009

[...] Field Trip to Keatley’s Place Sep.30, 2009 in Digital Photography Lighting, News I am working on an On Assignment post for later this week, but photographer John Keatley has an OA post up right now. [...]

POSTED BY Field Trip to Keatley’s Place | Digital Photography News and Advice on 9-30-2009

To me this image nicely conveys the idea of the artist working in isolation in some featureless, soulless place. Here he somehow creates something marvelous out of nothingness. Thanks for the walk through!

POSTED BY kenrchoat on 9-30-2009

Gotta love the subtle approach here. I'm a fan.

POSTED BY Mike Ignatov on 9-30-2009

Beautiful portrait. Thank you for taking the time to reproduce the lighting set-up. I too am interested in hearing about your arrangement/interaction between setting-up the lighting and photographing the client.

POSTED BY Eric on 9-30-2009

Great post! I really like your decision to shoot him where you did. The room has its own unique charm and I think the lighting is perfect. Very cool of you to share your setup and thought process too.

POSTED BY John A. on 9-30-2009

Yeah, the lamp is amazing in there!!

POSTED BY TenisD on 10-1-2009

Hi great shot - can you describe for the unenlightened what a 7" reflector might look like - thanks

POSTED BY Angus T on 10-1-2009

Hello, saw your photo featured on strobist.com. It's really beautiful, and thanks for the instructions! I have one question concerning the aperture, though: could you please explain why you chose f/10.0? I was thinking that f/7.1 might have rendered the whole scene sharp as well, but giving you 1/80. I learned that you might see people start to shake/sway below 1/50, hence my question. --Thanks in advance, jitpleecheep.

POSTED BY jitpleecheep on 10-1-2009

1/50th of a second may create some shake if you are using a 200mm lens, but not if you are using a wide lens like I was. It just depends on your comfort level. The rule is, don't use a shutter speed that is lower than your focal length. If you are using a 50mm lens, or wider, you could shoot at 1/50th. I am comfortable hand holding at about 1/20th up to 35 or 50mm, but it is different for everyone. Hope that helps.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 10-1-2009

A grid reflector is just a standard strobe reflector with a lip that you can put a grid into. Think of a grid as a spotlight. You can look up a reflector on any photography store website, like www.bhphoto.com.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 10-1-2009

I set the key to f10 so that it fit the exposure I needed for the lamp. I did not measure the fill. I just went by how it looked on the camera back.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 10-1-2009

Oh, of course, the incandescent... Now it totally makes sense... Thanks. :-) (BTW: I didn't mean the shaking of the photographers hand, but the micro swaying of the portraited person "holding still". I learned that one might see this in images below 1/50.)

POSTED BY jitpleecheep on 10-2-2009

wow thanks for sharing! I really like it. I would like to hear more of your thoughts about lightning!

POSTED BY Rene on 10-2-2009

Thank you very much for sharing your great ideas. I am new to flash photography and when reading this article, the first question that sprang to mind was how do you turn down the power enough on your stobes to retain the ambient light within the picture. I have bought 4 500w bowens heads but I would be concerned that even at their lowest power outputs I would have real problems rendering the ambient light in this room even with a grid. Any ideas would be very welcome. Thanks again.

POSTED BY Ken Haddock on 10-24-2009

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