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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