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| p.1 #9 · New to PP, how to get a natural look with "pop"? |
To address the "pop" part of the question...
You start with understanding that in a 2D reproduction of 3D objects most of the clues about shape and spacial relationships of objects come from various forms of contrast: tone, color, sharpness, relative size.
Some of these clues are obvious and immediately grasped, such as using shallow DOF to blur the background, which tells the brain of the viewer what is in the foreground is more important and that the scene has 3D depth. The same scene shot at f/22 with unlimited DOF will seem to compress the foreground and background because they are similarly sharp. No contrasting sharpness? No illusion of depth.
You might not consider converging rail road tracks in a photo a form of contrast, but the reason they attract the eye and lead it down the tracks is because their form and direction contrast with what is around them. Following the angle of the leading line creates the illusion of depth. If the train tracks are nearly vertical up the entire height of the photo the scene seems deeper than one in which the tracks run sideways across the frame.
What creates the illusion of 3D shape and texture on objects is the angle and character of the light.
Imagine a white object in a dark room. There's no clue to its shape because there's no contrast between it and the background. You turn on the flash on your camera and it looks like this:
but when you move the flash off axis 45° vertically and 45° to the side it will look like this:
What clues told your brain it's an egg not a flat disk?
1) You see shadow clues on the lower parts and around the object.
2) You see specular highlights on the raised parts.\
What tells your brain it's a face not an egg? The familar pattern of highlight and shadow clues.
On a basic perceptual level a person viewing objects in a photo will find them because they contrast with the background. Just recognizing the outline shape with foreground / background gives them a clue what it might be. On closer inspection the highlight and shadow clues on the front of the object refine the analysis of what it is. Once it's recognized stored memories of similar objects trigger the emotional reaction. We'd both discern the same 3D shape of the face but you might recognize the face as family member and react differently than I would not knowing the person.
If you strip away all the layers of the onion of why we take and share photos at the core is the desire to create some emotional reaction in the mind of the viewer. The paragraph above is a blueprint for how to do it in a photograph: make the content recognizable and real looking so it triggers recall of stored memories of seeing the same thing in real life.
Here's another illustration of a black object on black background:
What's different than with the white object? No shadow clues.
When learning lighting beginners tend to focus on there the key light is casting its shadows, but in terms of creating the illusion of 3D and "hard" vs. "soft" with lighting the contrast between the always 255 white of the specular highlights and the shadow tone and the character of the highlight clues are more important. The recognition that a object is smooth like an 8-Ball vs. matte like an egg shell comes mainly from the character of the highlights. As with the shadow clues the highlights are small and distinct the object will look "harder" than if illuminated with large fuzzy highlights.
If you were to light an object with direct flash outdoors at night the flash will create hard edged shadows and small hard edged highlight clues. Since there would be no bounced fill off the ceiling the shadows would be very dark. The perception of the object from the lighting clues will be that it is "hard" — smooth, angular, etc.
If you then add a second flash from near the camera the highlight clues stay the same but now the shadows the off axis key light didn't hit will be lighter. The contrast between specular highlights (which are still 255) and shadows is lessened and the object looks "softer".
Keeping the same lighting ratio and shadow tone increase the size of the modifer on the key light. What will happen? The specular highlights which are the reflection of the source will get larger and softer on the edges. The edges of the shadows also get a bit fuzzier but the shadow clues regarding soft/hard also come from the tone of the shadows and if it hasn't changed the (because fill is used) the perceived appearance comes largely from the highlight clues.
Think about what makes on-camera flash look obviously fake: small sharp highlights in the "wrong" places. What's wrong with the 3D modeling below:
It's not natural looking. Why? The highlight and shadow clues are in the "wrong" places. What's "wrong" with them? They don't match the clues natural light creates on the stuff we see.
Making content "pop" in a photo is mostly a matter of understanding how contrast affects perception of objects. Being able to render an object flat or angular, soft or hard is mostly a process of learning to control the contrast with lighting and when that's not possible improving / changing the contrast clues the lighting did create in ways that the brain of the viewer will recognize as hard or soft from the tone and angle of the shadows and size and brilliance of the highlights.
The "recipe"" for defining 3D shape in 2D photos has four basic ingredients: key, fill, back-rim light, and background lighting. The fifth ingredient, a secondary frontal accent source if added enhances the illusion of 3D by nuancing the tone withing the shadows created by the fill.
You don't always have all those sources in natural lighting but with studio lighting that's a commonly used strategy for portraits and other objects. The contrast of background and foreground is controlled with background selection and/or a background light. Back rim lighting defines the overall shape for "stage one" recognition. The key light off axis from overhead mimics the angle of natural modeling we see most of the time. Shadowless fill like omni--directional skylight controls how dark the sensor records the shadows and how hard or soft they look. After setting those four lights a reflector can be used to create nuance accents within the shadow created by the key light and lifted uniformly by the fill.