Embrace The Dark Side

The image above prompted more than a few questions (some in the comments) about how I controlled the reflection of the tub in the glass door of the shower stall. So here’s the scoop on what was going on in this shot.

Unfortunately, I was working fast, so I don’t have much in the way of BTS or setup shots. But follow along with me and I’ll describe things as best I can.

The camera is parked in the doorway. We actually removed the door entirely from its hinges and took it outside, in order to pick up a few extra degrees in the camera’s field of view. If you’ve watched my composition video, then you recognize this as a One-Point Perspective comp.

The goal was to pull the eye straight to the tub, and more or less hold it there. I wanted that tub to really glow, and be surrounded by a pool of light, coming (of course) from the window. Here’s an early test shot I made before all the lights were in place. Drew is sizing up the window casing, trying to figure out how to rig an Arri in there without its being visible to the camera.
You can see how things are pretty flat and boring. The floor is kind of yellow and dull, the outside of the tub is dreary, and the texture of the stone wall is not really evident. The alcove next to the tub filler is supposed to be deep dark red (“oxblood” as my client called it) — but that’s not exactly popping out of the scene, either! Really, the only thing that’s “right” is the slight downlight from the valence above the stone wall, and the inside of the tub itself.

The shower stall door is open, in this shot, but you can still see how vivid the tub reflection is in the glass panels.


First, we must bring the light. Here’s where it starts to get complicated. Right now, the light coming through that window isn’t completely working for me. In order to really bring out the texture of that wall, I need light that’s coming in very sideways. But in reality, the window light is not direct sunlight, it’s bouncing in off of the cement patio outside, and it’s relatively diffuse. Still, it’s a hell of a lot brighter than the inside. So step one is to cut it a bit. I could do that with shutter speed, but then I’d lose the nice glow from the valence light. So instead, I asked Drew to hang two layers of a .3 grid cloth (otherwise known as a 1-stop scrim) outside the window. This stuff is a lot like window screening, but fabric.

I should also tell you that the sun was going in and out behind clouds, which made assessing the ambient situation, uh, difficult. Right now, I could have pretty much any exposure I wanted, just by waiting for the right moment to press the shutter button. But I also knew that I was a good 30 to 45 minutes away from finishing this shot, and who knew whether a big cloud was going to come and park itself right over the house for the duration of the afternoon? In San Francisco, fog can roll in pretty much anytime. I scrimmed the window for what I thought was “average” and hoped for the best.

Now – to light that wall. I put a strobe head (an Elinchrom Ranger, 1100 watt-seconds) outside, bounced into an umbrella. Yep, it got cut by the scrim, just like the daylight, but what gets through is coming in truly sideways, because that’s how Drew oriented the umbrella. That horizontal light is what creates all the texture on the stone wall, by throwing little shadows off of the far side of every little piece of rock. Here’s a different shot, but same light source, so you can really see what I mean:

Next come the hotlights. Drew set an Arri 150 in the windowsill, on a collapsed lightstand with the legs folded up, so it was like a 24″ monopod. He used gaffers’ tape to hold it in place (that’s what he’s doing in the shot above).  That light is spotted on the little alcove above the tub. It lights the stonework around it, and brings out the color of the red tiles – helps focus the viewer’s eye on that area.

Another hotlight (an Arri 300) is inside the shower stall, with a full CTB (Color Temp Blue) gel on it, for the vanity cabinet in the foreground. Could that have been a strobe? Yeah, probably. In fact, in retrospect, that might have worked better. Either way, the light passes invisibly through the glass and hits the wood and stone and does the job.


So that leaves the reflection. It’s sitting there, mocking me, messing up my beautiful, thoughtful composition.

There are two ways of dealing with this. One would be to put a polarizer on the lens. Polarizers work best on light that’s traveling at 90 degrees to the axis of the lens, and whether it is in this case is not clear, at least to me. But regardless, the problem with that approach is that it would cut nearly 2 stops of light from my exposure, across the board. No problem, you say — just drag the shutter by 2 stops, to compensate. Right?

Wrong. My strobe outside was already at full power on this shot, trying to blast through that 2-stop scrim. Filtering 2 stops of light out simply won’t do. I’d have to set 2 more heads out there to make up the difference! So instead, I resorted to trickery.

Blackout cloth. I carry two pieces of this stuff, one is 10′ x 6′, and one is 10′ x 20′. The lady who helps me at my local discount fabric store calls it Poly Popin. Synthetic, wrinkle-resistant, cheap. And, very useful. Notice how the reflection is completely killed in this shot. Notice, too, how everything else around the tub looks different! That tub was acting as a significant light source in this shot! We draped the tub, and made a reflection-free frame.

I layered the two shots together in Photoshop, created a mask over the blackout-cloth layer, and then brushed back the reflection. Then I played around with the opacity of the layer until I had a little reflection, so it’s believable, but not so much that it was distracting.

If that last paragraph confused you, then go buy this book, by Matt Kloskowski. You can skip every other chapter (which are aimed at graphic designers) but the remaining chapters will give you a very clear and thorough introduction to the wonders of layers.

So: there you go. Questions? Alternate solutions? Hit me in the comments!

2 responses to “Embrace The Dark Side

  1. Nice series of images, you set the bar high.

  2. This was a great tutorial. Thanks for the tips about practical ways to control the reflections!

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