Shooting Images In Camera vs. Photoshop


William Lulow

I was following a thread on Linked In the other day in which a number of professional photographers were lamenting the state of the photography business today. My take on all this is that before the digital age, photographers had to learn to get their images correctly set up, exposed and lit for the camera. We often had to shoot products on white backgrounds and make those backgrounds LOOK white! I remember one of the first digital jobs I did for Dell computers where the art director didn’t care about the backgrounds. He was going to have them all changed using Adobe Photoshop, which at the time, was in its infancy!  I couldn’t believe that all I had to do was to make sure that the products were lit correctly (something I did with all shoots). I sometimes would place black cards on the set to cut down on reflections when shiny objects had to be photographed on white backgrounds. I would often have to place the cards on parts of the background that would sometimes be in the shot. Or, I would have to figure out how to place them so that they wouldn’t be in the shot. With Photoshop, this no longer was necessary. The art directors would take care of those cards in the retouching phase. Having started in this business as a film shooter, I learned ways to light people and products so that the minimum amount of retouching (or none at all) could be used. There was an entire community of retouchers in the business in the 1940s to the 1980s who made very good livings fixing up the work of many photographers, even the most famous of them.

Today, Adobe Photoshop can fix any number of mistakes that less skilled photographers make. So, this has led to the arrival of any number of people on the photographic scene who don’t have the skills needed in lighting to produce quality commercial photographs. This is one reason I have sought to do more teaching lately. If these people want to set themselves up in the photography business, I figure I should do whatever I can to see that they understand how light works to create images.

Here is a shot, done totally in camera with digital equipment:


It’s not as straightforward as it looks because the plastic bottles, which are transparent, had to show up against a pure white background. This type of image cannot be made simply by putting the product on a white no-seam! This image was made with three softboxes strategically placed with one from above, feathered off the foreground, one to the right to illuminate the front of the pack and another to the left to carefully fill in shadow areas so that the bottles were not washed out. It took several hours and many exposures to get the effect of the lighting just right.

One of the basic principles of lighting almost anything is that to render a background a certain color or tone, it has to be lit separately from the subject. Try it and you will see. Try putting a soup can or other object on a pure white background and lighting it with a 500watt photoflood. You will see immediately that the tone of the background falls off quickly and makes it look like a dark gray color, not white, like it appears to the eye.


This image of a large group is another case in point. (The studio lights in the background are just props). It was lit with four lights on the background, two on each side and another two in front, in order to carry the white tone of the cyc background and provide enough light to shoot at f/11. That’s SIX lights that were used on this “simple” shot.  Very little, if anything, was done in Photoshop, maybe just a contrast tweak. You can’t make a shot like this with an on-camera flash or even portable flashes, for that matter. This kind of shot needs to be done with large, studio flash units.

Blown-out BKg(8x10)

This shot was made with two lights aimed directly at the background, one on either side behind two 4×8 foot panels. These lights were set to register two f/stops greater than the light coming from the main umbrella. That’s what gives the background its pure white tone. Note that the main light actually registered the white foam core panels a little gray.

The point I’m trying to make is that many images that look relatively straightforward are not. It takes a thorough knowledge of light and its various applications to make good, commercial photographs, even with today’s digital cameras, software and other accessories.

The next series of articles will detail how light is used to create images.