Looking at Your Craftwork from a Cross-lit Angle

Looking at Your Craftwork from a Cross-lit Angle
photos and text by Steve Meltzer
Courtesy of The Crafts Report

Sometimes when you look at things from a different angle, you see them in a new light. This strongly applies to photography, which, after all, is about light. Despite the hype and the popular misconception that photography is all about digital cameras and smart software--wrong!--it is all about light.

Normally, when a photographer takes pictures, the subjects are front lit. Shooting outdoors, most of us will unconsciously arrange ourselves so the sun is over our shoulders so it will be the front light. This insures bright faces and well-lit objects. In front lighting, in general, the shadows are filled by the reflected light bouncing off various surfaces: sidewalks, buildings, or simply the blue sky. In the studio, we try to replicate this lighting by placing a light to either side of the camera in front of the subject. One light is usually brighter (or just nearer the subject) and is called the main light. The other light, which is dimmer or a bit farther away from the subject, is the fill.

Above: The author's lighting-diagram sketch illustrates the concept between front and rear lighting.

The first photo is a standard frontally lit shot. Two matched lights are on either side of the vase on either side of the camera.

This second shot of the vase shows cross-lit. In both images, the shadows are faint because the lights are fitted with diffusers to soften them.

Bowl, first attempt. The author was not happy with the lighting. He saw the shadow as weak and pale.

We are all familiar with the opposite of front lighting, which is backlighting. Many of us learn this from our numerous failed attempts to take pictures of friends with the setting sun behind them.

Cross-lighting, however, is different from front- or back-lighting situations because the lights are arranged diagonally across from each other. The bigger, bright light is placed behind the subject to one side or the other. The smaller light is in front of the subject, but in one corner and facing the big light. (See the lighting-diagram sketch.) Angling these lights so they face each other along a line about 45 degrees off center is the key to cross-lighting.

Unlike in the normal way of photographing things, the smaller light is acting as the main light. The bigger light is sort of an ''uber-fill.'' Backgrounds play a role in cross-lighting, too, because we set the lights up so as little light as possible falls on the background. This helps to separate the subject from the background.

Bowl, second attempt. By adjusting the positioning of light, the shadow is much deeper-colored and more interesting.

In shooting the photographs for this column, I tried to illustrate the differences between cross-lighting and front lighting. I also shot a series of images to show the effects of changing the intensity of the front light.

Compare, for instance, the two images of the vase and you can see the colors are richer on the cross-lit image, due in part to the single front light. Surface textures are given their shape by the light coming from one side or another of the piece. With two equal lights, the surface texture is reduced because the two lights cancel out each other's shadows, effectively ''flattening'' the surface. Another benefit of cross-lighting is that there are fewer hot spots to deal with, since there is only one front light instead of two.

For crafts photography, cross-lighting is a great way to add a different look to your photographs and to deal with shiny surfaces, especially glass or Plexiglas®. The photos of the glass bowl illustrate this. They also show how experimenting with the relative brightness of the two lights can affect the image.

Shadows can add an interesting element to an image, as seen in this staging of the ''Clay Coyote'' teapot and teacup.

For the photo described as ''Bowl, first attempt,'' the front light was about two-thirds the intensity of the rear light, as the front light was farther away from the background. However, I wasn't at all happy with the result. The shadow is weak and pale.

For the next image--''Bowl, second attempt''--I moved the front light even farther away from the background. Now the light falling on the front of the bowl was about half the brightness of the rear light. The result is a photo with a shadow that is deeply colored and much more interesting.

Of course, as the light is moved away from the bowl, the exposure changes. Since I was shooting in the A mode, the camera compensated for the lower-light level by using a slow shutter speed.

Finally I offer the photo of the teapot and teacup to illustrate how the shadows themselves can add an interesting element to an image. The parallel forward-thrusting shadows add a sense of unity, a sense of ''set'' to the image, and it simply would not be there with front lighting.

Cross-lighting isn't for every type of craft object, but it is an interesting way to light work and well worth trying for yourself.

Cross-lighting, step by step

1. Create a diagonal lighting setup as shown in the sketch provided above.
2. Place the rear light behind and to one side of the background. Remember that in this situation the brighter light--by 1 - 2 stops--will be the rear light.
3. Place the front light diagonally across from the rear light. If you have two matched lights, move this front light to a distance about 1.5 times the distance that the rear light is from the subject to lower its illumination of the work.
4. Set your camera exposure mode to A (Aperture preferred) and set the aperture to F/5.6 or higher, F/8 or F/11.
5. Set the ISO to 200 or 400.
6. Frame the work and get an exposure reading for the scene. If the shutter speed is 1/30th of a second or slower, use a tripod.
7. Set the White Balance to match your lights.
8. Take test shots and look at the shadows. Our eyes look into shadows making them lighter than they are, thus photos record them darker than we saw them.
9. Adjust the subject's position and the lighting as necessary, taking particular note of where the highlight areas fall.

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