Thursday, July 21, 2011

Beyond Bounce Flash: Using Your Ceiling as a Light Mod

When I shot for The Sun I was assigned to do lots of small product illustrations, AKA table-top shots. And when possible, I would gang them up and shoot them at home rather than in the paper's pro studio.

Shooting at home gave me a variety of locations, a houseful of props, more time with my kids and something the big studio did not have -- a plain white ceiling. The latter being one of the more useful light mods in my kit.

My work-from-home ploy yielded some of my favorite product illustrations for the paper. It also influenced how I shot when forced to work in the "real" studio. I would eschew the shiny new Profoto Acutes in favor of my beat-up speedlights, the theory being that the consistency made me better both in the studio and on location.

Step one would be to set up in a room with a plain, white ceiling. No ceiling panels or ceiling fans to mess with the large, blank slate above that I could use in a variety of ways.

If you don't have a blank ceiling, you'll need to use some sort of diffusion or paper above your subject for clean highlights. This is something you can easily DIY, so it need not be expensive.

But as much as many of us have used a ceiling as our first light mod, it is easy to overlook them as a versatile light mod. A wide-beamed flash, aimed upwards, can easily make a soft key light -- or a wide wash of a top-fill against which to layer other, direct sources.

The ceiling light is usually the first light I add if I am going to use it, and happens right after I compose the shot and lock down the camera. If your subject or your setting is highly specular (as in, say, shooting on black plexi) you can get a range of highlights by varying your flash position.

Take the above "in-progress" shot of the Vagabond Mini Lithium for example, done earlier this month. After positioning the subject and my camera, I eyeballed where I would need to aim the flash on the ceiling to get a highlight on the top of the batt pack and on the black plexi.

Just look at the subject through the camera, and aim the flash at the part of the ceiling you see in the reflection. The two planes are parallel and close to each other, so I will get double duty out of that light. It will place the surrounding glow and light the top.

By rotating the flash to take advantage of the raw beam shape, moving it a little and tightening the beam to 85mm, the shape of the light on the ceiling changed. This specular highlight on the plexi creates a tighter wrapping glow around the battery.

This is nothing more than the reflection of the raw light aimed into the ceiling, of course. The smaller (and thus, more intense per square inch) splash of light also creates a brighter specular on the battery than did the wider, dimmer light.

Here is the actual light on the ceiling. You can see how the rotated flash head uses the flashes' rectangular-shaped beam to best advantage. From camera perspective, it is sort of diamond-shaped. This fits the shape of the battery, which is shot on the 45-degree angle.

From this point it is just a matter of lighting the other two visible planes on the Vagabond. The control panel (right) was done with a flash in a LumiQuest Soft Box III. The left side was lit by a bare flash. All three flashes used were LP160s.

The final product almost looks like one big light. But remember, when shooting something that is black you show detail with specular highlights. So each of those three planes is best addressed with a separate light source.

More Ceiling Light Ideas

By using the ceiling and/or beam of light in different ways, you can get lots of different looks. In this case I used the whole beam, even if it was partially obscured by the object I was lighting. But there no law against offsetting the beam and using the feathered edge of the specular in your shot.

You may want to do this to separate a dark part of your subject against a light part of the background, or vice-versa. Sort of a specular version of chiaroscuro.

Or if you need a very large light source (with or without a gradient) you can elevate your shooting platform to make the ceiling surface appear much larger to your subject. This would work well for shooting something highly specular, like silverware or jewelry.

Just remember to watch out for Ceiling Cat.


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OpenID projectxo said...

Anyone know where is a good (cheap) place to buy large black plexiglass?

July 21, 2011 10:10 AM  
Blogger -ys- said...

Can it be two pieces of plexiglass with poster board sandwiched between? Then you can choose the colour you want. I haven't done it myself, so I don't know what it looks like. Just a thought.

July 21, 2011 10:25 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

re: Plexiglass, I got mine here.

July 21, 2011 10:30 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


You would think, yes. But you would get double reflections from the two surfaces of glass above the black (but not really black, as you would find out) posterboard.

Ya gotta cough up for the black plexi. And use it carefully, so as not to scratch.

July 21, 2011 10:31 AM  
Blogger James said...

Couldn't you just buy plain plexi at Home Depot and spraypaint the bottom side whatever color you wanted? Granted it isn't as resilliant as pure black plastic, but it should look the same, unless the sides of the plexi show.

July 21, 2011 10:40 AM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

I also found that a lacquered black shelf can work like a charm. Wouldn't buy one on purpose, but is a great thing my mum is into tacky furniture.
Also, LOL @ the lolcat.
I am easily entertained ^_^

July 21, 2011 10:41 AM  
Blogger ChrisKrier said...

Instead of black plexi, Google Monocote or Ultrakote. They are a heat shrink material used to cover model airplanes. There is also a heat activated glue on one side. So you iron it on and get the glue to stick then heat it up more and the wrinkles will shrink out. It can cover solid surfaces or open frames and even go around corners. Available in just about any color including gloss black. Find it at a hobby store for $10-15 a roll.

July 21, 2011 2:22 PM  
Blogger CJ_Loncki said...

@ James:
painted plexi wouldn't work.
you would still have a double reflection - one from each side of the plexi.

July 21, 2011 4:22 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

one plus for my 7' ceilings in my studio. as far as the plexi I have heard of using thick clear vinyl like the kind you use to cover a table. It supposedly has less pronounced double reflections.

July 21, 2011 7:09 PM  
Blogger Zac said...

Where can I buy this white ceiling of which you speak?

July 22, 2011 1:06 AM  
Blogger Danie Nel said...

guys just a secondary thing that I've used quite effectively, especially if you're shooting highly reflective materials are glass sheet, elevated over the color you want, which is normally paper. This way the colour does not reflect back. Granted, black is not as deep then. This way you avoid a reflection altogether.

Just for the record: plexiglass, or as we call it in South Africa: perspex, is hellavu expensive, no matter where you go! Especially now that the world's biggest exporter of PVC, Libya, is in civil war.

July 22, 2011 4:47 AM  
Blogger Ian Pack said...

Black gloss vinyl used by sign writers may work and is cheaper than black Plexi - call your local sign maker, they may have a roll end or off cut for a few bucks.

July 22, 2011 5:03 AM  
Blogger Andor said...

Thanks for posting! - came the exact right time: just about to do a jewelry shot of my wife's earrings!

July 22, 2011 8:54 AM  
Blogger Dave Kesarisingh said...

You could use clear plexiglass. By placing coloured paper underneath it would be whatever colour you wanted. See here. Clear plexiglass with black paper underneath.

July 22, 2011 9:17 AM  
Blogger Dave Kesarisingh said...

I use clear plexiglass with coloured paper underneath. Be careful not to have the plexiglas too thick. See sample here

July 22, 2011 9:20 AM  
Blogger Richard K said...

@ Zac:

Available from your local real estate agent, usually accompanied by 4 units of gallery hanging space...

July 22, 2011 9:48 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

As Danie & Dave noted, you can get away with colored paper under THIN glass or plexi in a pinch.

Example of a trophy shot on glass pulled out of a large picture frame, over black posterboard.

Thanks for posting this DH. Something you said that finally clicked for me: putting the ceiling light NOT directly over the product being shot, but behind it in the part of the ceiling reflected off the plexi surface from the camera's perspective.

July 22, 2011 11:11 AM  
OpenID damnuglyphotography said... could do what I just did and add a dodge & burn layer and fix the reflections and highlight in post!

David's First Shot, Retouched

I'm not saying don't try to get it right in camera, but knowing what you can do afterwards certainly helps!


July 22, 2011 11:55 AM  
Blogger Jon-Mark said...

Can't help but notice that the whole post no longer shows up in my blog reader. I hope this is just a one off thing and not an overall site change :(

July 22, 2011 2:21 PM  
Blogger Ynad said...

Also this technique is useful to photograph glossy/varnished art work.
Fills space with omnidirectional light. Strobes placed inline or behind object.

July 22, 2011 9:24 PM  
Blogger mgm260 said...


I just wanted to say thanks for starting the Strobist site. I am by no means anything of a photographer, but compared to what I knew about lighting since I started following your site and your DVDs, it is a world of difference. What's nice is that even with all your success you still take the time tell write back to people like me who are still trying to learn about lighting. Not trying to butt kiss here, but your still humble attitude is appreciated. Take care, Mike.

July 23, 2011 12:42 PM  
Blogger Chad G said...


This is what I use:

July 24, 2011 3:52 PM  
Blogger Łukasz Kruk said...

thanks for the post - well written and informative as always. comes for me at exactly the right moment, when whenever i get a camera in my hand indoors i automatically put a radio'ed flash somewhere in the room pointed straight up. results are always a couple of notches above of what's possible with straight flash or available light - window or tungsten bulb.

but there's a catch. i usually put the sb on 1/4 power and try somewhere between f/5.6 or 8 depending on how far the subject is from the splash of light on the ceiling (and how high the ceiling is). i'm rarely more than half a stop off, but it'd be nice to have a bit more of science to that.

sure, different ceilings eat up different amounts of light, but if i can guess my exposure reasonably accurately for ambient of straight flash, why not for bounced? any tips here? that'd probably be worth of a post of its own rather than quick answer in comments, but i'll be eager to hear whatever you have at hand. thanks!!

August 04, 2011 7:54 PM  
Blogger John said...

I'm going to have to choke this tutorial up as DH Strobist magic. I must've tried this technique 40 times and could not get that spot of a specular highlight on my subject.

I was shooting a similar sized black object on on black plexi, but no matter how much I zoomed the flash, snooted it or got it close to the ceiling, it just would not make a spot of light around my subject. My subject was a little smaller than the battery pack, but I got my flash almost a foot away from my ceiling and it still didn't create that effect.

It looks like from your setup photos that your flash is not very close to the ceiling and it would seem that it would spray more on your subject as opposed to creating that spot.

I am baffled. Could it be that my black plexi is not as specular as your's thereby not creating that spot of light?

February 04, 2012 12:07 PM  

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