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.