How to create different types of lighting patterns with studio mask

October 19, 2015   2933 views

Mask reflector studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

In the arsenal of the modern photographer there are a lot of tools that we use in the studio. And, of course, among them the mask is one of the simplest, but also one of the most interesting and effective tools.

Let's take a look at the mask I made.

I used the cheapest and simplest solution - a mask made from black seamless paper 48” to 48”, which is fixed with clamps on a frame, which in is fixed to a stand by Manfrotto D200 grip. This is one of the fastest and most reliable solutions. However, when effective work in the studio needs not only one mask but a whole set and you a going to keep them in rolls and apply when it is necessary, the best way is to use a special number 500 matt black gel. It is designed to create flags and masks, it is very durable and heat-resistant. From one standard roll of this gel which is 25’ (7.5meters) long and 48” (1.22 meters) wide I can make 6 full-size masks of 48” to 48” size.

Circle, box, rectangle, narrow lines, window, several small holes - this is a standard set. You will be happy to recall you have it when face challenge to make sophisticated, creative lighting setup. Principles of working with all masks are equal and in this tutorial I’ll show an example of working with the mask to understand how it works and what you can get.

I chose mask which I use very frequently in my studio. A couple of dozens holes, around one inch in diameter. It is widely used solution in movie lighting and there are even special masks you cant find in every filmmaker’s track.

At first I should say that this mask in the form it is presented in my article I usually use not for creating spots with sharp and harsh edges of shadows. For this solution you need to use lighting modifiers like Profoto SpotSmall. Using it with Gobo masks you can obtain sharp shape of picture the mask creates: circle, oval, lines etc. Here is another story. Working with a mask and a reflector doesn’t give us harsh shadows. The reflector doesn’t produce totally hard light (I call it superhard light) when the light comes from a small single point. Such lighting modifier as a reflector has a light of medium hardness which is rigidity depends on the distance of the lighting modifier from an object.

Looking ahead I should say that using a reflector with 7”-8” (around 20cm) diameter to obtain comparable with SpotSmall hardness of light you have to keep distance between the lighting modifier and the object more than 30-40” (10 meters). Rare studio could give an ability to do that. So the mask is a tool which gives us an possibility to play with size of light spots, shape, softness of edges. To create an unique, inimitable lighting pattern.

So, let's start.

At the first picture I installed an open standard Profoto zoom reflector at a distance of about 5 feet (1.5 meters) from the mask.

Mask reflector studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

You can see I got a picture with sharp edges of fighting spots. Sharpness of edges is determined by reflector’s hardness of light. The reflector has medium hardness and if we keep distance to object very small it could produce soft enough light. But now we keep 5 feet distance and it is hard. Not superhard, but hard enough.

The second thing you see is a strange pattern of each lighting spot. Each hole in my mask works like a small projector, bringing image of reflector to the wall. Look closely at each spot of light, you see more bright center part of every spot (projection of strobe lamp glass cover) and not so bright periphery (projection of inners surface of reflector).

Finally, the third, you see that contrast of the picture is not strong. Difference between lighting spots and unlit areas is not high. If happens because of the lighting area the reflector lights. I always take pictures in white wall studio and from 5 feet distance the lighting area is wider than frame my mask attached to. So we have bouncing light coming from surrounding objects: wall, ceiling etc.

So let’s start to work on every characteristic.

At this stage I don't change hardness of light. I will soften this later but now let’s accept it as a constant.

But I want to change contrast of picture and I put a honeycomb grid over the reflector. The honeycomb grid makes the lighting area more narrow and now it is less than the frame with the mask. Look at the picture. You can notice it became more and more contrast.

Mask studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

But you see shapes of every spot is still not flat, uneven. We have already discussed it above. I would call this pattern "untidy". You can see immediately the presence of a mask, you can see the presence of a reflector. To handle with that I use a diffusion gel covering the reflector with the honeycomb grid. See how the lighting pattern changed.

Mask reflector studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

There is no changes of either the size or the sharpness of lighting spots. But we feathered this edges, made them more soft. This once again illustrates the thesis that a diffusion gel over a reflector does not change hardness of light, it just feather edges of lighting spot. Please note that the lighting picture became less contrast. The diffusion gel made reflector’s lighting area and we again got a small portion of bouncing light.

OK, now let’s move the reflector to the mask looking on what is going on.

Mask reflector studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

Look at the picture above. Total lighting area and every small spot became softer and bigger. With changing of lighting area everything is totally clear. But what happened with every spot? You know that the closer the lighting source, the softer the light and moving the reflector to the mask we changed the hardness of light. You can read everything about that in my article Hardness of light on my website.

Moving the reflector closer to the mask we will get more wide lighting area and more soft spots. As in following picture:

Mask reflector studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

You can see that some lighting spot became less subtle (a consequence of the more soft light, the distance became less), and the total lighting area became wider. I have to add that this is a way i use a mask most often.

But what if we want not to change size of total lighting are, but want to make every spot more soft, more diffused. We used a diffusion gel of small size, covering the lighting surface of the reflector. But if we took a diffusion gel of larger size, like mask has (48” to 48”), put it on a frame (or just on a boom if we don't have an additional frame) and place it between the reflector and the frame with the mask, we could operate with hardness of light (i.e. feathering edges) without changing the size of the total lighting area.

Look at these pictures. At the first picture the diffusion gel is close to reflector, but then, when I move it closer and close to the mask, you see changes. The total lighting area remains the same. But softness of every small lighting spot become feathered and feathered.

reflector studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

Mask reflector studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

Mask reflector studio setup hard diffusion gel

reflector studio lighting setup hard diffusion gel

Comments are not necessary. You see everything.

I just want to add that in this tutorial I showed to you principles of working with a mask. To understand how it works. Of course not every photoshoot needs such complicated decisions but understanding of principles will help you to create your own algorithms of working with a mask.

And again I usually use this type of mask not for harsh spots, for this purpose I always use Gobo mask with a lighting modifier like Spot Small.

Good Luck with the development of this technology!