Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reference, Part 2

Up front I’m going to put this out there: while there are a lot of illustrators who use professional grade lighting, I am not one of them.  If you’re interested in that type of thing, I can give you their names or you can easily find some excellent resources on the subject out there in the ether.  I’m going to focus on what I use.

So.  Lighting.

Simply put, I can’t afford good lighting.  As such, I use one of two light sources.  First, there’s the sun.

The sun is awesome.  So awesome, in fact, that the Earth rotates around it.  Unless you believe otherwise…in which case I wish you good luck with that.  The best part about the sun is that it’s free, which makes the sun even more awesome.  If I have a piece that is sunlit and I can time getting reference together with a sunny day, I shoot my reference outside.  Pretty revolutionary, I know.  If not, I will take my reference indoors using the tools listed below and supplement those photographs with other photos taken outdoors on other occasions.  If I need a cloudy environment, I shoot reference when it’s cloudy.  Again, not reinventing the wheel.

If, the sun is unavailable, or I need something a bit more specialized, I then use other tools to get the job done.  If it’s an indoor environment and I can simulate the lighting setup in the image with household lamps, then I do it.  I take the shots and I move on.

If it’s even more specialized than that, I call in the troops.  And by troops I mean, standard, hardware store, clamp lights with basic aluminum reflector bowls.

One of two reactions just happened.  Your jaw either hit the floor over how stupid I am, or your mind was totally blown.  Well, I guess it’s possible that you just shrugged your shoulders, uttered, “meh”, and hit the “back” button on your browser.  So, I guess that brings us to three possible reactions.

No matter what you thought upon seeing the stone-age tools I employ to light things, it is the simple truth.  These things are remarkably versatile, too.  If I need more than one light source, I use two (usually with two different wattage bulbs in order to establish a primary or secondary light source).  If I need added fill light, I’ll put on a second one or turn on a tabletop lamp to do the job.  If I need a torch, I take the reflector bowl off of one and hold it by its clamp.  If I need colored lights, I use colored bulbs.  And, if I need to soften the light, I’ll put a piece of paper over the front of the bowl.  I love these things.  I use them to do a great deal of my reference, and I apologize for nothing.

The important takeaway of this, however, is to have a light source at all.  If you’re going to bother taking reference, bother lighting it, too.  Trust me, it’ll be WAY better if you use lighting of some kind.  Lighting can create mood, it can highlight important things, it can help define the world you’re creating.  Light is the actual means through which the forms are being defined.  If the lighting on a given object feels right, it makes it that much more believable.

And so I light my reference.  With lamps I got for $7 a pop in a hardware store on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.  If I ever graduate to professional lighting, I’ll tell you all about it.  But right now, how I use reference currently, these tools work pretty well for me.


  1. Hey Steve, one thing I've been using lately in my studio is really similar. I got the slightly bigger clamp lights (my ceilings are really high). I'm using two side by side, in one I put a regular high wattage bulb and the other a matching wattage but daylight colored bulb. it seems to be working so far.

  2. Sounds cool to me. With me, simpler is always better. I don't have the cognitive capacity to learn about high-end lighting. I'd rather learn to be a better visual liar. But I'll be getting into that later on.


  3. Thanks for the info Steve. I've often wondered if sub-professional lighting conditions were making my own references less than they should be. I think more of the problem for me has come with the colour quality afterwards.

    Any suggestions there? Do you even attempt to match colours in reference prints, or is that something that entirely flows from your palette selection?

  4. Ooh - good question. I'll cover this later on, but I'll answer your question anyway. I use reference more for value than for color. Once in a while, I'll shoot stuff for color purposes, but that tends to be rare. Incorrect color can often come from an inconsistency between the type of lighting you're using and the white balance setting on your camera. Make sure that the two are in sync and it should at least help a little. Otherwise, it might just be that your camera isn't good enough to capture the colors as you see them.

    If you're talking more about color shift after printing reference out, that's a tough one. Even when all of my settings are in sync between my printer and photoshop and the like, there's still some color shift there. That's all about figuring out how to color correct for your printer or being able to do the color shifting mentally as you're working.

    Either way, it is always okay to shift color and value, etc. It's your reference and you need to make it work for you.


  5. Ahha, thanks. As I learn more about colour I've become less and less comfortable trying to match colours to photo reference. It used to be fine since I didn't notice the differences, but now I'm to the point where most of the time I desaturate the image before printing so I don't get annoyed. I guess I'm stumbling slowly towards that value-only use you mentioned.

    Trying to keep the monitor, camera, and printer all colour-sync'd seems really impossible, but it'd be awfully nice. I'll have to play more with camera settings.

    Thanks for your swift answer!


I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.