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“Impossible” Photo Highlights – Possible with an Airbrush

Harold Wood, a highly successful commercial photographer
who specializes in uncommon product shots,
has come up with what he feels is a unique use for
airbrushing in his work. He sprays highlights and shadows
onto products when he finds it impossible to create such
effects with lighting.

It’s a method, Wood pointed out in a recent interview, to
avoid retouching the negative or the print. “It’s my way of
retouching a shot before I take it,” Wood said with a smile.

This is not product retouching or repainting-although
an airbrush can come in handy when this needs to be
done. With product retouching and repainting, the commercial
photographer attempts to improve on the paint
job or the finish of a product. But that’s not what Wood’s
technique is about at all-photo and product retouching
have always been in the commercial photographer’s bag
of tricks. This is something different.

Wood, of Wood and Piper Photography, Portland, Oregon,
developed this technique not to retouch a finished
photo nor to improve the looks of a product, but to add
“impossible” highlights and shadows.

Wood explains: “Let’s say you have two products of a different
nature in one shot. Oftentimes by lighting the one
optimally, you lose quality on the other:’

A few months back, Wood ran into this exact problem
on an assignment to shoot water skis.

“If we exposed enough to get the matte black bindings
to ‘read; then the multi-colored skis would be overexposed;’
Wood recalls. If, on the other hand, he set up
the lighting to expose the skis properly, then the bindings
would “disappear:’ In some previous shots of the same
product-which he had taken but was not satisfied with-the bindings had looked flat, two-dimensional.

Then inspiration hit him.

Why not spray highlights onto the bindings with an airbrush?
He tried it, then shot the skis. When he pulled the
first Polaroid proof, he knew he had found a marvelous
answer to a reoccurring photographic problem.



First step, spray on black gouacbe.


The Nice Part …

The nice part of this technique is you don’t have to be
very good at airbrushing to do it well. To be a good photo
retoucher, you do have to devote a lot of time to each
photo-and it takes years of experience to become really
proficient at it. That is why most working photographers
farm out retouch jobs to a local retouch specialist.

Of course, this technique won’t replace the retoucher.
But with this technique, when a highlight or a shadow
can’t be created on a surface with lighting, the commercial
photographer need not wait until after the shot is taken to
add such an effect.


This technique, as Wood has developed it, merely requires
that you know how to lightly spray white, black or
gray gouache-i.e., an opaque watercolor-onto a surface.
In other words, you can achieve good effects with
this technique after learning the most rudimentary airbrushing

But there is a hard part.

Wood feels the hard part is creating the right looking
highlight. Highlights, to achieve their best effect, shouldn’t
be noticed-shouldn’t be glaring.

Wood takes pains to place highlights using this technique
in such a way as to mimic reality. So he never places
a highlight or a shadow randomly.

He explained that he created the white highlight on the
binding of the water skis (discussed above) only after
studying how such highlights occur naturally. To observe
natural highlights on bindings of this sort, he lighted
another set of skis, ones with binding made from cheaper,
slick plastic-bindings perfect for casting highlights.

Then Wood added the white highlights with the airbrush
to the pair of skis that he was actually photographing. This
particular shot also called for an additional bit of airbrush
trickery. Before Wood sprayed the white on the bindings
he first retouched the bindings with black gouache. The
black gouache was called for because thf> bindings were
more of a mottled gray color than a true black.

It’s recommended that you use a water soluble paint
when using this technique-for two reasons. The first
reason is you may need to experiment with the sprayedon
highlights, and a water soluble paint makes them
easier to remove. The second reason is you will tend to
ruin the product if you apply anything other than watercolors
to it.

Color vs. Black and White

Many techniques that apply to color photography won’t
work with black and white shots-and vice versa. Not so
with this technique. And, according to Wood, most of the
time you also use the same shades of watercolor-black,
white and gray-on both color and black and white shots.
“Most of our airbrushing is in whites, blacks and grays,
even though we .may actually be shooting in color, because
reflections- that is, highlights-are almost always
white to the camera, and shadows-even in color
shots-are usually a grayness. So when we spray a gray
over a blue or a gray over a whatever on some object that
is being shot in color;’ Wood explained, “you can’t really
tell a difference.”

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