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Nykvist Techniques with pictures

Stephen Selby

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Let's start by looking at some pictures by Nykvist


So in Malewisz book Richard Aguelir says that Nykvist normally lights with a huge soft light and then fills in from the opposite side. Looking at the lights in the eyes of picture 1 it looks as though there are two frontal lights with an equal amount of intensity and a light rear left to rim the hair. Possibly some fill from the right of frame.


Is there any way to tell how hard or soft a light is by the size of the highlights in the pupil. I would have expected a soft light to have a much larger highlight in the pupil. How soft is this? I'm guessing not as soft as bounce light, not as soft as silk 8'x8' but more like two 3'x3' with diffusion and the reason there is little shadow is because of the fill ratio being almost 1:1 not it being a very soft light.




Picture 2


Again am slightly confused because the shadows look soft but the eyelights are small - is that because he is using med-soft to hard lights with lots of fill or small sized soft lights? In other words is it something like a pepper light with loads of frost in front and then another one to fill, a very distant fresnel through a 8'x8' soft frame, or two harder lights - like peppers undiffussed peppers but becuase of intensity and fill ratio being very high the shadows appear much softer?



Picture 3:


Again a really low soft light - looks like a left front key and right front fill but the ratios are much lighter now. Given the lips it looks like a much larger soft light than the catchlight in the eyes - which seems surprisingly small if he is using a large soft source.



Picture 4:


This is much more what i'd expect from a soft source a much larger eye highlight. The shaows seem to be about the same softness as previous shots but the highlights in eyes much larger. Is that just to do with the distance from the subject. Here a left key as a diffused window with a right fill would make sense - also confirmed in earring highlights.



Picture 5:


Again very small highlights in eyes, left brighter than right suggesting front left key and front right fill at lower intensity but highlights seem remarkably small given the softness of the shadows.



Picture 6:


And this is confusing because it seems the other way round, quite a hard shadow of his chin across his collar which would suggest a hard light, but yet the highlight in his eye is quite large and soft?!


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  • 2 weeks later...


Is there any way to tell how hard or soft a light is by the size of the highlights in the pupil.

Yes and no. First off, any light source - no matter how small - can be made 'softer' by adding layers of diffusion. So you can have a soft small light just as you can have a soft large light. The size of the catchlight in the eye is going to be relative to a few things: the size of the light source relative to the subject, the distance from the subject to the light source, and also (in part) the intensity of the light source relative to the exposure. So the catchlights aren't going to tell you everything, but they're a good start, and if you combine that with how diffused the shadows look, and observe things like the specularity of the skin, you can make some pretty good conclusions. I don't know the book you're referring to, but what does he mean by a "huge" soft light? What size are we talking about? In the examples you gave, to me it looks like Picture 2 has the largest and softest light, coming from the left, with smaller and harder fill lights coming from the front.



I would have expected a soft light to have a much larger highlight in the pupil.

I assume you mean a *large* soft light here, as in a large softbox or diffusion screen? Again, even a small light can be made soft(er). The light sources in Picture 1 don't look very large to me - medium sized softboxes with diffusion. You can still make out a somewhat distinct shadow just below the nose.


Picture 3 looks like a hard key light with diffusion - the hard shadow of the nose is the giveaway. Looks like there's a front fill to the right of the key, again with diffusion - note the extra shadow just below the chin, somewhat diffused. Picture 4 looks like some kind of medium-large softbox or diffusion (maybe 3-4 ft across?). To me it also looks closer to the subject. There seems to be more "roundness" to this light (also catchlights look round, not square-?), that's why I'm thinking it's a softbox rather than just a diffusion screen, but obviously I'm just guessing. Picture 5 looks like a harder light source key (nose shdw and main chin shdw, with a more diffused light fill (fill light shadow under chin *seems* to be more diffused than key - not entirely sure though). Picture 6 is obviously very hard, with the key light intensity being very high as well as closer to the subject (more specularity on skin indicates closer light source).


So from these examples I certainly wouldn't conclude that Nykvist used only a huge soft light as his key - he had different arrows in his quiver, not to mention the natural light techniques he used outdoors (check out Tarkovsky's 'The Sacrifice' sometime). Also note that some of his choices surely changed over the years as lighting technology evolved. In the 50's and 60's, they pretty much used only hard lights (because diffusion was too flammable-?) - only in the 70's did lighting start to become softer and more diffused. Understanding the techniques of the period will offer insight into the choices they made. Surely the lighting tools he used on Cries and Whispers were different from the ones he used on The Virgin Spring.


btw, I'm a still photographer and use mainly strobes - I'm not an expert in continuous lighting, but the same principles apply. I use lots of different light shaping tools and techniques to get my results. Definitely enjoy investigating these things with you :)





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