Vote -- And Consider Uplighting

First of all, if you are reading this in the US, get off your butt and go vote today. Either that, or don't complain during the next four years no matter what. I'm just saying.

That said, take a look at this morning's Washington Post. They are running the expected, "same play" careful coverage that a newspaper has to run, lest it get howling complaints.

(Seriously, people count square inches and write in. So you need to keep them even, especially on critical days like November 4th.)

But enough election talk. Thankfully, we are almost done with that. It has been a long two years.

This morning's front page also is a very interesting look into lighting styles -- and media control. After you have voted, make the jump for a little more on the lighter side (so to speak) of this front page.

The Same, But Different

Looking at the two lead photos, McCain by Melina Mara and Obama by Linda Davidson, I am struck by the difference in the lighting. (Click here to see it bigger.)

Needless to say, a lot of thought goes into lighting political events. The campaign staff wants to do all of the heavy lifting, so the media can swoop in and get stuff that looks good with a minimum of effort.

In that sense, how you light your candidate is a point of significant control. Do it well, and he/she looks like a hero. That's a strong visual statement. And it is somewhat subconscious, which makes it even stronger.

McCain is classic Michael Deaver. And by that, I mean, create a little looking-into-the-sunset lighting and line up the shooting pits to where they show your guy in front of a big American flag.

Deaver (Reagan's Deputy Chief of Staff) was the first to exploit on a large scale the idea that, if you controlled the lighting/backdrop/shooting location, you could damn near put your candidate on a movie set. It helps if your candidate was a former actor, too.

Reagan, of course, was exactly that. And since the Reagan/Deaver (or maybe, Deaver/Reagan) one-two punch was so well executed, that strategy went a long way towards crafting a heroic visual image of Reagan in the media. The media could hardly help themselves, either -- Deaver had seen to that.

The lighting and shooting geometry on McCain are now pretty much standard procedure. It works, too. Not even Jill Greenberg could make the guy look bad in that situation.

But looking over at Obama's photo, I find myself wondering if his campaign's lighting person is not trying to evolve the Deaver look a little bit. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw this morning's dual front was to notice the uplighting.

I have been interested in learning more about uplighting when I realized that the technique was one of the reasons I like so many of Greg Heisler's photos. I love the way it sculpts and creates form and texture.

I have played with it a little bit, in a random, clunky way. And even my first clumsy efforts were encouraging enough to make me decide to learn more about it. I want to approach it in a more thorough way, as we presently are doing with on-axis fill. And I hope to write about the technique later.

Seeing Linda's Obama photo above (lit probably not by her but by a campaign staffer who appears to know their stuff) really shows the power of the technique. All the more so because it it juxtaposed against the technique that has been the Gold Standard of making a US politician look heroic and significant for the last 25 years.

Not to say that uplighting is anything new. But clearly, it is a powerful way to accent light -- and one that certainly lends itself to speedlight-based lighting. Sad, but after two years of non-stop campaigning being shoved down my throat, this is what I notice on the Big Day.

To me, the Obama photo looks like it jumped off of the pages of WIRED Magazine. Which is pretty amazing, really, when you consider that the person who shot the photo was not the person who decided the light.

In a time of increasingly sophisticated visual presentation in the media, it is interesting to me that we might be seeing the next chapter in the Michael Deaver playbook.

Feel free to electioneer ad nauseum in the comments. (No). This is a Red-Blue-Free-Zone. But I would be curious to know your nonpolitical thoughts about the differences in lighting above. If you have covered either campaign, feel free to chime in with lighting-related observations. Although, I would think you are probably busy today, at least.

Seriously, the politically-tinged stuff is strongly discouraged. Plenty of other places for that. Save the politics for the one place that it really matters.

Please vote today.


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Blogger gene2008 said...

Here is a link which will show the lighting.

It was basically two lights (HUGE) lights! behind him on the right and left. In front there were lots of lights... but it amounted to lighting close to the axis, but split a little to the left and right. The athletic field also had tons of lights up high which acted as fill.

Shots 32, 39, and 68 will show some of the lights.

November 04, 2008 12:22 PM  
Blogger Cameron Magee said...

Nice observation. One thing that caught my eye, too, was the American flag. It makes a big difference for color. The Obama has a straight black background, but the McCain is full color, with the flag. Interesting to note the subconscious effects of that, too. But, then again, I'm a sucker for color, and usually a habitual over-saturator... :)

November 04, 2008 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After photographing Obama's campaign and McCain's campaign multiple times throughout the state of CO this year, I can tell you that the democrats have put a lot more into their lighting than the republicans. I'm not trying to start a fight here, this is just what I have observed.

Obama has always had several light banks during his appearances. Usually there is a large light bank directly in front of him with a couple of smaller light banks on either side. The large bank provides a shadowless main light to the podium with the outside banks providing a rim light that adds a little separation between him and the backdrop.

Its really pretty nice because he is usually a 1-2 stop difference from the background. So he ends up standing out a little more in the frame.

November 04, 2008 12:52 PM  
Blogger Susan petry said...

JMO: with McCain, it's all about the angles. He is ALWAYS positioned with the right side of his face towards the camera-the reason being that he has had a huge chunk of the left side of his face carved out to remove cancer (melanoma). the occasional circumstances when you can see it (without heavy TV makeup) it looks scary.

November 04, 2008 1:05 PM  
Blogger David said...

Trying to walk the balance between keeping a conversation going and not letting the conversation get politicized.

Please save the subjective stuff for other places and venues.

FWIW, I am very certain that McCain's wife, mother and kids think that the post-surgery portions of his face are absolutely wonderful compared to the alternative.

Also, I would imagine that there are more than a few post-op melanoma patients out of the ~250,000 or so monthly readers.


November 04, 2008 1:28 PM  
Blogger Tom Pyron said...

I don't know. Looking at the location setup, I think they lit the podium with what they had. Obama's primary key are the series of Arri 5k's (or 10k's), which are the same type of lights they use on film sets (among many others). All I really see is a basic 3 point setup, just expanded to cover the entire field and slightly focused on the podium.

I find it difficult to compare these two particular photos from a lighting perspective because of their opposition, one is day and the other is night. Given the cost associated with turning night into day by just using a crap-ton of light, and with support being in Obama's favor the night before election day, it's easy to justify pulling the reigns on that expense and going with a smaller production.

My beef with the headline is, they say his grandmother's death casted a "pall" on the rally, which I firmly disagree with. Made it easy to approve of that darker image with hot highlights, creating a more haunting tone. That juxtaposition of the image and headline focuses on Obama's personal experience, whereas McCain's column focuses on his campaign effort.

Of course, I assume the McCain picture was taken yesterday.

If we found another picture of McCain at night and compared, I could see that. Or a comparison of images from both of the RNC or DNC conventions, that would also be a better comparison. The intent would be similar with both efforts, especially at a time when support to one side was less defined.

My .02, good read though.

November 04, 2008 1:36 PM  
Anonymous Corey said...

The lighting from underneath on Obama makes him look older, hence more experienced. It also emphasizes the feeling that he's talking to a large crowd.

I've seen some of the other shots of him from similar events where the photographers were positioned to where the only shots they could get had crowds of thousands of people in the background.

Seems like their strategy is to make him appear immensely popular and well-liked. It really helps with the message of unity and hope that he's after!

November 04, 2008 1:38 PM  
Blogger gene2008 said...

I know I'm a dork... shooting photos of lighting setups at political rallys. At any rate... here is what McCain was doing back in January. Some light from the front and not much else.

And... he's looking right, left, and straight on. And check out Cindy... apparently texting during his speech.

November 04, 2008 2:11 PM  
Blogger Eli T. said...

Those look like 2500w or 4000w LTM HMI Pars they're using for the backlights. Daylight balanced movie/tv lights.

November 04, 2008 2:14 PM  
Anonymous Trevor Carpenter said...

Thanks for making it clear that this is a nonpartisan forum.

November 04, 2008 2:15 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

David I like Heisler's #6 "The Whistle Blowers" Time magazine cover. You think that he lit each subject individually and put them together in PS? The lighting profile of Sherron Watkins on the right makes me wonder?

November 04, 2008 2:28 PM  
Blogger Mattograph said...

Looking at the results of Obama's uplighting, and comparing those to McCain's more "odd" experience with that effect, I was curious to know -- is uplighting naturally more kind to darker complexions?

November 04, 2008 3:02 PM  
Blogger David said...


IMO, it is just a matter of ratios. JG was obviously trying to do as much damage as possible to McCain, and was not using anything *butt* that one bottom light. Presto: Instant Frankenstein.

But take a look at what Heisler did with Rudolph Guiliani and Michael Phelps (both caucasians) -- Friggin' amazing.

November 04, 2008 3:30 PM  
Anonymous homing said...

The thing i also noticed is that they are both looking in the direction of the political views of the party they are representing.

Republicans being part of the right wing politics and Democrats being of left wing views.

November 04, 2008 4:02 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

This is interesting. I think both photos are great. Next time my dad talks at the Rotary Club maybe I can set up a smaller scale version of this, as most of their talking head photos look pretty horrible.

I must have missed the portion on 'uplighting'. What exactly is 'uplighting'? I tried searching, but it's pulling pretty much EVERY page up. :(


November 04, 2008 4:41 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hi David...

For the Obama photo, is it set up to get that neat rim lighting and the sculpting light on his right (our left) side of his face, from any angle? Or just from where this one photographer was standing?

It would be nice for my church events to set up lights so they would look good shot with any ol point and shoot zoomed all the way in (ISO 100 f/5?)

November 04, 2008 4:57 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I think it's worth considering that it may be horses for courses to some extent - the uplighting suits Obama's slim and relatively youthful features, but may not play so well with McCain's rather less well-defined neck/chin region.

November 04, 2008 5:31 PM  
Blogger Chris Werner said...

It seems to me that both pictures from a lighting and compositional perspective do a good job of viscerally reinforcing the image their campaigns have projected about the men.

The McCain image, with its harsher lighting, higher contrast, and the color and positioning of him in front of the flag had war hero and dedication to country written all over it.

The Obama image with its lower key tones, softer contrast, and the lack of a clear context seems to be to fit equally well with his campaign's tone. I think the blank background in particular throws the focus on him as an individual being the essence of his campaign.

Interestingly, while both are looking upward, it strikes me differently in each case, I think because of how the backgrounds define or don't define the context. I'll leave that there as the words to describe it without sounding partisan escape me at the moment, but I am curious about other reactions.

November 04, 2008 5:35 PM  
Anonymous owen-b said...

From my point of view as someone who hasn't really spent any time whatsoever looking at the lighting on other images of these two men, this post is very interesting. I'd never even considered that their campaigns include people that light them creatively as opposed to functionally, but of course they do!

Looking at it that way, what strikes me about the Obama image is the dramatic mood. Were it anyone else, I'd say that's a man that's in a position of having to ACT. It's dramatic, it's almost harsh in it's emptiness, it's just him and the darkness, and he's holding it just fine. Are they trying to set him up in our minds as a man that can handle the darkness of the world, the decisions ahead of him? Perhaps because of questions that have been posed of his lack of experience in that area?

I'm not electioneering, just trying to analyse the thinking!

November 04, 2008 5:56 PM  
Blogger Kurt Klimisch said...

Why would you put Obama on a black background. It makes him look sinister. I like the shot, just not a shot I would want of a presidential candidate. Dramatic yes - but dark and in not a nice way. McCain's, while it may be "standard", is exactly what you would want for a presidential candidate. For all the "smarts" and money on the Obama side the photo on this page is not what I would want to have. Sometimes the "art" needs to take a backseat to the message. My 2 cents.

November 04, 2008 6:41 PM  
Blogger Mark Yager said...

It may be worth mentioning that the photo of Obama was a shot that was not planned for a long time. You can barely see, but he has a tear coming from his right eye. I assume he was talking about his grandma at the time. Thus, perhaps the photog didn't have an opportunity to wait for an 'in front of the flag' shot. Rather, she saw the tear, took the shot, and knew it'd be a winner (or at least a paying shot).

Being a 'borderline friend' (Canada) I have no political axe to grind. Well, not with this election, anyway.

November 04, 2008 9:01 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

In general, would you uplight someone who had a heavier/older neck? Seems like if you placed McCain in the Obama pose/photograph, it would highlight bits that you probably wouldn't want highlighted.

November 04, 2008 9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find this article interesting as up here (Canada) we've just been through a federal election ourselves. It was clear from watching the press that the Conservative leader, Stephen Harper's team paid a lot of attention to lighting and shooting angles, but the other parties did not.

November 04, 2008 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Heisler

Who comes up with these websites? I couldn't figure out how to find more than one photo on it. (It looks like Bill Gates and Bono.) It could be worse, I guess; it could play music. But really...

November 05, 2008 12:53 AM  
Blogger Ruwan Randeniya said...

Ok so this might be beating a dead horse but I don't see the up-lighting. Looking at the shadows on the face, if this was up-lighting I would expect to see light in the chin and inside the nostrils. However not seeing any light in these two areas I think it is two sets of light coming from slightly behind and above Obama's head.

Correct me if I am wrong but this is how I see it. The photographer is about 45 degrees below Obama's head. Looking up from this angle there are several lights that are illuminating the face. Looking at the face you can see that there is a slight shadow on the right side (our left) of the nose (loop lighting effect). This would indicate that the main light was about eye level and coming from the direction that his shoulders are facing. The face is at the classical 2/3rds view. That said there is a light about 45 degrees above Obama's head on his left side almost square with his shoulder. We can see this from the shadow that is cast across his neck and collar. Judging from the highlight on the cheek and the shadow on the neck I would guess that this light is much closer as it looks to be about 2 stops or so brighter than the key light.

On the opposite side there is another light that is finishing off the rim light affect but this light seems to be maybe only 1.5 stops brighter than the key because there seems to be a slight ratio to the highlights....

anyway this is just what I see but being a novice I could be way off.

November 05, 2008 3:35 AM  
Blogger Isaac Viel said...

I love the lighting at these events! The WB is not the easiest to nail but the amount of light is amazing. Check out my set from when Senator -- err President -- Obama spoke at the University of Oregon.

November 05, 2008 3:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please all have mercy on me and tell me why you think Obama's image is uplit ... In the campaign shots posted by gene2008 I can see a big light camera left behind and above his head, and certainly no space for a light to camera right and below him ... ????

Also the shadow on his neck indicates a strong light camera right and above.

I'm confused :(

November 05, 2008 10:10 AM  
Blogger WDOphoto said...

I shot a Bush rally in 00', an Obama rally the night before the PA primary and another Obama rally just 9 days ago.

The Bush rally was outside and for the life of me I don't remember there being any lighting rigs.

The Obama rallies were lit very differently from each other. I'd assume the reason was that he walked around more - and conducted the primary rally as a more "town-hall" style walking around the stage and engaging with people. So the lighting was really even all over. It was in the University of Pittsburgh's basketball arena and the entire floor was within 1 stop.

At the Oct. 27th rally he was more "presidential" and spoke at a podium without really leaving it meaning the lighting set up could be more focused.

November 05, 2008 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anyone point me to a discussion of the use of up-lighting in portraiture? Searches just bring up every single instance of "setting up lighting..." etc. Is there an a treatise ala old masters or other classical uses of the technique?

November 05, 2008 1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Covered them all over Ohio for the last year.

Over all the Obama people seemed to get it better or at least have more visual people on their team who get it. They even came out with matt finish signs that photographed better. The McCain people seemed to final catch up the last few weeks.

Lighting was all over the place. Most was good a few times it was bad. I think the grunt work on the lighting is local but I am sure the campaign directs it.

November 05, 2008 1:17 PM  
Blogger phil said...

here is a fun lighting photo. scrambling assistants. can't imagine the pressure of having to get your shot in the 20 seconds of his day that has been scheduled for you.

(no need to post this, just wanted to bring it to your attn if you hadn't seen it yet. thanks for the site, keep it up!)

November 05, 2008 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came to the Strobist site today hoping to get away from the constant campaign coverage. ARGHHH!!!

November 05, 2008 2:06 PM  
Blogger Patrick Snook said...

On uplighting: at the extreme, from under the chin, it looks ghoulish, but how often do we admire someone across a dining table, glowing and even sparkling with light coming from (perhaps) a single candle below eye-level, from the center of the table?

I venture to say that we are designed to admire such lighting, find it sexy, even. Thinking of our paleolithic ancestors: we must have admired our potential mates across a cooking fire. Perhaps we are adapted to seek beauty in the face with uplighting.

Skip to the present: photo textbooks generally advise against uplighting, dismissing it as unflattering. Well, let's see what we can do. . . .

November 05, 2008 3:41 PM  
Anonymous kc kong said...

LOL I'm with the "what uplighting?" guys. The under-chin shadow frame left and the under-chin highlight frame right is indeed interesting :)

IMHO, only that underchin highlight says low-placed light

Otherwise, both images were shot "up the nostrils" and they're different by way of background and source(s) of light ...the sun(?) vs obama's multiple lightbanks

I agree Obama's shot is nice but i think the sculpting is not so much uplighting but clever placement of multiple lights at various levels to bring out the chiselled face.

November 05, 2008 10:31 PM  
Blogger Gavin ・ ギャビン said...

I'm not advanced enough to pull off uplighting without turning it in to monster lighting. Looking forward to your posts on the subject, and I'll start experimenting with it on my own in the mean time.

A pre-coffee comment: Perhaps the key difference is softness? Uplighting needs very soft light to keep it in the "glow" instead of "ghoul" category?

November 06, 2008 7:24 PM  
Blogger Scott D. Coulter said...

Here's an amazing collection of newspaper front pages, for your comparison shopping:

Looks to me that fully 50% of them picture Obama in front of one or more American flags.

November 07, 2008 4:44 PM  
Anonymous Kelwyn said...

Re: uplights

There were no uplights for this... there would be no good place to put them without weird shadows from the podium. Gene2008's shots show two large fresnels at an angle that is only slightly higher than Obama and slightly behind him. Phil's link to
shows the light under his neck from one of those fresnels.

McCain looks to by mostly natural light to me, but I could be wrong on that.

As an event lighting tech in the DC area, I've found that the thing event handlers are most concerned with is an even front wash for TV cameras, to the point of complaining about 2 FC in a 100 FC wash. Depending on the venue setup, backlight will happen.

November 08, 2008 12:20 AM  

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