How I Got That Shot: Using Hard and Soft Light for Subjects Light and Dark

November 24, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Dwight Eschliman

For a story on how easy it is to make an untraceable firearm, Dwight Eschliman had to expose for both shiny metal components and matte black pieces that required more light. He used a large source overhead and diffused grids on the left. An additional source near the front added subtle highlights.

Client: WIRED
Photo editor: Sarah Silberg
Art director: Raul Aguila

For a recent story for WIRED, Dwight Eschliman was called upon to illustrate a frightening application of 3D printing technology: the production of an untraceable rifle. Writer Andy Greenberg showed that nearly all components of an AR-15 can easily be ordered online. The one part that is regulated and stamped with a serial number, the lower register, can be milled on a 3D printer to avoid being traced. Photo editor Sarah Silberg needed still lifes of the printer and components, but the most complicated image was an exploded view of the gun. The image would be published on the opening spread of the story, with labels identifying each gun part.

“I love the initial portion of the creative process when anything is still possible,” says Eschliman, who has a studio in San Francisco. He enjoys problem solving—in his commercial and editorial assignments and in his personal projects, which typically involve the challenge of photographing similar objects from the exact same angle and under identical lighting.

Whether he’s shooting products for a client or a typological series on cows, which he recently began shooting for his portfolio, he often relies on the same lighting style: “I would say that utilizing a combination of soft and hard light is a pretty consistent theme in my photography.”

For the exploded view of the gun parts, he needed to figure out how to rig each part at the identical angle to the camera lens. Consistent lighting was also difficult. “The combination of relatively reflective silver metal parts and matte black metal parts created a bit of an exposure challenge,” he notes. He planned to arrange his lights once, and then bracket to capture proper exposures of each piece. “Generally speaking, we threw more light at the matte black parts and less light at the reflective silver metal parts.”


As soon as Eschliman agreed to take on the WIRED assignment, gun parts started arriving at his studio. “I think we were all just a little nervous with a semi-automatic gun around,” he recalls. Through trial and error, Silberg, stylist James Whitney, Eschliman’s assistant, Eric Haines and Vanessa Chu, who handled the rigging, became experts in AR-15 rifle assembly, identifying where each tiny piece went. “You take it apart and put it back together and find you have 17 extra pieces that you shouldn’t have,” the photographer says.

They first attached each part to a flat board in a gun shape to show how each piece fit together. They set the board at a slight angle to the camera, to create a dynamic view while maintaining correct perspective. Haines and Chu rigged each gun component above the floor at about eye level, using a combination of monofilament, armature and sheets of plexi to which he glued gun parts.


Eschliman often likes to begin by creating “a blanket of light from above.” For the WIRED shoot, he used a Broncolor Cumulite suspended over the gun. Like a large softbox, the Cumulite has four heads but is faced with plexi rather than diffusion material. He used a small card to block part of the light slightly, casting a shadow on reflective, silvery rod gun pieces on the upper part of the gun. The Cumulite was the primary light source on the colored backdrop, creating a graduated tone.

Eschliman and his assistant then suspended a panel of Lee diffusion material so that it hung parallel to the gun, running from just to the left of the camera lens all the way to the gun butt. He then placed both a hard and a soft light behind the diffusion to the left, adding highlights and shadow.

For the harder light, he placed a grid very close to the diffusion. He pointed the grid towards the camera, he says, to “create highlights on the back side of the dimensional pieces, and leave shadows facing the camera.”

He next placed a Broncolor parabolic so that it pointed away from the diffusion and towards a v-flat that bounced light back through the diffusion. This soft, bounced light made the matte black pieces look more velvety, while it also added a smooth, even light to silver pieces, such as the trigger and the receiver.

To the right of camera, just out of frame, he placed a Broncolor Picolite with a Pico box attachment. This added subtle highlights that provided definition in the shadowed side of the dark metal pieces.

With his lights in place, Eschliman exposed first for the shiny reflective parts of the still life, then increased the power to expose for the dark-colored components. “We didn’t have to change the quality of light but simply the quantity,” he notes. There was a three-stop difference between exposures, he notes.

© Dwight Eschliman

For a portfolio project featuring his typology of cattle, Eschliman had to adapt his usual studio lighting setup to a barn. © Dwight Eschliman

Eschliman used a similar combination of top light and hard/soft side lights in one of his recent personal projects, photographing a herd of steer. The difference was that he had to adapt studio lighting to a barn in Oakdale, California. His lighting had to remain in place, not only to highlight the differences and similarities between each steer, but also to allow Eschliman to shoot as soon as the steer was in the right position. “By nature, they’re completely uninterested in standing in the right spot or holding their head just so,” he says. To keep each steer contained in roughly the correct spot, Eschliman and his team created a horseshoe-shaped corral and built a ten-foot-high wall as the backdrop for the photo. However, “It was a surprise to me that these steers felt they could fit their entire bodies through gaps in fencing slightly smaller than their heads.”

He placed a large softbox on a stand so it hung over the steer’s head. Rather than setting up diffusion, he used a Broncolor Para 177 to the right of the camera, then positioned two grids above and behind the wall set up as the background. These added edge lights on the steer.

The lighting set up worked well for both the light and dark cows, the photographer notes. When he has enough steer photos, he plans to design a grid of photos in a promotion he’ll send to clients.


Eschliman captured the gun parts with a Sinar P3 camera and a PhaseOne IQ180 camera back on a camera stand placed 77 inches from the closest point of his subject. He chose a 180mm Rodenstock Apo-Sironar HR Digaron-S f/5.6, and with the shutter speed locked at 1/125th.

For his cow portraits, Eschliman is using the PhaseOne XF camera with an IQ3 back, and a Schneider Kreuznach 75-150mm LS f/4.0-5.6 zoom lens at 90mm.

Post Processing

When an assignment calls for compositing, and the budget allows, retoucher Alex Katz of blinklab comes to the set. Eschliman shot tethered. After he chose and processed each image in Capture One, Katz then worked on the composite in Photoshop. The final image ran on the opening spread of the August 2015 story, “I Made an Untraceable AR-15 in My Office—and It Was Easy.”

Related Links:

Check out the PDN archive of “How I Got That Shot” feature articles

An Interview with Sarah Silberg: What WIRED Wants from Photographers