How I lit the Diamond jewelry shoot

When I was shown the inspiration for this diamond jewelry beauty shoot for Uptown Magazine I knew it would be technically challenging. Normally a challenging setup it was further complicated by the fact that I was shooting in an art gallery rather than a photo studio and I was on location in Chicago so I didn't have my full arsenal of equipment with me. Still, I answered as I always do - Sure, I can do it. It would definitely be a team effort between makeup, lighting and post-production, but it could be done.
I proceeded to do something I always do when presented with a challenge, while Candace Corey got to work on the makeup making the models as dark and reflective as possible. I don't know if this is unique to me or common, I do it automatically without thinking about it. I stood where I would be shooting from and just stared at the blank wall. It might look odd to an observer, but for me it's akin to a painter staring at a blank canvas before deciding where to put the first stroke. 
Candace Corey behind the scenes

Lighting setup

Once I had a picture in my head I got to work. First I did the obvious and simple which was to light the background so it would be perfectly white. The required background area was relatively small so a light on each side with an umbrella on it was sufficient. 
Next I turned to the keylight. Ideally I would have a strip softbox with a grid on it, but I didn't have that. Even if I did it might still cause more spread than we wanted. Instead, high up on a boom arm I put a single head with a 7" reflector in it and a grid - I can't remember what degree grid I decided on but I used my light meter to figure it out. Since we wanted vertical highlights I place strips of gaffer tape on the left and right sides over the grids to create a more rectangular shape. 
Grids not only focus the light but also the heat and would have melted or even burned the gaffer tape in seconds so I set an assistant by the pack to turn the model lights on only when I needed to adjust it and off again right away - this meant I was shooting slightly blind but it couldn't be helped. The alternative was too dangerous.
I still wasn't happy yet - in this all white gallery the light was going to bounce all over, ruining my carefully constructed setup. I turned to the Editor and told her I wished we were in a studio because I wanted to flag everything off. She asked what I meant and I explained that I would normally use the black sides of V-flats to create a tunnel, removing any ability for light to bounce around where I didn't want it. She asked if black tablecloths might work and it was worth a shot. I moved stacks of chairs into place and clamped black tablecloths to the tops of them creating the black tunnel I wanted. Basically satisfied I wanted to test it - having an assistant stand in wouldn't work because they wouldn't have the sheen that Candace was off working on. Instead I found a chair painted in reflective gold and placed it where I was going to have the models and took a test shot. Perfect. I knew I had the lighting right before I took a single photo of a person. Here is a lighting diagram showing the setup along with the sample shot I took of the chair.
Lighting Diagram
Chair test

Gear Used

For this shoot I used a Nikon D300 with the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens tethered to a Macbook Pro, Speedotron pack with 3 strobes, 2 43" bounce umbrellas, a 10-40 degree grid kit, a Sekonic light meter, two pocket wizard plus IIs and 5-7 large black tablecloths.


The final step was done in post-production. First I wanted a pure paper-white background. Rather than spending a long time working with the pretty white background I started with I created a new layer under the original that was filled with white. I then created a mask and carefully masked the model out. I then added a curves adjustment layer to get the contrast I wanted. This made the image too dark so I added a brightness/contrast adjustment layer over that to brighten it back up. The final effect was created using a carefully composed black and white adjustment layer which masked out the jewelry so that any spectral color highlights in the diamonds remained. To get a great Black and White from a digital source you really need to adjust every color channel separately until you get the desired effect. At this point I passed it off to the magazine's retoucher to do the standard beauty retouching work. Although I don't know exactly what her process is, this usually entails a neutral grey overlay and then dodging and burning until the blemishes are all removed and the shadows and highlights perfected. After that a high pass filter is usually then applied to sharpen up the image. 
So this is how I created a technical lighting setup with minimal resources.
To see more photos from the shoot click here or pick up a copy of Uptown Magazine's special Travel & Weddings issue.