Edit: Full disclosure; this article is simply a modernised version of an older one I posted a long time ago. That original article can be found here, but it still remains among my top 5 most read articles to date. This remastered edition simply updates some ideas as I get ready to start teaching my new ‘Art of Projection’ training. If you’d like to see some more examples of my more advanced projector shots, then you can find them here and further reading on the topic can be found on my ‘Art of Projection’ page.
There are literally thousands of different ways to modify your light in photography, but you’d find it difficult to find one that offers more versatility and variety in look than the humble projector.
The projector is something that has fallen out of fashion in recent years what with HD and 4K T.V’s flooding the market, but in the 1960's and 70's nearly every household owned one.
Back then, one of the most common ways to take photographs was by shooting with E6 film or as it was more commonly known, slide film or transparencies. This slide film produced 35mm transparencies that would be loaded into your projector, you'd set it up on your new smoked glass and chrome coffee table and then the full glory of your Kodachromes would be projected huge onto the nearly white wall in the lounge as you gazed in wonderment from the cosy confines of your deep shag pile carpet.
Even as a child in the 80's, I remember my father digging out the projector and shining the holiday snaps up onto the screen to go through them. It was actually an incredibly impressive way to view your shots and it's crazy to think that we traded that immersive 6 foot by 4 foot viewing experience for swiping through our latest and greatest shots in the palm of our hands. Surely we missed the point somewhere along the line where convenience trumped experience.
Fast forward to the present and very few homes still have a projector. We've all opted to view our holiday snaps on our phones and maybe sometimes our T.V.'s if we're feeling really organised. That being said a lot of people still have their old projectors up in the attic somewhere languishing in obscurity, I know my father did, and I nabbed it many years ago to give it a new lease of life as a photographic light/modifier.
Using the projector as a light source in your photography opens up a whole world of possibilities and once you start off down the path of projecting different images into/onto new images, you'll soon realise the potential the projector has to add something unique to your shots.
When I was at University studying photography, I had a lot of fun experimenting with projectors. If you get the chance, I highly recommend you having a rummage in the loft or asking your parents/grandparents if they've still got their old projector hanging about. If they do, dust it off, change the fuse and have a play with it.
The properties of a projector to be aware of when using them in conjunction with photography are first and foremost the ‘slides’.
If you want to use a projector to shine an image into your scene then you first have to buy some E6 film, find an old 35mm camera (learn how to use it), shoot your shot, send it away for a fortnight to be processed, wait around for it to be delivered and then and only then can you delicately place your precious 35mm transparency into a slide mount, pop it into your projector and finally shine it into your scene!
(…that's a lot of steps!). It’s pretty safe to say that firing up your old projector is not going to be a quick and spontaneous idea, but if you've got a well thought out shot and an awesome image to shine into it, then the results it can produce are very cool indeed.
So what if you don't have two weeks to spare and the patience of a saint, but you'd really like to use a projector in your shots? Welcome to the digital age.
The modern alternative to the old slide projector is of course the digital projector. This infinitely more advanced projector can now literally shine any image you could possibly think of into your shot and if you have the right cable, you can shine that image from any device you like. Your T.V. your laptop and even your phone.
The digital projectors have come down in price a lot in recent years too and their main reason for existing now is for home entertainment. I've had mine for many, many years (I’ve since updated this one with a couple of new ones since then too), but the brightness is still ok.
Newer projectors are all a lot brighter as standard now than they used to be, but be mindful that you certainly get what you pay for to a certain extent, and the key thing to look for if you're in the market to get a projector is the brightness. A digital projectors brightness is measured in lumens and they vary hugely.
For example; you can currently pick up a £50 digital projector on eBay with a brightness of 150 lumens, but for a £150 you can pick up a secondhand one with a brightness of 3000 lumens. That is quite literally like night and day and the extra money for the extra brightness is definitely worth it in my opinion.
That extra brightness will allow you to shoot at faster shutter speeds and at lower ISO's, both of which are crucially important when photographing people or other moving objects.
The digital projector is what I use now and that's purely for convenience over anything else. I can find any image I like and shine it into the scene from my phone. If I don't like the way it’s looking, I can simply change it immediately. Like I mentioned before, with this level of convenience, it opens up any digital image on the planet to be immediately shone into your shot (allowing for the terms of copyright law and fair use or derivative works in your country of course…. ;) But that’s a topic for another day).
So now that we understand all those benefits, what's some of the downsides that we should be wary of when incorporating a projector into our shots?
The first thing is power. The power of the light (or lumens) that most projectors put out is pretty dismal by comparison to what we’re used to as photographers. And remember that brightness will be heavily influenced by the type of image you shine.
If you shine an image of a shadowy forest into your shot its going to be very dark as an output. Alternatively, if you project a bright blue beach scene instead, it’s going to be a lot brighter.
Here's a totally arbitrary figure to give you some idea of what I'm talking about. An average brightness image shone onto a white wall may give you 1/60 second exposure, f4 at 200 ISO. Like I mentioned earlier though, you can now get a lot brighter digital projectors, but I wanted to give you a ballpark figure of brightness.
The Dreaded Pixel-Problem
Another thing to bear in mind with modern digital projectors is that they shine pixels. As a result, you will literally see lots of tiny squares in your projected image.
If you’re not careful this can look awful and it’s one of the biggest reasons you don’t see more people using projectors in their shots in my opinion.
For this pixel-problem alone, I prefer the older slide projectors as they don't have this issue at all. They simply shine light through your slide film and the only thing you'll notice on the models skin is the film grain from the original transparency, and seeing as most slide film has super fine grain anyway you shouldn't even notice anything at all.
One last thing to bear in mind of course is the colour temperature of the image you are projecting. It's not too much of an issue if you're shooting with just the projector alone, as you simply shoot RAW and play with the white balance and colour casts afterwards in post until you're happy.
Shooting with just the projector alone is the best place to start if it’s your first time experimenting with a projector. Choose an image that’s nice and bright, preferably with large sections of white, and just project that directly onto the model and white balance the image the best you can later on.
Balancing the Colour
The colour temperature of the projector does become an issue however when you're using the projector in conjunction with other lights.
If you were to just shine white light from the projector onto a white wall, I’d advise setting up a custom white balance profile for the best results.
For example, all of my projectors sit just off the Kelvin scale, so adjusting the Kelvin alone isn’t enough to get the best results and I have to shift the ‘tint’ as well to get a cleaner, more natural white. On top of that, my results show the projector bulbs being on the warmer side (colour wise and closer to tungsten in terms of white balance). As a result, if you're using a projector as well as flash in your shot you'd probably have to use a CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) gel on your flash to compensate.
But before you all breath a sigh of relief and think that was easy… all that unfortunately changes when you decide to project coloured images through your projector. This is where it can become a bit tricky.
For example, if I was to shine an image of blue water through my warmer coloured bulb, what white balance should I set my camera to and what colour correcting gel should I use on my flash?
This is a bit of a minefield I'm afraid and there's no easy answer, suffice to say that you'll just have to do a little experimenting with each of specific images you choose. I will add that many Auto White Balancing settings on camera today are nothing short of incredible, so unless you really want to get everything absolutely perfect, AWB will get you most of the way.
Another thing that I like do is take my images that I'm going to project into editing software beforehand and add some blue to the image before I project it. This helps when I'm balancing the projector light with the flash afterwards as the projected image is already on the blue side as comes through the slightly warmer bulb. Again, this will vary on your specific projector and the more expensive, cleaner, newer bulbs will have less of this issue to deal with.
Setting up your projector
Brilliant, so we're all set with some basic theory on do's and don'ts. We've got our image that we want to project so let's start to think about setting up the shot.
Always try to treat your projector like any other light source in your shot. By this I mean think about the angle and height of the projector placement. All too often I see people using a projector by placing it on the floor, table or chair next to them. Not only does this cast huge shadows up the wall behind the subject, but it also creates that horrendous up-lighting on models that is never flattering. Always get your projector above the models head height to create a far more flattering look.
Also remember that a projectors light is an incredibly hard light source because of it's focused beam coming from a tiny point. The least you can do is position it at a flattering height and angle to the model.
Getting the projector up high is actually harder than it may first seem, but I sit my projector on a laptop plinth from Manfrotto (essentially just a plate that screws to the top of light stands and tripods). I can then attach this to a tripod or even a light stand to give me even more height. Of course you can use anything you want though and stacking up on a table or shelf behind you will serve the same purpose.
The next thing to consider is the projectors distance from the model. This distance is determined by what coverage of projected image you are looking for on the model of course, but if you are looking to shoot a 3/4 length shot then you're probably going to have to get your projector about 8-10 feet away to cover that area. Most digital projectors are designed for home-cinema use and they are getting better and better at throwing a larger image in smaller spaces than ever before.
That's pretty much it, you're done and if you aren't planning on introducing additional lighting to the shot then you're all set to start shooting away.
But if you are looking to add some extra light in there, for example to wash out the projected light on a models face, here's where the fun begins.
First off, you’ll need to be careful that the light you're shining onto the model doesn't also fall onto the background too. If it does, then it’s going to wash that projected image out.
For the shoot I've shared here, I had my light directly above the model and literally pointing straight down onto her. The main reason for this was simply space if I'm honest. I couldn't get the light any higher because of the ceiling in the way, but if I could have, I probably would have put it a little higher and brought it further away from her to soften the hardness of light a little.
I'm still really pleased with how the shots turned out though. The modifier I had on this light was simply a reflector dish with a small grid/honeycomb attached. With this grid I can very easily control where the light goes and I can easily ensure no light spills onto the background.
For these shots I actually ended up not using flash at all, I simply used the tungsten modelling bulb on my strobe to light her. I also used a CTB (colour temperature blue) gel on this light to cool down the colour a little. It might be reasonable to assume that I wouldn't need to do this as the projector is a warmer colour already. But in reality, the image I was projecting was so blue that I had to compensate a little (like I mentioned you just have to adapt on the day and see what looks best colour wise).
I also had the model really close to the background as well to reduce any weird shadows being projected behind her, but it meant that the placement of the additional light was even more crucial for the best results.
Brightness and Model Poses
Now that we've placed our extra light, we need to look at the powers of them. Although you can adjust the brightness of most projectors, it's best to have them as bright as you dare without washing out the colour and then adjust the other lights around that. I had the modelling bulb turned up pretty high on my strobe to wash out the projected image and after I was happy with the power balance I finally got to start shooting.
Another thing to bear in mind when shooting is to direct the model around both of your light sources. The key light is now your light that is shining down on the model so your model should base their posing around that. As long as your projector has been set straight on and above the models eye level, you shouldn't need to worry about it anymore.
Final Points to Consider
Thats it, keep shooting and see what's working and what's not working, but the key here is to experiment with lots of different images and see what you prefer.
One final point to bear in mind is how much of an influence the projected image has on the overall shot. Try to tie everything else like fashion and makeup around it. In this shoot the model wore a swimsuit and was sprayed with droplets of water to match the look of the projected image of water behind her. All these little elements can really help sell a look.
Things to Keep in Mind…
1. Start off by choosing an image with a lot of white in it and only use the projector to light your subject.
2. Get your projector above the models eye-level to create a more flattering light and to hide any unsightly shadows.
3. Be mindful of the pixels that can be produced on the models skin from digital projectors. If it's a big project where the final image is likely to be blown up big, consider using an analogue projector to reduce this.
4. Be prepared to adapt to weird colour balancing issues on the day. The colours of projected images can drastically distort white balance. Adjusting an images colour in Photoshop prior to projection may be a handy workaround.
5. Tie your projected image and your subject together to create a cohesive look. Make sure the image you're projecting makes sense with what the models wearing and the idea you're trying to portray.
Many thanks indeed to my super patient model Jaye - Go check her out on her portfolio
Good luck guys and I look forward to seeing what you all come up with.
Click on the images above to enlarge.
The Art of Projection
If you fancy taking your projector shots to the next level, feel free to check out my more advanced projection-based lighting techniques here on my ‘Art of Projection’ page.
Thank you as always for checking out my article and spending a little bit of your day with me here. If you have any questions about this one then feel free to let me know in the comments below. I can’t promise to have all the answers, but I’ll certainly do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again for stopping by.