The Dave Hill Effect - Why it's near impossible to recreate

Posted on Monday, August 17, 2009 - 7 comments -

If, after looking at the above pic, you think , "Wow! That's an awesome image! Wonder who clicked it.", then here's a bit of history.

This pic was clicked by Dave Hill who is one of the most famous photographers in the world today. His images have a distinctive detail-rich, gritty look that has come to be known as the 'Dave Hill Effect'. Nowadays, everyone wants to create an image with the Dave Hill look and a number of sites offer a Dave Hill effect tutorial. But the end results are often awful and are not even close to what Dave Hill creates.

So, I, with my self-presumed photoshop expertise, took up a challenge and I wanted to create an image that is Dave Hill-like. After countless hours, I have to say that I have failed to create anything that's even remotely close to Dave Hill. :-(

In the quest of recreating Dave Hill imagery, I learnt a lot about Dave Hill and his equipment and his processing techniques. Here's the summary of all I had learnt.

Why It's Near Impossible to Recreate The Dave Hill Effect

1. Dave Hill shoots medium format

Dave Hill uses a Mamiya 7-II when shooting film and a Hasselblad H3Dwhen he shoots digital. (Of course, he uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark II)to shoot 'test shots'.) The difference in image quality between top of the line 35mm digital cams like Nikon D3x and a medium format digital like Hasselblad H3D is startling. You can find a little comparison here . The level of detail and dynamic range of a Hasselblad (or for that matter any medium format camera) is truly mindblowing. The price difference is even more startling. H3D costs $37,000. :-)

Here's a man who has come very close to recreating the Dave Hill look. Needless to say, he shoots medium format. In summary, shooting medium format is one key change you need to make to get that perfect Dave Hill look. But, that's not all.

2. Dave Hill uses an eight light setup, minimum

Dave Hill uses wraparound lighting ie. lighting the model from all possible directions to best show the structural detail and to create a 3D look. Dave Hill, as per his own admission, uses a minimum of eight lights to light a single model. If you check his behind-the-scenes videos, you can notice that he uses not compact flashes, but studio modeling lights like the White Lightning X1600. He also uses octaboxes the size of a tent and reflectors the size of a stand living room wall. Oh, and he uses those expensive ring flashes too. In case you're inquisitive, Dave uses PocketWizards and CyberSyncs to trigger his strobes. :-)

3. Dave Hill spends days processing a single image

Yup. He admits that he loves to spend a lot of time on a single image and he spends countless hours on processing each image. That explains how he created rain only with Photoshop. This point was no surprise, actually. Painters spend months painting a single image and it's not surprise that digital artists (yes, the term 'photographer' is getting outdated!) spend days on a single image.

So, that's about it. Shoot with a $37000 cam, use 8 lights and huge octaboxes and spend 50 hours on one image and you'll make Dave Hill run out of business soon. :-)

Of course, not many of us will want to out-perform Dave Hill but still an innocent kid in us urges us to create something that's half as cool as Dave Hill's images. Doing that is pretty easy and achieving the faux-Dave Hill effect will be subject of my next tutorial. Keep watching this space! :-)


Dave Hill's Site
Dave Hill's Interview at Strobist
A forum post by one of Dave Hill's Friends

There has been 7 Responses to 'The Dave Hill Effect - Why it's near impossible to recreate' so far

  1. ts says:

    Hey what about HDR? Maybe light hdr will give you a similar effect.

  2. Rama says:

    @ts: firstly, Dave Hill doesn't use HDR. Secondly, it's impossible to shoot HDRs of people as no live person can remain perfectly still for 3 exposures.

  3. Robert Benson says:

    LIES! Now a days cameras can shoot 8 frames per second or more. Someone only has to remain still for about 1/4 of a second. Obviously static lighting would be needed. I think HDRs of people are possible. Plus, you can make an HDR with 2 exposures, even one. Try Photomatix on a single exposure. Or, you can fake an HDR by making 3 copies of an image, underexposing one and overexposing one in lightroom, etc. and then making the HDR with the three.

  4. Rama says:

    ^ Anyone who has tried faking HDR will know how horrible the results will look. Here's a logical explanation - The basic idea behind HDR is dynamic range increase. The limited dynamic range of a DSLR is increased by merging multiple exposures into a single image. So, faking HDR from a single image is counter-intuitive. Hence the horrible results.

    I agree with you on the 8 fps part tho. But then, the only cams that shoots 8fps are the most expensive DSLRs.

  5. Mike Manzano says:

    How'd I do?

  6. Tareq Alhamrani says:

    Hi there,

    WOW, i can't believe that they use my thread as an example, i am that person on that thread who shoot with medium format, and i can say that it blew my mind over my Canon DSLRs, if i knew earlier that you used the link of my post then i will work hard since then to have much more better results than this one, it was my first time using medium format ever, and i was using just 2 lights [or maybe one], if i knew you will take my post then i will work hard with 4-6 lights and using my new camera H4D-60 [i was using H3DII-39 that time] or my trusty Canon 1Ds MarkIII and do more workflow, but the problem is that i am not good with photoshop and post processing, even Dave Hill using another person for editing his shots.

    Thanks a lot again for using my post, i appreciate it a lot.

  7. Tareq Alhamrani says:

    And i forgot to say i was using HDR on that my shot example, but i am capable to have amazing DR shot with MF or even DSLR without HDR, with lights i can do so, and little work with PS, the hard work with PS will be with layering and D&B and some adjustments and compositing.

    Good luck!

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