Price: Pro Edition with targets, £300 plus VAT; Standard Edition, £125 plus VAT
MatchLight Digital Photography Toolkit 3.0 is a specialist system that helps photographers to match lighting conditions when compositing two images together. For instance, you may want to insert a studio shot of a person, animal, or car into an exotic or unlikely background. This is often done for advertisement photographs, and increasingly for portrait and ‘social’ photography where the people are shot in the studio and superimposed onto a fictitious backdrop. To be totally realistic, foregrounds and backgrounds need the same lighting conditions, such as source direction, angle and diffusion. The MatchLight system is based on disc-shaped lighting targets that are photographed (on the ground or a flat surface) within test shots of the foreground or background image. They resemble flying saucers, with a brightly coloured disc topped by a neutral grey hemisphere. Three sizes of target are provided, in 55, 110 and 220mm diameters. Version 3.0 adds Windows compatibility. The main light-mapping application is now a Photoshop plug-in rather than a standalone application. The MatchLight plug-in uses the targets to calculate the lighting conditions and provides information so you can recreate the same conditions for the other image. Although intended for stills, the system could also work as a reference for chromakey movies. After you’ve loaded a photograph with target into Photoshop (version 7.0 only), you open the Matchlight plug-in application that displays the image as a zoomable thumbnail. Draw a marquee to locate the target in the image, and the software creates a ‘Lightmap’ with the relevant details shown in diagrams. It can be saved, printed, or emailed as a reference for the other shot This is only likely to work completely accurately if at least one image is shot in a photographic studio, where there’s complete control over lighting angles. Ready-made backgrounds However, there is an alternative method. MatchLight has created a database of 25,000 SmartImage royalty-free backgrounds, all with a target in the image and a Lightmap. The subjects are a bit limited so far, having been shot mainly in recognizably American towns and deserts, plus some tropical beaches and a few shots of Paris and the French countryside. Matchlight says it will add other countries in the future. These images mean that you can shoot your foreground image (plus target) outdoors or with whatever studio lighting you want, then run it through MatchLight to create a Lightmap. The software has a ‘Find Background’ button that connects your Web browser to the online SmartImage database and automatically selects all backgrounds with similar Lightmaps to your foreground. Results can be narrowed down to similar camera elevations, angles of view, and light directions. You can preview images and Lightmaps, drop likely prospects into a shopping basket, download emailable URLs so you can show them to other people, and finally purchase and download one or more high-res images. MatchLight 3.0 Standard Edition costs £125 for the software only. To get the three targets, you need the Pro Edition for £300. An upgrade from Standard to Pro costs £190. Single images can also be purchased online: they cost £12.50 for a 1MB TIFF suitable for Web work; £30 for a mid-sized 10MB image, and £60 for a 17.7MB image suitable for full-page magazine work. MatchLight also sells themed sets of 50 background images on CD. The software includes a coupon for one free themed CD of your choice; after that, they cost £125 each. You can quickly preview foreground and background pairs in the standalone QuickComp application. This lets you create a rough cutout of a foreground and superimpose it on a background, moving it and scaling it until it looks right. You can save low-resolution images, but you’ll still need to perform the final high-res cutout and create the shadows in Photoshop or similar. If you need an original background, you still have to send a photographer there to place the MatchLight target in shot, but this is much cheaper than transporting a whole team of models and makeup artists to a tropical island. It’s less flexible than having everything you need in the same place all at once, but if budgets or timescales are tight, MatchLight could solve your problem.