I thought it might be fun to show a behind-the-scenes look at doing a still life shoot, particularly showing my lighting scheme. Studio lighting is something that mystifies many people, but it doesn’t need to be complex or intimidating. Here is the finished image, at least the iPhone version thereof. How do you think it was lit?
Answer: one light. Yes, it’s a somewhat specialized light, a 10” focusable Fresnel, but that’s it. No fill, no reflector, no background light, just the main. After all, there is only one sun.
I’m using a single LED continuous light source (a GVM 80s LED lamp). Continuous lights are great because they let you see exactly what you’re getting, and they allow you the luxury of playing with time as a component of the exposure.
Pay attention when photographing in the studio to how close or far away things are to the background, and how close or far your light is to that background. You can shoot a subject on a white background but have it appear dark just by withholding light from that background, or if needed, you can do the opposite and take a black background white by pumping enough light at it.
Here’s a prime example – same setup, same light, same camera, same backdrop (light gray seamless paper). The only difference is that I blocked light from the backdrop with the barn doors on the Fresnel. Amazing, isn’t it?
So, with the happy happy joy joy that is the COVID pandemic, I wanted to find something I could do to keep exercising my photography muscles. Still life seemed like the perfect thing, as I can do these little tabletop setups in my living room with a minimum of fuss, just a patio table for the base, a roll of seamless paper, one light or at most two lights, and my 5×7 view camera.
I’ve been shooting exclusively with my Sinar Norma 5×7, using the Sinar shutter (which lets you adapt any number of barrel lenses that don’t have a shutter of their own) and my ca. 1915 Cooke Series II 10.4″ Anastigmat. It’s not one of the more famous soft-focus Cooke Series IIa models, but it produces gorgeous out-of-focus areas, so I’m not complaining. It was silly cheap. I’m really loving the Sinar shutter because it has built in speeds as long as 8 seconds, which is a godsend when doing studio tabletop with large format – it’s very easy to get slow speeds to begin with, and then add on two stops of bellows compensation you have to do and voila – 8 seconds coming right up.
I’ve been doing a lot of work around textures – anything from rough paper to smooth stainless steel/chrome to the skin of vegetables like onions and garlic. I’m also starting to play with translucent objects and projections, but that’s for another post.
This tea kettle is something that I was so inspired by the design that I had to buy it, even though I didn’t need another kettle. I wanted to photograph it as soon as I saw it at IKEA. So I brought it home and here it is – it made me think of the Bauhaus photos I saw of industrial objects last winter at a show at the Goethe Institut here in Washington DC.
A still life can also be a portrait of an object. Here is a rice container from some Chinese takeout I got one night last week. It’s one of those ordinary things we handle all the time and never pay any attention to, until they’re presented in a formal way and then all of a sudden we see the beauty in them.
Last but not least, the onions, garlic, shallots, rice container and a wrapper for Ritz crackers. It’s all about “skins” – things that have them, and things that serve as skins as well.
All these images were shot with a single, continuous light – in the case of the very first image of the coffee beans and coffee mug, the light was a single 1000w halogen lamp in a 6″ fresnel light. The rest were done with an LED lamp in a simple reflector or in a large beauty dish with grid. I’m really liking LEDs now as a light source. They’re a lot more compact, light weight, and they generate a lot less heat and use a lot less electricity compared to an equally bright halogen lamp. About the only time a halogen might be preferable is if you’re working with nude models and want to keep them warm in your studio. No worrying about accidentally cooking the food in a food photography shoot, or wilting the vegetables. And no worrying about setting your light modifiers on fire.
The Cooke in action on the Sinar Norma. Starting today off with some chrome/stainless steel, then moving to glass.
While not a requirement for doing still life (you can shoot still life with ANY camera – a point & shoot or a pinhole will work just as well as a DSLR or a view camera, if you understand the operating parameters of the camera), I love using a view camera because it lets me place my plane of focus and depth of field exactly where I want them, and I can have a razor thin zone of focus or I can have it be total, and I can control the shape of the image.
Coming in March, I’ll be teaching a still life photography class online through Glen Echo Photoworks (check their website later for details on schedule and sign-up). We’ll look at the history of still life and have weekly shooting assignments. I’ll show you how still life isn’t just bowls of fruit or flowers, and how it can be every bit as exciting and dramatic a story-telling genre as street photography, plus you can do it in your home with minimal space and equipment (all you really need is a camera, a table and a window!). Of course, I get fancier, but you don’t have to!
I got the mounted flange back from the machinists shop this week, so yesterday I got a chance to put the big Voigtlander on my 8×10 and shoot it. I set up my little outdoor studio with some quick still lifes using Coke bottles. I like my lighting simple and dramatic so I used a single 1000w fresnel. I wanted that longer duration from the light because the Voigtlander, being from 1863, has no shutter. I would need exposures long enough that I could use a spare dark slide as a manual shutter.
Here’s the lens mounted on the camera- it uses Waterhouse stops for apertures. I have one with it currently, that’s probably the equivalent of f/8.
One of the cool things about working in a studio setting like this is that the ambient light is so low that you don’t even need a dark cloth to focus and compose! I will be developing my film from last night’s shoot today, but it was nice that I could give a preview of my results right off the ground glass.
I got a call from a friend earlier today letting me know the Calumet clearance sale was underway at our local Calumet stores. I went in after work looking for a couple of things, thinking at the least I’d grab some film if they had anything I used. They had a bunch of pro-packs of Tmax 400 left in stock (an emulsion I don’t use in 120) so I just grabbed the three remaining rolls of Ilford Pan-F. They had a 1000w hot light that was a companion to one I bought a couple months ago, and will come very handy for my class tomorrow that I’m teaching about shooting still life. The big score was a Calumet/Bowens Fresnel Spot attachment, which was in like-new condition, but because it had been rented (once!) in the past, it was marked down 40% off.
One of the giant tragedies of the Calumet closing is the disappearance of camera gear rental from the DC marketplace. Jerry Smith, the rental department manager at the Tysons Corner location, is setting up his own equipment rental business to service the DC Metro area, in Reston, Virginia.
You can find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/f8rentals
Jerry is a fantastic guy to work with and extremely knowledgeable. I’m so glad he’s going to take this on and revive an extremely valuable service here in the DC area.
I dug up a few older platinum/palladium prints I did a couple years ago and realized they were worth sharing, so I thought I’d post them here today.
They were studies for a series I was working on – they didn’t make the editorial cut for the series, but as standalones they’re good.
These were shot in my home studio (aka the dining room) with a single light and a black velvet backdrop. The camera was my ancient studio portrait camera with a 5×7 back installed and a Seneca portrait lens (aka Wollensak Vesta, rebranded). I mention all this to show that you can produce great work with the simplest of set-ups and equipment, and you don’t have to have the latest and greatest or fancy facilities.
Another friend’s portrait. 5×7, Ilford FP4+, Kodak 14″ Commercial Ektar lens. I had him stand in front of white seamless paper, and then lit him from the right with a large softbox, reflector on his left, and a second light on the backdrop to bring the white up. Developed in PMK Pyro developer.
Just wanted to share a pair of portraits I shot a while ago of a young man who sat for a personal project of mine. They show two very different perspectives on him – his smile is particularly radiant, but the profile is terribly serious. These were shot with my antique Century Studio Master portrait camera and a 14″ Seneca Whole Plate Portrait f5 lens. These used my typical lighting setup of one main light in a giant softbox with a fill reflector on the opposite side.
Yesterday, in a fit of activity, I got in to the studio and shot a few still-life photos. I’m participating in a print exchange through the Large Format Photography Forum (www.largeformatphotography.info/forum) and I needed to shoot some images for the exchange. The final images will be platinum prints. I decided to use a lead crystal cut glass decanter I have as a subject – I wanted something challenging to photograph and that would create some striking images. I got the inspiration seeing the decanter on my coffee table with the sunlight coming through it and casting a shadow. I brought it over to the studio and set it up on a sweep of white seamless paper, and lit it with just one light, as it would be in the real world (there is only one sun!). It casts a beautiful shadow on the seamless, especially the way the crystal is cut with these random little scallops out of the body. I used the Century Master portrait camera, which after having been hauled around a bunch is starting to get a bit loose. As always, the lens on it is my Seneca Portrait f5. I put the whole plate back on the camera for these shots, as it’s about my favorite format. I indulged in my film choice and used some of my remaining stock of Arista.EDU Ultra 200 (aka Fomapan 200). Arista.EDU Ultra is Freestyle Photo‘s house-label film, made for them by Foma in the Czech Republic. Foma discontinued the 200 a year or two ago when their source for one of the critical components dried up, and just started re-making it but only in roll film. It’s one of my all-time favorite films, not only because it was dirt cheap (1/3 the price of Ilford), but because it produced beautiful results – it has this old-time feel to the image quality from a reduced red sensitivity. Here’s a couple of shots of the setup (pardon the poor quality- they’re taken with my iPhone which is not the best in low light). I’ll post some scans later of the finished prints.