Happy New Year and we celebrated our return with a well attended evening of table top photography – next week we show the results. This is a good entry point to the year, it’s practical so we get to see and do with others and exchange ideas, but also it is something that we can exercise (more or less) total control over. Yes it might not be our “thing”, yes in the hall we are at the mercy of the overhead lighting and others waiting their turn (on occasion) but the opportunity is the thing.
The fact is we can, with very little resource, replicate these moments and use them to our advantage. Find an object – betting the house is full of them. It doesn’t matter what particularly, but, to start with, one that isn’t too shiny, so as we avoid bright spots (specularity) where light sources are reflected in the objects surfaces and not too big – it’s called table top for a reason. This can be controlled but we will come back to that presently.
For lights we have torches, they don’t have to be big and powerful (actually something of a disadvantage at close quarters). Some wire twists and something that will be stable when we attach the torch(es) to it as a light stand (or co-opt a friend or relative). Some plain paper to use as a diffuser and Christmas having just passed some coloured sweet wrappers for gels. If we want we can construct yourself a makeshift light box out of an old cardboard box and some grease proof paper, though there are even more minimalist options we can take. We can use tin foil and black card for reflectors and flags. Ladies and gentlemen I give you your complete photographic studio in miniature!
So it’s an entertaining way to pass an evening, useful if we are selling small things on line and we can learn quite a bit about product shots in the process. But it also has other, practical, training uses. It doesn’t make a difference how experienced we are there is always a value to practicing, especially if it is on a subject we don’t usually do. Photography, as David Bailey once pointed out, involves dealing with what is there, photographers don’t enjoy the luxury fine artists have in that anything inconvenient in the scene just doesn’t make it onto the canvas.
We have to deal with what is in front of us. The studio is the closest we will ever get to that situation, in miniature or otherwise, being places we put things in rather than take things out. Being a photographer is about having an idea of an image and working with tools we have or can find to work towards what we visualised. Yes I know, that doesn’t really apply to street (actually is does but that is for another time) or at least some forms of street photography. Oh, OK, spray and pray, but like I said, that is for another time.
Perhaps the greatest part of this is that we can go through the whole process from visualisation to capturing an image effectively and quickly. And then we can go through the variations of the set up in order to experiment and learn. Starting with a blank canvas, the light tent is exactly that, we can populate, arrange and light our little stories from scratch. It is a great way to practice basic lighting skills, pretty much for free. In fact thinking of the exercise of placing shapes in relation to each other in a way that gets the attention and lighting it is pretty much the basic definition of photography. Everything we do in these little vignettes can be scaled up. They are good fun and good practise.
There is more good practice to be had in controlling light angles too. We mentioned specularity above, basically unwanted reflections. The solutions are straight forward enough and apply to other photographic situations too. Basic rule of reflections is that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. What that means for us is that to avoid glare from a shiny object we don’t need the light source and the camera to be facing the same way. Frame with the camera and then move the light around till the glare disappears. Start at 45 degrees to the camera, you should be plumb in what is known as the family of angles.
Constant lights are more convenient here but if we use flash and have triggers so we can use them off camera and using test frames and, of course, knowing the rule of reflection, we know where not to place the lighting in relation to the camera, so that is a start. You don’t necessarily have to have triggers though. The rest of the solution isn’t complicated and if we use a “big” light source, say from a large soft box then the problem goes away. Don’t have a soft box? A light tent is one answer (basically a multidirectional diffuser). No? A piece of white card to use as a reflector, shoot with the camera facing the card, that will effectively diffuse the light.
Finally shadows are just as interesting, if not more so on occasion, and balancing out light and shadow is the root of generating mood in a shot. This is done with what are known as flags. They are used a lot in cinematography and videography. They are also used in product photography. Using them in a table top situation means that DIY options are easily available.
So, on these cold and dark evenings there is something to try out.
Round 2 of the club competition last meeting and I shall link to the club website here where the winning entries will be posted in due course. Club thanks to our returning judge Roger Mallinson who got though 21 prints and 58 Digital entries in a prompt and informative fashion.
This week we are going to return to the studio as it were, and start to investigate light modifiers as previously promised. So, starting with the obvious, just what is a light modifier? Yeah, ok, it’s something that modifies light, a true but otherwise unenlightening answer which we need to look at in a little more detail. If we take the word modify we can use it in two senses:
- To change in form or character; alter.
- To make less extreme, severe, or strong.
With light the second meaning is a consequence of the first, it is also an inescapable consequence and though a tad obvious to some the conclusion is the same as the one that Mark and Rob gave us a couple of weeks back, that if you are going to do a lot of this then it is best to buy yourself a light meter. The reasoning is thus, every time you make an adjustment in intensity or distance (one and the same thing often times) then you are going to effect the elements of the exposure triangle and using the old saying: two measures to one cut as a guide, okay two measures to one slick in this case, means a lot of time effort and battery can be spared. For the occasional user then it is a case of trial and error. Eventually you will get to know your kit well enough to be reasonably accurate in your estimations.
There are basically two kinds of light modifiers which we can divide into soft light and hard light. Flash is the most likely entry point for a hobbyist into controlled off camera lighting. With flash we tend to use more of the hard modifiers, that is we use them more of the time, but both categories need considering.
The thing to remember, that is the thing not to get carried away with, is we modify light to enhance the subject. It is always about the subject, he, she or it, not about the modifier. Unless you are writing about modifiers I suppose. Still, that false conundrum aside we choose the modifier to light the subject, not the subject to show off the mod as a general rule. The subject is the thing. Always.
So this week we will start with soft modifiers. Another term for light diffuser, because diffused light gives soft shadows, that is the differences between light and dark look more a gentle grey than a stark black. Make no mistake we are using the light to create shadow. Shadow is the form of the statement we are making and without light there is no shadow.
So a soft modifier spreads the available light over a larger surface, that is, larger than the source itself . Smoothing the transition from light to dark on your subject the main use of soft modifiers is for key lighting in portraiture. The key light is usually the primary light source, the brightest and most important.
The two most frequently used soft modifiers are softboxes and umbrellas. Softboxes are normally vaguely pyramidal and lined with a silver, highly reflective material. They come in a variety of sizes and those sizes relate to how soft the light is, not how wide spread the light is. Yes, you are right, those two things are directly related. Most softboxes and umbrellas are used at a distance of two meters or less from the subject. Though there will be differences in the areas lit between any two given sizes, at these sort of distances they are minimal and really, really not the point. The point is how diffuse the light is, how soft the shadows are.
Softboxes are a studio staple but they can be very bulky, heavy, require more than one stand and generally take up a lot of space even when not being used and can take quite a time to set up. They are good for using with other modifiers though and also good at controlling light spill (basically light coming through at unintended angles which may or may not intrude on your desired effect).
A subdivision of the softbox is known as an Octa, octabox, octadome or octa softbox/dome . Octas, as we will call them, come either as an octagonal shaped softbox or as a hybrid softbox and umbrella. The angle and amount of light fall off is different to a softbox, but they do tend to be a lot more expensive and as bulky as softboxes.
There are further modifiers than can be fitted to a softbox or and octa. You can add grids (to give direction), flags (put shadows in), filters (control colour and intensity) to give you a greater control.
In case you are thinking, “Hey, I can make my own softbox” then I have to say, yes you can. The difference is in the quality control and the length of time that it is likely to last, but there is no reason why you can’t use tin foil and a cardboard box to put over your light source (flash gun rather than bare bulb, depending on the quality and exclusions of your house insurance and fire damage claims) and a plain shower curtain works wonders (make sure it doesn’t have blue tinge if made of plastic and yes it will melt over a hot bulb). Go ask YouTube, there are many different videos covering this.
Essentially umbrellas for modifying light as, opposed to keeping the rain off, come in two varieties: Shoot through and reflective. They are a little more untidy in the way that they deal with light, it will spill round the open edges. They are also prone to having a hot spot which may or may not prove a small problem. They are usually a lot cheaper than softboxes or Octas.
A shoot through acts like a lampshade, softening the light simply by putting a semi transparent material between light source and subject. A reflective umbrella is opaque, black on the outside with a highly reflective, usually silver, sometimes gold or maybe white interior. These are pointed at the subject so that the open side of the brolly is facing the subject and the flash unit faces the inside, away from the subject, to bounce light from all round the internal reflective surface from every attainable angle.
Umbrellas come in a range of sizes from small to huge (10 feet or more) and they are a low price, effective, portable light modifier. This makes them very popular. As already mentioned their biggest disadvantage is their tendency to spill light around the sides. Not a huge problem, normally, but one which does need to be attended to. Unlike softboxes there really aren’t any effective DIY options, but they can be bought pretty cheaply and so even if there was a DIY alternative the cost advantage would probably be very low.
Next week we will be looking at hard light modifiers and it is the club social, see website and or Facebook for details and Rob is doing a Bokeh session to boot.