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.
Club Social with photo-booth and a bokeh table this week, the last of 2016. So we will talk a little bit about Bokeh before completing our examination of light modifiers, in particular the “hard” modifiers (that’s about the quality of the light not the difficulty of use), and wish you all the best till next year.
Bokeh is, I have a lingering suspicion, the best of , if not exactly a bad, then at least, an unavoidable, thing. It is points of light rendered by a lens in the area beyond the zone of acceptable focus. It has, by association, a certain dream like quality. Whether that association with bleary eyes is as the result of a blow to the head, strong liquor, watching too many ’60’s films, recently arising from a deep sleep or a biological need for spectacles I leave to the individual imagination and circumstances. That’s not the sort of explanation I am trying to provide. That’s between you, your conscience and the likelihood of your significant other cracking your alibi.
The shallower the depth of field the greater the area of view that will be out of focus. Bokeh occurs at the point where single light sources lose their shape and become mini suns or circular (sort of) shapes of light. The term is Japanese, meaning blurred or something that approximates to that. It is the product of lens design which in itself is limited by the laws of physics.
That blurred area, behind the subject in focus, is formed by circular pools of light where the light has spread out rather than been brought to focus. The patterns formed are diffraction patterns whose edges assume the shape of the lens aperture in the diaphragm through which they pass.
The shape (and number) of the diaphragm blades will impact in the shape of the blobs in the background. The size and smoothness are regulated by light source, focal length, aperture and the diaphragm and what constitutes “good” bokeh is purely a matter of personal taste.
We started last post to talk about light modifiers, specifically “soft” modifiers. So that leaves the “hard” modifiers. Probably the thing to note first is that hard light is the default with flash/strobes (I am going to use the terms interchangeably). Flash is probably the first port of call for additional and controllable light for most photographers progressing through the hobby. There are a number of pro’s and cons in using it. On camera and off camera flash provide some of the same problems but generally off camera flash, that which uses a separate flash gun, is by far the more flexible option and the one we will be talking about here.
More specifically on camera flash is more likely to deliver red-eye, demonising your subjects, the light is harsh and direct and can only come from the direction of the camera. Built in flash is less powerful than off camera, separate units and you can’t always control the intensity of light you do have manually. That isn’t to say that built in flash doesn’t have its uses, just that those uses are relatively limited compared to the more modifiable off camera varieties.
All flash lighting needs modifying most of the time, and there are four basic types of hard modifiers:
- Reflectors – your common or garden light modifying accessory, bowl shaped, they have a single but important purpose, to cut down light spill – light that spills to the sides of (a bare) bulb in a strobe (not exclusively) and when using umbrellas or grids. Also below.
- Grids – Does what it says on the tin. Black tubes formed in a lattice work they are very effective in stopping scattered light rays coming from the (strobe) bulb, creating a thin, relatively soft beam of light, which arguably puts it into the soft category I know, but I think sits better in this list. The quality of light is determined by the density of the grid (the number of tubes in the grid), while the size of the beam (expressed in degrees) is determined by the thickness of the grid. The grid is regulated by gates acting as barn doors, movable flaps on each side which allow for finer, narrower, beam control.
- Snoot – is a cone which focuses light to create a very harsh, small beam of light. Can be rigid or flexible, allowing for some control.
- Beauty dish – A small reflector, (usually gold, silver, or white) is placed in front of the strobe / flash, while a bowl-shaped reflector is placed around the light source. This creates a very even, hard light with an extremely sharp drop-off. Used almost exclusively in portraiture, it is very useful as a key light.
These are not mutually exclusive pieces of equipment. They can be and should be mixed and matched according to the creative need. They don’t all have to be shop bought, DIY is always an option, but for the bought stuff the guiding principle, generally, is, you get what you pay for, especially when talking about longevity. This in itself can be a function of the frequency and conditions of use, however when starting out, certainly a look round e-bay or other on line shops will throw up some “bargains”. The bargain is what you feel the value of what you have is.
There are three other essential elements, not, I would put forward, necessarily directly under the heading of light modifiers as they don’t work directly on the source. These are: flags, scrims and bounces (reflectors).
- Flags block light. Bought flags tend to be black material, some are paper, stretched over a frame with a small handle to make it easier to place on a stand accurately. Black paper and tape will get you a similar effect to stop a white or light coloured wall from reflecting or for shading specularity in shiny objects. Their primary use is to control light spill and keep down highlights.
- Scrims are panels covered in diffusing cloth, placed where light needs softened locally. You have probably seen them on film and TV sets, spreading tent like over the actors, in order to provide a soft and even light.
- Reflectors, other than the ones that wrap around your light source, a.k.a bounces, or bounce cards, can be anything that will reflect enough light to be useful, but are usually white, silver or gold material stretched out on a frame. You are probably aware of the five sided reflectors that also have a black surface and an opaque white that can be used as a scrim. Mirrors are frequently used, especially small ones on product shots. They are usually a way of lightening shadows created by the key and other lights. The type of material determines the light’s quality and, and intensity is a product of the distance from the subject and the reflectivity of the surface used. The black on a five sided reflector, for instance, is used to reduce the amount of light going into the subject.
And that, as they say in the World of Onions, is Shallot for 2016. Happy New Year.
N E X T M E E T I N G
5th Jan 2017 19:30 – Editing Images: Bring your laptops and challenge your editing skills.