People starting out in photography sometimes say, "If only I had a better camera..." or "If only I had a better lighting system...". They often blame their results on the fact they don't have a studio. It's not the camera, lights or the studio that matter so much as how well you use your imagination.
In this lesson, veteran advertising and celebrity photographer John Beckett gives us valuable lighting tips for still life subjects. John’s approach is casual and uncomplicated, but the core message is quite profound in its importance. If you follow his steps, you’ll see that his methods of controlling the light and refining the composition provide the reader with a roadmap to success. John’s concepts can be directly applied to tabletop and product shooting. As always, John lights with purpose.
- Nikon D300
- Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 (non AF) lens
The Beauty and Versatility of ShoeMount Flashes
As a photographer, you have to make what you have work for you.
It's not uncommon for those starting out in photography to be uncomfortable using an off-camera flash. Instead, some choose to get by with their camera's built-in flash for family shots or other typical "snapshot" subject matter, while others go so far as to buy construction lights from the local hardware store.
Sadly, each of these alternate options has significant limitations. Built-in flash lighting is the easiest solution, but it's also the most unnatural-looking because it makes subjects appear two-dimensional. It is unflattering for portraiture and unnatural for most other subject matter.
Construction lights and many other repurposed constant light sources can give off a significant amount of heat and quickly become uncomfortable and dangerous. They're also not bright enough to allow for shooting at very high shutter speeds, and to put it bluntly, they don't look very professional!
In this lesson, you'll see how I use some simple Shoe Mount flashes, a wireless trigger system, and a kitchen table to create beautiful lighting for still life images.
No Studio? No Problem!
Any available space, such as a piece of plywood and a set of sawhorses, will do just fine. Here I used my kitchen as a shooting space for flowers.
I set up two light stands with an aluminum cross pole to support the backdrop. In the event you don't have extra stands, you can attach the backdrop directly to the wall, but that may hamper your ability to use rim or back lights where necessary.
There are all sorts of options for backdrops. You can purchase rolls of colored paper at art stores or use any sort of fabric you choose.
For dramatic reasons, here I used a black fabric. Unless you desire the effect a cloth with sheen may give you, I would recommend using a fabric that doesn't have a sheen in order to avoid highlights where you may not want them.
Controlling Ambient Light
Our kitchen has a large patio door that opens onto a southern exposed porch. I placed a Photoflex® 39x72 inch LitePanel with black fabric facing in towards the table to block the light from the patio.
When using flash, there is no reason to darken the room completely. Other than direct sunlight, which should be blocked with curtains or a shade, the flash will overpower ambient light.
Making a Custom Snoot
The Photoflex® StarFire™ flashes are great little flash units with good coverage area for their size. We've used them in combination for outdoor shots and other Photoflex® lessons, but today I wanted to limit the light spread, so I constructed a snoot using black paper. A "snoot" is a tube used to narrow the light beam. This simple snoot folds flat for re-use.
Hot shoe flashes lack a modeling light, so you won't be able to see where the light is going to fall unless you take a picture. For that reason, placing the StarFire™ with its snoot was a matter of "eyeballing" it into place; firing a few test frames and adjusting its position. One trick I use is to stand at the subject's position and look at the light source to see if it is aimed properly before firing any tests.
Flowers are not my specialty. In fact, before this lesson I had only done snap shots of flowers around the house. Every so often, I take a few frames of nearby flowers that catch my eye when working on location.
After the first few frames for this lesson, about all I could say was, "Yep! That's a flower."
Coming In Tight
So at this point, I wanted to get a little more creative. I decided to take a different angle and used a macro lens to come in close.
Paying Attention to the "Feel" of the Shot
As I kept shooting and trying different angles, I began to have a lot more appreciation for those who specialize in shooting flowers. I found that I didn't like "the feel" of the light in my initial tests. A point I'd like to make here is that all light has a definite "feel" to it.
Most good photographers develop a sense of what feels right to them, especially when dealing with artificial light. It is not enough to simply throw up an umbrella or softbox and be happy to record an image. Your mother and friends may call you a photographer -- you might even give yourself that title -- but your images will be much better and separated from others as you improve your eye and senses for the subtle differences of artificial light.
Looking at my flower shots, there wasn't any "pop" for me, aside from the contrast between the background and the white flower petals. The lack of color caused me to focus on the lightest part of the image. The image was static. Something else was needed to give the eye reason to move within the frame.
My solution was to go buy more flowers with different color and place them in a vase that would begin to create areas to move the eye within the composition. I'm sure those who shoot flowers have learned how to identify the elements within a flower itself to create the necessary dynamics that make great shots, but for me, this was the "flower novice's" way of doing it.
I reviewed my shots again. In addition to my problem with composition, I also felt the snoot was producing too harsh a beam of light. To soften the light, I cut a small piece of translucent material and taped it over the end of the snoot.
With the softer light from the snoot and the addition of color, the shot was beginning to have a more pleasing look it.
The red and black vase added a visual anchor point to help balance the composition, as you can see in this wider shot.
There certainly was color and drama, but something was still missing. Of course! There wasn't enough separation between the flowers and the background!
By using an extra small LiteDome® with a second StarFire™ placed to camera right, I was able to add a highlight to the vase and create separation. It also opened up the deep shadows in the flowers that were created by the main light from the StarFire with the snoot.
Placing the LiteDome® close to the arrangement created a longer highlight on the side of the vase that defined its shape and better separated it from the black background. At the close distance, the LiteDome® could have overpowered the main light. Fortunately, though, you can adjust the power level with this flash, just like you can with much larger studio strobe units.
Determining Exposure Without a Light Meter
As the digital medium becomes more prevalent, fewer and fewer photographers know how to use light meters, which is one of the reasons shooting with a flash can be intimidating. In light of this fact, I decided to approach this lesson the way one would without light meter knowledge and simply use the LCD on my camera to arrive at the exposure.
All exposure adjustments were made through the camera settings and with the StarFire™ by trial and error. I would shoot a frame, look at the image on the camera, and then adjust the power output on the flash and/or adjust my aperture setting.
The String Method Trick
If this was my only way of using the flashes, I would keep careful record of the flash distance from the subject and settings on camera so that I could duplicate my results again if I had to.
A trick I have done in the past is to test out a shot on a stand-in subject and determine a distance that gives me the best lighting results. I then tie a string from the LiteStand of the flash to measure and maintain that distance so that i can duplicate the test results using the real subject.
During this lesson, a flower fell off the arrangement and added a casual element to the composition. A happy accident. At this point, I felt good about the result I had achieved.
Not Happy with "Good Enough"
There comes a point in a shoot where you begin to say, "That's good enough." And it probably is. But unless you have to worry about time and/or money (you're on the clock with a rental space, models or equipment), "good enough" really isn't good enough.
I can't explain it with any real logical reasoning, but oftentimes at the end of a long day of shooting, I find there's something magical that can happen if I push myself and the subject a little bit more. Maybe it's a sixth sense that kicks in. Maybe it's a gift from the photo gods? If time and money allow, I often say to the client or model, "Let's try one more thing." And then I let instinct be my guide.
Just when I felt this lesson was done, I took the camera off the tripod and started shooting handheld. I shot from high angles, low angles, moved in tight, and shot various crops that cut uncomfortably into the arrangement. Through the process, I found a composition more pleasing to my eye that I had missed earlier.
Lastly, I wondered what the shot would look like with sepia tones and set the monochrome adjustment through the camera.
So, did I create a masterpiece of art? Well, I'm sure my mother would like it!
- ISO 200
- Aperture: f/4.5
- Shutter Speed: 1/60th of a second
- White Balance: 5560K
The goal of this lesson was to demonstrate the possibilities of using off-camera flash when you're building your studio on a budget. What you can do with a little imagination and the kitchen table will amaze you.
Digital photography allows us to experiment more than we could with film. Shooting digitally, you can try new lighting ideas and shoot subjects out of our comfort zones, all without the expense of film or having to endure the process of waiting for photos to come back from the lab.
So lose the fear of flash! The StarFire™ and FlashFire™ systems are a great way to get familiar with electronic flash. Create great shots and look like a pro in the process!
Photographed and written by John Beckett, contributing instructor for PhotoflexLightingSchool
To see more of John's work, visit www.j2photopro.com