Monday, August 27, 2012

The High-Key Still Life

One day, I decided to shoot a nice desktop background for my wife´s new computer. Since it was autumn then, pumpkins seemed just right. I wanted the shot to be high-key, so I wanted a white background and these fancy reflections that everyone is trying to fake with Photoshop right now. Since most pumpkins are of a yellow-orange tone, I decided to include a contrasting color. What is more obvious than pouring blue dispersion paint over a pumpkin?

Here is the result. It is a no-shopped straight-out-of-camera JPEG.

The backdrop is a 70x140cm softbox with one of my trusted Metz 40MZ flashes, radio triggered by Hähnel Combi TF in it. I had to clip a sheet of half WD in front of it to eliminate the visible wrinkles in the front diffusor (tracing paper will do, too). The key light for the pumpkins is another 40MZ, bare bulb from the right and just a bit higher than the subject.

Of course, you can go the traditional way and light a white sheet of paper with two angled softboxes. But the way of using the ´box itself as backdrop saves you space and work. Of course, you can fire any light through two or three sheets of tracing paper, even your desktop lamp will do. But you will have to raise ISO then, since you don´t want the motion of the color to blur. Strobes simply have more power than anything you can muster in your household.

I chose a power setting (which I don´t remember) for that strobe and adjusted exposure taking test shots and watching my Canon 40D´s overexposure warning in the instant playback. Close the aperture step by step, until you have a white background that does not overexpose in every area. This is how you do it best, because you avoid the flash that looks directly in your lens to cause purplish blooming around the subject, softening the whole scene and screwing up contrast. If you want to work the traditional way (or shoot film), you can also meter the light. You´d need 2 stops more on the background than you get from the key light (i.e. the light that actually lights the subject). The best way would be spot metering with a gray card in place of the subject and using a meter that has an engraved zone scale. Put the background "white" to zone IX, the subject light to zone V and go. Shooting slide film, play safe and bracket downward.

With speedlights in a softbox, there is always some hotspotting. Speedlights direct their light to the front. Every speedlight does that. Studio strobes don´t. They have true bare bulbs that really behave like a lightbulb in your regular lamp at home and emit light without directing it. A speedlight will always create a hotspot in any diffusor, because it is designed to emit light forward, not backward or to the sides.
I placed the hotspot in my setup in the middle just above the pumpkins. In fact, you can see some falloff to the lower corners of the backdrop which does not really matter in the final shot or print and can be shopped out easily. But I´m pretty much of a slide film shooter (work-cleanly-and-leave-tings-as-they-are) so I like it and leave it like that.

The pumpkins are resting on a sheet of white acrylic glass which creates the beautiful reflections without any Photoshopping. This means that you can get only as many shots as you have corners, sides and numbers of identical acrylic glass sheets. You just won´t be able to clean up the color mess good enough to not piss you off for the next try. There will be residue. Just buy two more, so you can keep going for a while before it´s time for a coffee and cleaning break for the whole team.

Oh yes, talking about team! You need someone to pour the color. Or you build some remote-controlled mechanism that can be adjusted to pour the right amount in exactly the right place that you can control with some sort of foot pedal and... oh well, just get someone to do it. It´ll save nerves.

We employed a freezer bag from which we cut off a corner. Filled with paint, it´ll give a nice stream that can be controlled by your helper. Don´t cut off too much and test the stream before screwing your most beautiful pumpkin and the damn expensive acrylic glass sheet! Also, cover everything with garbage bags and newspaper. Cover more than you think might be right. Play safe. Hand your helper some rubber gloves.

It is important to try out the frame rate that you can shoot with the flash power you have chosen. Nothing worse than shooting some cool frames of pouring paint and then finding out that on the best shot one of your flashes didn´t fire. Try and find a rhythm that allows your strobes to recycle. Here are the shots before and after the winning shot:

Paint flowing behind stipe and a little too less paint.

Too much paint already - game over for pumpkin and acrylic glass.

Always shoot at the fastest sync speed possible and keep your working lights down. It keeps the room light from effectively illuminating the scene. Although it´s not really "freezing motion" to shoot slow flowing paint, you don´t want any ghost images here but a clean, crisp shot. Use a tripod and arrest everything safely. Compose your shot thoroughly. Clean your acrylic sheet with glass cleaner and a lint-free cloth beforehand. Play safe and don´t screw up your carpet. Remember, these are all unedited JPEGs from my camera and I think that they look pretty decent. That is due to good preparation.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shooting the Pros

I was assigned to shoot some frames for the up-and-coming IMAPRO, the International Music Academy for Professionals based in Munich, Germany. They are working to be one of the leading academys for musical education in Germany, harnessing a fresh training system for drummers and still developing revolutionary learning and motivation methods for numerous other instruments.

See their website under and learn about their new project here.

The assignment involved three drum coaches, the founder and a picture for the drum coaching flyer.

Here is the shot for the flyer. All pictures are RAW developed and only edited a bit for contrast, colour and sharpness. They were all shot on a EOS 5D MKII with the fabulous and ever-so-sharp Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM Macro. Lights were my beloved Metz 40MZ strobes. --
This is a nice-looking promotional shot, isn´t it? Well, here´s the story. I found myself in a rented rehearsal room, crammed with equipment from numerous bands, walls covered with egg-carton rubber foam. Hardly any room to move and no way to shoot nice frames without either a) leaving background things black, b) incorporating and lighting what is there or c) going wild with lights. And this is what I did with this shot.

I knew that if I showed the room the way it was, it would look super-crappy to any viewer. Although musicians might recognise the location as a musician´s trusted workspace, the general public would simply be repelled by its crummy looks. There was no way to produce decent-looking portraits here, simply because of the lack of space and because I had only brought a wee bit of white background paper. Although the walls were covered with near-black foam material I would have to spare out the mirrors, Coca Cola signs, lightbulbs and pieces of amplifiying equiment that covered ninety percent of the walls (or go for many hours of Photoshop time, nah!). So I decided to go for a backstage look for the whole set of pictures, incorporating the nice contrast of neutral and blue light, implying some sort of concert hall setting and indeed showing what I could find to fit my frame.

The subject on the flyer is lit by a 90x90cm softbox without the front diffuser which makes for a nicely defined light. the figure of the resting drummer is then only highlighted by a blue-gelled bare flash from high right behind. Both lights can be distinctly seen in the reflection in the chrome-plated stool legs (see my post about figuring out someone else´s light).

The basic setup for any other shot in this series is quite the same. I mostly let the softbox illuminate all of the scene. Sometimes I added a third light to add some accent.

There are three more lights in the flyer setup, all bare flashes. The ivory finished drum surfaces are lit by one light from high left (which also creates the nice BOKEH´d reflections from the chrome rims), the red accent in the drums comes from a red-gelled light from high left behind and the rubber foam covering the wall gets a blue spot from a sky blue gelled flash resting on the floor very close to the wall (accentuating the structure of the foam material).

As you can tell from my description, there are two totally individual setups for either fore- and background. This is due to the old rule of not lighting anything that you don´t have in your frame. I used every inch I had, myself leaning against one wall, framing the shot by moving the model and having the drum set in its natural place, close to the opposite wall. Every light in the shot is also as close to the wall as the light stands allowed me.

Here are the portrait shots of the drum coaches. Believe me, I used every corner of the location I could use. Having to shoot another pic there would give me serious problems. Of course, everyone holds his or her sticks to show their weapon of choice and noise.




The lighting setup, as described above (adding a light behind the rack and a blue fill with Manu and swapping the blue kicker light for an umbrella fill with Dan, while letting the blue kicker fill the aisle from behind a corner far behind, left) can be seen below. IT IS SIMPLE! Also, I incorporated equipment parts as blurred foreground for Dirk (Hi  Hat) and Manu (microphone stand), which makes a picture more interesting quite often. In the shot of Dan, I also dropped the exposure time down to 1/125th to let the existing light in the back live a little. Otherwise, I used the 5D´s maximum sync speed of 1/200 to eradicate all of the existing artificial light (you usually check first whether your f-stop, speed and ISO settings will turn any unflashed shot black. If so, you´re fine with what you´re at and can start to place some strobes).

Working with strobes instead of a portable studio light system always gives us decently small depth-of-field at close distances, unless we trade reasonable recycling times for power. But this helps us create interesting images with blurred back- and foregrounds anytime we have to spice up a disastrous-looking location. Remember, the whole place, including the drum kit and the aisle, looked terrible and kludgy. Of course, I could have produced nice and clean portraits against white background, which I thought I was assigned to do. But a bit of thinking and tinkering with lights produced these vivid, interesting images that fit the general spirit of the IMAPRO very well. Thanks to digital technology, we were able to discuss every single subject after a few test shots, so I was assured that the customers would be satisfied any time.