Assignment Four- Applying lighting techniques
This assignment asks for me to draw together the different lighting techniques I have been studying and apply them to one subject. The aim of the assignment is, in at least eight photographs, to illustrate the following physical properties:
I spent a long time pondering what would make a suitable subject, possibly giving too much thought to the object as a whole rather than considering it’s possibilities in terms of shape, form, texture and colour. Initial ideas included a self-portrait study or a study of a flower such as a thistle, however I later dismissed these as several other students had carried out self-portraits and also that I currently don’t have a macro lens to capture the small details of a flower.
A fellow student shared advice offered by an OCA tutor on her blog which I found to be useful, particularly in that it suggested, for the sake of this exercise, that smooth should not be considered to be a texture. It also stressed that Assignment Four is a technical exercise and as such the emphasis should be on the control of light rather that choosing the ‘perfect’ subject.
While examining the work of how other photographers and how they had used lighting in still-life arrangements, I looked closely the work of Edward Weston (1886-1958). Wells (1998, p281) notes that Weston’s trademark photography lies in the precision of definition, the continuity of tonal gradings and in the qualities of the surface of the paper used for printing. Weston insisted upon ‘pre-visualisation’ of the image, where he would plan and see in his mind’s eye what the final print would look like before the exposure (Clarke, 1997, p172). In an essay in Wells (2003, p105) Weston describes this as ‘seeing photographically’. Weston photographed many different subject matter, such as landscapes, nudes and architecture in addition to his still-life natural studies. Examples of these which I found to be particularly beautiful and inspiring were Artichoke, Halved’ (1930), ‘Nautilus Shell’ (1927) and ‘Pepper, #30’ (1930). The impression one gets when viewing these images, is that everything has been precisely positioned and then repositioned many times over in order to capture the details and forms with clarity. In terms of lighting, Weston has lit the objects in ways that emphasise their individual qualities. ‘Artichoke, Halved’ (1930) shows texture so clearly you can almost imagine how it would feel under your fingertips. In ‘Nautilus Shell’ (1927) the lighting shows both shape and form in a very symmetrical way, with the shape appearing as an abstract object balanced or floating against a dark background. The lighting in ‘Pepper, #30’ (1930) shows the tonal gradations between highlight and shadow which revealing the curves and twists of the pepper’s form. I spent some time thinking about the curving surface that the pepper is sitting on. Was it the base of a bowl or dish or as a result of camera perspective or lens? Had Weston ‘pre-visualised’ that the curving base would add to the overall sensation of curvature in the final print?
When looking at still-life lighting I also found the work of Irving Penn (1917-2009) to be of interest. Penn’s fashion pictures appeared in Vogue magazine from the 1940s onwards, but he was also well-known for his portraits, studies of tribesmen and nudes. Badger (2007, p170) notes that Penn was considered a specialist in the portrait process; his studio sessions continuing until his subject drop their defenses. Later in life, however, Penn began to concentrate on still-lifes. Pear (C), New York, (1993) shows an aerial view of a halved pear against a plain white background. The pear appears to have been side lit and this has made the rotting fruit’s texture apparent alongside the pear’s outline shape. The simplicity and clarity of the image made me think that this could have been a sample captured for botanical study under a magnifying glass or microscope.
Zebra, Prague (1986) captures a zebra’s skull against a white background. The lighting has allowed the skull’s form to be revealed with contrasting areas of shadow and highlight. The main light seems to have been directed from front right of the frame and as there is a soft shadow under the skull I thought this would probably have been a big light (Hunter et al., 2012, p20). The slight shadow underneath the teeth would also suggest that light was being directed from somewhere above the skull. The overall image shows the skull’s form, areas of texture and the areas of shadow against the white background show the side view shape.
The textural qualities revealed in ‘Artichoke, Halved’(1930) and in ‘Pear (C), New York (1993) and the form of ‘Pepper, #30’ (1930), helped me to narrow down my subject choice for this assignment to a fruit or a vegetable. I refined these options further on a trip to a local produce store where I noticed the strong shapes of the seasonal pumpkins on sale. I then decided to select a pumpkin as my subject as it held the qualities of shape, texture and colour and with careful lighting it’s form could be revealed. It would also be relatively portable to transport.
After deciding upon my subject I began to organise my thoughts and planning for the lighting setups for the assignment. I used a mind map to highlight important considerations and also to note the ideas I wanted to develop. As my handwritten mind maps to tend to be fairly illegible once completed I transferred the info to an online format using a template from mindmup.com.
As I intended to take a few photographs outdoors I also scouted some suitable locations making note of the ambient lighting at different times of the day and how this could influence the images.
I actually had a few false starts with this assignment while trying to use small tungsten desk lamps at home to light the pumpkin in various ways. The results were disappointing with distracting shadows, very unevenly lit white backgrounds that appeared yellow and real difficulty in keeping a light positioned where I wanted it to be. After a few weeks of this I was very frustrated and decided that I would invest in some continuous photographic lighting; a set of 500w (3200k) tungsten lamps with stands and translucent umbrellas. Even after only a few shots the difference in the light quality was pleasingly apparent.
The following images were taken on a Nikon D5100 in RAW format and processed in Photoshop Elements 11.
The lighting diagrams were generated using www.lightingdiagrams.com and I have used the aerial view of the person icon to represent the position of the pumpkin.
1. The shape of an object has to do with its outline. Präkel (2007, p154) notes that backlighting a subject will create silhouettes while casting the shadow forward. As silhouettes clearly show a subject’s shape I opted to attempt this using natural light. I chose to do this at sunset when the sun was low and the light appeared ‘warm’, around 3500k and 4500k. I arrived at the scene 30 minutes ahead of schedule to try out a few different positions for the pumpkin and camera. I chose to place the pumpkin on the top of a pillar, roughly 130cm high, that was part of some fencing. I positioned the camera on a tripod in front of the pumpkin and shoot slightly upwards with the setting sun behind the pumpkin. I took the advice from an online tutorial for shooting silhouettes and using spot metering I exposed for the highlights. I also experimented with bracketing the exposure in ½ EV stops. The image below was taken at -1/2 EV.
I processed the RAW file and then lightened the black shadows at the base of the pumpkin very slightly and then increased the overall saturation +6 to boost the sky’s colours. There is a little detail visible in the pumpkin, particularly at the sides, however this is minimal and the overall effect is the silhouette of the pumpkin’s shape. I took many variations of this shot and pondered whether to include this one as it shows the street lighting on the right. In the end I decided I wanted to include the lampposts as it gives the image a context, telling the viewer that the image was taken outdoors. The shallow depth of field also gives the image some depth, separating subject from background.
2. Rim lighting, or edge lighting as it often referred to, is variation of backlighting. Freeman (2012, p48) explains that this can be achieved by framing a shot so that the light is masked by an element in the scene. The element, in turn will be framed by light that radiates out from its edges. Freeman continues by stating that rim lighting accentuates the shape of the element and lends a strong graphic emphasis to the image.
While it sounds fairly straightforward on paper I found rim lighting very difficult to achieve and literally spent days trying to get an image I was happy with experimenting with both natural and photographic light.
I read a tip on a photography blog that suggested a set up for rim lighting that involved positioning black card in front of a soft box so only a small strip of light can get through on each side. The subject is then positioned in front of the card and then a light is shone through the soft box allowing the edges of the subject to be lit.
As I don’t have a soft box I decided to experiment with a DIY Ikea version that I found on-line. The immediate problem I came across was that the pumpkin was larger than the ‘soft box’, however I overcame this by finding a smaller pumpkin in a local shop. I covered the white box with black card leaving only a narrow strip at each side and set up a speed light to remotely shoot through it. The smaller pumpkin was positioned in front while the camera was positioned on a tripod facing the scene. I tried several flash power settings before opting for 1/16. As I did this is in a dark room I had some difficulty in getting the camera to focus but eventually succeeded by focusing on the lighter areas of the stalk.
After processing the RAW file I applied a slight crop at the top and on both sides of the frame to make it tighter. There was some blue chromatic aberration in the rim light on both side and I reduced this slightly by applying a hue and saturation layer and lightening the blue. There is a little more light on the left hand side of the pumpkin than I would have ideally liked. However, I still feel as though the image does reveal the subject’s shape well, against the black background. I also like the way that the stalk has been slightly rim lit.
An object’s shape is converted to a solid by highlight and shading. These help us to understand the volumes and form of an image and add depth, or the illusion of depth, to an image. Präkel (2007, p157) advises that the best light to reveal the three-dimensional qualities of almost any object is three-quarter lighting. Freeman (2012, p112) describes three-quarter lighting as being slightly above and to the side of the camera. He agrees that this lighting set-up can lend a sense of depth and also do so without casting obvious shadows.
1. I decided to work with the three-quarter lighting set up for the next image. I placed the pumpkin halves on a white paper sweep and then positioned a 3200k tungsten light on a stand to the left and slightly above the camera. I placed a shoot through umbrella in front of the light in order to make it large and diffuse the light. After assessing the results I decided to add a large white reflector to the right of the pumpkin in order to throw some light into the shadow areas.
The shadows, below and to the side of the pumpkin, help the viewer to perceive depth while the their edges are soft enough not to distract from the subject. The lighting has unevenly illuminated the paper at the top and bottom of the image. Hunter et al (2012, p101) note that this uneven illumination is called falloff and that it can also help to suggest depth in a photograph. After processing the RAW file I applied a slight crop and a little sharpening to the final image.
2. I borrowed the set up for the next photograph from Hunter et al (2012, p97). I, again, used a 3200k tungsten light diffused by the shoot-through umbrella. I positioned the pumpkins on a white paper sweep and positioned the light above and behind the subject. I decided to angle it slightly forward and down towards the camera as Hunter et al suggested that this would keep the seamless background evenly illuminated as well as lighting the top of the pumpkins. I added a white reflector to the set up, positioned below the camera and to the right to reflect some of the light onto the front of the pumpkins and fill the shadows.
The large light from above has created soft-edged shadows below the pumpkins and this helps to anchor the pumpkins to a plane. There are both highlights and shadow areas which help reveals the contours of the pumpkins, giving them volume and form. I think having the two pumpkins at slightly different depths in the frame also adds to the feeling of three-dimensions. After processing the RAW file I cropped the image slightly and increased the contrast a little.
Texture is the quality of surface detail an object has. The exercises that I have carried out and the reading I have undertaking suggests that side lighting is the most apt at revealing texture. Präkel (2007, p158) describes side lighting also as oblique or raking light. He notes that positioning a light at a very shallow angle to a textured surface produces contrast by showing a highlight side and a shadow side.
1. I positioned a 3200k tungsten light to the left of the subject at a very low angle with the idea that the light would skim over the top of the pumpkin. I positioned the camera in front of the subject. I didn’t diffuse the light as hard directional light shows more contrast than soft light. I wanted to focus on the texture in the stalk area and opted for a large aperture to gain shallow depth of field.
The low, hard light has produced areas of shadow and highlight revealing the texture of the stalk and the pumpkin’s skin. In addition to processing the RAW file I applied a slight crop to the top of the frame to remove darker areas of light falloff in the corners, perhaps caused by the f/4.8 maximum aperture. I also increased the contrast +2.
2. As well as the texture of the pumpkin’s exterior, I wanted to show its interior. I cut the pumpkin into two pieces and planned a close up shot of the flesh and seeds inside. I positioned a 3200k tungsten light to the left of the subject, again at a low, oblique angle. I initially attempted this with a undiffused light but found that this seemed to illuminate the black fabric on the left too much. I then added a shoot through umbrella to increase the size of the light.
The light has created areas of highlight that helps show the wet, pulpy texture of the flesh and areas of shadow which show depth. The texture of the pumpkin’s skin is also emphasised by the light shining across the grain.
Präkel (2007, p161) suggests that a hazy, bright day is possibly the best natural light to reveal an object’s colour, particularly for close-up colour photography. This is because bright but diffuse skylight reduces strong micro contrasts.
1. I decided to take the pumpkins outdoors into natural light. It was early in the morning and the sun was still quite low in the sky, which is approximately 3800k according to Präkel (2007, p20). The day was bright and clear, as is typical for Dubai in October. I selected a spot under the shade of some trees where the light was dappled. The trees and branches were, in effect, acting as a gobo.
I set the pumpkins on the grass and arranged some grasses behind them. I then positioned a large gold reflector to the left of the camera in order to reflect some gold light onto the pumpkin to ‘warm up’ the colour. You can see the gold colour in the highlight areas on the left side of the pumpkins.
2. I have wanted to experiment with light painting for some time now having seen Man Ray’s ‘Photogravure, From Electricity’ (1931) in Badger (2007, p65) and the Picasso portraits by Gjon Mili in 1949, and decided I would try using this technique to reveal the pumpkin’s colour. I set up the still life in a darkened room and positioned the camera directly in front of it. I attached a shutter release cable and set the camera to bulb mode. After practicing this with a household torch I found the light to be too white and decided to attach an orange gel to the end of it. I experimented with different exposure times and moving the light in different ways. I also switched on the Long exposure NR setting on my camera to reduce noise as I was using longer exposure times.
After processing the RAW file I applied an orange filter to boost the colour further, however I did toy with the idea that it may be too much colour? I then sharpened the image. The overall effect is that the colours of the pumpkins are very strong, appearing orange/red. It almost looks as though the pumpkins are being the lit by a sunset or sunrise shining through a fence or trellis.
Light has been a huge section to undertake, not only in terms of the number of exercises, but also in the amount of learning and new concepts that I have been introduced to.
I had previously been blissfully unaware of the varying temperatures of light and how this was measured and found it quite difficult to understand. However, I found Freeman’s ‘Light and Lighting’ (2012) and Präkel’s ‘Lighting’ (2007) to be very useful text in explaining this in an easy to understand way.
The learning that I have undertaken has helped me to see where some of my earlier photographs have been sorely lacking and, in some ways, I think that perhaps light could be introduced earlier in the course. Having said that I don’t know if I’d have been able to get my head around it earlier as it is only now that it feels as though the different chapters in the course are beginning to click into place and I can see how they relate to each other. For example, I have previously attempted to read Hunter et al’s ‘Light, Science and Magic (2012) and have returned it to the shelf after becoming hopelessly confused with reflections, filters and diffusers. However, since I have recently acquired reflectors, filters and photographic lights I revisited the book and this time found it to be an extremely helpful text with many practical tips and exercises that encouraged me to experiment with my new equipment.
I think it is fair to say that I have previously underestimated the significance of light. Having now completed this section I am much more aware of light and when viewing images will consider how a subject may have been lit. I now also attempt to ‘read’ the colour of light, think about how it will behave and how I can control it or modify it, factors that can strongly influence the ‘mood’ of an image.
Freeman (2012, p12) writes that light is rather like a photographic language that photographers see and speak. I feel that the exercises, assignment and reading I have undertaken during this chapter have helped me to move a step closer to becoming fluent in the language.
Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Freeman, M. (2012) Light & Lighting. Lewes: ILEX
Hunter, F., Biver, S. and Fuqua, P. (2012) Light, Science and Magic. (4th ed.) Waltham: Focal Press
Präkel, D. (2007) Lighting. Lausanne: AVA
Wells, L. (Ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge
Wells, L. (Ed.) (1996) Photography: A Critical Introduction. (4th ed.) Oxon: Routledge