To complete exercise 37 (Contrast and Shadow Fill) and exercise 38 (Concentrating Light) I built a colour box. I came across this idea when researching assignment 4 by finding the work of David C Halliday. Halliday’s portfolio includes a number of still life studies and I was very interested in his idea of photographing subjects inside a box. I built a simple wooden box, open at one end and with a large hole on one side. I then made a number of inserts to either reduce the size of the hole or to use as reflectors inside the box..
In exercise 37 I set up a simple still life of 3 peppers and lit them in different ways as per the criteria of that exercise. The best two results were :
In fig. 01 there are three different types of diffusers in front of an off camera flash gun and a home made silver foil reflector to the left of the subject. This gives a soft lift but there is enough highlight and shadow to emphasise the shape of the peppers.
In fig. 02 there are no diffusers over the flash gun and no reflector inside the box. The colours are strong and the shapes distinct.
In fig. 03 I reduced the size of the hole in the side of the box and set the flash gun on 1.2 power. The bottom of the light hole is about level with the top of the peppers. There are three different diffusers over the flash gun, the photo diffuser on the soft box, a thin sheet of translucent plastic and a thin plastic net. This combination has created a sod but strong coloured composition with soft but noticeable shadows.
For fig. 04 I raised the subject up on a piece of reflective acrylic. This has hardened up the image even though the set=up is basically the same. I included the light source in the composition.
The final photo in this series is probably the most successful. The only change is to swap the reflective base for a piece of black card.
Using the same set-up it was possible in fig. 06 to obtain quite abstract effects. I like the ultra soft light in this photo and the strong contrast between the brightly lit yellow pepper at the back and the shadowy red pepper at the front.
I moved on to experimenting with using lights from other angles. In fig. 07 I placed a flash gun with a honey comb grid near the camera. By winding down the diffused light to 1/64 power and setting the honeycomb grid at 1/4 power I was able to emphasise the colours of the subjects and throw interesting shadows on the back wall.
To concentrate the light even more I turned the box over in fig. 08 so that the hole was now in the top and placed the flashgun with the honeycomb grid on a thin plastic diffuser directly over the subject. I am satisfied with the effect here, the colour is strong and the form of the peppers is pronounced.
Moving on again in fig. 09 I tried a few more shots using two lights. I was hoping to use the different colours and shapes to create an interesting study but the lack of contrast makes this image too flat and I didn’t find a lighting combination that really made much of the subject.
In fig. 10 there was some diffused light from above but the main light came from a flash gun with a snoot by the camera. the colour is not as strong as the more powerful overhead only lighting but the depth of the subject is well represented.
Figs. 11, 12 and 13 take this idea a step further by dropping out the overhead light. I like the effect of the subject disappearing into the background.
The idea of the colour box has generally worked. There are a few refinements that might be worth trying :
- make some different coloured liners out of paste board, the green board worked especially well in assignment 4.
- Potentially make the box narrower and deeper, I think this is the more the shape used by David Halliday. This would allow shots to be taken that include both the inner sides of the box.
- Test the set up in natural light but using a black cloth over the camera and photographer to ensure the only light falling on the subject is coming through the hole.
Assignment 4 asks for 8 photos that show the use of lighting to individually show shape, form, texture and colour in a subject. I have spent several weeks building up to this assignment and have described that process in Developing Assignment 4. That post describes the thinking and the research behind these photographs.
All the photographs in this submission are taken with off-camera Nikon Speed Lights triggered by an infrared on-camera controller. The flashguns were always set on manual rather than TTL to enable me to control their power individually.
In this submission I have included two series of photographs. The first set are from my last two shoots which used a wooden base board, a green paste board backdrop and a small selection of vegetables. The second series are from four different shoots and selected on the basis of the lighting and set-up having created the ideal environment to display each of the attributes required by this assignment.
Having spent so much time researching and exploring still life I wanted to create one final picture that represented the end of the process as well as completing the assignment.
Fig. 01 is that picture. The colours and the set are influenced by David C. Halliday but rather than using the natural light that he prefers I have used two lights. Both are diffused using soft boxes, one is fixed high, quite near to the left of the camera at 1/2 power. The second is high to the right at 1/8 power.
I believe that this photograph is an appropriate ending point because, although it has no vanitas symbolism, I have tried to mimic the lighting and tones of a 17th century painting thereby bringing together all the research and test shots in a single image.
Series 1 – Same Subject, Different Lighting Set-ups
There are still two speed lights being used but neither are diffused so that the hardest possible light is hitting the subjects. The light on the left is low and back of 90 degrees to throw light across the face of the pepper and the top of the radishes. The right hand light is back of 90 degrees and angled to put light along the backboard as well as across the mushrooms.
Fig. 03 Form
I used three speed lights. The main light on the left is at 135 degrees on 1/2 power; the fill light from the right is at 135 degrees and 1/8 power and a third light is on the right at 90 degrees at 1/32 power.
Fig. 04 Shape
There is one speed light in a soft box at the centre of a translucent acrylic sheet placed behind the subject and a second speed light in a soft box on the left hand side behind the acrylic sheet to stop the backdrop falling off to grey. I have consciously li the subjects and post processed to avoid a full silhouette, which I see as being inappropriate for this subject, and have left just enough light to see the shape of the carrots.
Fig. 05 Colour
I have chosen this photograph from a slightly different set-up as my first colour submission instead of fig. 01. The lighting set up is a main soft box directly overhead at 1/2 power and a fill soft box at 90 degrees from high on the left on 1/16 power.
Series 2 – Different Subjects with a variety of Lighting Set-ups
Fig. 06 Colour
This image was lit by two speed lights, both diffused in soft boxes. The main light was directly overhead at 1/4 power and the fill light was at 45 degrees with a honey comb grid with a frosted gel and aimed at the grapes.
This picture brings together some modern vanitas motifs and contrasts the colours of frivolous fashion items with the colours of nature. The watch reminds us that time flies.
Fig. 07 Form
This image was lit by three lights. The main light is at 135 degrees left on 1/1 power, the second is from the same angle on the right at 1/2 power (this light is specifically there to create a highlight down the left hand side of the black head. A third light is at 90 degrees left with a honeycomb grid and aimed at the skull to give that form.
There are a number of vanitas motifs used here with fashion items between a mannequin head and a skull which is filled by an industrial sized roll of cotton. the cherries and lemons represent the sweet and sour of life and the flowers symbolise the fragility of beauty.
I could have easily chosen a photo to represent colour from this shoot as the black background seems to exaggerate the colour intensity but I had found it harder to light the White Vanitas set for colour so fig. 06 was more challenging technically.
Fig. 08 Texture
For fig. 08 there were only two lights used, although in retrospect a third light on low power from above and behind might have worked better for the top of the melon. The lights are left and right at 90 degrees and fairly low down to try and glance the light off the fruit skins. The one on the left has a honeycomb grid fitted to direct the light at the green melon skin whereas the one on the right is in a soft box with no diffuser.
Fig. 09 Shape
The final photograph uses skulls as a classic still life, much used by Irving Penn and David Bailey who were both influential in the way I approached this assignment. the lighting is very simply a full power flashgun in a diffused soft box behind a translucent acrylic sheet behind the skulls.
As explained in Developing Assignment 4, I found this assignment frustrating and enjoyable in equal measure. It is a very simple assignment and I felt that it would have been too easy to take all the photos using one or two objects that included shape, form, colour and texture and to complete the project in a day or less. This might have been the intention but I wanted to use the assignment to explore the history of photographic still life, the symbolism of the 17th century painters that has carried forward into photography and to look at how contemporary photographers are approaching still life. I also took a much closer look at Irving Penn. As I worked through this research I tried different sets and different approaches and this explains why the photographs above come from multiple shoots.
The most enjoyable aspect was, without doubt, the research and then setting up shoots to test out the ideas that flowed from that research. John Szarkowski, in his introduction to Still Life: Irving Penn *(1), remarks that still life is the only form of photography where the photographer is totally in control of every element, the subject, the lighting and the technical aspects of photography and for this reason it is an appealing genre and one that I am pleased to have been introduced to. It is technically challenging and on several occasions I yearned for a large studio steaming with natural light and not to be working on the kitchen table. A few of Irving Penn’s assistants to go out and collect subjects would not have gone amiss either.
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills
Technical skills are very relevant to this assignment and I have had to research and think about off-camera flash photography. Joe McNally’s two books The Moment it Clicks and The Hot Shoe Diaries were both immensely useful in this regard. I am satisfied that I make significant technical progress during this assignment, learning and implementing techniques of set-up, lighting and exposure.
However, there are still plenty of technical flaws to address at the next opportunity to work in a “studio” environment. I tend to under light the subjects and have not perfected the way to bring enough light to white backgrounds to stop the loss of exposure and the decline to grey. I understand for portrait that a light hidden behind the subject is a way of addressing this but that would not work for still life so there is still work to do here.
Quality of Outcome
I am reasonably satisfied with the outcome. I have printed each of these photographs and, whilst I can see areas where they could be improved, I am pleased with the results of a first attempt at still life.
It took great creative energy to design the sets, which, with the complex sets, is harder than either the photography or the lighting and I feel that many of them were creative and brought together both traditional and historic ideas.
There was a lot of experimentation with different types of subjects, sets and lighting approaches and maybe a few hints of inventiveness.
This assignment does not feel as if it builds upon assignments 2 and 3 so it is difficult to comment on how it progresses the development of a voice.
I took my research very directly into the sets and tried, at different times, to use the complexity and strong colours of artists such as Paulette Tavormina and Mat Collishaw, the simplicity of Irving Penn and David Bailey, the soft natural tones of David Halliday and Krista van der Niet and in parallel to the assignment tried out Simon Norfolk’s ideas in My Dad’s Stuff.
I believe that I have linked my work to both contemporary and historic photographers.
(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press
(2) McNally, Joe. (2008) The Moment it Clicks: Photography Secrets From One of the World’s Top Shooters. Berkeley: New Riders
(3) McNally, Joe. (2009) The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light From Small Flashes. Berkeley: New Riders
A side project as part of the research for assignment 4 where I wanted to collect the few items I still owned that had belonged to my father who died nearly 20 years ago. This project was inspired by Simon Norfolk’s Archeology of the Tigris Valley.
Over the last several weeks I have been researching, planning and shooting test photos for assignment 4, Applying Lighting Techniques. Originally I wanted to carry forward ideas about the vanity of fashion, which had featured strongly in assignment 3 combining this with the symbolism of vanitas to create faux 17th century still life. As ever with these assignments some ideas work, some do not, new ideas arise, new inspiration is discovered and the end result is quite different from the images imagined at the start. To that end it is helpful to record the development process.
This post looks at the evolution of the idea and at some of the technical challenges that were encountered along the way. In each phase of this course my work has been influenced by three things:
- “text” book and other informed opinions about the genres of photography that are relevant to the exercises and assignments in that part of the course;
- the photographers, both contemporary and more historic whose work appears relevant;
- and, my previous experience and knowledge of relevant techniques.
For assignment 4 my previous experience of photographic lighting was limited to trying to develop better daylight flash techniques in an attempt to capture a Martin Parr look and feel for outdoor documentary photography and extensive experimentation with food photography which I regularly undertake as part of my role in the family business.
This food photography is effectively the starting point for assignment 4. Partly because it means I own 3 flash guns, a remote infra-red flash trigger, three cold-shoe soft boxes and various other bits and pieces such as grids, reflectors, LED lights, stands and backdrops. But, it was only by beginning to think about assignment 4 that it became clear that it is also a starting point because food photography, along with some fashion and product advertising, is one of the most commonly viewed forms of still life in books, magazines and on-line.
It is interesting to note that Irving Penn and David Bailey both worked as commercial fashion photographers yet also produced still lifes as part of personal projects that are generally highly respected. The dividing line between commercially driven and artistically driven still life is blurred with photographers such as Peter Lippmann *(4) producing compelling personal studies alongside similar commercial projects. As someone who sees many high quality cookery books as part of my work I would argue that there is much to be learnt about still life from the food photographers working for the most celebrated chefs. Dominic Davies *(5) is an excellent example of a food photographer producing creative and exciting food still lifes for Heston Blumenthal. In the last six months I have learnt that it is dangerous to pigeon hole contemporary photographers without trying to explore the breadth of their work. I found Peter Lippmann when looking at a Christian Louboutin advertising campaign but his personal still life work is, in many ways, even more exciting as is his unusual approach to intimate landscape in Paradise Parking. Dominic Davies is no doubt a highly sought after food photographer having worked for Blumenthal but before putting him into that pigeon hole it is worth looking at his other still lifes and his Mapping London project which is a William Eggleston like view of the details of London.
Food photography was quite alien to me until the last few years and whilst it has been a steep learning curve and a journey that is far from complete it has provided me with a basic understanding of working with small lights in restricted spaces. There is little or no room for big lighting systems in a commercial kitchen.
Initially, for assignment 4, I wanted to work with natural light and to photograph still life or human subjects within the landscape as I felt that this would take me into new areas and would keep me away from using the type of equipment I used for food photography. However, whilst I felt inspired by the work of Edward Weston * (1) and would have liked to try something along the lines of his beach nudes I quickly realised that the logistical challenges were significant and to meet the requirements of the assignment with a human model outdoors was unrealistic at this stage. Despite this early change of direction I did find inspiration from Weston’s 1927 Shells, and his studies of vegetables a few years later. Pepper No. 30, (1930), Pepper (1929), Eggplant (1929) and Cabbage Leaf (1931) are classic studies of form.* (2)
My first tests, with Weston’s work in mind, were with small groups of fruit to allow me to experiment with lighting for colour, form and texture.
This experiment highlighted some of the challenges that would arise time and again in this assignment. My instinct is to light for a combination of colour, form and texture (at least where the subject makes all three relevant) and I found it difficult to think in terms of isolating one attribute of a subject to the exclusion of all others. In the context of Weston’s work the plum tomatoes bottom left and the pears bottom right come nearest to the effect I was trying to achieve where form was the main study but the raspberries and the vine tomatoes have a sense of both depth and colour. I knew that this type of subject could be carried forward into the assignment and that a series based on any of these groups could be lit in the four required, different ways. The fat Duck series on the Dominic Davies *(5) web site shows how food can be lit for colour, texture and form, for obvious reasons silhouettes are less common but a few examples in this series come very close.
I was also looking at the work of Irving Penn and a number of contemporary still life photographers and to stick with Weston style fruit and vegetables would be very limiting and too close to food photography.
As mentioned previously I was interested in the origins and history of still life photography and that research trail inevitably leads to Fox-Talbot, Roger Fenton and through them back to the vanitas painters of the 17th century. The symbolism of the vanitas style appealed in a very direct way and immediately spoke to my original agenda of weaving in the modern vanities of the fashion industry.
My first shoot was a very simple set-up. I spray painted a number of common household objects, set them up on a white acrylic sheet, added a pink rose for colour and took a few test shots. The vanitas elements were limited to the rose, symbolising the fragility of beauty and the fly to symbolise decay. This was primarily a light test using two cold-shoe soft boxes, one left and one right, both at about 45 degrees. The lighting worked to a point but I was uncomfortable with the fade to grey in the upper part of the background and noted that I either had to increase the intensity of the lights or find a way to fill the background. As an idea it was very limited and not something that could be taken forward into the assignment. I also felt that it was difficult to achieve the intensity of colour that I wanted using a white background.
By this point I had looked at the work of a lot of photographers and was identifying ideas that could come with me into the assignment. When looking at any photographers for inspiration there is an element of thinking about their subject matter, their overriding style and their technical approach but for studio based still life the technical approach in terms of backgrounds and lighting become a major consideration. It is clear that there are a lot of different ways to set-up and light a still life and I wanted to experiment with some of the options.
Fig. 04 shows the various photographers that were researched in some detail. A write up on these photographers is included here. This research led to a series of still life experiments where I looked at using different set-ups and techniques. One of the first experiments was inspired by Simon Norfolk whose archaeological study of objects found on the battlefield of the Tigris valley interested me at a number of levels. This is stripped down, simplified approach to still life that focusses total attention on a single object. Norfolk has photographed a series of small items excavated from a modern dessert battlefield so, unlike excavating the site of the Battle of Hastings where the best one might hope for is a piece of broken and decayed metal, he has found tattered identity cards, pieces of clothing and personal photographs amongst the spent bullets and shell casings. This is a very human form of still life, exploring the memory of people through their lost possessions. I was keen to test out this idea quickly with objects that I already had to hand but with the intent to take this idea into the field and photograph found objects in a single location at some later point.
Fig. 05 is the result of that experiment. My father was born in 1919 and died nearly 20 years ago. When I was thinking about subjects that might work as small items for simple, one object, white background still life I realised how few of his possessions I still own. His father’s silver watch, his scout knife, a bronze age axe he excavated, a few war time souvenirs and some tools.
At a personal level each object has a story which reminds me of my father, some objects are still being used by me, some are just beginning to be looked at and understood by my grandchildren and, when I have time I would like to repeat the exercise for other deceased relatives as a way of documenting an aspect of their lives. The items were photographed individually and then collected into a single image in Photoshop.
From a technical perspective it was a useful exercise as I was able to test different lighting in response to the material being photographed in a controlled environment. Some worked better than others.
For fig.06, the bronze age axe, I arranged the main light back of 90 degrees to the right, 3/4 lighting, and a fill light at a similar position to the left. This seems to have provided a sense of depth to the subject and the texture of the surfaces has been explored to some degree.
I have tried to use shadow as as way of exploring the form of the old fashioned router plane in fig. 07 as an alternative way of looking at the form of the object.
These test shots worked reasonably well but showed that 3/4 lighting is not the easiest to use if you still want to see the face nearest to the camera.
In fig. 07 the problem of backgrounds is also highlighted. In this instance I was using a flat acrylic sheet so the meeting point between the base and the background is very obvious.
I was also using a 105mm lens and working very close to the subjects so needed a deep depth of field to have the whole piece in focus. I have found depth of field challenging in food photography, occasionally it is interesting to only have part of a set in focus but generally it is desirable for the whole subject to be sharply focussed. This appears equally true for still life and forces the use of small apertures.
For my next series of test shots I wanted to create more complex vanitas still lifes bringing together classic motifs with modern objects.
For these shots I was still using a white background and, for all but “A” and “H”, I used the same acrylic sheet and a white background. A photography backdrop curved from background to base was used for “A” whilst “H”, which is really just a bit of fun, was taken using a light box and a small amount of overhead light.
“A”, the blue themed still life, was over complicated and didn’t work and was only useful as a learning experience for how not to set up a still life. However, I was pleased by the lighting in fig. 09 which is very even, brings out the various colours and avoids distracting reflections from the watch glasses and old mobile phones. In retrospect there could be a little more light to the left of the camera and on the coins at the front.
“B”, “C” and “D” were more successful, and worked when exploring colour but were much less successful when the same setup was used for texture, form and shape. I chose the red shoes specifically because they had both colour and texture but there was very little difference in the end result when I set up for colour and when I set up for texture.
“E” and “F” were taken as test shots for shape and “G” is my take on Irving Penn’s Vegetable Face.
Fig. 10 is a shot that is on the short list for my final submission as It meets many of my original objectives. It has obvious and less obvious vanitas elements, it brings fashion and classic still life together in a single shot and, I believe, works as an exploration of colour. The white background is difficult to work with, there is a 1 stop loss of exposure for every metre the backdrop is placed behind the subject so without extra lights to direct onto the backdrop it is always, at best, going to be grey. In this shot is just about acceptable but not ideal.
Fig. 11 is also on the short list as an example of lighting for edges. It could, and has been (fig. 12), processed as a full silhouette but it is not as interesting as a photograph.
In fact this picture sums up my frustrations with this assignment.
I can light or process this just to focus on the outer edges and perhaps that approach best meets the assignment criteria but equally by over exposing a little I can also bring out the texture of the skulls and explore their form.
This is a far more appealing image than fig. 12. so I might submit fig. 11 and hear my tutor’s thoughts.
After “White Vanitas” I wanted to carry out some test shoots using black backgrounds. When researching contemporary still life I saw that whenever black backdrops were used the colours of the still life became far more intense. Mat Collishaw and Paulette Tavormina use black backdrops in very different styles of still lifes but I think both are doing so to emphasise colour.
“A” through “E” continue to use vanitas motifs and are a natural progression from the White Vanitas shoot. “G” and “H” are straight forward colour studies. There is no doubt that using a black base and black background brings out the colours in the subject. If the aim was just to emphasise colour this is the set-up I would use.
Fig.14 is on my short list as part of the submission. It is “B” in the contact sheet at fig. 13. “A” would be an alternative but without the honeycomb grid and red gel used to emphasise the red shoes. The strength of these two photos are firstly that they are an evolution of my original idea so have some heritage in the project and secondly that they are strong studies in colour. The black background is much more interesting than the white with the subjects fading into or growing out of the black set, appearing suspended in space. In some ways the black set is easier to work with but it does suck up the light so the flashguns had to be run much nearer full power.
Fig. 15 is also short listed as a submission for texture. This was lit with hard light angled to maximise the different textures in the fruits. At this stage in the process I had a few images that had worked for colour, texture, form and shape but they were from different set-ups so I wanted to conduct a final shoot where the four attributes were represented by four different lighting techniques and photos from the same set.
The criticism might be levelled that, as this was the assignment brief, I should have gone straight to this point in the first place and this is a totally valid point. However, I wanted to explore the four attributes with different set-ups and for each shoot I did light the subjects in, at least, four different ways and took four different sets of photos but with all the above set-ups one or two, and very occasionally three attributes would come through strongly but never all four. I believe that this is because the way I worked through the process of looking at different techniques and using different subjects created environments that empathised one or two attributes above the others. Clearly I could back light the Black Vanitas and photograph a silhouette but it was a dull picture and I don’t see the point in trying to take dull pictures, I take enough by mistake already.
The process also allowed me to explore different photographers’ work and try some of their techniques and work towards a style of still life that was representative of me and that was an evolution of the style I have developed for food photography over recent years. I think I found my greatest inspiration in the work of David C. Halliday and Krista van der Niet. This is a move away from classic vanitas still life but they use light and simple sets to create atmospheric still life that explores form, texture and colour, often simultaneously.
Fig. 16 is a contact sheet from my final two shoots where all the ideas finally came together. I am disappointed that “G” which is the colour shot from the very final shoot is weak, the colours seem desaturated and what seemed right in the “studio” did not process as effectively as I had expected. I may be fooling myself but I suspect the the choice of fruit in “A” through “D” lent itself to colour better that the subjects in “E” through “H”.
This is a shame as fig. 17, “G” from the contact sheet, is very close to the effect I wanted to achieve, the lighting seems very soft and natural, (I believe that Halliday works with natural light) and without having any vanitas motifs it has a 17th century oil painting feel. I have just failed to bring out the colours as strongly as I wanted.
This has been a very frustrating assignment at times and I still questions whether setting such a simple question is pushing a student to explore lighting in real depth. It is too easy to take one object with a bit of colour and texture and setup:
- Colour – lights above and in front
- Form – 3/4 lighting
- Texture – hard light at acute angles
- Shape – backlight
I set out to learn about still life as a genre and to explore lighting for effect. I have enjoyed the research and test shoots immensely and believe that I have learnt a considerable amount about, not just lighting, but how to introduce a mood into simple still lifes.
(1) Weston, Edward. (1999) Edward Weston. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH
(2) Weston, Edward. EdwardWeston.com – http://www.edward-weston.com/edward_weston_natural_1.htm
(3) Norfolk, Simon. SimonNorfolk.com http://www.simonnorfolk.com/pop.html
(4) Lippmann, Peter. Peter Lippman Official Site http://www.peterlippmann.com/lippmann3/menu.html
(5) Davies, Dominic. Dominic Davies Official Site. http://www.dominicdavies.com/fat-duck/
This is an exercise in concentrating light. I tried two techniques.
This shot used the same “colour box” as described in exercise 37. I placed a flashgun on a thin plastic grid diffuser over a hole and directly above the subject.
In fig. 02 the only difference is the addition of a reflective black acrylic sheet beneath the subject which bounces a small amount of light into the shadows.
For the final example using a honeycomb grid I have moved the flash gun with the grid to a position by the camera and placed a diffused flash gun at lower power directly overhead.
In fig. 04 I have used a snoot on the flash gun by the camera. There is just enough light from above to show the tomato at the back but the snoot is concentrating the light on the front faces of the subjects.
In the final example there is only the one light, a flash gun with snoot to the left of the camera.
A useful exercise that made me think about how to use a snoot and a honeycomb grid. For these type of subjects they offer interesting effects. I particularly like the grid from above as this emphasises the colour of the fruit and brings out interesting shapes and forms by casting such strong shadows.
Exercise 37 is about contrast and shadow fill. We are asked to use a simple still life subject and take a series of shots with and without diffusers and with and without reflectors.
For this exercise and for some of the other still life exercises I build a “colour box” modelled on the one used by David C. Halliday in his Colour Box Series and selected peppers as my subject. The colour box is a simple wooden box open at one end and with a hole cut in one side. the subject is placed in the box and lit through the hole.
Series 1 – With Diffusers
All the photographs are taken with an off camera flash gun. I tried a few different solutions to soften the light. The single diffuser (top left) is a thin piece of translucent plastic, the flash gun is on 1/2 power. This did not give enough softness so I added a small soft box and a photographic diffuser to the flash gun on 1/1 power (top right) and finally I tried adding thin plastic netting between the soft box and the plastic sheet (middle left) with the flash gun on 1/1 power.
Using the 3 x diffuser set-up and the flash gun on 1/1 power I tried three variations of reflector.
Fig. 02 was the most successful shot, there is enough reflected light yo show form and colour on the dark side and the overall colour has stayed strong.
Series 2 – No Diffusers
In each case the single flash gun is on 1/2 power. The flash gun is further from the subject so that the hole stayed black.
From this series my preference is the image with no reflectors. Even with the flash gun on 1/2 power when there are no diffusers there is enough light entering the box to bounce back from the rough grey painted surface of the side of the box.
Contrast – Hard light and no reflectors (just the grey box side) creates the blackest shadows and the most contrast
Reflection – The white card reflected more light than silver foil or a silver photo reflector
Spread – Diffused lights spreads more than hard light
Colour – The hard light seemed to emphasise the colour
Texture – With the hard light the texture of the inside of the box is more pronounced.
Exercise 36 is a useful exercise and has created a useful reference chart for the effects of a single diffused light.
Beyond the obvious effects of moving the light fore and aft and up and down the most interesting differences have occurred with the colour of the subject. It shows that the most saturated colour occurs with the light just left of the camera and at the same level as the subject, at 45 degrees to the subject and 45 degrees above and when the light is above the camera so more than 45 degrees above the horizontal.
Above the subject reduces the texture and gives a flat light.
45 degrees above the subject strengthens the colours.
45 and 90 degrees gives the most depth but by comparing fig. 4 and fig. 5 it can be seen that there is much greater colour strength when the light is higher as it is in fig. 4.
Theoretically there should be more form and shape at 135 degrees and this might be try if the subject was also being lit by a fill light from 135 degrees right but the deep shadow reduces the sense of depth.
In exercise 35 we need to take a still life with and without softening the light and to compare the results.
In fig. 1 there was a single speed light on 1/4 power at 45 degrees on the left. The edges are hard, contrast is naturally strong and there are deep shadows.
For fig. 2 I added two more lights. The main light is still at 45 degrees on 1/1 power, a fill light, in the form of a second speed light, is at 45 degrees right on 1/4 power and a third speed light on 1/2 power just back of 90 degrees. All the lights are above the set and pointing down at a slight angle. (see fig.3). the shadows have been significantly reduced by filling in the shadows with the 2nd and 3rd lights but the hard light still gives hard edges and high contrast.
Fig 4 had two lights, both speed lights. One at 45 degrees left with a large soft box and at full power and a second light just forward of 90 degrees on 1/8 power with a small soft box.
The shadows are softer and the old bakelite telephone has more variation of tone. The reduction in contrast appears to give greater texture and tonal variation between the pure white acrylic sheet and the paper in the note book.
In the final image the light set-up is similar to that used in fig. 2 but with the addition of a honeycomb and a red gel on the back right light.
Overall shadows are darker with un-diffused (hard) light and edges are softer with diffused light. Colours tend to be slightly warmer and pictures have a more natural, north light, feel when a diffuser is attached.
On the recommendation of my tutor I acquired a copy of Irving Penn’s book Still Life *(1). Penn supervised the collation of this book and, as such, it is a revealing representation of his work. Penn is not the easiest photographer to pin down to a specific category because so much of his work was commercial and most notably for Vogue magazine from 1943 until his last contribution in 2007.
In his introduction to Sill Life John Szarkowski points out that, as a genre, still life offers the artist the greatest level of control. It is one of the few subjects where the artist controls the subject as well as the lighting, exposure, framing and final presentation. Szarkowski *(1) suggests that still life is unique in that its history is only a history of art, any other set of Iriving Penn photographs could be partly seen as a history of fashion, or of the changing landscape, or of the people who feature in his most famous work. When we look at still lifes and Irving Penn’s still lifes in particular we are reminded of the early photographers such as Fox-talbot and Daguerre and of the vast number of painters who preceded them. Like many of these artists Penn take humble subjects, pays them great attention through his approach and creates artistic representations that might alter the viewers preconceptions of that object or might just make us feel better by seeing something simple presented as beauty.
My research suggests that Penn was not a man who talked much about his work so it is not clear whether his commercial career was being parodied by his personal work or whether he saw them as quite separate streams or whether one just bled into the other. He is described as a prolific and incredibly hard working photographer who would often spend his days photographing for Vogue or Harpers Bazaar and his nights working on his own projects. Often his day job was to make the mundane beautiful or to empathise and express the obvious beauty in his subject yet in his private work he time and time again selects ordinary everyday items and creates beautiful pictures by exploring the colours, textures, shapes and forms in his elegant, minimalist still lifes. In many ways his two worlds seem closely entwined. Fashion might appear to be an obvious channel for still life photography as stylish photographs of cosmetics, shoes and fashion accessories are now common place but Szarkowski *(1) tells us that before Penn’s first Vogue cover in 1943 he can find no copies of the magazine that feature still life in any meaningful way so, it might be said, that Penn created the first bridge between artistic still life seeped with the heritage of painting and commercial still life.
Penn is one of a significant group of photographers who are recognised as artists as well as reaching the pinnacle of commercial photography, David Bailey would be another, and there is a common ground between them, perhaps in part because Penn was an established senior photographer at Vogue when Bailey was first making his name at the same magazine.
In their fashion and portrait photography, both Penn and Bailey had an economic style that concentrates attention on the subject and expresses their empathy with the models. When working in the world of high fashion they presented their models as women not mannequins, interestingly they both married their favourite model, and their fashion photographs have outlasted the product they promoted leaving images of the people inside the clothes. Bailey describes his portrait style as not having one, that he was seeking “very sophisticated passport pictures” but neither his nor Penn’s style are easy to copy because their ability to see and capture the essence of the person is a highly tuned skill.
Penn said “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject dares to believe.” *(2) This could also be said of his still lifes where many of the subjects are “more wonderful” that we dare to believe.
Whether Penn felt constrained by his highly successful commercial career is a matter of conjecture but it is easy to interpret his private projects as counterpoints to the fashion industry’s obsession with youth and packaged beauty. Another easy answer to many of the photographs in Still Life or his Cranium Architecture *(3) series is that Penn was communicating by using the traditional motifs of vanitas and momento mori. Whatever his motivation might have been we are offered a remarkable collection of images in Still Life that lead us to much larger series along a variety of themes.
My perspective on the photographs in this book has changed over the last two weeks as I have been working on test shoots of assignment 4. It is only by trying to create a compelling still life that one realises that this is a highly challenging art form. As Szarkowski *(1) says, this is probably the only form of photography where the photographer has complete control over the choice and presentation of subject, the lighting, the technical aspects of the picture taking and the post production whilst this excites the artist and draws many to the form, equally it leaves the photographer nowhere to hide. This is photography with no excuses other than a shortfall of skill in one or more areas.
Penn’s range of subjects and approaches was very wide. Stationary, found objects, “classic” food ingredients including raw, frozen and cooked, vanitas motifs including musical instruments, skulls and dice, constructed sets which are best described as sculptures and many subjects linked to the fashion industry of which he was a part. There are common stylistic themes such as a simplicity of lighting and an elegance of set design combined with a formal complexity in his composition but over the many years represented by this book he switched back and forth between black and white and colour, between an emphasis on texture, a focus on shape and form and exercises in colour.
He asks us questions to which we may never know the answers. Does his extensive series of, what we would call dog-ends, represent a cycle of life from neat unused items in a pack to used and discarded rubbish in the gutter to being re-organised and painstakingly lit and photographed? Are his flowers symbolic of the fragility of nature and life or did he just see the opportunity to undertake intense studies of form and colour ? He said of the seven studies of a single type of flower each year that his lack of horticultural knowledge gave him the freedom to concentrate on colour and form and this might be the key to his work.
I sense that his still lifes were a form of release where not only did he gain the complete control of the image that would have, to some degree, been lacking in his professional career he also was able to photograph subjects, to use Eggleston’s idea, to simply see what they looked like photographed. His education and knowledge of the history of photography and art meant that vanitas motifs were naturally introduced into his sets but there may not have been a strong moralistic message.
The nearest I came to gaining an insight to his ideas was this quote: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”
In the context of preparing for assignment 4 it was helpful to look at his work and try to understand how he used lighting to emphasise one or more element of each subject.
In Lavender Glory, Poppy, Vogue, 1968, *(4) , he lights a soft object with hard light against a white background to emphasise texture with deep shadows in the petal creases. It is interesting that he accepts a quite de-saturated finish with this photograph but approaches Rose, Color Wonder, Vogue, 1970, *(5), quite differently with strong colours and plenty of depth to the partially opened rose so obviously lit for colour and form.
Ripe Cheese, Vogue, 1992, *(6) is lit from above and in front for colour.
The key point is that Penn saw properties in his subjects that defined the subject so he arranged his lighting and exposure to concentrate on that property. As I have worked through test shoots for assignment 4 I have been frustrated by the idea that we should use a single subject and light it to bring out different properties. Whilst I would in no other way compare myself to Irving Penn I suspect he might have shared this frustration. In Lavender Glory he sees wonderful texture and invests himself in bringing out that feature, the apple and the cheese offer him a captivating colour contrast in Ripe Cheese so that is what he concentrates on. I do not believe that he would have then considered lighting the cheese and apple as a silhouette because that would have been pointless.
(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Sill Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press
Vogue Archives. Irving Penn: Uncommon Elegance – http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/irving-penn-uncommon-elegance/#1
Masters of Photography – Irving Penn – http://www.masters-of-photography.com/P/penn/penn_articles2.html
(3) Hamilton’s Gallery – Irving Penn – http://www.hamiltonsgallery.com/artists/27-Irving-Penn/series/cranium-architecture/
New York Times – Photographer Who Broke Molds – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/arts/25iht-photog25.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
(2) Hodgson, Francis. (2013) The Quizzical Chamois: Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture – http://francishodgson.com/tag/irving-penn/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2
(4) Pace Macgill Gallery – Irving Penn http://www.pacemacgill.com/selected_works/detailspage.php?artist=Irving%20Penn&img_num=123
(5) Christies – Irving Penn – http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/photographs/irving-penn-rose-colour-wonder-london-1970-5494381-details.aspx
(6) We Are Selectors – Irving Penn – http://weareselecters.com/2013/10/Irving-Penn-On-Assignment/