Archive for the ‘studio’ Category

Still Life at home using small flashguns

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

Another challenge from my photo group. This time it was something beginning with ‘I’. I couldn’t easily lay my hands on an igloo so I settled for a bottle of ink. But then there is the question that must come with all contemplation of a still life subject – ‘How do I make this interesting?’

You make it interesting with two things.

  1. The props that you use.
  2. The way you light it.

I really wanted an old fashioned ink well and a quill pen, but I failed miserably in locating suitable objects so, as we so often do, I settled for what I already had – a bottle of ink and a fountain pen.

Glass is tricky to light well. It is also reflective and so you have to watch out for camera, reflectors, and photographer showing up otherwise you only notice after you’ve packed everything away and started to post-process the image.

I have a black, shiny, table and a black background paper roll, and I like the look of objects against a dark ground, so that part was easily decided – though I could have managed with coloured mount board, which is readily available on Amazon, or even Foam Core Board which is a little more substantial and essential stuff to have lying around the studio.

The arrangement of objects is the key to the success of a still life. I like to set up the camera on a tripod and then arrange whatever I’m photographing. Live view makes it easier to see how the finished arrangement will look, but the viewfinder serves just as well. It is much easier to nudge objects than to keep moving the camera.

For this session I used my Canon 100mm Macro, though this is a few years old now and has recently been superseded by the Canon 100mm L Macro, which, judging from reviews, is slightly better but not worth upgrading if you already own the original. I also use a cable release to make sure I don’t accidentally jiggle the camera when I press the shutter button. Focus is done manually with the live view screen magnified to maximum (in this case x10). Switching to manual focus is a really good idea for still life because your camera is locked in position on the tripod and you aren’t dependent on one of the focus points being in the right place. Only you know what needs to be sharpest. The camera can only guess and at these close distances, with a non-average scene, the camera will almost certainly guess wrong.

The first step is to decide on the aperture, I used f11 to give me a reasonable depth of field, though you have to remember that at such close distances even tiny apertures don’t you give you much depth. Set shutter speed to anything under the flash sync speed, I used 1/100th sec. If you don’t know your camera’s flash sync speed then it’s easy to tell if you exceed it – you will get a black bar across one edge of your image. If this happens just choose a slower speed and try again.

Because I’m only using artificial light to create this image, and I’m not working in a blacked out room (just drawn curtains) I need to make sure that none of the daylight will register on the image. So without connecting any flash units I take a test shot. If it looks dark then everything is good. If I can see image details then I need a smaller aperture or a faster shutter speed.

Taking a still life isn’t about setting it all up, taking one shot and heading off to the computer to post process. It’s about working towards the final image – one step at a time.

The first step is to introduce the main light, take a shot and see how the light is hitting the subject. Is it falling where you want it to fall? My main light was spilling on to the background and making it show up so I introduced a flag (a flag is an object you use to block light in a studio), in this case a large piece of black mountboard, between my studio flash and the background. It was arranged so that it didn’t block the light from the table but it prevented any spill.

The ink was dark so to lift the bottle away from the background I used two additional lights – one to each side firing across the camera position (this is where the big lens hood that comes with the 100mm comes in handy). I arranged them one at a time, without the main light switched on, so that I could see where the light was falling. The light on the right creates that bright spot and reflection on the right hand side of the base of the bottle and puts that line of light down the label. The light on the left puts the bright edge to the lower half of the bottle on the other side. This pair of lights are responsible for being able to see the detail in the screw top of the glass and the actual colour of the ink there as well. The ink on the pen nib was added with an eye dropper to give a little touch of colour.

When I’d finished with the lights I found the bottle top was disappearing into the table top so I added a low reflector in front of the camera to push a little bit of light back there and give a little lift.

If you are paying attention you will notice that I set up the shutter speed and aperture (ISO always set to 100 for still life work on a tripod for maximum detail) before introducing any light. I adjust the power output and position of the lights to give me the exposure I want. I don’t play around with the aperture setting. This is why it’s important to choose flash guns that allow you to select the power output. Mine have an 8 stop range from maximum to minimum in one-third stops. Correct exposure is established using the camera screen along with the histogram. Also, when working at home, it’s easy to slip the card out of the camera and into the computer to have a quick look in Lightroom to make sure everything is ok.

Post processing was mostly removing specks of dust from the table top. When you get close, dust starts to become a serious problem. After the usual little tweaks with with contrast and saturation the image is complete. If you’ve done a good job with the lighting, very little work will be needed on the image as you can easily control contrast and brightness by using the power adjustment settings on the flashes.



You need a surface at a comfortable height to work on. I have a folding black topped table that I find perfect for still life. Mount boards can be placed on it to change the colour. I’ve mentioned the background already. I used two Yongnuo manual flashguns for the back lights. These are powerful flashguns, and really good value for money. The only downside is that they have no ETTL, but I actually find that better because I just decide how much power to dial in and that’s it. They have built in slaves so they’re easy to fire from another flash. I also used a Bowens Studio flash (strobe), with a 2’ square soft box fitted, for the main light. When this fired it triggered the other two flashes to fire. An on camera flash pointing at the ceiling, or away from the subject, is an easy way to fire slave units if you don’t want to use the light from the camera position and, I have to say, you should almost never need to use light from the camera position.

Here’s a diagram to give you an idea of the lighting set up.


Yes it needs a little investment, but manual flashguns are relatively cheap (the ones I use were less than £50 each – compared to over £500 for the equivalent powered Canon Flash – and they will run from rechargeable batteries. You don’t need a studio flash, I just use them because I have them. Another portable flash with a modifier to soften the light output would have produced similar results. Any dSLR will do, though I would recommend getting yourself a radio trigger. The one I use I’ve had for over 10 years and it cost me around £15. There are more expensive ones around and I’ll probably get one when this one packs up, but it’s an inexpensive way to get into off camera flash without needing long cables from hot shoe to flash.

White mount boards make great reflectors and backgrounds. Coloured ones make great backgrounds and they, again, are relatively inexpensive, so compared to the cost of a camera and a decent lens, a couple of cheap flashguns with variable power output, a wireless trigger, and a stack of boards is not a big expense and will set you up for lighting a variety of still lifes.

Popularity: 19% [?]

Create a Mini-Studio Wherever You Are

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Grumpy’s was the sign over the door, but the door was padlocked. Then a friendly face appeared and guided me round to the other door signed Canal View and I went in. Two different names, two doors, same business – same building. No wonder I was a little confused.

But it can get a bit like that when you’re engaged to take some pictures in a place you not only don’t know, but you’ve also never heard of before. The barman showed me my space. It was at one end of the bar, about six foot by eight with a cushioned bench along one wall and a big Grumpy’s sign filling the wall at the back. I was rather hoping I could get away with using a wall as my backdrop. My lighting stands were useless since they would have to be out in the walking space where the inebriated would inevitably trip over them.

Looked like a night of on-camera flash and the resultant awful lighting that would produce.

The barman seemed to think this space was fine because the guy with the computer doing keyrings the other night was happy with it.

Mary, who had asked me to photograph her and  Jo’s joint 50th birthday party, and I had a word with the boss. It turned out I could use the entrance space where I’d come in – the Canal View hallway – sort of. She locked the door, took the padlock off the Grumpy’s door and I suddenly had a 15’ x 15’ studio to work in. The wall wasn’t suitable so I gaffer taped a piece of black velvet to the wall. That would take care of any hard flash shadows. Set my lights up, attached brollies, asked Mary to pose for a shot or two while I got the exposure sorted and I was good to go.

I was using two Yongnuo YN-560 II manual flashguns. These are great little low-cost manual flashguns with plenty of power. You can pick one up for less than £40 now. They don’t do any of that fancy E-TTL stuff so you have to understand exposure to benefit from using them. One the things I most love about them is that they have built-in optical slaves. I set them both up as slaves and used an on-camera Metz 58 AF-1 pointing up to the ceiling to fire the Yongnuo’s. I had a wireless trigger in my bag but having the Metz on-camera, rather than the flash trigger, gave me the option of easily adding a bit more light to the subject should I need it.

The Yongnuo’s were on lighting stands with Lastolite Tiltheads. These are great little devices that allow you to fasten a hot-shoe flash to a lighting stand, or tripod, attach a brolly and adjust the angle of the flash. The camera was a Canon 6D with 24-105mm L lens attached. Everythign set up, test exposures completed and I was good to go.

My hosts had provided a dressing up box filled with silly hats, feather boas, giant sunglasses, and the like as well as a selection of empty picture frames. Now I’m not really a dressing up person but the guests loved them and had great fun.

I came home with almost 200 images and started work the following day.

Most of the images were vibrant and fun, but a few were suitable for a little special treatment.

This one cried out for some Black & White treatment. The black background made it easy to incorporate a subtle dark vignette to focus all attention on the faces.



For this one I thought it might be fun to remove the colour from outside the frames, so I played around with a Layer Mask in Photoshop to achieve this.



For this one I wanted to create a vintage look. I tried a load of Lightroom pre-sets, and tried some toning in Photoshop but none of it fitted the image. In the end I de-saturated the image and found that gave me just the look I wanted.



This is the set up.

It looks most uninspiring and very lo-tech – which it is – but it just goes to show that you can create pleasing images without needing to spend a fortune on lighting equipment.

Popularity: 44% [?]

Product Photography – How do you Make an Object Desirable?

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

What makes an object desirable?

Sexiness? Shape? Colour? Texture? Features? Suitability for Purpose?

Have a think about the last thing you bought that you didn’t need and what drew you to it.

Ignore all the reasonable stuff that your mind throws up, that’s just you trying to convince you that you made a wise choice and weren’t swayed by anything other than functionality. I mean, who needs the latest iPhone if they already have the previous model, or the one before that, or the one before that? Yet thousands of people will queue up to buy Apple’s latest offering even though they bought the last version just 5 months ago.

That’s the sexiness of having the latest version making the sale. It’s the desire to be seen as someone as special as your jewellery. And by jewellery I mean whatever shiny new toy you happen to possess – whether that be a nice car, the latest iPad, or a fancy new camera.

Then, once you have that fancy new camera hanging around your neck, notice how you suddenly start to notice what kind of camera everyone else has hanging around their neck and where that fits in the hierarchy of camera-ness compared to yours.

The manufacturers of these toys generally go to a lot of trouble to have them photographed well so they create a good impression. They pay skilled copywriters to tell you, in simple, emotive, terms how this thing will change your life for the better and help you to live out your dreams. They make mini-movies (TV Ads) to convince you that your life will be so much richer once you have that shiny cardboard box in your hands.

As photographers, it’s important that we understand – that we have an idea about what it is we are trying to communicate – when we photograph an object. And many of us are finding that we photograph objects frequently so that we can encourage people to give us money for them on sites like eBay. Photographing for auction sites is doubly difficult because you have to represent the object honestly – warts and all. Still that doesn’t prevent you from using your photographic skills to create the best possible image and the best possible image has much more to do with lighting and context than it has to do with the equipment you use to create the image.

The two images below were both taken in the same space and using the same lights, yet they create a totally different emotional response. The first is the type of image you might find in a catalogue, taken against a white background so it can be placed with other products on the same page. It shows the product clearly and the fine detail is easy to see.


The second image is, to me certainly, much more appealing. I took it against a dark background and on a reflective surface. That reflection, coupled with the bright red colour of the camera, lifts this image and makes me want to own that camera. Notice the arrangement of the wrist strap. Nothing is accidental here. The intention was to create an appealing, sexy, image. The design of the camera itself helps: the colour; those gentle curves creating a symmetrical body with those areas of red focusing attention on the lens; that big sticker extolling its features; and even those rugged looking clips. Those rugged looking clips, by the way, are just mouldings on the camera body and don’t actually seem to do anything – they are there to sell you this camera and the reason you would want to buy this camera is that it is tough and will withstand a little ill-treatment. You don’t need to read the blurb, you can tell just by looking at it.

But this isn’t a catalogue image. The contrast levels are too high – brights a little too bright and darks a little too dark, but it creates a moody seriousness. You look at this and you know the camera means business.

So next time you want to sell something on eBay, think about what the object means and then create some attractive photographs that really sell it. Include the images in the body of your listing (that way you can have as many as you want at no extra cost). Use large images for the good stuff and smaller images where you need to show wear or damage.

But most importantly think about your lighting.

For these images I used two studio strobes, one with a small softbox and the other with a shoot-through umbrella diffuser. I also use black and white boards to control this light. Obviously the backgrounds were also different. Yes, Lightroom and Photoshop were used to enhance the images, but not until I’d created the best image I could in camera.

Popularity: 32% [?]

Simple Lighting Set-Up for Flower Photography

Friday, June 20th, 2014

I spent quite a few years photographing flowers wherever they happened to be. I mostly used Velvia slide film because I liked the way it handled greens and there is a lot of green in flower photography. At the time I was writing for a gardening magazine so there wasn’t much call for arty images, just attractive pictures of plants and flowers growing wherever I happened to find them. There is a world of difference in my approach to photographing flowers when that photograph is being used to illustrate a point in an article, from when that image is destined to be printed onto a 40” canvas and hung on the wall.

For me wall art is at its best when distracting elements are reduced to a minimum. For me that means simple backgrounds, attractive lighting, and a pleasing subject. If you want to get a feel for this subject, and what is popular, have a look round a store that sells mass-produced low-cost art. This is a great source of ideas for how to style your images.

But I digress; I really wanted to show you how simple it is to set up a shot using a flower, or several flowers, as a subject using a minimum of equipment.

Here’s the shot I produced.

I used one Metz 58 AF–I, one Yongnuo YN560-II, a wireless trigger, my Canon 6D, a Giottos tripod for the camera, my old Benbo MKI tripod for one light, and a low-cost lighting stand for the other light. I used two Lastolite bendy flash holders (not their official name) so I could easily change the angle of the lights and attach them securely to the stands, a small Ikea table, some black mounting board left over from when I framed a panorama print, and two bits of hardboard that were drawer bases from some furniture that was no longer needed. The draw bases were painted white on one side and make excellent reflectors.

The Metz was attached to the wireless trigger, and the Yongnuo was set to slave mode.

This was the arrangement. The orchid that I used for my subject was one I already had on the living room windowsill.

I started off by pulling the curtains and setting the camera to manual mode so I could independently adjust shutter speed and aperture. Aperture was set to f16 because I was shooting so close to the subject and wanted the depth of field this aperture setting would give. Shutter was set to 1/160. An exposure was made to ensure everything was dark and no daylight was affecting the exposure. Then the power and position of the back light was adjusted to give me that highlight you can see along the edge of the flower stems and the buds. I adjusted the power output of the flash to get the effect I wanted – not the aperture. Adjusting the aperture would have allowed me the same control over exposure but would have changed the depth of field.

When I was happy with the back light, I adjusted the front light to give me the desired effect. That was when I noticed that those two sprays of buds going off to the left were a little dark so I added the second reflector on the left to bounce back some of the light from the other flashes. Although I had another Yonguo, and I could have used this to add more light, I wanted to keep it simple. This reflector lifted the brightness sufficiently and I was happy with the result.

Two flashguns, a method of triggering them and some card or even white paper is about all you need to produce images like this.

Popularity: 35% [?]