Posts Tagged ‘home studio’

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For this session I used my Canon 100mm Macro, though this is a few years old now and has recently been superseded by the Canon 100mm L Macro, which, judging from reviews, is slightly better but not worth upgrading if you already own the original.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.

 

Equipment:

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.

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