Talking shop, precision with one light

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by · · Posted in: photography techniques

As part of my domestic arrangement, I've been shooting a few still life shots for Jessica's blog, Bake Like You Mean It. These occasional projects have all the best qualities of personal work: low stress, full artistic control (well, almost full control, Jessica is, after all, my wife), and the opportunity to try things you probably wouldn't pitch to a client, like shooting on polaroid film that expired when leg warmers were in. The film has held up better than I expected. The emulsion is a little more delicate than normal and it has developed a bit of a magenta cast, but it's something of a miracle that it still produces an image at all. Incidentally, I wasn't sure if would need to adjust the exposure given the age of the film. I didn't. I metered with a Minolta flash meter at the film's marked ISO of 100, used the development times on the package, and it was just right.

Since Polacolor 4x5 film isn't very easy to find, I wanted to get this right, in-camera, and in one try. One shot, one kill, is the way Jessica phrases it. (She's an expert shot with a 9mm and not half bad with an M16 by the way. It's true, I may have underestimated the level of stress here). But even a simple set up like this has its challenges. When you include two different subjects that reflect light in two different ways, there is a lot that can go wrong—the situation begs for precision lighting.

Because of its shape, the silver plate will have a specular reflection of the light source. That's a given. One solution is to flag out the reflection but that will create shadows, complicating the simple composition. Rather than fight it, I make it intentional using it to delineate the form of the spoon by placing the arrangement at the right angle and distance relative to the light to create a halo around the spoon.

The custard is also going to throw a reflection and if we're not careful it will be quite ugly and conceal the color of the main subject. This is just simple billiard table physics. As I move the light off axis and down, the angle of reflection grows, bouncing the specular highlight under the camera.

Here's a snapshot without the whipped cream showing what happens if you are not careful.

Bad light
Hideous huh? This kind of lighting will have you sleeping on the couch.

But, if you place the light in just the right spot, you can still get a little sliver of highlight that gives the viewer enough information to understand the texture and glossiness of the custard while allowing most of the color to come through. Because I'm using a large light source (a profoto strobe in a 36 inch softbox) the shadows will be very soft leaving some wiggle room in the light placement. Nevertheless, I am almost always happier with shadows that fall toward the camera or toward the bottom of the frame, so I put the light directly outside the top of the frame creating the circular highlight along the bottom of the custard and creating the shadows under the upper edge of the cup and below the outside of the cup, subtly accentuating its form. This placement also creates the tiny shadow along the spoon handle separating it from the sliver plate.

It's very simple, but it embodies a fundamental rule of making good photographs: be deliberate and take responsibility for every square centimeter of the photo, corner to corner.

View Camera
Camera setup and ground glass view.