Still lifes - mono/strobes, hot or fluorescent?

Discussion in 'Lighting' started by celluloidpropaganda, Apr 29, 2007.

  1. celluloidpropaganda

    celluloidpropaganda Subscriber

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    I haven't been doing nearly as much photography as I'd like lately - work and so on, along with vision issues that keep me from getting out with my smaller cameras as much as I'd like. So I thought that trying my hand at still lifes would be a nice change of pace and something I could work on at night.

    Formats - 4x5, 6x6 and the 'D' word (starting with the latter for practice and mostly going to 4x5 color neg after that).

    I'm not really sure what I'll be doing other than teaching myself the basics of lighting, it will be relatively close up and some will fall in the realm of Ebay product photography (either a light tent or softboxes).

    Natural light isn't really an option, I live with the worst lighting known to man (and will be working at night much of the time). At home the windows are small and badly placed, my warehouse/office space has very plain, broad light from the opaque 'sunroof' panels.

    Hot lights seem like the easiest and cheapest for learning - but using heat in either a confined space or an un-air conditioned Texas warehouse has me wary.

    Fluorescent lights are a nice compromise between unchanging light and heat (and cost) - but as I understand it they may not provide enough contrast to shape light. Good for products and small things, though.

    And finally, flash - a one or two head kit, umbrellas, soft-boxes, homemade reflectors, sync cords, whatever trigger will work with my SLR. Not sure about the quality of affordable brands, would probably trawl Craigslist for something used and local. No WYSIWYG, the learning curve seems a little steeper.

    The more I look at it, the more I lean toward the latter. Is there anything I'm missing or words of advice that might be offered?

    Thanks for any suggestions or tips.
     
  2. jmdavis

    jmdavis Member

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    Check out "Learning to Light" by Roger Hicks. I had been lighting for film and video for more than 20 years and I still learned alot from this book.

    I would like to comment on one remark in your post though. You said, "No WYSIWYG, the learning curve seems a little steeper."

    I don't believe that there is any WYSIWIG in photography. Just because the eye sees it doesn't mean that the camera necessarily will. This can definitely be used to your advantage once you have a feel for lighting.

    Perhaps your best choice is to start with a couple of hot lights and while you look for strobes. Lowell totalites are useable and normally available on ebay for less than $100.

    I have my own kit mostly for video (Mole 2k softlight, 2-1k fresnels, and a couple of molequartz in 650w and 1350w. I used these until I lucked into finding a 500w Norman LH2 strobe kit with 2 heads for a whopping $125. I have since added an Alien Bees 1600. Some combination of these works for most of the things that I do.
     
  3. roteague

    roteague Member

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    I second that suggestion myself. It is a classic, and one advantage is that you can ask the author questions directly.
     
  4. Bandicoot

    Bandicoot Member

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    As your format gets bigger, remember that you need a smaller aperture to get an equivalent amount of DoF if you are filling the frame with 'the same' composition. That means that still-life on large format often needs a lot of light, or very long exposures. Still-life implies that long exposures are not a problem, but since that isn't always so (eg. reciprocity failure with colour film) you may find that what you are happy with in the way of lights when you use your digital isn't sufficient for your MF or LF gear.

    But to look at that from the glass-half-full perspective, that means that you can use cheaper lights while you are learning and finding out what you really want to buy later.

    Actually, the very broad flat lighting from your translucent roof panels sounds like it might be quite useful. A lot of still-life benefits from that sort of light. It won't be the light you'll want to use for every composition, not by a long way, but you should give it a try out as one more sort of light in your 'kit'.

    I do quite a lot of still-life, both product and conceptual commercial stuff and more 'fine-art' things. I use a variety of formats, most often 6x9 (on a monorail) but also LF up to 10x8. For this I use everything you mention except fluorescent.

    The fine-art type work is more often lit with natural light than artificial, while the commercial is most often lit with flash or hot-lights - but this is not a hard & fast rule. I don't have much experience of fluorescent.

    Hot-lights do come closer to being WYSISWYG, but as has already been noted, there is really no such thing in photography. They are particularly good for complex set-ups: lots of small quartz lights cost a lot less than lots of flash-heads.

    Hot-lights come in a range of special types: fresnels and focusing spots, broads and scoops, cycloramas, soft-lights. This means you can get lights that are really tailored to do a particular job well. There are also more general purpose lights - redheads and blondes, for example - that can function sort-of-like fresnels or sort-of-like scoops.

    My kit has several small and one large general purpose light, several broads, a couple of cyclorama lights, and never enough fresnels.

    The heat is a real issue. I've never felt comfortable with the idea of softboxes on hot-lights either, so softening, for me, relies on brollies, bouncing lights off flats, and sheets of diffusion material.

    Flash's great advantages are lower temperature and high light output. The latter is very helpful with LF and with close work where there's a lot of bellows extension. The former is important for your comfort, but also remember that a lot of still-life subjects can be quite temperature sensitive: a vase of flowers will wilt very fast under hot-lights, and even apples in a bowl of fruit will get wrinkly soon.

    Flash-heads tends not to come in such a range of purpose made designs as hot-lights (unless you are paying a lot of money). This means that one design must do more different jobs, by having a lot of different reflectors and other light modifiers. Flash can be made very soft easily, and for a bit more money can do a very good job in the focusing spot role. Tends not to work so well in the cyclorama light role though, and if you want flash to work like a fresnel you need to spend a lot of money.

    Daylight can be modified and controlled a lot too, with diffusion, reflectors and cutters.

    I think I rambled rather, but hope that explains some of why I use both flash and hot-lights rather than seeing it as an 'either / or' decision. If I had to choose one to start with I'd probably start with hot-lights, unless I planned to concentrate on flowers, food, or similar subjects.

    If you budget as much on light modifiers as you do on lights you'll end up much better prepared than if you buy more lights but have fewer ways to control them. I would really stress that point.

    In addition to Roger's book, I strongly recommend "Light, Science and Magic" by Hunter and Fuqua.


    Peter
     
  5. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    When I set about learning to light, a commercial photographer named Jim Krantz gave me some advice. He said get one light, one stand, a softbox and a flash meter and not to add any more gear to the mix until I'd learned to make images that I liked with just that gear.
     
  6. johnnywalker

    johnnywalker Subscriber

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    Well, my first direct question to the author is, "Is the book still available?"
     
  7. jmdavis

    jmdavis Member

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    I'm not the author, but...

    I bought it 2 ir 3 years ago at Borders and I saw it when I was there recently. It's also available on Amazon. I'm sure it is in other places as well.



    Mike
     
  8. johnnywalker

    johnnywalker Subscriber

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    Should have checked first, found it online at Chapters in Canada.
     
  9. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Well, gosh, thanks for the kind words. The joke is that the publishers hated the title. "Anything with 'learning' in it," they said, "puts people off because it implies that they don't know anything about the subject."

    As those who have the book will know, a surprising number of the pics in it are taken with desk lamps (usually just one desk lamp). Another source for cheap light is builders' lamps, the sort with high-wattage tungsten-halogen lamps. Used from some distance away, these give a hard light that is in some ways better than a focusing spot. Of course the exposures are long, but so what? I'd start out with the cheapest lights (and read the book) and see where you want to go from there. I'd also second the suggestion that it's not either/or with hot lights and flash: they give a very different look.

    If you go to the Galleries in www.rogerandfrances.com there are three pages of still life, shot with everything from 35mm to 8x10 inch, plus a page of digi, playing with a digicam (Nikon D70) and a soft focus lens (Dreamagon) -- I figured that as digi is soft anyway, I might as well capitalize on it. The only two modules in the Photo School that deal specifically with lighting are both paid, $3 each or free to subscribers, so I hesitate to recommend them, but the 'White on White' reflects a lot I learned in advertising photography.

    I'll try to help with any queries but I'm going to be busy for the next 3 days because on Monday I'm away for 3 weeks: Solms (to see Leica), Oberkochen (to see Zeiss), Eastern Europe (to take pictures) and Venice (to take pictures and see Manfrotto/Gitzo).

    Cheers,

    R.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2007
  10. Early Riser

    Early Riser Subscriber

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    Cell if you want to learn how to light you first have to understand that in many ways it is the object that you are photographing that determines the light. Glass, fabric, reflective metal, translucent materials, liquids, etc all require certain types of light and understanding the physics of the objects gives you your basic lighting direction.

    As an example, glass, when you light clear glass you don't light the glass but the background behind it. As glass is also reflective any lighting aimed at the glass appears as harsh detailed reflections. So if you want to add highlight reflections they need to be softened need by diffusing the light.

    Reflective metal usually requires a tent, what's commonly used now by lower end catalog studios are the pre formed tents. They are a one size fits all solution and while being fine for Ebay ads limit any real tweaking. You are better off getting rolls of diffusion and using them to diffuse the light and make tents that conform to your actual photograph. You can also create gradations on them as well.

    Michael is also right about the use of only one light at the beginning. A common mistake is to overlight a scene, especially in the beginning. Start simple, look at the light itself. Lighting is experience based on observation.

    The most advanced lighting still life photography you're going to see is most often going to be from high end advertising still life photographers. If you come across any ads that seem particularly well lit study them and try to figure out the lighting.

    I posted two lighting samples one is all curved reflective metal the other is a translucent object, soap in this case.
     

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  11. photobum

    photobum Member

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    There is "Light Science and Magic" and then there are all the others. LSM is a top notch lighting textbook. The others are like Pop Photo or Shutterbug.
     
  12. celluloidpropaganda

    celluloidpropaganda Subscriber

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    Thanks all for the advice. I've put Roger's book and LSM in my Amazon cart for a start, I may be spending the next few months in a hotel room (building a lodge several hours south of home) so I'll have far too much time to read.