Category Archives: Exercise 4.4 Ex Nihilo

Exercise 4.4 Ex Nihilo

Before starting this exercise I suppose I had never considered that fact that the light in a studio set up was completely under the control of the photographer.  The photographer creates it from nothing and if the lighting does not work properly then there is only one person to blame.

In a way I was not looking forward to this exercise as my comfort area has been the outside natural light type picture. Lighting objects artificially to me seems a lots of effort for something that will be predictable. Clearly there are other important elements to the final picture in that you can have the best lighting but the composition can still be wrong.

I suppose that by shooting outside most lighting decisions are taken out of your hands. Yes there are ways to control in the outside but for by and large for instance landscape photography is a given. This can seem a narrow and naive approach but perhaps where I am on my learning curve this is where I currently see it. A couple of modules on it will be interesting to reflect on the situation.

I have tried ‘home made’ studio set ups before and never really been excited by the whole process. To me there seemed much effort to get the desired image. But perhaps I was looking at it the wrong way. I was trying to look at the outcome as a whole and perhaps was disappointed. Reading through the exercise I now see this as an accumulative process in that that you have to understand how each element works so as to build up into final outcome.

Looking for reference material it is clear much has been written on the subject of artificial lighting all trying to make you an expert. I think in reflection that is where I have go wrong in the past and will now just concentrate on the elements.

Therefore what follows can be considered as more of a technical exercise for me to learn rather than produce the best portrait of still life picture I have ever created. With that said almost timely to this exercise I visited an exhibition of Christian Coigny a Swiss art photographer specialized in black and white photography, works for advertising, fashion, portrait, landscape, still life and reportage. See exhibition reportage). While there was much to see I focused specifically in the context of this exercise how he lit his subject in terms of shape and form and trying to understand the desired output and reaction from that conscious lighting decision. Clearly by looking at one exhibition will not make me a better photographer (however that is defined) overnight but it gives me a hook to hang my ideas upon.

The following was written after each stage rather than reflection as a whole and shows my thought process.

Inspired by what I saw at the exhibition I realised how ill prepared I was for this exercise. I had no idea of what I would use as the subject matter or how I would arrange and compose. What depth of field I would need to create an effect, being the fact I had not even thought of the effect I wanted. I had not considered the practicality of where I would o the pictures. The kitchen table is always the obvious but it was the space and logistics to get to that point. Even to the point of I had not figured out how to use my camera to the best advantage as I had recently upgraded and was still getting used to how it operated.

To overcome the subject matter/composition issue this was just a case of research reference images that I felt comfortable of being able to recreate. On one hand I did not want something so simple (a single apple for example) that while would satisfy the question criteria would not be the most inspiring of subjects. But there again I suppose that is the mark of creativity is that you can get something fresh and new from the mundane. And on the other hand I did not want something that may be so visually pleasing but it was too complex to create.

Because of familiarity, variety, availability, and the shape and form I concluded that the fruit and vegetables would be the subject matter of choice and therefore could then focus on how this could be executed.

Being such a popular subject there is so much material available to use as a reference. Once you start looking there is even more than one ever imagined. In the end I narrowed it down to three areas: professional advertising shots, the ‘greats’, and painters.

Initial Trial and Results
I’ve entitled this section Initial Trial which is a little more structured than ‘have a go and see what happens’ which is nearer the truth:

  • Location: Kitchen table
  • Main subject: A red bell pepper as this had colour and form, and also a contrasting green stalk. It was easy to handle and move
  • Additional props: A ceramic vase was added in the background to add a further point of interest.
  • Backdrop: A cream coloured sheet attached to the wall and covering down over the table.
  • Lights: Various household light including a torch.

The following shows a selection of the results. ISO-100 and f/6.3 were kept constant throughout.

Problems encountered that need to be adjusted/sorted for the next time are as follows:

  • Logistics: There was not really enough space to work around and for any easy light placement at a distance
  • Electrics: The plug socket location was not conducive to the location of the table so the lights could not be put in the optimum position. Mains extension leads are required.
  • Choice of Lights: The lights used were what was available at hand e.g. a table lamp. Need to think for the future if these are the ‘right’ type of lights
  • Depth of Field: Needs careful thought and selection in relation to the subject. It can be seen on some of the shots that while the pepper top is in focus the stalk clearly is not.
  • Colour Cast: In looking at the images on a number there seems to be a light brown/warm colour cast. Initially I thought that this could be to do with the correct white balance from the tungsten bulbs in the lights. This maybe the case but I think it is also caused by the cream colour of the backdrop. Further trial and investigation needs to happen here.
  • Composition: Initially it was more of a placement of the objects rather than any created composition. Further thought needs to be given to making the picture a little more interesting.
  • Plan of Lights: As said this was more trial and error so while there was some structure moving the lights around for differing effects there was no real plan. One needs to  be created.
  • Reflections: Because of the shiny nature of the surface of the pepper it gives reflections especially so on the curves. These tend to be a bit distracting and could be reduced/obviated with the use of a diffuser of some type.

Thoughts after Initial Trial
My initial plans for Assignment 4 was to develop further the blue hour night time exercise. Although I had not formulated the theme or subject it did seem do-able because I suppose it is still what I see within my comfort zone. Having completed the initial trial for this exercise, and that while there is much to learn and even more to put right, I am feeling more confident that lighting to express a view of vision is the art of the possible. So while initially I saw this as a technical exercise my thought process is changing for it to become more than that and as a learning platform for Assignment 4.

The planning for the second shoot is far more structured in that:

  • The problems encountered need to be obviated or at least managed.
  • The pre-design of the lighting set up rather than inventing on the fly.

While the exercise question does afford the luxury of viewpoint also being changed I think that I will keep this static. It then allows me to concentrate on the lighting thus reducing the number of variables. Therefore the plan and problems to overcome are:

  • Logistics: The kitchen table had been pulled out of the current position allowing space to move around.
  • Electrics: Two long extension leads were acquired.
  • Choice of Lights: Two desk lamps with movable heads were bought.  The shade is solid metal and as a result focuses the light out the front of the light.
  • Colour Cast: A pure white paper backdrop replaced the fawn sheet.  Also daylight balanced bulbs (6500k) were bought for the lights.

Initial Problems
Having planned for ‘everything’ I still encountered two problems, namely:

  • Bulbs
    One of the pair of bright bulbs was not working correctly.  The element did not light up as it should and was giving a warm glow rather than a daylight balanced colour.  The problem then was I did not have two bulbs of the same wattage which were going to be used left and right of the object to give a flat lighting effect.
  • Backdrop Paper
    Once I had set the backdrop up it was actually quite thin paper.  Therefore that which was above the table appeared darker from the background on the table.  I originally wanted an infinity backdrop so no line would be visible behind the object.  Even doubling up the paper did not seem to make too much of a difference so therefore decided to go with the ‘horizon’ line.

Choice of Depth of Field
Having selected a large round object the next decision was how much depth of field was required.  Once selected I was going to keep this constant through the pictures as it would give both continuity and uniformity through the sequence of images.  The obvious answer would be to go for the maximum depth of field which was f/22 on the lens I was using.  Yes this would ensure that everything was in focus but would it necessarily be the best way to represent the image?

The following shots show the image at f/2.8, f/8, f/16 and f/22 respectively.  As expected the image at f/22 gave overall sharpness right through to the edge of the cabbage.

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As explained earlier my images not had a ‘horizon’ in the background.  The effect I wanted was that this line was visible but did not want it too sharp and pronounced.  Therefore I repeated the depth of field test by placing an object with words on the ‘horizon’.  The following images show the respective results for f/2.8, f/8, f/16 and f/22.

So while I favoured f/22 for the cabbage itself f/16 gave the most overall balanced results of sharpness of the object and out of focus for the ‘horizon’:

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Set Up
The following digram gives a view of how the shoot was set up.  This was constant through every picture.  Only the flights were moved.  In the sequence below the light position is shown relative to this set up.  (Definitely not to scale).



The main subject I used was a cabbage.  However at the end of that round of set up I repeated with a number of other items, some peppers, a cabbage, and tomatoes because they had different surface textures and wanted to see how the light played on this.  While I recreated the lighting positions they were not exactly the same.  Th light may have been a bit higher or just a slightly a different angle.  Therefore although the pictures fit the question it can be seen the shadows do not match exactly picture to picture. 

1. Single Light 45Near Object 
With this set up one strong light is placed near the object at about 45 degrees from the camera and angled down at the subject.


The results give good modelling to the subject with strong shadows behind and deep shadows within the texture of the object.  This can be seen in the leaves of the cabbage, the ‘grooves’ of the peppers and surface of the cauliflower. This set up does show well the texture of the object.



2. Single Light 450  Far From Object

Similar to the set up as (1) above but the light was placed much further away.


The effect is similar to that of (1) in that the shadows bring out the surface texture but as the light is further away the light while does not go around corners gives the appearance of filling in the background shadows therefore the shadow does not seen so harsh.


3. Single Light 450  Far From Object With Single Diffuser 

This time as per (2) but a diffuser (tracing paper) was placed in front of the light.


While it has softened the shadows further and taken the reflection from the surface of the peppers (compared to the test shots) the background shadows remained much stronger than I thought they would.  Therefore the diffuser was doubled in thickness with the results shown in (4)



4. Single Light 450  Far From Object With Double Diffuser 

As per (3) but with the diffuser double the thickness.


The shadows have almost disappeared and in doing so loses some of  the texture feel as in (1).  In other words the diffused light has filled in the shadows.


5. Two Lights 450  Far From Object 

Here two lights were placed at 45 degrees either side of the camera at equal distance from the object.


With this set up I expected an even lighting all over the subject with a little modelling of the subject because each of the lights should balance the other one out.  What actually happened is that because as metioned earlier that one of the matching light bulbs did not work I did not have an even pair.  Therefore to give an even light I had to move the less powerful light further forward to compensate.  As a result in theory the lighting was even but it did change the way I expected to see the shadows.  It can be seen in the first picture that shadows are there in theory when they should not as each light should have filled in the shadows made by the other.  Clearly my positioning on the lighting was still unbalanced.

In the second picture again the lighting was moved but the shadows still appear.  It shows that while the left light should have compensated for the right having a light half the power and in a different position it is not the same as having two even lights.



6. Single Light Close Direct Overhead 

Here a single source of light was placed directly over the object.


The shadows that appear are only under the object created by the widest part of the cabbage. The lighting over the object is evenbut because of the texture of the cabbage there is still some modelling of the leaves so the object does not look totally flat.  With the shot of the peppers there is still modelling on the smooth surface with highlights being picked up on top from the downward light.



7. Single Light Bounced Off Ceiling

This is almost the reverse of (6) in that the light is bounced from the ceiling rather than shone direct onto the object.


Here it can be seen that the final result is a much more diffused light as the ceiling bounced the light off in all directions. While there is still some shadow under the cabbage and the peppers this diffused light has ‘bounced under’ the objects to make the shadows less harsh.  Also an even light has closed the contrast between the horizon and the table because the light is evenly illuminating the whole scene.

Again because of the texture of the cabbage leaves there is some modelling and gives a pleasing appeal.  On the other hand the peppers because of their surface become far more flat in appearance.  Also the diffused light has killed any highlights that could be seen in (6)



8. Single Light 1350  Behind Camera

A single low light from behind the object creates a moon like image.


The rim if the cabbage has modelling but most of the object is in shadow because it is behind the light and there is nothing that bounces the light back.  The total shape of the cabbage can be seen as light spreads over the backdrop.  A similar appearance is for the peppers.



9. Two Lights Behind Object 

Similar to (8) but another light is placed in the opposite position.


This time it give the objects in complete shadow to stand as a silhouette against the backdrop.  While the peppers are in complete outline enough light has crept onto the cabbage so there is a slight form showing around the edge.  Technically there should be nothing but this is more to do with the  placement of the lights and the size of the objects in that I have not lined them up correctly for this shot.



10. Single Light Low Level
Here I have placed a single light at low level in front of the object.


This was not a planned shot but as I was moving the lights around I saw the effect this made.  It is almost as if the light is setting on the object and picking up just the form in the front of the object. I am not sure how this lighting set up would be utilised in ‘normal’ photography but it does give an interesting perspective on the object.


11. Other
Within this section I have taken a couple of the set ups and played with the light

11.1 Green Diffuser
Here with the set up in (2) I have replaced the diffuser with a green piece of cellophane.   The image is similar to (2) in that the cellophane diffuses the light a little but also gives as expected a green cast.  In fact it emphasises the green of the cauliflower.


11.2 Mixed Lighting

With this one the cauliflower was lit from the side but I also turn on the overhead light in the ceiling.  This was light source was a much warmer tungsten bulb compared with the daylight bulb of the main lamp.  While the overhead bulb does fill in some of the shadows the mix of warm tungsten giving an almost pink colour to the background is mixed with the direct daylight source.


Comparison of Light
For me in comparing this against Exercises 4.2 and 4.3 I feel that in comparing the light the exercises are almost mutually exclusive.  Yes the light illuminates the objects but it works and reacts in a different way.  With the ‘studio shots’ the quality of light could be set up in any way that was required while in 4.2 I had to accept the flat diffused lighting as it was and in 4.3 the mix of blue hour and and artificial lighting again was and is and out of my control.  Similar to that of the contrast that as nothing could be done to move the light sources in 4.2 and 4.3, but in 4.4 it all could be controlled.

Probably in terms of colour I liked that of the night shots in 4.3.  While it is not the correct technical term the light and the images look much ‘cleaner’ than those in 4.2 and 4.4.  It is not a question of focus or sharpness (although those taken with a wide angle do tend to look sharper) but something else.  Not quite sure what yet but something I will explore as the course moves on.

Overall I found this exercise quite difficult because as mentioned at the beginning I had never really dealt with setting up lights in this fashion.  There are a couple of things that I would need to improve with my process, namely:

  • Better Notes
    When writing up what I had done I realised that my notes were not as good as they should have been.  I did take a number of pictures of the same set up and did not clearly note down the exposure number on the camera.  In the end I sorted it all out but it was some unnecessary effort that could have been avoided.  This is noted for the future.
  • Better Lights
    While the desk lamps and bulbs I acquired were acceptable enough for this outcome of this task it would have been much easier if I had a ‘proper’ set up in that they would have been on adjustable mounts/booms.  The issue I had was putting the light in a constant place which was very difficult within the kitchen space.

In conclusion I found the learning experience quite illuminating (no pun intended) and intend to use as a basis for Assignment 4.