Inexpensive still-life photography

This Lladró statue, designed by Francisco Català, was a gift from my parents and fits well with my photographic tendencies. It is also a great test piece for studio photography, so when I was looking to test flash technique this evening (in particular, soft lighting) it was immediately brought out. The statue is around 13″ (33 cm) tall and highly varnished, so any direct flash would cause problematic highlights.

I’ve been looking into various means of softening flash light over the past few days, in order to improve and refine my strobist photographs. I am still considering more professional equipment, but this evening’s tests and experiments were a mix of do-it-yourself technologies, using things which were already to hand at home. Therefore, a cheap and cheerful look at how to get a good result! First up, I set up an ironing board and covered it with a white cotton cloth, roughed up slightly to show some texture in the base. Behind the setup is my studio backdrop, which isn’t as professional as it sounds. Bought for the sum of Fr. 60.- a couple of years ago, it’s actually a six metre long roll of white carpet underlay, reflective on one side (which obviously never gets used) and matt on the other side. This is a permanent fixture at home, partially because we’re lucky enough to have the space to leave it hanging and partially because it conveniently partitions off a large unusable space under an area of the low roof.

Once the statue was in place, I set up three small flash units, a Nikon SB-24, a Canon 430EZ and a Vivitar 2800. All of these are second-hand purchases, the Nikon being the most expensive at Fr. 60.-. Buying second hand allows you to be much less worried about high expenditure and yet still use what was, not all that long ago, equipment from the upper range of flash equipment.

After much reading, thinking and discussing about the subject of light diffusion, I found that the primary factor in achieving beautiful soft light (without harsh shadows and high contrast lighting) is to increase the effective size of the light source. This means that the same quantity of light coming from your flashguns is spread out over a wider area and therefore reduced, but this isn’t usually a problem when you have full control over the positioning of the light. I chose to emulate the principle of the Lightsphere: namely, to fire the flashgun vertically up a tube of white opaque material, wrapped around the flashgun to create a light saber (or strip light) effect. That increased the effective size of the light source five times, in a vertical tube.

By firing the main flashgun light at full power, I was able to achieve an aperture of f16 at 100 ISO, at a flash-subject distance of around 30 cm. The flashgun on the opposite side of the subject was set to 1/2 power, to stop the lighting effect becoming flat. (The shutter speed in this setup was immaterial, as I was shooting with only very low ambient light which didn’t affect the final shot at all.) Once I’d created the correct light balance, I then chose to illuminate the background of the image with a coloured effect. Professional equipment for this kind of effect is achieved through the use of coloured plastic gels, but as I was only working with available items at home, I had to find an alternative. A red plastic mixing bowl, around 15cm across and bought from Ikea, provided a great shoot-through “filter” and, at 1/8 power of the main flash gun, provided a superb background illumination.

Finally, a slight adjustment of colour balance and contrast in Lightroom, and this test was finished. Total equipment cost purely for this shoot (excluding existing non-strobist photo equipment): 2 x sheets of A4 paper, 10 cm of tape, 1 red plastic bowl (less than Fr. 5.- for a set of three)… well, I’ll let you do the maths!

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