Another Lighting Demo: Light Tents and Painting with Light


It looks like this is going to be a frenzied week after a week of quiet and much needed rain.  It started today (Monday) with a demonstration for my lighting class at City College.

The topic was shiny/reflective items such as silverware, jewelry, etc.  I did my typical last minute scouring of my place to see what I had that I’ve not shot before.  After 13 years here I’m running out of my own stuff to shoot.  I need to start hitting up friends for goodies to use for demos.

Some of you may remember my trip last Spring Break to visit my old friend Jim Neely from Santa Fe.  If so you may also recall my telling how he and some friends, Anglos all, revived many of the old silversmithing techniques the various tribes has nearly lost and for a while were famous in the region.  Working out of a workshop co-op called “The Buzzard” located behind Neely’s house, they produced incredibly beautiful work.  I’m very, very lucky to own a couple of Jim’s very early pieces:  a hammered buckle and a bracelet (that I rarely take off), both made from coin silver in the old techniques.

I decided, as a sort of homage to Jim, that I’d use those two pieces in an arrangement for the demo.  I added a beaded buckskin pouch and some owl feathers Cynthia has found near the Black Mountain Road.  These were used to create an ambiance to the shot.  I’ve actually been meaning to do a macro mosaic of one of those feathers to produce a 4-6 ft canvas print but have not found the spare time for it.  Now at least I’ve used a couple of them.

After a lecture on how lighting the reflective surfaces is very different than lighting solid textured surfaces, I decided to demonstrate two very different techniques as well as demonstrating the use of a tilt-shift lens on a DSLR.  The first was to employ a commonly used tool, a light tent.  These are great for creating “documentary” shots of items for sale.  Easy to use and light it took longer to arrange the shot than it did to light the tent and shoot.  Here is that first shot

Class demo at San Diego City College using a light tent with silver buckle and bracelet made by Jim Neely.

Class demo at San Diego City College using a light tent with silver buckle and bracelet made by Jim Neely. Shot with Canon 50D and Canon 90mm f2.6 TS/E tilt/shift lens.  You can click on the image to enlarge it.

The problem is, while those shots do show off items accurately and so are perfect for some catalogs or output for, say, eBay, they are not very exciting and as you know, if you’ve been reading here long, stylistically I prefer a more dramatic approach and look.  So for the second version I employed a technique that is a bit more complex called “Painting with Light.”  It has been around for ages.  In the film days you left the shutter open while moving the light around the subject.  That made the final result, which you could only see after the film was processed, sometimes a bit of a surprise.  When it worked it was very cool but it was a bit less predictable than a normally lit single frame.

But the digital world has changed all of that.  Now the procedure is to take separate frames, each with the light illuminating a different part of the item or perhaps from a different angle.  The various frames are then assembled in Photoshop and the good parts of each are used.  You may recall from last summer the architectural shot from the Brooks Teacher’s Workshop.  It is exactly the same approach; only the scale changes.

For the demo shot I re-arranged the same items outside of a light tent and a student helper took a single light and moved it around based on my directions and we took about 15 frames.  From those 15 I selected 8 that seem to have unique and interesting effects.  After color balancing all of them I brought them into Photoshop as layers.  Then starting with the top two layers, made a layer mask and revealed the parts of the lower layer I wanted.  When those two were blended I merged the top two layers together and then blended that with the one below and so on until all of the frames I wanted were incorporated into a final shot.  My friend Lee Varis does this with people shots and calls this “lighting with layers.”  Another friend, Nick Nacca does the most amazing large product and even architectural shooting using this technique sometimes on a very large scale.

That assembled shot was then edited with a normal workflow as if it had just come directly from the RAW converter.  This procedure, with the potential of light coming from everywhere, can also make things look a little flat so often it needs some tweaking.  I also did not like the original background which was on white plexi with a light coming up from the floor.  It was one of those things that seemed OK in the camera until I saw it in the assembled shot.  So it was replaced with a more textured dark background to help the items stand out.

Here is that second shot.

Class lighting demo using painting with light technique.  Shot with Canon 50D and Canon 90mm TS/E f2.8 lens/

Class lighting demo using painting with light technique. Shot with Canon 50D and Canon 90mm TS/E f2.8 lens.  You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Hmmmmm….  Well it was more dramatic, that was true.  But after the original posting, the more I looked at it the more it was still not quite right; it still lacked something to make it sing and feel as rich as that old silver does to me as it brings back memories of my friend at his bench and all the wonderful stuff he has produced from then until now.  I decided it was the background.  It was better than the original white but still lacking.

I thought back to the shoot and asked myself if I could have had access to ANYthing to use as a shooting surfce for the shot what would it have been?  And the answer was STONE.  Something as connected to the earth as the minerals, materials, and spirit of the pieces and the cultures that had inspired them.  Well it was too late to shoot it that way, but this is digital, grasshopper, just because we are a little late to the party does not mean we are without means.  And I have a whole folder full of various textures.

I also felt I needed to emphasize the silver pieces more.  I had tried to salvage as much of the pouch and feathers as possible but some slight tweaking of the crop seemed now in order.  And when I was finished, here is the result…

Final version of Neely's silver jewelry with some stone texture added for the background.

Final version of Neely’s silver jewelry with some stone texture added for the background. It is very slightly cropped from the version above and has a “shadow” added to give it some depth.

OK, I can live with that.  It has become more of a still life image rather than a strictly commercial one as was the first version in the light tent (above).  But to me that is more in keeping with the feelings it generates for me.

Well, with that demo shot and processed as a warm up for the week, Cynthia and I have two shoots scheduled for early mornings this week.  Tomorrow, since I have early classes but it was the only day the clients could schedule, we will be up at the crack of dawn to do portraits for a car dealership and then later in the week we will be doing another restaurant cover shot.

Good thing I love doing all of this!


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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