Use stormy days to your advantage – get out there and take photos!
I’ve moved 3 times in the past 8 years and have created 5 in-home studios in that same amount of time. Every time I change up my studio I seem to find myself creating smaller, more compact and optimized spaces. The reason is simple – you don’t need a warehouse to take great product photos.
The first step to creating your space is taking inventory of your most used gear – this single step will let you know exactly what sort of space you need. For instance if you rely heavily on natural light then you’ll need windows and perhaps less space for things like studio flashes and light stands. The type of photographs you take will also help inform you decisions on what type of space you need. In my case, I do a lot of portraits and commercial work. I also use studio flash which are often mounted on large C-Stands so that definitely increases both my vertical and horizontal space requirements.
In the end, I utilized a room attached to my house that is 24 feet by 10 feet. This room also has high ceilings, which means I can position my lights above my subjects. After doing some searching online, it turns out that even a compact space like this is pretty large compared to some metropolitan studios out there. I found some studios that are only 8×8, which is impressive!
While my studio is still very much a work in progress (we’re still finishing the walls and ceiling) it was in good enough shape to get things started. When I was contracted to do some product photos we got some things set up in quick order and started taking pictures. Over here to the right you can see what the set up is for this shot. We’re using a basic, plastic, folding card table. These products are shot on white, but we also wanted a reflection, so I used a clean white card with sheet of glass on top of that to help catch reflections. We’re using a two light set up. The first light is above the product and pointed backwards towards the rear of the table. The reason for that is you can highlight the curves and contours of the product without producing the hot, specular highlights you would get if you had the light directly in front of the product. The second light is behind a collapsible diffuser. This adds a little highlight to the edge of the product, but mostly it’s just there to make sure the environment around the product is totally white. I am also using a black flag (the reverse side is shiny metallic in this photo) at the very front of the product to subject extra light from the front of the product to help make the reflections pop out a little more.
After tweaking the lighting and positioning a bit, we were very pleased with the resulting photos. It was nice to see that a little bit of planning could result in a studio space that was refined and streamlined and still produced the quality that we were looking for. You can see the results of our product photo shoot below.
Tony Northurp (video link above, please give him a subscribe on youtube!) shows us a pretty easy way to save yourself a ton of hard drive space. I personally deal with this problem about once a year. I have nearly 20TB of drive space attached to my main computer alone. Managing that much disk space (especially when I am running low) is a major pain. Buying new hard drives or, gulp, expensive raid arrays, will always be a temporary solution – drive space is finite and you’re taking pictures all of the time.
So when I ran across this video where Tony shows us the magic of Adobe’s lossy DNG format, I was intrigued. I tested it out myself and I can honestly tell you that I am now, at this very moment, in the process of converting all of my old photos into Lossy DNG (with the exception of some very important ‘hero’ shots taken for clients). Hundreds of thousands of photos are making the pilgrimage to Lossytown over here, and so far I’ve gotten back several terabytes of space. Let’s hope the trend continues!
… which means I am direct product of that decade. I was never a big fan of 80’s Hair-Metal but I’ve always loved the imagery of that era. As we started to move away from analog and into digital’s earliest incarnations we all took a big step back in quality. People think of VHS as an analog medium, but unlike the homemade movies shot on film in the 60’s and 70’s – which were a true analog and very chemical-based affair – VHS was rendered to tape using electricity and other various pieces of digital wizardry. It’s part of this loss in quality that help define the 80’s within its time in history and also teaches us the concept of, ‘low-quality doesn’t always mean bad-quality’.
Also, the 80’s were a time of great exploration into the visual mediums. For me, there’s never been a time in my life where the movies were more over the top, more gory, more cheesy, more whatever. Sure, we all praise and award movies who work their messages in more subtle manners, but I think a lot of people can also appreciate how wonderful ‘blatant-and-unrepentant’ can be as well!
Enter Stranger Things; a new visual and story-telling trip down a cracked 80’s memory lane. It’s amazing to watching Stranger Things and see my childhood, bikes, clothes, and adventures right there on screen for me to relive. Okay, so my real life adventures at that age weren’t quite as surreal, but they were certainly just as grand within my imagination.
It’s truly an amazing show and it has captured a lot of people’s interest. One such couple, some family friends of mine, have two daughters who they watch the show with. When their oldest daughter shaved and donated her hair to Saint Baldricks, they realized she was a complete doppelganger for one of the TV show’s main protagonists – Eleven. So much so that she was being stopped in the street and people would take pictures of her and follow her around, convinced she was Millie Bobby Brown.
So, we decided to capitalize on this and do a fun Stranger Things photo shoot! They were in charge of the wardrobe, and I would find the right location. For that location I chose the Molly Stark Sanatorium; an old tuberculosis hospital about 30 minutes out of town. This place is defunct, abandoned, and just oozes a whole new level of creepy, so, as you can imagine, it turned out to be the perfect location.
Above: Molly Stark Sanatorium
We showed up around 8pm in the evening. It’s mid-Spring at this point of the year so the sun sets around 8:30 pm. The forecast originally said it would be sunny, but rain had moved in earlier throughout the day and now it was overcast – which wasn’t a problem since we were taking a potentially moody photo. The only impact the cloud cover had on the location was that I instantly lost about 2 stops of light as the sun was setting behind a large blanket of clouds.
Because I would have to expose a little longer to compensate for the darkness (I don’t like to bump up the ISO unless absolutely necessary) I set the camera up on my tripod after scouted the location for the right angle. Using the tripod means I can have a slower shutter speed and still retain a sharp photo. Next I hustled to put up one 32 inch octa on a large light stand. The light was about 12 feet up and about 12 feet away and 45 degrees off center from the subject because I wanted to give the lighting more of a moonlight glow by the time it reaches our model. I then took a second light and positioned that opposite of the main light. It was much lower, with a 7 inch reflector on a bare bulb. I pointed the light so it would light her dark side with a little fill as well as light the bottom of the tree branches to help them retain a little detail from the shadows. Once we had the lights in place it was just a matter of getting the pose right and taking some pictures. To the right is one of the pictures we chose, straight out of the camera.
If you remember what I said at the start of this article, the 80’s are all about the lo-fi elements. This picture is ok as-is, but it doesn’t match either the spirit of the show, or the aesthetic of the decade it’s supposed to take place in – so there’s some work to do!
First thing I did was mess around with the RGB curves in Adobe Lightroom to flatten the dynamic range. I also de-saturated the image and boosted the blues in the shadows. Next, I took the photo into After Effects (yes, the video compositing program) and added in the fog and the light streaks for the lantern.
After Effects is, at it’s heart, an amazing piece of compositing software that does a lot of stuff, dare I say, better than Photoshop. If it’s not a part of your workflow, you should investigate it’s potential! Once I am done there I exported the file into Adobe Photoshop where I made a few final adjustments to color as well as any last tweaks.
Overall most of the color tweaks are done with curves adjustments and I use them throughout the process within all of the various programs I mentioned here. One thing that’s hard to explain is knowing where you should move from one program to the next. For this image, I worked in Lightroom until I had the base color correction in place. I then moved to After Effects to add in the fog and light flares because I know those processes are fairly easy for that program to produce. Photoshop is usually the last step because it’s great for the small details and final color correction.
Here’s the final image
A wonderful producer who I’ve worked with for years would often joke when we had to copy and paste items from one of our earlier projects into something we were currently working on, “If you’re gonna steal, steal from the greats!”
Now, before we get anything further into my reasoning here, I am just gonna say the following: Don’t steal, or infringe on someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own. That’s just theft, and it’s pretty low. As a graphic designer of over 20 years, I’ve had numerous designs and concepts stolen from me and it’s a terrible feeling to see someone else benefiting from your hard work. As artists, our biggest billable asset is our ideas, innovation and process. So respect other artists’ work as you would like your own work to be respected.
With that out of the way, I do also believe that you can learn a lot by seeing how other people approach their craft. That is, at its very core, the essence of teaching. Recent generations of photographers have been inspired by people like Annie Leibovitz, Joe McNally and Jeremy Cowart, among others. Those photographers were, and still are, inspired by other photographers and so on and so forth. Being inspired by other artists is a beautiful thing and, as an artist, there is no higher compliment than having a contemporary seeing your work and being inspired by it.
I keep a folder on my computer of things I find inspiring. It can be anything from a color study, to a well designed website, brochure, a photo, a poem; it can be anything that catches my eye and stirs some emotion inside of me. In the case of photography, it could be an image that someone else has taken that intrigues me – the way they took it, the lighting, the pose, the setting. Whatever it is, it’s something that has inspired me.
I’ll also use these images as a challenge and a chance to learn. I’ll do my best to figure out what sort of visual trickery and craftsmanship went into the making of their photo and then I’ll set out to see if I can faithfully recreate what it is I think they’re doing. Such was the case for Post Malone’s Twitter profile picture seen here to the right. This photo was shot by Nabil and you can follow him on twitter here: https://twitter.com/nabildo.
I think it’s just a pretty awesome portrait. I like the simple, monotonistic color scheme, the pose, the shadows. Basically, the whole mood of this photo is pretty damn cool. Because of that, I decided I would do my best to try and recreate it armed with only my own working knowledge of cameras and studio lighting.
The first, and most obvious, aspect of this photo is the orange tone throughout. That’s a no-brainer that we’ll need to add some colored gels to the lights in order to achieve the same effect, however we need to figure out what sort of lighting we want to use first. Looking at this portrait a little more I suspected that the photographer was using a beauty dish, positioned directly above and pointing straight down at the subject. This would give the same deep shadows in the eyes we see here in the photo. There doesn’t seem to be any bounce light, so we’ll just move forward on the assumption that one one light was used to light Post Malone.
We will need a second light, however, to light the backdrop. I have a neutral gray seamless in my studio and I suspect that’s the same setup Nabil used in his photo. So, I’ll just take my second light, attached a 7 inch reflector dish so the light doesn’t spill off of the background and hit the subject, and then lastly we’ll put a gel on that to give our gray background an orange tone.
The gels I decided to use were one full cut of CTO on my main light and one theatrical orange gel on the background light. The theatrical orange gel is considerably more orange than the CTO gel. The reason for this choice is because skin tones are already warm-ish, so I don’t need to over drive the orange on our main light – just enough extra orange to kick the skin tones into the realm of our backdrop. The backdrop, which is gray under normal lighting conditions, does need a little more color oomph, so that’s where we use the theatrical orange gel to full effect. See the diagram to the right to see our final set up.
The next step is lighting ratios. I think I got kinda lucky on this one. My camera and lights were still set to whatever they were set for at my last photoshoot was and, as it turned out, they were dialed in pretty well for our first test shot here. In the end, I just had to tweak the main light at tad to get it into the correct range. My camera was set to f/8, 1/125 shutter, 100 iso. The main light was putting out light at f/11 and the background light was f/5.6. So basically, the key light was +1 stop over camera and the background was -1 stop under. Easy-peasey!
And here’s our final image: