use existing photos from my trip to Vietnam a few years ago. Pictures of Museum of War, crushed plane, tanks, helicopters, American base in north, intersected with pictures of everyday modern life,
my daughter Amelka crying in various places where she was supposed to have fun (Peppa Pig World, holidays) and touchy-feely tender moments with mom or dad, also existing photos,
Zoo, cruelty of living in captivity vs tender care of zoo caretakers,
a trip to cemetery or Zoology museum.
In the end I joined Photography Meetups for a trip to Grant Museum of Zoology & Comparative Anatomy. Museum was established by Robert Edmont Grant (1793 – 1874) to serve as teaching collection to medics and zoologists. Grant himself had tutored Charles Darwin, teaching him about mutation of the species and following on from his grandfather’s book Zoomania (by Erasmus Darwin). Grant emerged as one of the foremost evolutionists of the early 19th century, becoming the first Professor of Comparative Anatomy at the University College London. The collection developed to house some 68,000 specimens covering the whole Animal Kingdom as it was in Victorian times. Due to the age many specimens are of animals that are now extinct or critically endangered.
We had about two hours time in the museum before it was open to general public. Tripods were not allowed, therefore a proper technique for handheld low light photography was essential.
Use lenses with large aperture, preferably prime,
Shutter speed not slower than one/focal length (could be slower if equipped with vibration reduction or steady hand)
Crank up ISO as high as necessary,
Use aperture priority (or my preferred method – manual aperture and shutter speed, with auto ISO, set to maximum 64000, and adjust if necessary),
Also photographing specimens through a glass meant finding the best angle to eliminate reflections. In some cases polarising filter was helpful, but not always, as it takes about 2 stops of exposure and doesn’t work well with wide angle lenses. Another trick that I learned is to press front of the lens flat to the glass.
white balance disk – neutral
50 mm 1.4 prime
24-70 mm 2.8 zoom
16-35 mm 4 zoom
70-200 2.8 zoom
All raw files were processed in Alien Skin Exposure X to achieve look of wet plate with brush marks and rough edges, reminiscent of the photography of the time when those specimens were collected.
Another part of studio assignment was a still life. Having searched through many examples in books and on internet I decided to use this one by Jean Chardin (c.1732). I like it’s colours and overall feel, which I will try to convey in my photograph. Due to simplicity it was also easier to concentrate on the lighting in the scene, direction and shape of the shadows, textures and tonality.
When we talk about light we can say that a particular light source has qualities such as brightness, colour and contrast (meaning hard or soft light). But that is not everything. Lighting in photography is more than just a light – it is the relationship between the light source, subject and a viewer. Some subjects would reflect the light more than the others, some would absorb and some transmit light (pass through, like glass for example).
Material can reflect light in many different ways. One type is diffused reflection – light is reflected equally in all directions, it has the same brightness regardless of the angle from which we view it. Matt surface could give diffuse reflection. Another type is direct reflection – a mirror image of the light source in the subject – also called specular highlight. Brightly polished metal, water or glass surface can easily produce it, depending on an angle. Therefore managing relative size and position of the lights in the setup is crucial. Also light needs to sculpt the subject and produce highlights and shadows to convey dimensionality.
To start with I decided to recreate the painting to achieve all the information in highlights and shadows. My key light was Bowens Gemini 400Rx studio strobe with 60x80cm softbox, placed about 50cm–1m to the left and the same distance up from the composition. I experimented with moving it from front to back, keeping the same distance. I found to my surprise the best result to be about 45 degree to the left and back of the composition. It gave the nice wide, diffused highlight to the side of the pot, and still quite a lot of light on the rest of the items and work surface.
Now second source of light was needed to illuminate the front edge of the table. My first choice would be to try large reflector, but didn’t have a suitable stand with arm to hold it properly and safely in place. Health and safety first. Due to time and space constraints I decided to use my Yongnuo YN568EX Speedlite in a smallish 60x60cm softbox as a second light. Flash was set to manual mode and triggered via build in optical slave by the main strobe light. Again I had to experiment with positioning and power of the second light source until the desired effect was achieved. I found the best place for it to be to the camera right, further away and pointing down. It helped to fill in the shadows in darker part of the composition, illuminate the front edge and produce a shadow under the spring onion hanging over the edge. Additionally it created nice second highlight on the pot, making it look more three-dimensional.
Having achieved a good approximation of the painting it was time to add more props and make it into my own interpretation. Since Easter was approaching and there were eggs in the composition already, I decided to add more elements symbolising this occasion. Bright yellows, reds and greens added some vibrancy to the composition and went well with the brown, muted colours of the rest of the props. I kept shooting, changing some details each time and holding reflector under the second light for some extra fill-in and diffusion of specular highlights.
The final setup looked a little bit like this:
Finally 217 photographs were imported into Lightroom. To choose the best ones I tend to use star rating system. Going through them after import, all images that are potentially good receive 1 star, and the rest doesn’t get any rating. Using the filter, only images with 1 star go to the next round, where I’m looking for better composition, better lighting and assign 2 stars. Narrowing the selection further, now between 2-star rated images, I’m looking for the ones that stand out, taking into account parts of the shot where composition or lighting changed. They will get 3 stars, and be candidates to post processing (no processing yet at this stage).
From 3 stars images I selected 4 “heroes” that were the best in my opinion. Each showed the composition in successive stages of completion, and they went to post processing stage.
Because the light conditions didn’t vary too much between shots, it was possible to do basic adjustments on one picture first and than copy it to the rest.
First in Camera Calibration panel changed camera profile from Adobe Standard to Flat, to reduce contrast. Than in Lens Corrections panel selected Remove Chromatic Aberrations and Enable Profile Corrections to straighten the lines distorted by optics of the lens. Since the painting is in brown hues, I warmed up a picture, sliding WB slider to the right a little until I was pleased with the effect. Then basic tonal adjustments:
Whites +56 to compensate for loss of brightness caused by lowering of highlights
Blacks -19 stop just before clipping
Than added a little bit of contrast +8
Vibrance +16 for a good measure
There were two potential problems: blown out specular highlights on top of the pepper mill, and in the middle of the pan cover. There were no blocked up blacks. I didn’t want to add any more contrast by manipulating tone curve, as I planned to do it later by applying film presets in Alien Skin Exposure X. They come with their own contrast curves that mimic the look of the classic film stocks.
Than a little bit of colour adjustments with a target tool in HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) panel:
Lowered saturation of orange -54; yellow -2
Lowered luminance of orange -11; yellow -4
And a little bit od sharpening in Detail panel (Raw images are unsharp by nature):
sharpening +50 (default setting is +25)
Noise reduction> luminance +30
That was about all post processing that I wanted to do in Lightroom. I thought all the little imperfections looked natural and added to the organic feel, so decided to skip retouching process in Photoshop altogether. It was time to export to Alien Skin for finishing touches. I quickly settled on Kodachrome 25 preset (from “Color Films – Slide” section), for its sharpness, contrast and colour punch. Last thing to do was to add a texture to make it look more painting-like. It took some time and a lot f tweaking to achieve the desired effect, but in the end I was very happy with the result.
Originally I planned to print all my selects them at dscolourlabs.co.uk on Hahnemuhle fine art paper German Etching of Photo Rag. Unfortunately there was not enough time to receive the prints back by post. So I went to the local high street printing shop where they use only laser printers for business purposes. They were kind enough to let me experiment with different texture and thickness of papers and the prints turned out to be surprisingly good. Out of two this was the one that was ultimately chosen for submission and display.
Assignment criteria: 1,2,3,4.
Hunter, Fil, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua. Light: Science & Magic. 5th ed. New York and London: Focal Press, 2015. Print.
Alexandre Buisse. The Workflow Book. Craft and Vision, 2014. PDF
Having researched and chosen the painting to interpret it was time to build up a setup and position lights in the studio. I was very lucky to have beautiful model and fellow student Jola to volunteer for the project and equally beautiful Paola to help with styling and makeup! Jola also provided all the important accessories as headscarf, clothing and earring that resembled the original as close as possible. Big thanks!
The idea in my head was to recreate the look and feel of the painting first and then get creative and enhance it with some modern age props, once I was happy with the set up as such. Having analysed lighting in Vermeer’s paintings I had more or less established idea of the direction of light and positioning of the model. To achieve a pure black background without detail I would have to position the model far enough from it to have it fall into complete darkness behind her. Also positioning and angle of the key light would have to be carefully considered to have illumination on the face but not letting too much of the stray light hit the background and pick up unnecessary details.
Key light (also known as the main light) is the primary source of illumination on the subject in the scene. It could be studio strobe, as in this case, but also flash gun or even natural light. Usually it is the most important light and determines the exposure of the whole image. It also sets the mood in terms of quality, direction and relative position to the model.
Quality of light is modulated by the use of light modifiers attached to the light source. The larger the surface of the light is in relation to the subject the softer quality light it produces.
Hard light (ie. studio strobe without modifiers) manifests itself in shadows with crisps, sharp edges, and typically contrasty image. Soft light on the other end (ie. strobe with large softbox or umbrella) has more diffused shadows with a longer transitions between highlights and shadows. Of course there is infinite variety in between and many types of modifiers.
The direction of light dictates the direction of highlights and shadows on the subject. Positioning of light should be considered on the vertical axis (up and down) and also 360 degrees around the subject. Generally speaking the more to the side of the subject the light is the more shadows and contrast will be created. Usually positioning light about 45 degree up and 45 degrees to the side of camera-subject axis produces the most natural looking results. (Our brains evolved to viewing world this way, naturally illuminated by the sun high in the sky)
Of course again there is a whole spectrum. Starting from full on front, flat light – with least amount of shadows and contrast (called butterfly or Paramount); through loop light – with a little shadow under and to the side of the nose. Moving light more to the side will produce so called Rembrandt light – where one side of the face is fully lit and the other only partially lit, forming a triangle of light on the cheek on the dark side. Most contrast will be achieved by positioning the main light 90 degrees to the axis camera-subject, so called split lighting – where one side of face is lit and the other is in complete darkness. Again there will be a a point where one type gradually becomes another and infinite variations of camera – light – subject position.
Finally we come to the subject of short light vs broad light distinction in portrait. Vermeer’s portrait is an example of short light – meaning the side of the face that is more visible has more shadows. The light is illuminating fully the far side of the face, which appears to be narrower and “shorter”, hence the name. It is also preferred in portraiture if visual slimming of the face is required.
Opposite scenario would be the broad light, where “broad” side of the face receives the most light, and shadows are falling away from the camera’s view. Needles to say this type of illumination would make the face visually larger and more round. Lighting aside, whatever is closer to the camera appears larger, and broad lighting would only accentuate it more.
Having gone through the theory my first choice of light modifier would be a larger beauty dish, with white inside, diffuser and possibly a grid. It would be set at approximately 45 degrees up and to the camera left, approx 45 degree to the subject. Unfortunately there wasn’t one available. I don’t know if it would work as I anticipated, but I’d expect it to give a nice contrasty and edgy light, with white colour and diffusion helping to soften the light. Grid would help with precisely directing the light and avoiding spillage on to the background. The only beauty dish available was small and silver, no diffusion or grid. I anticipated too harsh light, as the source would be too small in relation to the model, silver colour lending itself more to producing specular highlights and harsh shadows rather than gradual transitions.
The next best choice of a light modifier was a softbox. As the name suggests it softens the light (but as we know it could still produce hard light if positioned far from the subject, and its relative size diminishes). Most of the softboxes have protruding edges, which help to direct the light in a precise way and avoid the spillage to a certain degree. They can also be fitted with grids as an option.
There was a range of sizes and Zigg suggested choosing the bigger one. Taking into consideration Vermeer’s studio, clearly visible in his paintings, his light source was a row of reasonably sized windows, so in my opinion it was quite a good approximation, both in size and shape.
Once I positioned the light source where it looked good on the model and took a few tests shots it was time to find the exposure value. Knowing that the best quality image is produced at the lowest ISO, I set my camera to it’s native ISO 64. The next parameter to set in the exposure triangle was in this case the shutter speed – anything down to 1/250 sec. I set it to 1/200 to be on a safe side in case of any sync speed issues. Using light meter I found the aperture value to be at f/5.6. I was happy with that, as I aimed for slightly shallow depth of field. Also the lens is quite sharp and the sweet spot extends from around f5.6 to about f/11. The studio strobe was set somewhere around number 2 mark, which meant there was room to go up in power and the aperture could be closed further if there was a need for it. Finally I switched the transmitter off to take a test photo without strobe and check if any ambient light was visible in the picture (main lights in the class were on). It was ok, with only a slight hint of the figure in the shadows, which was negligible.
I have to say that I’m not very good at giving directions to the model and posing, and this is area where I need to improve. To help a little bit with the task I printed 2 copies of the Girl With The Pearl Earring and gave one to model and I kept one at hand so we could both be at the same page so to speak. Once again big thanks to Jola for being patient with modelling and actively helping to dial in the pose. And of course the same goes to Paula who helped adjusting the headpiece and generally was checking if everything was ok.
To get the perspective right my lens of choice was 70-200 f/2.8 zoom, set at about 85mm, and adjusted as the shoot progressed. Slightly surprising, finding the right point of view proved challenging, with constantly moving the camera up and down. Health and safety was observed, although in hindsight I would have made sure that all the tables were moved more out of the way, as I kept backing into them.
Soon after establishing key light it became apparent that in order to sculpt the highlights and shadows on the face as in painting, it meant that the earring by default was in too dark shadows. As an important part of composition it needed separate lighting. With help of Zig, second strobe light was modified with snoot and positioned to camera right, giving additional illumination to the earring. It worked very well, but introduced another problem – being a small light source, it cast the hard, contrasty shadow of the earring on the neck and white scarf underneath, clearly visible and criss-crossing the direction of the main light. To remedy this Zig helped with another solution – a piece of cardboard positioned beneath the snoot to flag (block off) part of the light beam coming from the snoot. It didn’t eradicate it completely, but together with the reflector placed to camera right, made the offending shadow almost invisible. It was good enough and made getting rid of the remains of it in post production easier.
At his point everything was set, and the only thing to do was to keep taking pictures until the pose and expression on model’s face were just right.
To me this was the challenge and a creative process in itself, but the brief called for the interpretation of the classical portrait and not a copy (a shame in my opinion). So to fulfil the requirements some modern day props were introduced, re-interpreting The Girl With The Pearl Earring as The Girl with an iPhone and The Girl With The Headphones. Thanks to Simon for lending great looking pair of headphones!. It was fun, and I ended up with a few good images to choose from.
My personal favourite interpretation was the series with headphones, and in particular the last picture. So I printed the selects on a home laser printer (not a great quality, just proof of concept) and took to the next class to submit to the popular vote. And just as I thought the class preferred the different one. Overwhelmingly the choice was the one with a smartphone taking a selfie (or maybe reading a message, who knows?)
So the chosen image went to post production. As a raw file it was converted from Nikon’s native .nef file format to Adobe’s .dng (digital negative file) format for archival purposes automatically on import into Lightroom. Then Adobe Camera Flat profile was applied along with lens profile corrections to remove any possible distortions and chromatic aberration if there was any. Than all important white balance correction (sampled the white point from neutral grey of a phone back), cropping and basic tonal adjustments. Raw file is flat as it comes out of the camera and it needs adjustments. It needed adding highlights, reducing shadows, a little bit of contrast, vibrance and saturation. Tonal adjustments in Lightroom work on a global level – effectively it brightened the whole picture, so the radial filter in combination with a brush was applied to darken back all the areas around the subject.
Once the basics were done it was time to export the file to Photoshop for more advanced retouching, skin smoothing (using frequency separation technique), and applying creative filters to make it look a little bit more like a painting. Finally save as .tiff and open in Alien Skin to add that elusive film look, contrast and colours (Kodak Portra 160NC) and texture.
Assignment criteria: 1,2,3,4
Lindsay Adler – Seeing the Light, Learning to read and decode lighting – pdf companion to Creative Live course
For this task we should photograph a portrait – using classical painting as inspiration. In our hand-outs we received following instructions:
Research classic portrait paintings in books, magazines and websites
Choose one that you would like to interpret in the studio
Built a set-up
Use preferred light source and studio accessories to illuminate the subject in a creative manner
Record well exposed images
Evaluate your work
When thinking of an inspiration for my portrait I was immediately drawn to the works of Dutch Masters. (“Old Master” refers to any painter of skill who worked in Europe before 1800). During Dutch Golden Age, spanning 17th century, the new Dutch Republic was the most prosperous nation in Europe and at the forefront of the trade, science and art. At the time of changing religious and cultural traditions art needed to reinvent itself and largely succeeded. Dutch painting of that period comes under Baroque style, and although shows most of its characteristics, it lacks the idealisation and splendour, in favour of detailed realism of Early Netherlandish paintings. Another distinctive feature of the the period was the relatively small amount of religious paintings, forbidden in churches by Calvinism, but allowed in private homes. There was a hierarchy of genres.
Portraits were second most prestigious genre, after history paintings, and followed by everyday scenes, landscape and still life as the lower categories. Dutch specialised in small paintings in the lower categories and enormous qualities were produced, which also meant the prices were fairly low. They were usually not commissioned, as opposed to portraits which were done for growing amount of merchants, more ready to pay for it. There is estimate of total amount of 750,000 to 1,100,000 portraits done.
The technical quality of Dutch artists was generally very high, mostly due to training by apprenticeship in small workshops. Traditional guilds controlled both selling and training, which were gradually replaced by academies. Dutch Masters skill in depiction of light was influenced by Italian painting, notably that of Caravaggio. Portraits were more sombre than aristocratic Baroque equivalent in the rest of the 17-th century Europe. Full length, standing pose and use of props, possessions or views of the land in the background were avoided as showing the sin of pride. Artist would draw and paint the face in in an initial sitting, and the clothes would be left at the studio and might as well be painted by assistants or a specialist master at later sittings.
Genre scenes show figures with no specific identity, they are not historical paintings, nor portraits. It is a distinctive feature of Dutch painting of this period, and Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” is a good example. It could be one person or a group on social occasion, scenes from daily lives, women at work about the house, etc. They are not accurate depictions of life though, as many illustrated proverbs or a moralistic message. Vermeer, long a very obscure figure is now considered the most regarded genre painter of all.
In still life colours are often muted, with browns dominating, especially in the middle of the century. The Dutch also led the world in botanical and other scientific drawings, prints and book illustrations. Such was the success of Dutch Golden Age painting, that it overpowered next generations, and there is no famous painters until van Gogh. The down to earth realism is connected to later 18th century French Enlightenment rationalism and realism in 19-th century painting and use of object for narrative purposes.
Having said all that I settled for my favourite – Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Technically speaking it is a tronie, meaning it’s not a portrait of a recognisable person, as there is no identification of a sitter. A tronie would denote the characteristics of a particular type of face, concentrate on facial expression or on an exotic costume like in this case. It is a form of genre painting in a portrait format, a bit like stock picture of the day. It was typically sold on the art market, and was not retained by the sitter as portraits normally were. Similar unidentified figures treated as history paintings would normally be given a title from the classical world.
My initial idea was to replicate the painting as a photograph, as close to the original as possible, to study the light and pose. I think there is a lot to learn photographically by doing that. Than I would add modern day accessories like headphones or mobile phone to make it into an interpretation as per task requirements.
Reference: Wikipedia, links in the body of text.
Assignment criteria: 1, 3 (although in this case it refers more to painting than photography)
Arcimboldo is known as a 16th-century Mannerist, Mannerism adopted some artistic elements from the High Renaissance and influenced other elements in the Baroque period. A Mannerism tended to show close relationships between human and nature, it also favoured instability and unbalanced compositions, intellectual sophistication and artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities, in opposition to earlier Renaissance painting. Although he painted conventional religious work, it had fallen into oblivion, and he is famous for portraits of humans made of plants, sea creatures or roots. His works also inspired Surrealists such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst, and is used by psychologists and neuroscientists to test the brain for recognition of global and local images and objects. His works can be found in Vienna, Paris and Sweden.
Another still life piece that caught my eye was “Still Life of Flowers in a Basket” by Spanish Baroque painter Juan de Arellano (c.1614–76).
Baroque was initially used to describe something artificially extravagant and complex, as was art and architecture of the 17-th century. Part of the reason was ideological and religious division. On one side fierce and authoritarian Catholic Church and “divine” monarchs used wonders of art to overwhelm and impress subjects. On the other side Protestant reform with belief in personal and national self-determination disapproved of all worldly show, destroying religious art and dispersing royal and noble collections. Merchants of newly created republic of Holland growing in wealth wanted landscapes, seascapes and still life to hang on the walls of their townhouses, which they could buy and sell like other commercial goods.
Which brings us back to Juan de Arellano who was heavily influenced by Flemish and Italian painters, and eminent flower painter. Although not my favourite subject, I am drawn to the detailed, skilfully executed, intricate work. I like colour balance between red, yellow and blue, punctuated by white petals. I like the way light interacts with the composition, which is on one level simple – just a basket of flowers sitting on a plinth – and at he same time extremely complicated with all the subtleties of realistic depiction. Also I like his motives (according to Wikipedia), de Arellano decided to focus exclusively on floral paintings because it offered more pay while requiring less work 😉
The third one that I want to discuss here and the one that I had chosen as an inspiration for my photography task is “Still Life” c. 1732 by Jean Baptiste Chardin (1699–1779).
By contrast to religious confrontation and warfare of 17th century, the mid 18th century was the Age of Reason. Enlightenment – a belief that human reason would resolve political and religious problems and create harmonious world in which superstition, tyranny and slavery would be eliminated was central. Intellectual and emotional duality was not seen as competing ideologies, but as a part and parcel of human fulfilment. Thus art of the period makes reference to the differences between reason and emotion, sense and sensibility, indulgence and sobriety, sensuality and self-denial.
Chardin was an artist who exemplified through his work the qualities of the Age of Reason. He produced small still lifes that demonstrated harmony of order, toned down colours and simplicity. His style is modest, and subjects were common household objects, yet painted in a way that surfaces and textures are very believable. He was greatly influenced by the realism and subject matter of 17-th century Low Country masters, and had less in common with Rococo that dominated France at that time.
What made me choose this one to interpret in photography is precisely that – simplicity of composition, muted earthy colours and use of everyday objects, that can be substituted for contemporary equivalents and still make sense. I love the little whimsical strand of lonely spring onion that curves up at the edge of a table and leads the eye into the composition. It is refreshing in a way that it is just a still live – nothing more and nothing less, no semiotics or hidden meaning (I hope!).
Art a Visual History, Robert Cumming, 2015 Dorling Kindersley Limited
For Cruel and Tender – Location Photography – I should research other photographers’ work to plan my own shooting. But interpretation of the theme should reflect my individual way of working.
To begin with I found a teachers pack from the past exhibition under the same name, that took place in Tate Modern in 2003. Reading through it I came across some interesting informations.
In 1933 American writer Lincoln Kirstein described the work of Walker Evans as possessing a “tender cruelty”. He alluded to the way images were spare and factual; yet with passion towards subject matter. Evans in turn was influenced by French photographer Eugene Atget, who worked at the turn of the 20th century, recording ‘underbelly’ of Paris as it was, before it changed.
They both represented ‘objective’ documentary approach. They strived to portray the neutral representation of the world as seen by photographer, rather than artistic, expressive view. I like this kind of mental separation of approaches to photography, although as we know there is always a continuum along which the styles blend. According to this ‘Cruel and Tender’ falls into utilitarian rather than aesthetic type. Evans himself wanted to achieve balance between form and content, in order to affect the viewer. So there is an artistic consideration.
Conceptually the desire to fix the transitory and passing character of reality becomes the subject of the image.
This had a huge impact on the development of abstract art, as photography took over the role of painting in representing the reality, only could do it better. Consequently it led to painting and sculpture needing to find a new direction. Photography was highly regarded as a literacy of the new world and took central role in art and design classes at Bauhaus in 1920/30.
Agency (Resettlement Administration) hired photographers to photograph conditions of living and working in rural America. In 1935 Evans’s assignment was to document problems and progress of administration. In his own words: “I was very innocent about government, …, I just photographed everything that attracted me at the time, and rather unconsciously was recording that period. I didn’t think of it as such, the work piled up, and some of it is looked at now as record that I wasn’t even thinking of making.”
About his work in summer 1936 with author James Agee for Fortune Magazine about sharecroppers hard hit by depression: “…the work produced at the depression looks like social protest. It wasn’t intended to be. It wasn’t intended to be used as a propaganda for any cause. … I don’t think it had the purpose of improving the world.
People and their way of life was what fascinated him. “I do regard photography as an extremely difficult act. I believe the achievement of the work that is evocative and mysterious, and at the same time realistic is a great one. And rare one. And perhaps some times almost an accident”.