Inside photography – lightpainting

I treated myself to a subscription to LensWork, a well-crafted pamphlet about “…the path of creative photography.”  The first edition arrived and the initial article surprised me – the images were in color.  The few times I’d looked through LensWork all the images were in B&W, beautifully toned and printed.  After reading the article and looking over the images I realized this really had to be portrayed in color to fully appreciate the work.

The author is Harold Ross who does great work with lightpainting.  You can see his images at and get an idea of what can be done once you get control of light.  And appreciate why any article on his work has to be in color.

I learned the fundamentals of lightpainting at a workshop a few years back, and played around with it for a bit.  What intrigued me about Ross’ work, and compelled me to return to this technique, was the way his soft light brings out the texture and dimensions of his subjects.  The images are like Vemeer paintings – almost real enough to reach out and grasp the subjects.  Since this type of realism is an attribute I want in much of my photography I decided to work more with this technique.

Starting out with something simple, of course.

Lightpainting, onion in three layers

Lightpainting, onion in three layers

What intrigued me about Ross’ method was to use Photoshop to merge multiple images into one scene.  Whereas my prior instruction was to use long exposures and “paint” all in one capture, Ross carefully segregates the areas he wants to portray into separate images.  These are processed individually and then merged into the final image.  With a sturdy tripod locking down any movement, you can make many attempts at the look you want for each area in the image and then put together the ones that result in the best composition.

For example, the above image is made from combining three separate images.  One is the overall front lighting, two is the spotlight on the background, and three is the highlighted ends.  Using layer masks I revealed the areas I wanted in the final image while removing those that didn’t enhance the scene.  This image took about 20 minutes to make and shows a start at bringing out the dimensionality of the subject.  I’m sure it can be portrayed as more dramatic with more time on the image capture and post-processing.

The sun is setting around here earlier and earlier so I’m looking for inspiration that doesn’t require me chasing the last lingering winter light.  This processing method opens new opportunities to improve my “seeing” what light can do when controlled.


Looking back to move ahead

Gone full circle now with my photography.  Started in a darkroom with B&W film way too many years ago, went back and forth with slides until moving to digital.  Then turned back to film for a look I missed.  Now I’m back in the darkroom.

Loading digital image files from the camera to a computer and seeing them pop up on your screen really isn’t the magical moment that accompanies looking at film out of a developer tank and seeing something emerge from nothing.  There’s a moment of joy and anxiety in processing film (“did I get that development time right?  was the fixer still good?  did I have the lens cap on?”) where you suddenly land on one emotion.  You pull the film out of the tank, look at a bit of it, and realize immediately a sense of pleasure or frustration.

Don’t get that emotional roller coaster with digital.

It is amazing how tolerant some film is of poor handling.  I’m starting out with rolls of B&W I was given, age uncertain but at least 10 years old, most likely kept in a drawer somewhere.  The first roll I processed turned out like I remember higher speed films looking – grainy, moderate contrast, nice tones.

Not that I’m planning to abandon digital.  Not really interested in the printing part of film, wrestling with enlargers, densitometers, paper types, developing trays, etc.  No, I simply scan the negatives and drop them into my workflow like any other digital image.

Here are a few examples from the first roll.  I’m still looking for intimate landscapes.

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Anyone hungry?

After trying the photography gig for a few years I realized it just wasn’t going to be a business that would satisfy me.  As we heard in school from actual revenue-generating photographers, there’s more time spent away from your camera than with it if you want to build a successful business.  It just wasn’t me.  Instead, I returned to the world I’d left previously.  And guess what, they need photographers, too!

In addition to my regular day job I now have the opportunity to practice food photography.  There are multiple needs for nice food shots – brochures, websites, magazine articles, product information cards, etc. – and it can get real expensive to contract with someone to do it in a studio.  Not to mention the hassle of taking everything there for the session.  Instead, we’ve set up a small tabletop unit to use for recording samples that are made, beauty shots for marketing and just any time someone wants to record one of their projects.

So, all that lighting training and experience isn’t going to waste.  Here are some recent “models” we’ve had some fun with.  Let me know what you think of these landscapes!


Tweek here, adjust there…

Continuing with my bell pepper series as a way to improve my B&W vision.  Still learning to pay attention to the whole frame…

The tones across the pepper are close to the look I wanted for this image – shades of black with a few soft highlights.  What struck me after playing around with it, however, is the folds in the cloth on the bottom left.  While positioning the pepper I must have pushing on the cloth and created these.  I think they enhance the image, giving a context away from the subject.  I never would have thought to do that intentionally but now that I see the impact I’ll definitely keep it in mind.

At least for pepper portraits….

Curves, lines and shadows – light up the table

My work is giving me some opportunities for food photography so I’ve been brushing up my skills on lighting and exposure.  I’m comfortable with straight-forward documentary types of food images showing off details of texture and color.  Styling however, making the food look appealing by placement and arrangements, is a skill I’ve just not developed a knack for yet.  Most of my efforts looks far too staged to be appealing.  Fortunately I have people around much better at that than me so even though I would really like to be the ‘artistic’ person I think I’m better off making sure the image looks right technically.

That being said, lighting and composition can lend drama to the simplest of subjects.  Edward Weston has a series of famously sensuous photographs of bell peppers, using light and shadow to show us aspects of the vegetable most people probably never notice.  I’ve heard some of the hardest subjects to photograph are the simple, everyday objects we see around us.  Sounds like a challenge.

What can be more simple than a bell pepper?  Smooth skin, rounded surface, deep color.  You have to wonder just when Weston was inspired to make this a subject.  Was he standing in a grocery store one day and suddenly saw produce in a different light?  Was he looking around for something to test new lights with and grabbed what was first in the refrigerator? I’m sure there’s a back story somewhere (anyone out there know?) but the result is what intrigues us.  That’s a bell pepper?

I’m thinking my workflow is probably just the reverse of Weston’s.  As much as I try to pre-visualize, it seems my better images come from trying something, making adjustments, then trying again.  With a healthy dose of Photoshop thrown in.  Still, after a bit I do start to see a little of what drew Weston to this.  It’s a great way to connect with a master.

Less light is sometimes better

Actually made some portraits late last week, business images to be used as needed for online and magazine articles.  Straightforward lighting and poses to result in a basic professional appearance.  It got me to thinking about non-traditional portraits, such as Weston’s famous bell peppers.  How would I make fruit look dramatic?

I’m starting with the most basic thing I saw at the store – kiwi.  It’s got a nice surface texture, pretty uniform color and a classic shape.  Importantly, it’s not shiny!

First, the standard portrait lighting:

Gives a little dimension to the rounded surface, a highlight here and there, with a lighter background to help the subject stand out in the image.  Not very exciting, though.

I moved the light around a bit but just wasn’t getting the contrast I wanted.  Since I don’t do much studio work I’ve never invested in the bevy of light modifiers available to broaden or narrow the lights.  Also, although I wanted drama I really didn’t know what I was looking for so playing around with light position and intensity was interesting but not goal-oriented.  So, instead of a lot of light, how about just the right amount.

Lightpainting consists of turning off the flash units and using a penlight and long exposure to essentially put light right where you want it.  The camera only “sees” the light you provide at the spot you put it.  Granted there’s lots of trial and error in a dark room but the results can be much different from manipulating strobes.  And it’s not just light on the subject that works – light elsewhere can be important as well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALiterally, you paint your image with light.  Subject, background, shapes, key lighting – anything you want to highlight as a way of making a dramatic presentation.  And once I see something like this, I realize it’s the look I was searching for.  Now I know one way to reach this composition.  Maybe I’ll tackle bell peppers soon….

Too much time on your hands

Visited the Art Institute of Chicago this week and viewed an exhibit I’d not seen before.  It was an installation of miniature rooms that had been commissioned over the years.  The detail of these presentations was stunning and the story behind the craftspeople who created them was amazing.  Imagine building a faithful reproduction of a famous room (say Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, at scale of 1 inch = 1 foot.  Everything, from wooden furniture to floor textiles to wall coverings – all exactly reproduced to a tiny scale and with intricate detail, using materials similar to the ones in the original room.  These images don’t begin to do justice to the visual delight of these (reflections on the glass were a big problem) but I wanted to share some of them if only to encourage people to get there and view them in person.  Gaze into the rooms long enough and you expect people to come walking into them.  Stand in the right place and the perspective makes the scene like looking into a window of a house.  Simply amazing.  From a photographer’s view the lighting used in each one really enhances the sense of a full-sized building.  I would love to have the opportunity to remove the glass and photograph these directly.

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