Tim Neumann and Lorie McQuirt


In this week’s Edison’s Lab article, we are going to spend some time studying what would seem to be a simple shoot, with minimal lighting being involved. The reality, however, is much different from that, the concept is simple enough, but the lighting is where most of the challenges are going to come into play.

Carefully setting the scene.

Carefully setting the scene.

Our scene will be easy enough, with a base layer of white, a background of black and some silverware strategically leaning between the two. The leaning silverware, when illuminated correctly, will provide shadows on the backdrop, meeting with shadows on the base layer, creating a nice triangle between the subject and its resulting shadows. The silverware drawer provided lots of options, but we ultimately selected forks as we felt the tines would provide the nicest and most complex shadows in the image. The angle of the forks, the placement of the light source and even the point of view of the camera are all going to come into play in the quality and impact of the final image.

Things You’ll Need:

  • Camera (as long as it does manual mode, you’re good to go)
  • Lens (we used a 100mm macro lens, but this can be replaced by any lens that gives you the field of view and resulting image that you like)
  • Off camera flash (we used a Canon 630 EX-RT Speedlite)
  • Diffuser (our speedlight (see above) had one built in)
  • Speedlite grid (we used a Honl Photo 1/8 Speed Grid, held in place by a Honl Photo Speed Strap)
  • Tigger for off camera flash (we used a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-R)
  • Light stand (we used a Manfrotto Combi-boom stand Black Aluminum)
  • Base layer (we used a sheet of white mat board)
  • Background layer (we used a piece of black foam board)
  • Forks (we used three (3) of them, simple and straight seems to be ideal)
  • Adhesive (something like Museum Wax, rubber cement, or double sided tape)

Scene Setup:

The scene setup is fairly straight forward. The base material, in our case a piece of white mat board, was laid down on our studio table and formed the bottom of the scene. The background for our shoot, a piece of black form core, forms the back wall of our scene and ultimately the surface upon which the tines of our forks will rest. One can foresee that the background will need to hold up against the weight of the forks and needs to be secured in some way that helps it to maintain its 90 degree position relative to the base layer. We were fortunate enough to have a foam core fork handy, so we used that attached to a light stand to provide the stability in the background we felt we needed. Now we know that not many people are going to have a foam core fork handy, so a simple stack of books will suffice. Basically anything that will keep your background in place and won’t be pushed over by the forks, as they are leaning there.

Once your base layer and background are in place, you are ready to place your silverware in the scene. As we did, you will quickly realize that placing the silverware at an angle sufficient to get the desired shadows, will lead to pieces of silverware constantly sliding down the background and clattering onto your base layer. Our solution involved some double sided adhesive on the ends of the handle of each fork. This adhesive was placed in such a way that it was not visible when the picture was being taken, but provided a mechanism to keep our forks from sliding out of position. One can imagine that products like Museum Wax, Rubber Cement and two sided carpet tape would all work appropriately. Just be sure that the adhesive will come cleanly off of any surfaces that you may attach it to.

We placed our forks at a roughly 40-45 degree angle leaning from the base layer to the background foam core. You can get the idea of the appropriate angle looking at some of the included setup images below. While the light source will provide most of the influence on the formation of the shadow, the angle of the forks will come into play as well. It’s important to place the forks at the same height relative to one another, as well as keeping matching angles and spacing between them. The more uniform the forks are in the setup, the better they are going to look in the final image. Attention to detail here is definitely going to pay off later, so be careful in how neat and orderly your silverware placement is.

All our forks in a line.

All our forks in a line.

One of the observations that we made, was that the resting angle of the fork controlled the length of the shadows, thrown off of the tines. If the angle was to steep, then we didn’t get very good shadows from the tines. Conversely if the angle was to shallow, then we got shadows that were to long. Ultimately what we were after was a shadow that dropped below the tines, morphed into the straight line of the handle, meeting the shadow on the base layer at the intersection of base layer and background layer.

Light Source:

Once you have your scene constructed, it is time to start thinking about the way you want to light it, so that you get both the shadows that you desire and the overall scene lighting needed to make the image a moody, black & white, fine art piece. We used a single speedlite to illuminate our scene, and we used a radio trigger to fire that light. Our solution involved a Canon 630 EX-RT flash and a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-R, to fire the unit. We set the flash to manual mode, so that we could use the radio trigger to change flash power as needed. In a scene like this, it’s not likely that TTL modes are going to give you the lighting look that you are after, so manual mode is the way to go. You don’t need to use a radio trigger, as such, but you do want to be able to get the flash off of the camera. Certainly a camera with a remote commander, an infrared trigger, a slaved flash, etc. will work, just get that light away from the lens.

Testing for exposure and light position.

Testing for exposure and light position.

As you can likely imagine, silverware can be a very specular subject, meaning that it can easily reflect hot points of light back at the camera. To mitigate this effect and realize an overall, more evenly lit picture, we used the built-in diffuser panel that our speedlight had available. On most speedlights, the diffuser panel is built in and sits neatly tucked in right above the flash tube portion of the speedlight head. With our flash, deploying the diffuser panel is as simple as catching a portion of the panel with a fingernail, sliding it out and then letting it drop in front of the flash tube. Voila, light nicely diffused from its original harshness, with a lot less direct reflections from the surface of the silverware. If your light source does not have a diffuser panel, simply tape some diffusion material to the front the light with some gaffer’s tape, or employ one of the many methods available for adding diffusion to your light.

As you can see from the final image, the forks ended up sitting in a cone of light or maybe more commonly put, a shaft of light. Basically, we wanted the lighting to have a dramatic look to it and to be focused mainly on lighting the backs of the forks (essentialy the area of the tines), so it was creating the proper shadows, while at the same time not spilling light everywhere else in the scene. Accomplishing this, required the use of a grid, in our case a Honl 1/8 Speedlite Grid. The Honl grids attaches effortlessly to the front of the speedlight by using a velcro Speed Strap that quickly wraps itself around the head of the flash. The grid itself attaches to the Speed Strap and is quickly providing tightly beamed and controlled light to exactly the area of the picture we want it to be in, and avoiding light spilling into places where we don’t want it.

Okay, now that we have all of our light modifiers in place, we need to start thinking through the placement of the light. This is where an additional challenge comes into play. Placing the light is a bit of a balancing act, both physically and physically (see what I did there…). We knew we were going to be adjusting the light quite a bit, so we decided to attach it to a Manfrotto Combi-boom Stand. This clever stand, serves as both a standard light stand, but with the push of a lever, it also turns itself into a pretty solid boom stand. Not the kind of stand that you would hang monolights on, but certainly it does a good job holding a speedlite or two, and it’s where we attached our light for this image. The boom stand allows us to get the light out directly over the scene and more specifically exactly over the tops of the forks as they lean up against the background. This is a key position for the light, as it drops the shadow directly below the tines and onto the background.

Our light placement is far from perfect, yet this might be a good time to start taking some test pictures to see how things are coming together. We set the ISO on our camera to 100, knowing that this would give us the best image quality, with the lowest amount of sensor noise. When we considered the fact that we would be adding our own light, we knew that we could make ISO 100 work, just be controlling the amount of light we added into the scene. If you look at our final image, you can see that we never intended to, nor did we, mix in anything in the way of ambient light. The final image was always about very controlled single source lighting, so the fact that ISO 100 was going to preclude any ambient light from registering in the exposure was perfectly fine.

We set our shutter speed at 1/200, knowing that this is the normal sync speed for the DSLR we were using for the shot. Of course we could have elected for a high speed sync, but the scene, the light and the final image we wanted didn’t call for it.

Lastly we set our aperture at f/8.0, knowing that this would give us decent depth of field and would help control any of the ambient light that was in the room from registering in the exposure. If you are familiar with flash, especially flash being used in manually exposed images, you know that aperture and flash power are where you are going to control the light that shows up in the images. Of course ISO can come into play as well, but really ISO is the place we look to, to control how ambient light is be captured, so that’s out of play for this imaage. We really like f/8.0 as an aperture, so all of our lighting decisions from here on out our going to be about changing flash power and / or changing flash placement. We started with our flash power set to 1/4, as we want enough light from the flash to register in the exposure, but not be so strong it bathes the entire scene in light. There is going to be a fine line between having too much light and not enough. Ultimately we want the tines of the forks illuminated and we want respectably dark shadows. At the same time, we don’t want to wash out the base layer in our scene (the white mat board), nor do we want to much light spill on the handles of the forks.

First test shot. Copyright 2017, Tim Neumann (ISO 100, 1/200 @ f/8.0 - Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100mm F2.8L IS USM)

First test shot. Copyright 2017, Tim Neumann (ISO 100, 1/200 @ f/8.0 – Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100mm F2.8L IS USM)

In our first test images, our shadow is not compelling enough, so clearly our 1/4 power setting is not going to cut it, we need more light. Not only do we need more light, but we have both distance and angle settings to adjust. Let’s take a look at distance first: We know that if a light is closer, it is a softer light and therefore we are going to get softer shadows. Conversely if the light is farther away, the light become harsher and accordingly so are the shadows. Looking at our first test image, tells us that we need more power from our flash, so that gets increased to 1/2 power and we also need to move the light further away from the forks to sharpen up the appearance of the shadow in the scene. Next let’s deal with the angle of the light, or more specifically the angle of the beam of light being emitted by the speedlite. Looking at the test picture tells us that the beam of light is pretty much vertical, meaning we painted the light into the scene straight up and down. We really need to turn the angle of the light more towards the background, so that we force the light more directly on the tines of the forks and at the same time we need to pull the light away from the background some so that we start the light lower down on the background.

At this point it’s really just a matter of adjusting light power, light angle, light height above the scene and the angle at which the light is hitting the scene. It will take some playing, but careful adjustments and test images after each change should eventually get you dialed in to the lighting effect and resulting image you are after. It didn’t take us too long to get the light the way we wanted it and in reality our only real adjustments to exposure, from our initial test settings, were in changes to light power (we went from 1/4 power to 1/2 power) and in subtle movements in the light’s position relative to the scene.

"Forks In The Road" Copyright 2017, Tim Neumann (ISO 100, 1/200 @ f/8.0 - Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100mm F2.8L IS USM)

“Forks In The Road” Copyright 2017, Tim Neumann (ISO 100, 1/200 @ f/8.0 – Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100mm F2.8L IS USM)

We hope you enjoyed this installment of Edison’s Lab…see you next week!