Thursday, June 20, 2019

A Recent 4 a.m. Photo and the MN Historical Society

Last month, I was photographing during the 4 a.m. hour in the fog at Historic Fort Snelling on the south edge of St. Paul:

As I photographed, a herd of 4 deer were walking around me. One let me get really close. So I made this following photo with a deer in it (and it was a wide 28mm lens, so the deer was close!). It looked at me for half the exposure, then walked a few steps and put its head down to eat:

It didn't "go viral," but it was posted a number of times in the week after that. Historic Fort Snelling shared it on Facebook:

As did The Fort Snelling Foundation...

... and, most excitingly, the Minnesota Historical Society!

The Minnesota Historical Society tweeted about it as well.

That was truly a magical morning out there as the fog rolled over me. Thanks Fort Snelling!

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Faculty Grant: Photographic Lighting

Back in November, I posted about a little grant I received from Hamline University (where I teach). I basically received nearly $600 for travel, lodging, film, and processing to work for a few days on different lighting set-ups and scenarios. The idea is that the light kits are underutilized at Hamline (as there's no official studio [might be coming soon!]), so if I were able to spend some time "out in the world" doing household and tabletop set ups, I could teach to that point better. This post is not EVERYTHING I shot on the trip, but it shows my workflow through the long weekend. It will be a bit "wordy" as I will explain some of these set-ups.

First, a bit about the cabin where I stayed (miles from my family responsibilities so I could concentrate on photography):

Deep in the trees, with a river right up to the back door.

In the kitchen, looking through the dining room and into the living room in the distance.
With a deck door on the far right, and a screened-in porch right-of-center.

From the opposite corner in the living room. That's the bedroom door to the right.

Looking out of the bathroom to the pine needle-laden skylights of the living room.

The tiny bedroom. I could touch the north and south walls at the same time.

The screened-in porch off the dining room. And yes, the river is THAT close.

I started with the basics: I wanted to visually define 1-4 point lighting. (1-point is 1 "key" light, 2-point is a key light and a fill [that's not as bright - I usually had mine at half power], 3-point is 2-point plus a hair/rim/back light, and 4-point is 3-point with a light on the background. As you get to 3 and 4-point, the scenarios might be slightly different.) I had set-ups with different colored backdrops and different lights. I moved the dining room table and used that space as my studio for the next 48 hours:

[Enlarge] 2-point on the left, 3-point on the right. Notice how my left shoulder and the
left side of my hair stands out much more from the background on the right.

I didn't have much space front-to-back, but if I had more, I'd put that rim light a bit farther back so I didn't get quite as much light on my cheek. I'd have it just hit the edge of my hair and shoulder to only "separate" me from the background and not actually "light" me any more. Here's a gif showing the 2 images overlaid to help illustrate the subtle (but important) difference:

I will save all variations for my lighting lecture in class, but I have 1 more set I'd like to show. Here's just 1 key light pointed at me with a (slightly wrinkled) white background, and that's followed by a shot that is still only 1 light, but I'm holding a reflector to bounce the light back and act as a fill:

[Click to enlarge] Only 1 light.

[Click to enlarge] Still only 1 light, but I'm holding a bounce just to the left to reflect light back.

Another gif showing the 2 images. Notice even the upper right on
the background lightens up because the bounce is bouncing light up that high!

Another wider version showing me holding the bounce.

In that last photo, I'm using a collapsible bounce disc, but even a piece of white form core would work. (I brought 3 pieces of foam core for flagging [blocking light] and bouncing.) And it's not quite at the same angle as the close-up photos, so I'm not quite being "filled" the same way.

Then I headed outside and played around with some close-up filters as it started to get dark on my first day:

[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge] A long exposure shot of spinning burning steel wool after dusk.

I have a running list of "stereotypical or cliche photos that every photographer HAS to make," and I made 2 on this trip. (I started that list for fun, and I mentioned it to my intermediate photography class a few years ago, and they would randomly come to class and say "Steve, I thought of another one!...") My first cliche photo every photographer has to make that I made on this trip is this last one of spinning burning steel wool. It's just a fun long exposure effect.

A few people who initially saw this photo asked about how it was done, and I actually created a video the first time I tried it. (I believe that photo above was the 2nd time I tried it.) If you want to know how it's done, prepare to be UNDER-whelmed by this video, because it's much more dramatic in the resulting still photo than it is in "real life" or a video:

Direct link: You can hear the shutter open around 0:32 and close around 1:04.

I changed around the dining room photo studio a bit after dark, and got to bed after 11 p.m. Then I got up at 3 a.m. in order to head out to make some work for my "4 a.m. series." I drove 30 miles into Taylors Falls, MN:

[Click to enlarge] The St. Croix River at 4:15 a.m.

[Click to enlarge] Under the Hwy 8 Bridge connecting MN and WI at 4:22 a.m.

[Click to enlarge] The waves crashing off the riverboat ramp at 4:40 a.m.
This was a 2 minute exposure, and that's the moon reflecting on the river.

A foggy drive back to the cabin as the sun started to come up.

Before leaving town, I drove around and picked some flowers / plants / bushes to use as subject matter for my next lighting experiment. I was back making photos in my makeshift studio by 7 a.m.:

A 3-point set up with the 3rd light on the back drop. (The model light is burnt out, but the strobe still fires.)

Using the close-up filters.

[Click to enlarge]

Experimenting with the +10 filter (LOOK AT THAT CONVEX CURVE ON THAT FILTER!).
I ended up liking the +2 and +4 a lot for what I was doing.

Part of the kitchen was taken over by my nature subjects.

I played around with white backdrop, and then some brown "craft paper" as a backdrop as well. I adjusted the lights to get the right value on that as I planned on making many of these images B&W:

[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge] Field horsetail.

[Click to enlarge] Chives.

[Click to enlarge] More playing outside with the close-up filters as a break between set-ups inside.

I had a 2nd "cliche photo" that I wanted to make. This was a self-portrait in/under water in a tub. The only problem was that the hot water heater was TINY and only heated about 2 gallons at a time. And the pump only filled a small tank (of cold water), and once that was drained, it only filled at a trickle. So it took 45 minutes of work to get the tub this full of COLD water:

Camera precariously over tub, with cable release hanging down.

2 bare flashbulbs bouncing off the white ceiling as just a nice soft light.

The strobe's power pack (basically an electrical transformer) was
set out of the bathroom WAY out of the way of possible splashes!

I added about 1/4 of a gallon of skim milk to make the water nicely opaque.

[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge]

The hardest part about this was standing up after taking a few shots to look at the camera while trying not to drip water all over it. Also, the tub was so tiny that I had to lay down and stick my legs straight up in the air under the tripod to get my head in the right position. Still glad I tried this.

[Click to enlarge] Another round of spinning burning steel wool between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m.

I went along the river to play with the burning steel wool on night #2. The sparks on the left landed in the deep water. The grassy reeds were flooded (as you can see fiery reflections in the foreground), so there was no fire danger. This night was the first time I could make it that far down there because it was totally covered with water when I got there the day before. I took a number of shots, and I didn't adjust my aperture, and I was pretty amazed at how much darker each subsequent shot was after just losing about another 90 seconds of daylight. I started re-adjusting my f-stop before each shot as I made my last few exposures of the night.

A late Facetime call with my boys before bed! Mama let them stay up late! This was after 10 p.m.

So it was another late night to bed, and another 3 a.m. alarm. Figuring in my normal "early rise" day (where I get up at 2:44 a.m.), I had 3 out of 4 mornings with an un-Godly early alarm. It took me a few days to get back to normal after that.

[Click to enlarge] Franconia Sculpture Park at 4:23 a.m.

[Click to enlarge] The St. Croix River from Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park around 4:55 a.m.

I usually make it a point to have a light source in my 4 a.m. images because otherwise it looks like just an overcast middle-of-the-afternoon shot. But the swirling water of the St. Croix made that last photo a little interesting, so I was OK breaking that rule. (I’m used to photographing around the Mississippi River here in the Twin Cities where there’s always street lights shining.)

Then it was back to the cabin. I had a new lighting set-up ready to go by 6:30 a.m. - a bonus of getting up so early to shoot is that you can get a lot done before you’d normally get out of bed. Here’s an unusual set-up:

That’s an LED light set up horizontally, with another acting as a key light and a bounce acting as a fill. If I set this translucent plexi directly on the LED, the individual LEDs would still show up as little highlights. But by raising it up (on top of 4 drinking glasses placed in the corners), it became a nice even glow from beneath. And then I spent the morning making all kinds of fruit photographs:

I had one more quick set-up I wanted to try. I have a ring flash that is just a series of "mirror tunnels" that slides over a normal detachable flash, so I wanted to experiment a little with that and it’s shadowless aspect. (The ring sits totally around the lens of the camera, so there’s light coming from every direction and no visible shadows.) I’d like to try this with a human model sometime, but on this trip, I did a little set-up out on the deck:

On the deck, with the river to the upper right, eventually shooting straight down.

[Click to enlarge]

After that, it started to drizzle. I quickly loaded the car with the “important" camera gear so it didn’t get wet:

And then I played a little more in the rain with the close-up filters:

I finished cleaning up the cabin and headed home.

I shot some medium format film with my Holga at the cabin as well. Part of the grant was to help clarify some issues with the Holga for a project in my advanced class. I still have 1 more roll to shoot (I was planning on doing that during the last morning, but it rained), so I'll shoot that, have it processed, make some scans, and be back with that in a few weeks.

I had a few notes going (and a binder full of inspiration) before and during the trip. I didn't get a photo of this, but I had these 4 pages constantly sitting out on the kitchen island in the cabin to keep jotting down ideas. Here they are back at home post-trip:

In the end, I shot 14 of my ideas successfully, was unsuccessful with 2 ideas, and didn't try 6 ideas (1 will still be done with the last roll of film, and the rest were more "extreme" ideas to try if I shot through my ideas really quick and needed more). Overall, I'm quite happy with the 48 hours I was able to spend with these different light kits and set-ups!

Big thanks to Hamline University for setting this money aside for adjunct professors to further their education in order to help their classes! Thanks!

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