Introduction and first thoughts
When I read this brief, I immediately thought of Edward Weston’s wonderful abstract project of photographing vegetables which he started in 1929 – especially No. 30 taken in 1930. Looking at that pepper again, it is such a fascinating study in light and form, and immensely beautiful. Looking even closer at the shot we can see how the pepper doesn’t quite sit on the surface, almost as if it is laying down. Looking at the equally beautiful pepper No 35, we can see that it is laying on its side on a tin funnel (which I thought at first was some sort of metal plate – see below). What a great idea: the object could be wedged into the funnel, genius!
Reading through A History of Photography (Johnson et al., 2005, p494) they talk about pepper No. 30 and how it, “…wrestles against itself inside a tin funnel that Weston used as a backdrop; the tension captured in the natural form has been isolated and enhanced by Weston’s careful framing.” And I would add: by the lighting too.
Diprose and Robins talk about how important it is to: “…get the lighting for the still life absolutely right, and be aware that if you are using more than four lights from different directions, you will probably produce poor results with confusing shadows.” (Johnson et al., 2005, pp265-286)
It’s difficult to see if he (Weston) used more than one or two lights and/or reflectors, but I think we can see the subtle over head lighting he used and there seems to be some reflected/deflected light on the right of the pepper. With pepper No. 35 which is a much higher contrast image than No.30 there also seems to be similar light even if a little harsher (Heiting, Pitts and Adams, 2013, p109), and we can assume that he used a similar set up over the four-day shoot.
So, I wanted to pay homage to his work by also shooting some vegetables or fruit in a similar way.
- two adjustable torches
- two lamps (and extension cable) – tall floor lamp and table lamp
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 plus lenses (primes: 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 14-42mm zoom)
- burgundy bed sheet (table and backdrop cover)
- coffee table
- white/black books used as reflectors/deflectors (not too effective!)
- mirror (didn’t use, but you never know)
- yellow plastic photo album as filter for torches (a lucky find)
- frying pan (base for subject)
- a peach, courgette, red plum, a potato (as subjects – not as munchies)
Not knowing yet about the tin funnel he used when I took my shots, I used the bottom of a frying pan to create the metal base – I was hoping it would give me plenty of texture but not distract from the subject too much.
I (unsurprisingly for me) forgot to get some peppers, so I had to use what was available (creative improvisation/desperation – delete as appropriate). Not mentioned in the list above was the overhead ceiling light too, a really cold light that came in handy mostly for setting up and the very close macro shots.
The following shots were all taken at night (when the chores of daily life were done and the kids were in bed!).
Shot 1 – 1,6 sec, ISO 200, 50mm at F/1,8
I used a torch to light the background sheet and I like the purple hue on the frying pan. The issue here was trying not to get too much of that white torch-light on the right hand side of the peach (which I just about managed to do).
As can be seen from this high quality visual
showing the set up for this shot, we can see the position of the torch-light – or rather the direction, as well as the light from the ceiling light to the left.
Shot 2 – 1,0 sec, ISO 200, 50mm at F/2,0
With shot 2 I was trying to capture some detail on the potato’s surface. I had just washed it and though the wet skin would give me more texture and work better with the light.
Here we can see the two main sources of light – the overhead ceiling light to the left and the floor lamp to the right. I think there is a nice reflected light coming off the frying pan to light up the underneath of the potato.
With the camera in the same position, I then – as mention above – used the torch-light to slightly brighten the bottom of the potato by directing unto the frying pan under the potato but mindful to not get that light shining into or across the lens. I used the warmer floor lamp too to also try and emphasize the gnarled nature of that end of the potato.
I wanted to get a bit closer to the surface, so I turned the subject around and zoomed in for shot 3; Shot 4 seems to be too sexy for a potato. Can a potato even be sexy? Well, it is now.
I didn’t use the torch here for shot 3; just the ceiling light to the right of the image. This side lighting choice was made to hopefully bring out detail across the skin of the potato and give us a nice dark side too.
For shot 4 I just used the lamp shining from the right and the torch behind the yellow plastic photo album to put some light onto the bottom left hand part of the image which is beautifully represented in the painstakingly laborious sketch here.
I wasn’t too happy with the courgette shots: I just couldn’t get a nice shot of its texture/surface (as can be seen in the contact sheets below). So with these three shots I mounted the 35mm CCTV lens with a couple of extension rings to get a bit closer.
A bit too abstract for this exercise one could argue – although I won’t: I’m just fine with it.
For all of these courgette shots I used the cold overhead ceiling light (I have two in this room – one warm one cold) to flood the scene; I usually shoot macros with the flash but I wanted to try something different with these shots. Added to the overhead lighting I used the torch with the homemade yellow filter to fill in the darker parts and bring out the rich green.
As with the courgette shots above I stuck with the same set up of overhead lighting and torch work (as well as sticking with the 35mm); shot 8 was wide open (F/1,4) and the strong yellow light at the top of the image is thanks to the torch-light again (as well as the overhead ceiling light); for shot 9 I stopped down with the aperture to around F/8-F/10 to keep the details crisp (as the Fujian wide open tends to do crazy things); I used the torch quite flush to the peach to try to lengthen the shadows a touch and not blow out all the details as there was more than enough light here, I think.
Shot 10, Plum Universe – 0,6 sec, ISO 200, Fujian 35mm at F/1,4 and macro extension ring.
This is probably my favourite shot from the sequence; love the details and the vibrant colours. For once the 35mm wide open has managed to keep part of the plum crisp while warping the rest to elsewhere and places unknown (which is one of the reasons I like these CCTV lenses – you never really know what’s going to happen).
The lighting was challenging but fun; I used the warm ceiling light to the left and the smaller table lamp to the right (the cold ceiling light was off for this shot as was the tall floor lamp); I also used the torch-light here (the colder blue light at the centre of the plum) by bouncing it off of the frying pan – as it was too strong when directed straight at the subject.
My children reckon that this looks like a picture of the universe – which I never even noticed until they pointed it out!
Shot 11 – 1/6 sec, ISO 200, Olympus 50mm at F1,8
With shot 11 I used the torch with the makeshift filter as well as the table lamp to the right; I’d ditched the frying pan and scrunched up the backdrop sheet to add a little sunstance to the background. The warm yellow light to the bottom left is the effect I wanted – to try and remove the dark side of the peach… The Dark Side of The Peach! This shot clearly has a more abstract feel to it, and that was my intention (while still capturing the form).
These are some other shots that I think should go in here as they are a small study in different directions of light on the subject.
I think that side lighting definitely gives a more dramatic effect (shots 11-12) compared to the overhead light (shot 15) which appears ‘safer’ and ‘friendlier’ even. Can a peach seem friendly – just as a potato may appear sexy?
I was curious to see how some selected shots would look converted to black and white.
Shot 16, The Giant Peach – 1,6 sec, ISO 200, 50mm at F/4,0
Me and The Giant Peach! I love this seemingly oversized peach and I experimented here with the lighting (as can be seen from the contact sheets below) but really liked this one; the thin slither of torch-light to the left works for me. This last shot was heavily edited and possibly slightly too aggressively cropped, but that was because I wanted to create the illusion of a bulging, oversized peach trying to burst out of the confines of the frame.
Summary and conclusion
I had a lot of fun setting up a mini studio (if we can call it that) and it felt nice to almost know what I was doing for once – thanks to the research done for this part of the course on light – and I feel there are some decent results here.
Looking back to Ex. 4.2 and Ex. 4.3 where I had to observe light and its gorgeous variables during the day and at night respectively, I feel that this exercise was a very different use of light; being in control of or at least being able to intervene with the light within a frame adds a wonderfully personal and involving feeling to creating a photograph. The use of deflectors, filters, torches and lenses all adds to a very creative relationship with the subject (no, that potato is not that sexy!).
I have found this relationship extremely satisfying and rewarding in terms of the learning process and acquiring new skills, as much as the final pleasant and enjoyable results (also, nice to point out that this simple project was set up with very cheap gear too, not that I had a choice really).
One thing’s for sure: I’ll never look at light (or fruit ‘n’ veg) in quite the same way again.
PS We ate all these things (separately) the next day – I’m sure Mr Weston would have agreed!
Diprose, G. and Robins, J. (2012). Photography : the new basics. London: Thames & Hudson.
Johnson, W., Rice, M., Williams, C., Mulligan, T. and Wooters, D. (2005). A history of photography. Köln: Taschen.
Heiting, M., Pitts, T. and Adams, A. (2013). Edward Weston, 1886-1958. Koln: Taschen.
Contact sheets and Notebook pages
Some phone shots of the set up