Homemade Studio Lighting

About a month ago, as Covid19 started to rear its ugly head around South Korea, it was clear that a lot of time would be spent at home. As a landscape/travel photographer, I have to say I wasn’t pleased. I was at a point where having to work a 9-5 was finally no longer a restriction.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote the issue “Take it Inside“. (Update, there are still no reported cases in my city.) For those of you who didn’t click the link to catch up, it lists the things that an outdoorsy photographer (myself) has done to continue to work his photography in the confines of his home office.

Task #1 was about reintroducing myself to product photography using the light box that my wife gave to me many many moons ago. That led to Task #2 which was building a lighting track spanning the entire width of my office and watching more videos on how to light products.

Watching these videos on how to use artificial light was truly inspiring. From the time I bought my first (and only flash) a Nikon Speedlight SB-800 shortly after my first digital camera- a Nikon D50- I could count on my fingers the number of times I actually used it.

Why drop $600 (at the time) on a flash that you’ll never use?

Well, when I got it, in 2006-ish I figured I needed one, and at the time, a person I looked up to had one, so I got one. After a couple of tries, the realization that working it was too complicated for my level, and the photos really didn’t look any better than the pop-up flash.

Instead of learning how to use it properly, I stopped using it

Fast forward to today. As I mentioned, watching some of these videos had inspired me and also taught me not to be so afraid of artificial light. In fact, he showed how much creativity one can have by controlling the light. That got me looking at actual studio lighting systems: strobes, soft boxes, clamps, stands, foam boards, gels, and backgrounds.

As is pretty much with everything I do, I usually look to get used items first to work with so that if for any reason, I want to move on and not pursue something, the cost is lower. If it’s something I enjoy then I will look at saving up and upgrading the equipment. (In hindsight, I think the SB-800 flash is one of the reasons I do this now.)

Trying to Find Used Studio Lighting in Korea is Difficult*

The first day I scoured the secondhand selling site there was a great deal on a set. The problem was having to travel 400km to go pick it up in one of the biggest covid19 infected areas. So that was a pass. Unfortunately, the only other posts that I’ve seen since have been from the same seller, and the prices aren’t nearly as good. I might as well get a new set. It’s not that I don’t have the money. If I was to make a few adjustments, it could be done fairly easily. I just don’t want to make that kind of investment just yet.

So, What to Do?

The next step if I can’t buy used and I don’t want to buy new is naturally:

“Let’s try to make something just to see if it works.”

The first thing on my list was a strip box. Now admittedly, strip boxes themselves are much cheaper than I thought they would be. The problem is that I don’t have a stand nor a strobe to put in them. So what could I do?

The answer: tissue box!

  1. I took a used tissue box and cut the top off.
  2. I traced the end of my flash onto the back and cut a hole.
  3. I then took a used parchment paper roll box (think aluminum foil box) and cut the lid off.
  4. I then cut that lid so that the pieces were a little longer than the length as the tissue box.
  5. I covered those pieces in aluminum foil.
  6. I lined the inside of the tissue box with aluminum foil.
  7. I put the pieces in the tissue box so that it was curved.
  8. Cut a hole through those pieces so the flash head should get through.
  9. Covered the top of the tissue box with parchment paper (or paper cooking foil as it’s called here).
  10. Voila!

I then realized that the paper cooking foil box which is skinnier and longer might be better, but that will be for another day.

Right from the start, I have to say, I was very happy with the results. I was practicing with a wine bottle that’s been in the house for a long time. Using a reflector hanging from my lighting track and hand holding the flash with the new strip box led to some really fun times.

I got the red coloured light from bouncing the flash off of a red pillow.

Next Up

While shopping I found an item at the grocery store. It was a make your own stew kit. The one where they give you all of the ingredients and you put it together at home. This one came with a beautiful thin aluminum bowl. Which got the motor running. I could use this as a reflector dish! We didn’t get it right away because we had to go somewhere else, but made a note to go back the next day to get one.

Next day, it was sold out. Back to the drawing board… Wait, what about the baking section? Surely they have pie dishes that might work. A trip to the picnic/baking section proved to do well. There were disposable cake pans which were deeper than the average pie pan. Then I saw these white plastic picnic bowls. Then that got me thinking of a honeycomb. I figured drinking straws would work. My biggest question was how was I going to join the straws together without using glue.

  1. I used 100 drinking straws (I probably could have and should have used more, but they were sold in packs of 50, and I didn’t want to buy 3).
  2. I cut the straws into fifths.
  3. I got some electrical tape and lined them perpendicular with the tape.
  4. I then rolled the tape with the straw pieces into a big honeycomb.
  5. I used some cardboard as a frame for the honeycomb.
  6. I traced the flash head on the white plastic bowl and cut.
  7. I realized after a couple of test fires, the white plastic was spreading too much light from the back.
  8. I then found and cut an old black-lined grey shipping plastic pouch and used the electrical tape to cover the back.

The whole process was around 8 hours including meals and breaks. Cutting the straws at the beginning was the time eating part, until I found a way to streamline the process.

The coloured straws were a bit of a worry, as I wasn’t sure that the colours would splash out with the light. After a couple of tests, I really couldn’t see much of a colour effect. Success!

Now that I had the lighting, I went to the local school/office supply store to pick up white and black foam board (the black was too glittery so I settled on 3 sheets of paper), Plexiglas to put on my table so I could get some reflection, and a large white sheet for a backdrop. (One piece of advice from the videos I watched was if a person was to get only 1 backdrop, make it white because if you shoot it at different distances from the light you can change the colour from white to grey to black, and it is also easier to cut out to import another layer).

After a not-so-quick trip to the flower market to get some props I came home and was able to get some shots that I’m extremely happy with.

Not only that, I’m also finding that I’m rather enjoying product photography much more than I could have ever imagined. Just like starting out in landscape, it becomes practise, practise, practise, but with this it’s also open to a lot more experimentation.

Keep learning and expanding!

Galleries and Exhibitions

In today’s digital age and the constant go, go, go lifestyle that has dominated urban living all around the world, it’s easy to forget to stop for a minute and take time for yourself.

As a photographer and an artist, a gallery or exhibition can easily become your amusement park, your wilderness, your library, your school all rolled into one.

As computer screens become bigger with higher resolution, it can very easily become your window to the world. For me as well. A few years I started to really start to study some of photography’s legends. I’d read blog posts about them, I’d watch old documentaries on YouTube about them. I’d look at their photographs all without leaving the comforts of my home office.

Something happened.

But before we get into that I should preface this with:

I love art galleries. I enjoy going to a gallery to see some of the master painters: Matisse, VanGogh, Dali, Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Delacroix just to name a few. I had, at the recommendation of my art history professor, to avoid going to the Louvre, and go to the Musée d’Orsay instead. I loved it. I was also there at a time that wasn’t over run with people. So when a Musée d’Orsay exhibition came to Seoul, it didn’t take much convincing to go.

Photography museums and exhibitions were not as accessible. So when I found that there would be an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, (the photographer I look up to the most) in Seoul, I knew I had to go, and the 3.5 hour drive to get to Seoul wasn’t going to be a factor at all.

FRANCE. Paris. Place de l’Europe. Saint Lazare station. 1932

This is where it happened… At the Dongdaemun Design Plaza… An epiphany of sorts. I had always respected and at times been in awe of the paintings that hung in a museum.

Edouard ManetLe déjeuner sur l’herbeen 1863huile sur toile H. 207,0 ; L. 265,0 cm.
@ avec cadre H. 243,5 ; L. 305 cm
musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
©photo musée d’Orsay / rmn

I still remember my jaw literally dropping when I saw  Édouard Manet’s – “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” hanging at Musée d’Orsay. We had studied it in class only weeks before I visited, so it was still fresh in my mind. I saw it in class both on the projection screen and in the textbook. Nothing prepared me for its sheer size of 5.4912 square metres.

The ability to just stand there with the photograph in front of me, no links or web browser tabs, just me and the photograph. It was a calming effect, but it also brought with it a desire to soak up the entire photograph. Not just look at it and walk to the next one. Or scroll down as would be the case in Instagram. The photos were no larger than the full screen that I could produce in my office on my desktop, in fact many of them were smaller. There was just a completely different feeling involved with a physical photograph.

It inspired me like nothing else. I left the exhibition a few hours later with my camera in tow and changed the in camera settings to shoot only in black and white. Before that exhibition, I wasn’t a fan of black and white photos at all. I needed colour. I’d almost go so far as to say I hated black and white photos, and I don’t hate much in this world. Strongly dislike, yes, but hate, no. It single handedly showed me the path to appreciating and enjoying black and white photography.

Exhibitions don’t have to be entirely a visit only excursion. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have my photographs included in a number of fabulous exhibitions all over South Korea as well as Japan.

Which will lead us to our next issue. Thanks for reading.

So What’s Your Point?

For those who know me well, know that I am a huge fan of Prince. Especially in high school and university, I couldn’t get enough. I’d listen to his music continuously, travelling in the car, on a plane, and studying. His music got me through exams, celebrations, and heart break. Back in the infancy of the Internet, I spent a lot of time in the computer lab at my university reading and posting on the bulletin boards about “TAFKAP” or O(+> on (if my memory serves me) “Gopherspace”. It would be very much like a sub on Reddit in today’s Internet landscape; minus the pictures.

What does this have to do with photography?

My interest in Prince led me to purchase the biography “Slave to the Rhythm”. It was finally a window into his secretive life.

Photography…remember?

Okay, okay. The book was published in 1997, which means I probably bought and read it that year. With all of the moving, I’m not sure what has happened to the book, and I read it only once.

But after 23 years, there is still a piece of it that still lives in my head. The very short version (all that I remember) looks like this:

He was at his club in Miami and a fan/patron approached him and said, “I really like your new album.”

Prince’s response: “What’s your point?” and walked away.

That hit me like a tonne of bricks. I started laughing, thinking, “What a Prince thing to say.” But as time wore on, I became conflicted.

I started to question my fandom to Prince, I became a little angry. Here’s a fan that bought Prince’s album and drinking at his club and this is how he treats him. What a donkey.

But then I started to think… “As an artist, at the end of the day, Prince is making his music for himself and really doesn’t care what outsiders think of his work.” Sure he still comes off as a donkey, and could have been a little nicer, but I had huge respect for a person who genuinely didn’t care what others thought of him.

Okay, so he’s an egotistical donkey. I’m still waiting for how this has anything to do with photography.

Well, I still think about it to this day, what he meant when he said “What’s your point?”

I’ll start this section by saying I’m guilty as much as the next person in this matter and that one of the reasons I’m writing this is to help myself to become better.

The third thing I came up with was: Maybe it was in an attempt to start a real dialect about his music. There are some parallels between photography and music: How many times have you heard a song on the radio or TV and said something on the lines of, “Oh, I like this song. Turn it up!” There’s a good chance it’s happened at least a couple of times. Why do you like it? What is it about that song that makes you feel that way? Is it the rhythm? The bass line? The change in key half way through? The tempo changes? The lyrics? If it’s the lyrics, what is it about the lyrics?

Now go look at your Instagram feed or Facebook timeline and scroll through the comments. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

What did you find?

  • Gorgeous
  • Stunning
  • Beautiful
  • Amazing
  • Nice shot
  • All of the above?

Don’t get me wrong, the fact that these people, many who you have never met in your lives, have taken the time in their day to type a reaction to one of your works is pretty remarkable. But with all due respect, what is their point?

Why do they think it’s “Stunning!”? Is it the colours? The texture? The expression on the boy’s face? Is it the deep thought that went into framing the photo the way it was? Or do you appreciate the effort it took for the photographer to get to the location that they did?

Let’s try to get some more dialogue into photography. Let’s try to give more meaning to the photograph. Open up, talk to the photographer. Ask questions, point out what specifically it is that you like about the photo. Don’t be afraid to say something on the lines of “I think there’s too much sky.”

Part of it is Instagram and Facebook, but it’s only a small part. They do make it easy to scroll through hundreds of photos and let you double tap a photo to show that you like it only to continue to scroll through hundreds more, completely forgetting about the photo you just “liked”.

More dialogue needs to start happening. As I said at the beginning, I’m just as guilty. I need to do a better job of saying why I like certain photos. After all, you don’t walk into the Musée d’Orsay, look at Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and say “Amazing” and then simply walk over to Jean-François Millet’s “Des glaneuses” and say “Stunning!” and walk away. You tend to stay for a while and study them.

Which will lead us into the next issue:

Galleries and Exhibitions