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!

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

Finding Those Instagrammable Spots

WARNING: This is not one of those kind of posts…

Instagram, in the beginning, was a curious thing. (When I say “in the beginning” I mean before its purchase by Facebook.) It was one of those things where, it was, to me, “Hey I can take photos with my phone and add these little presets to them.” Nothing more, nothing less. I really didn’t see the point of it all. After all, I was a landscape photographer and I preferred my camera and having no digital filters.

Then everything changed. A photographer by the name of Nick Laham was shooting portraits for the New York Yankees during spring training. He set up in the bathroom, apparently as there wasn’t much space anywhere else. After he finished his “pro” work he pulled out his phone and grabbed shots of the players using the Instagram app.

The photos went viral. Well as viral as they could in 2012. About a month later, Facebook bought Instagram.

Now deals of this kind of magnitude and dollar figure take time, so who knows how long the negotiations were. But one could easily get the idea that the popularity of these shots was the stepping stone to what Instagram has become.

It’s blown up to degrees that I don’t necessarily agree with. The idea of the “influencer” makes be cringe every time I have to see, hear, type, or say the word. With that being said, it is the world that we’ve made and everything that comes with it.

One of the side effects of Instagram is having to make almost everything photogenic (aka Instagrammable). Restaurants used to ban customers who were taking photos of their plates before eating in part because it was annoying the other customers as people would stand on their chairs to get the overhead angle. Some of those same restaurants have now changed their interiors, uniforms, and even chefs who have more artistic presentations to encourage the practice of photographing the meals.

Some restaurants here in Korea are now offering freebies for anyone who snaps a photo and shares it on Instagram, Facebook, Kakao Story, etc. with a list of hashtags. I got a free drink for these two. It also gave me the chance to test out the closed beta test of the new Photoshop Camera app that will be coming soon. (My favourite has actually been the food mode.)

This practice has spilt over into the landscape and travel photography field as well. Tourist locations are setting up Instagram-like frames for people to use as frames for their feeds. Bloggers and magazines alike are posting more and more “The Most Instagrammable Spots (Locations) in (enter city name here)

I get it. People want to be loved. They want to feel a sense of accomplishment. But what level of accomplishment is one actually getting from this? After all, hundreds if not thousands of people are literally lining up to take the exact same “Instagram” shot.

Case-in-point:

This was about 33% of the line-up waiting to take a picture with or in the “Instagram” frame. I didn’t even think about trying to get the whole line in one shot, I didn’t have a wide enough lens nor the software to stitch a panorama together.

From a strictly selfish standpoint, I love them. They herd all of the tourists and influencer-wanna-bes who don’t give a rat’s behind about the history or geography of a place, let alone respecting it enough not to vandalize or damage property because they think it would be a better photo into one place. So it opens up the rest of the area for me to search for other angles that haven’t been photographed yet or as much.

But photography should be about art and creativity. The “Photo Zone” or “Kodak Spot” was bad enough, but these things are sucking creativity out of people. It’s not just these spots, either. It’s Instagram as a whole. The person behind the Instagram account “Insta_repeat” is a genius. One of the things that I find amusing is how some people get so angry in the comments. Clearly (stealing a line from Digital Underground) “the image and the style” is similar if not exact, and there are thousands of them. Do a Google search for “Starfield Library COEX Seoul” or even better, do an Instagram search for “Starfield Library“. How many of the escalator in front of the rounded corner shots can you count? Right? Every time I see a new post with this or some online “magazine” with this shot I want to scream.

It’s a big place. Get around and look. The COEX account actually left me a comment.

But if you really, really, really, must have that escalator with the rounded corner, you can mix that up, too:

Or without the reading man:

The point is there is so much more going on in that space than the escalator. No one can reach the books higher than the 4th or 5th row from the floor anyway, that huge wall is all decoration… sorry.

How people expect to stand out by doing the same thing that many other people are doing blows my mind. It’s one thing to study and research a location before you go, but looking up what is “Instagrammable” and then going to do the same shot, it’s a hard “no” from me. Listing 5 to 10 places that you should go to for that “Instagrammable” shot will never come from me, and I hope that others at least cool down on it.

Everyone has different likes and experiences. What was good for me, may not be your cup-of-tea and vice-versa. But if you like a frame that I’ve published, I’ll be more than happy to tell you where it is or how to get there if you ask me. I’ve given out exact GPS co-ordinates to some of my favourite spots. But I’m not going to make a list, the searching for and finding it on your own is part of the adventure that makes photography so much fun and rewarding.

But hey, my main Instagram account is under 350 followers, I’m probably not one to be giving Instagram advice … but it does lead nicely into the next issue …

So What’s Your Point?