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!

Why Am I Taking THIS Photo?

There’s an old saying that I like to believe:  Everything happens for a reason.  

I could go through the history of my life and there would be many times that I could use individual examples of points when, at the time, I asked myself, “Why did that happen?”  There are also a lot of other examples that happened, that seemed rather normal.  But when I look back at both, I say “Ahhhh, that happened to prepare me for this.” Or that’s what I like to believe.  It makes the bad memories a little easier to digest.

But for the longest time, I didn’t apply it to my photography.  But I have seen the light. (No pun intended.)

Reason.  

Even today, there are a lot of instances when I forget.  “What is the reason for this photo? Why did I take it?”

Reason.  It is the first and possibly the most important brick in your path.  In fact, as I have learned over the years, it should be within every brick in your path.  The reasons will change over time, just as everything changes.  In fact, the reasons may change not only from day to day but even from hour to hour or even minute to minute.  

I started out before digital cameras and my reasons were the same from day to day: to capture the places I had visited. With a limited budget for rolls of film and developing, I really had to pick and choose what I took photos of, at this point in my path, time of day had no influence on what I took photos of, but I had to choose wisely.  This scan of a film print of my trip to Florence, Italy in 1996 is the photo I credit to starting my photography path, is a perfect example of my first reason: to document the places I visited. 

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore : February 1996

Over time, the purchase of my first digital camera helped change my reasons.  With not having to pay for film and developing I was able to start taking photos because I thought something looked nice and/or colourful.  But that lead to something else.  I will call it “the vacuum”.  This was a time along my path when I was taking pictures just for the sake of taking pictures.  I would take the photo, and in many cases multiple photos for no other apparent reason other than to just use the camera.  Sure many of the photos were nice, but if you had asked me at the time why I took those photos.  I probably wouldn’t be able to give an answer.  Looking back at those photos I still wouldn’t be able to give an answer, and I even ask myself, “Why did I take a photo of that?”

Even today, I still catch myself asking why I did something.  The good thing is now, when I have to ask myself that question, I pull myself back and concentrate on the reason.  It reminds me of a time I was filming an episode for a TV programme.  We just got to the top of Namsan, a mountain in the downtown area of Seoul, South Korea at night.  The remains of the old city wall are still very well preserved, and there were square holes in the wall that the soldiers could shoot from to protect the city.  I crouched down and took a photo of the city through one of these holes.  The director asked me why I took that shot.  My answer was “I thought it might look cool.”  That’s when he turned off the camera and it was brought to my attention that, that couldn’t be a reason.  So I came up with a story: With South Korea being a world leader in televisions, I thought that the wall represented a TV and the hole was the screen and all the lights of Seoul below were the pixels of the screen.  Well, that didn’t go over very well either.  Do you know what?  The actual photos that I took were nothing close to the way I had hoped, and they were just plain bad. This experience is what finally made me realize once and for all that there has to be a reason for the photo and to the photo.  I took those photos thinking that they would look cool and they didn’t, because I had no real reason for taking those photos.  

Having a reason will lead you down the path of composition, f-stop, and shutter speed. 

There must be a reason.  This is true for all photos, and it does not matter the situation.  Are you taking the photo with the phone that you just hurriedly pulled out of your pocket so you can post it on Facebook or Twitter? I feel that if you would like to have a better photo you have to have a bigger reason than “Just to post it.”  I would guess that the resulting photo is either going to be blurry or unflattering.  Now if that’s the look you were going for, then, great.  But chances are you weren’t. 

You have to make a quick decision, 1. Do I enjoy the moment in its entirety?  or 2. Do I want to share this experience with my friends and followers?  

If you chose #2 and pulled out your camera, make it count.  Share the experience.  The experience that made you want to share it to begin with.  Don’t just press the button or shutter at the first possible moment your finger touches it.  Relax, wait, try and get that moment that made you say to yourself, “Wow, I wish ________ was here to see and experience this,” so that ________ will be able to see it and experience it.  Chances are that if it is one of those experiences that you wished others were there to share with, it will either happen again or continue.  

If it is one of those very short experiences,  (trust me when I say I’ve had my fair share)  I smile while nodding or shaking my head in disbelief or awe of what I witnessed and I am thankful that I was able to see it and experience it.  One such situation that happened to me a while ago, I was set up waiting for the sun to rise on the coast and I noticed something fly behind me, bigger than a seagull, but I wasn’t sure of what it was.  I didn’t see anything, but as I turned back around there was a large Eurasian Eagle Owl flying about 2-3 metres in front of me and my camera.  My knees got weak and I froze as its two bright orangey-yellow eyes stared at me as it flew by.  It wasn’t until 3 minutes later that I remembered I had the camera in front of me with the shutter release in my hands.  Had I tried getting those shots of it as it flew by, I will almost guarantee that those haunting eyes would never have had the lasting effect that they had.

If you hastily press the shutter and the photo doesn’t turn out they way you hoped or remembered it, in my experience, one of 2 things might happen, and both will sour your memory of it.  The first thing is spending too much time in post-processing trying to “save” the photo.  It becomes an obsession, and after hours and hours of work, it may still not turn out the way you want or remember it. It will only turn the memory into a bad experience because you spent too much time on the post processing that it went past fun, it became “work”.  

The second thing that might happen is that the photo is so unflattering that it warps the memory that you had of the experience.  You go back and look at the photo a few months or years later and think to yourself, “That’s not exactly how I remember it.” But because you have a photo of it that doesn’t lie, you could start to think, “Well, maybe it wasn’t that great after all.”  And since it has been proven that our memories of events aren’t as sharp when we are photographing them, it will fade into the background of your mind.  Which really would be a horrible thing, because the reality was that it was a spectacular experience.

Donghae, South Korea : 2012

As I mentioned earlier, your reasons can and will change over time and even from time to time.  You could be shooting a rainbow to show off its colours and size for your friend in Europe to see, and then shooting a tornado that suddenly appeared to send to the local news paper or TV station. Situations can change that quickly.  

The next time you have your camera in your hand, ask yourself first, “Why am I taking this photo?”  You might surprise yourself with your answer, and by asking this question it will allow for your first step towards more meaningful photos, and it might make choices on shutter speed or depth of field easier.

In this second photo, the reason for the shot was to capture the two boys playing together both as a memory for the two boys, but also as a history shot of when I was their age playing with my brother on the beach.  I wanted to show that no matter how much the world is changing, some things pass down from generation to generation, surrounded by the strength and stability of family and friends.  I wanted to show the movement of the water, the symbol of life as it flows and to give a sense of how quickly the boys were moving and playing to show how quickly people act throughout their lives, but surrounded by the stable rocks of the mother and father (the 2 larger rocks) and the true friends (the smaller rocks) as they stand true and strong throughout their lives to serve as protection from the outside elements, the rough water on the other side of the rocks as well as a holding the stormy skies at bay.  Because of these reasons, it allowed me to choose a slower shutter speed and get a lower point of view so that the the parental rocks appeared larger. For me, the reasons have changed over time.  As I’ve said before, each brick is different, and sometimes I go back to the first reason of wanting to document the places I’ve been.  

Now, about controlling the reason… 

Oh, wait… what’s that? What do you mean I can control the reason?  Well, now.  That changes everything… But we’ll save that for another time.