Podcast #197 : Ambient Light Product Shoot

Podcast #197 : Ambient Light Product Shoot

Just under a year ago, in Episode 151 of this Podcast, we looked at my Speedlite studio lighting, and I gave some tips on how I handle that gear etc. Today we’re going to take a look at a simple way to light products to shoot only with ambient light. There’s nothing really amazing or difficult about how I set these things up, and I’m sure there are lots of people with other ideas about the right way to do this sort of thing, but I personally find that most of the time this works for me, so I just thought I’d share my simple set up with you today.

So, here’s a photo of my simple ambient light studio setup.

Ambient Light Product Shoot Studio

Ambient Light Product Shoot Studio

Literally, this simple setup is, as you can probably see (above), my kitchen. As of June 2009 I do not have my own studio. If I did, it would be nice to have things set up all the time, or at least have a number of setups that I can rotate easily, but like most of us, this isn’t the case. I build makeshift studios in my kitchen for things like this, and I find that this works for most of what I have needed to do so far. Let’s talk through what we’re looking at here and the reasoning behind it. Firstly note that the main light source is a large double window that goes right down to the floor to the right of the frame in this shot. I have white lace curtains across this window that not only stops my neighbors from seeing my expensive camera equipment; it also creates a much more diffused soft light for this sort of work.

Actually, if we look at another image which is number 2017 (below) and image I shot of my 14mm F2.8 lens, we can see that if I shoot directly into this light, and pretty close to the lace curtains, you can actually see the pattern of the lace sometimes. This of course is not going to be a good thing if say you are shooting images that have to be a perfect and accurate representation of the object or product, say for a catalog. I find though that if I move far enough away from the curtains, the pattern is not recognizable in the resulting images, but I do get a nice defused light.

14mm F2.8 Lens Shot with lace curtains behind

14mm F2.8 Lens Shot with lace curtains behind

The next thing to note is that I am using a graduated paper backdrop as my background. This is a white to grey graduated paper from HCL, or Horiuchi Color. I’ll put a link to Horiuchi Color’s web site in the snow-notes, but I don’t know if their products are available outside of Japan, and they don’t have an English version of their Web site either from what I can tell. I have a number of these papers though, in various sizes. Many of these papers are actually waterproof, which is great, but they mark very easily with metal objects. If I put my camera down on them for example, the Really Right Stuff lens plate will leave a black mark on the paper. This is the same for pretty much anything metal, so these things aren’t going to last a lifetime. Once the marks start to take too much hiding or cleaning up in post processing, the only option really is to buy a new one. They do give a really nice smooth graduated background though, and I do like to use these, despite them being easily marked.

You’ll also see that I have taped the backdrop to the front of that table. This is with a non-reflective black tape, also from Horiuchi Color. I have a roll of black tape and a second roll of white tape that I keep handy whenever I’m shooting anything like this. It’s really strong tape, but doesn’t leave a mess when you peel it off. Also, because it’s totally non-reflective, you can use it in the frame, say behind an object to keep it in place, and it will not reflect your light-source around into visible areas of your image. In fact, looking at the image of the setup again, I just realized that the roll of tape is sitting on top of the cap for the tube that the backdrop is stored in, on top of the book I was photographing, to hold the page down. I’d chosen the shiny cap from the backdrop tube to rest the tape on, to actually add some reflection to the image I was shooting. I’d actually set up this backdrop and everything on the weekend to shoot tear-sheets from the book that we can see here, which is something that I did a number of assignments for in August 2008. I posted these tear-sheets on my blog too.

The backdrop is being held up by an Impact Telescopic Collapsible Reflector Holder. I rarely use this to hold a reflector mind, usually using it like this, to hold up a backdrop. I have it standing on a light-stand, which is one of the stands that I usually use my Speedlite with an umbrella on. I used to use a second tripod to hold this up before I got my light-stands.

To the left, you can see that I am bouncing a lot of light back into the scene with a very large, 41×74” oval reflector. This reflector is white on the side you can see here, but is a beautiful mix of gold and silver on the other side. I find silver too harsh, and gold too warm, but this mix of both is really nice in my opinion, making this a very versatile reflector. It’s made by Impact as well, and collapsible of course, but there are no instructions on how to collapse this reflector back down, and believe me, you need them. I had to go online and find a video of someone doing this before I could collapse it down. You have to hold the top side and bend it forwards while using a spare foot to kick the bottom edge upwards before this baby will fold up for you. It takes literally seconds now, but when I first got it, it was a lot of fun trying to figure this out. Of course, the reason I have the reflector is to reduce the harshness of the shadows to the left of the objects I was photographing. With the reflector, you still have shadows, but they’re much softer and very natural looking.

While I’d got the makeshift studio set up, I shot some images of some of the things that I use in photography for a future podcast, and wanted to look at one of these pictures to help me explain the benefits of using ambient light like this. The image is on the blog post, and will be on your iPod screen or iTunes now as well. You can see a flashlight here, and see how we can actually see the flashlight on. We see the brightness of the beam inside the glass element on the front of the flashlight, and we can see the light falling on the pale grey backdrop, as well as hitting the flashlight case. Think about this though. If I was using Speedlites or studio lights for this shoot, as powerful as this little LED LENSER flashlight is, I’d have had problems enabling you to see the light from it, because it would be drowned out by the light from the flashes. I could have balanced it out, and got something, but with my setup as it was, once I’d finished photographing my tear-sheets, I dropped the flashlight into position, turned it on, and shot away without even adjusting my exposure.

A LED LENSER P7 flashlight shot with this setup

A LED LENSER P7 flashlight shot with this setup

I should also note that I included my WhiBal white balance card in one of the first shots in this set up, so that I could set the white balance in all of my images from this shoot with a few clicks of the mouse. If you are actually shooting products for a catalog or something, then white balance becomes incredibly important, as you have to provide accurately colored images, or your client will not be happy.

The downside of shooting indoors with ambient light of course is that your exposures are going to need to be longer. I shot most of these shots at ISO 400 at F11 for 1/4 of a second. The small aperture was to make sure that I got everything sharp. Because of this long exposure though, you need to make sure that there is no movement in your subject. It was thirty degrees Celsius, or 86 degrees Fahrenheit in my kitchen when I was shooting this, but I had to turn the fan that I had to the left off, because the wind was blowing the pages around a little. I’d probably have turned it off even if I’d used Speedlites, but you do have to be more careful when using longer exposures.

The final thing that I want to add about this sort of setup, is that you have to be careful of the height at which you set up the backdrop. There are two reasons for this. The first, and most obvious is because you want to have your product positioned nicely somewhere on the gradation of the backdrop, if indeed you are using a graduated color paper. The other thing though, is that you also have to be conscious of where the reflection of the top of the paper falls. When I first set up the backdrop and started to put my camera in place, I quickly realized that the white line at the top of the graduated paper was reflecting in the glossy surface of the book. The image that we see here or on my blog post is not going to help to explain this, because there are reflections in the black pages, but this was when I was shooting just a part of the page with the credits on, and have that tape on the page etc. Note though that I shot this from a different angle, and not the angle that the main camera was looking at the scene from. It’s very easy to overlook reflections when actually shooting though, and some people don’t notice this until later when they view the images on the PC, so take care of the reflections while shooting, and reposition the backdrop as necessary before you get started.

I shot a new self portrait image in my kitchen the other weekend, also using the diffused light through the net curtains, and the reflector, as we’ve seen today, but with a totally black background, which I thought worked pretty well as well. It’s a bit embarrassing, but if you are interested in how the soft light and shadows helped to make me look a hell of a lot better than the real thing, take a look at that post on my blog as well. It’s called Lessons Learned from the Luxury of Self-Portrait.


Podcast show-notes:

The backdrop I used in this shoot is from Horiuchi Color, but I’m not sure these are available outside of Japan: http://www.horiuchi-color.co.jp

Here is the Blog post in which we take a look at the tear-sheets from a book that I did a lot of work for that is just back from the printers: https://martinbaileyphotography.com/2009/06/28/the-four-seasons-of-namiki-tearsheets/

Here’s the blog post with the self-portrait that I mentioned too: https://martinbaileyphotography.com/2009/06/24/lessons-learned-from-the-luxury-of-self-portrait/

Listen to me as the special guest question answerer on Scott Bourne’s great photography podcast and Web site, Photofocus here: http://photofocus.com/2009/06/25/photofocus-podcast-episode-7/

This episode is sponsored by WebSpy, the Internet Monitoring, Analysis & Reporting Specialists.

The music in this episode is from the PodShow Podsafe Music Network at http://music.podshow.com/


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Stable Posture in Low Light (Podcast 2)

Stable Posture in Low Light (Podcast 2)

Hello and welcome back! This is episode 2 of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast!

Thanks so much to everyone that contacted me via the contact form or forum on my website. Your kind comments are a great encouragement and very much appreciated. Looking at the statistics from my website I can see that as of today, the first episode was downloaded over 1000 times in this first week. That’s just amazing.

In my last podcast, I talked about a rule of thumb you can use to avoid camera shake. To briefly recap, if you use a shutter speed the same or faster than your lens’s focal length you should be able to handhold your camera without introducing camera shake. For example, if you are shooting at 100mm you should use a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second or faster. If you are shooting a digital SLR that does not have a full-size sensor, you will also need to increase the shutter speed due to the crop factor, which might be 1.3, 1.5, or 1.6 depending on your camera. So if say you are using a Canon EOS 20D as I was, you’d have to multiply the focal length of 100 by 1.6 to get 160. In this case, 1/160 second should be your slowest shutter speed.

What I want to talk about today is that this is just a guideline and if you are prepared to take some risk it is not a rule that you cannot break. If you take a few precautions you can reduce the risk and often get good results at slower shutter speeds.

The example photograph is this shot of a Great Tit, that I made in February 2005 in Hibiya Park here in Tokyo. It’s a simple photo of a Great Tit. I must state here that I am not just a bird photographer, I’ve ended up using two bird shots in a row to help make my point.

Great Tit
Great Tit

While you look up the photo, let’s look at reasons why you might want to break this rule when shooting while hand-holding your camera. The main reason and the reason I did it when shooting the Great Tit is that there was not enough ambient light available to get a faster shutter speed. Also, in the already reduced light, I wanted to zoom in as close to the subject as possible and therefore was using a 2X extender on my 100 to 400 mm F4.5 to 5.6 IS lens. By using an extender I lost two stops of aperture, and so was shooting at F11. Even if I’d not been using an extender with this lens, as the subject was only around 3 meters or 9 feet away, I’d have chosen a relatively small aperture on this occasion anyway, just to get enough depth of field to keep as much of the subject in focus as possible.

Of course, you could use a tripod if there’s not much ambient light. Although I do use a tripod extensively when shooting macro or landscape shots, when shooting animals I tend not to use one as they can be a little restricting. The main reason for this is because small animals tend to move around a lot and may simply run or fly away in the time it takes you to set up your tripod and you’d lose the shot.

Another reason I needed to take the risk of camera shake is that I did not have a flash with me, and even if I had, I’d have probably have taken the shot both with and without, as the background would have become very dark and possibly made the shot look a little unnatural had I used the flash to get a faster shutter speed and not just as fill-in flash. By the way, we’ll talk about fill-in flash in more detail in a future Podcast.

So, I’d decided to run the risk of camera shake so let’s talk about how to increase your chances of getting a shot you can use. Before I go on though, I must say that you do stand a good chance of failing to get anything you can use at all, so you should use these techniques with caution, and at your own risk. 🙂

The first thing I did was to set my camera’s ISO to 400. This gives me two stops faster shutter speed than if I had used ISO 100. Then I used a position that I do a lot when shooting.

I kneel with my right knee on the floor with my left leg bent to form a right angle in front of me, a bit like I was about to propose to someone. This way, you can rest the elbow of your left hand on your left knee and support your camera or lens with your left hand. This will allow you to act to a certain extent as a kind of human tripod.

I when calculating in the 2X extender, shooting at 680mm. This when including the crop factor of 1.6 for my 20D, is just over 1000mm. Therefore the shutter speed I should have used is 1000 or over. I had the image stabilizer turned on, which Canon claim will give you an extra two to three stops. Two stops slower shutter speed is 1/250 of a second. Three stops slower than 1000 would be 1/125 of a second. I actually took this shot at 1/50 of a second, which is more than four stops slower than recommended by the focal length as shutter speed rule. I took three shots in a row and two were unacceptably blurred, but the middle one was good. The one used here. This was made possible by using an IS lens and a steady shooting position.

Another thing you can do if available is lean against a tree or wall for additional stability. As I did here, shooting more than one shot in succession also gives you a better chance of getting something useable.

Even when I was shooting film I’d often take at least three shots in this kind of situation, but this does of course cost more in film and processing.

One other thing you can do is to use a monopod. A monopod takes no time to set up if you have a lever or trigger type quick release to adjust the height of the leg and does give a lot of additional stability, at the expense of just a little freedom of movement.


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The Music is copyright of William Cushman © 2005 – used with kind permission.


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