The View Up Here

Random scribblings about kites, photography, machining, and anything else

Hooked

Posted by Tom Benedict on 10/02/2015

I should’ve broadened my photographic horizons ages ago.

I’ve been in an artistic slump for the last three years. One bit of advice I got from fellow photographers was to step away from what I was doing and try something new. Portraiture, abstract, street, something. Just not whatever I was doing already. I chose to get into artificial lighting for portrait and product photography. Weird as it sounds coming from a landscape and aerial photographer, I love the idea of lighting a photograph myself rather than relying on the ambient light around me. Even more strange, I think this stemmed from a painter who’s known for his landscapes.

Years ago when I first dove into photography, my father urged me to study the works of artists other than photographers. He introduced me to the Dutch Masters and took me to the National Gallery in Washington DC to show me paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. I remember being blown away by the way Vermeer used what seemed like identical brush strokes to create velvets and satins in his portraits. Up close I couldn’t tell the two apart. But from a comfortable viewing distance one was clearly velvet and the other clearly satin. It blew my mind! (It also got me in trouble with more than one guard, standing eye-to-the-canvas with a Vermeer!)

But what really took my breath away were Rembrandt’s portraits. His light was phenomenal.

I had the opportunity to visit Rembrandt’s studio several years ago. I made a couple of photographs, including one in his portrait studio. I only had one lens with me, so I handheld a multi-shot panorama to go a little wider. But because of the crowd of visitors I didn’t get to go as wide as I would’ve liked. Still, it does a good job of illustrating his lighting setup. And that was really what I was trying to capture.

Rembrandt Studio

What’s not shown is the building outside the window. It’s taller than the window of Rembrandt’s studio, and faces south. More important, it’s painted white. This catches the sunlight and reflects it back toward the windows of the studio like a giant softbox. Inside the studio lie even more light modifiers: windows, window shades, and a white drape he could place to control the spread of light across his subject.

I would love to light a home studio the way Rembrandt lit his. Unfortunately my house doesn’t have good north-facing windows, and certainly doesn’t have buildings next door to diffuse the sunlight falling on them. So I’m stuck creating my own light.

One strobe and one umbrella are a start, but it’s not enough to give me the flexibility I’m after. The additional lighting equipment I ordered earlier in the year arrived, and I’ve been playing with it ever since. It’s helped out on a number of photo session at work and at home. I really only have one major stumbling block to overcome: I have no blank walls in my house to use as a background! I need a backdrop.

As I was shopping around for backdrop kits and muslins, I realized I have one more pressing need: a new camera bag. Right now I have two bags. The first is the one I do KAP with. It’s big enough to hold a single camera and lens, a charger, and a couple of filters. I cram everything else into The Other Bag. It’s an old Lowepro backpack Rydra and I used when we were using film. It’s a good solid bag, but it has one major drawback: it’s a backpack.

These days I find that whenever I go out to do photography, I’m already carrying something on my back. With KAP it’s my KAP bag. At work it’s my laptop bag. At home it’s more or less irrelevant, except that I have to have enough space in whatever bag I have to make everything fit, which is stretching it with the Lowepro backpack we have. I realized that what I really want is a shoulder bag.

I found a couple of bags, one of which is a perfect fit for my needs. But once I threw in the backdrop kit and muslins, the total came out way higher than my budget. Rather than compromise on gear I went on a house cleaning rampage and started listing stuff on Ebay. I had an old Yashica TLR with a jammed shutter, some 35mm gear, and a bunch of other non-photography stuff I realized I’d never use again. Selling off old gear is obviously not a sustainable way to support a habit… er… hobby like photography, but a thorough closet cleaning was long overdue, and cleaning out the garage earned me some brownie points with Rydra. Even better, I’ve already got enough for the backdrop kit and muslins, and should be able to get the new bag in the next couple of weeks.

In the process I’m learning that product photography is going to be a lot more fun once I have that backdrop! In order to create my listings on Ebay I’ve been improvising, using everything from bed sheets to place mats to butcher paper to create macro scoops for photographing all the stuff I’m trying to sell. But invariably I keep running up against some limitation in my setup – backdrop size, insufficient room for good camera-to-subject distance, etc. I spent an afternoon scoping out my house to find places I can set up and work without driving myself up the wall. I think I’ve finally got it sorted out. Even better, the muslin setup I’m planning to order should fit just fine.

The toughest part is waiting for Ebay to release the funds. For new sellers like me they hold onto all funds for three weeks before releasing them. It’s agony! But at least it’s agony with an end in sight.

Yeah, I really should’ve branched out a loooong time ago. >sigh<

– Tom

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