Light is the key to photography. And controlling that light to tell the story you want to tell is the key to making the images you want. For Bones of the Land I wanted to tell a story about something really small. Which meant I had to take the same lighting concepts that I use when I shoot big things like people and cars and angry bears, and apply them to something really small, like minerals. And that turned out to be way harder than I thought it would be.
For each diptych, the photo on white (like the one below) was shot by placing the rock sample on a piece of plexiglass suspended 2 inches above a white background and lighting from slightly above the plain of the plexi with one mono block firing into a 36x48 softbox. That created big soft even light across the whole sample and I could use the feathered edge of the light to control the slightly offset shadow and gradient that I wanted on the white below the rock. It took a little tinkering with each sample, but, all in all, pretty simple. (These photos were shot with a 70-200mm f/2.8L, mostly around f/20 handheld standing above the samples).
The second photo of each sample (like the one at the top of the page) was more difficult. Like, a lot more. And here's why: when I diagrammed my lighting concepts, it was based on the idea that I could put my light source anywhere in the hemisphere of space from the plain of the plexi up into open space. Which I could, but I forgot one thing: the camera. Which, as you may know, is kind of important. Critical, in fact. And shooting with a 5d MKII with a stacked 2x teleconverter, an extension tube, and a 16-35 f/2.8L or 70-200 f/2.8L on a ball head tripod perched over the sample, not small.
But regardless of the bulkiness of the camera setup, the real problem is all about apparent size. Apparent size? Okay. Say you're shooting a portrait of a person. You stand 10 feet away and even with the biggest, most ridiculous lens you can find, the camera blocks out only a tiny percentage of the hemisphere of space around that person. Its apparent size compared to the subject is relatively small. That leaves a huge range of options for where to place the light source. If your working with a large light source, you can even put the camera between the light and subject with minimal impact on the final image.
Next, try to photograph something from less than an inch away from the subject, and the camera now blocks out a massive portion of the hemisphere of available space. The exact same camera now has a huge apparent size. In fact, most of the angles from which you could light the subject are now eliminated because of the shadow cast by the camera and lens.
Still a little fuzzy on apparent size? Okay, here's an even simpler description. Hold your hand out at arms length. It takes up a tiny portion of your field of view, right? Now hold it one inch from tip of your nose. Now it takes up a huge part of your field of view. Same hand, different apparent size. Got it? Good.
This is a pretty basic photo concept (it applies to light sources too), but I'll be honest, the impact it would have on my lighting setup for this particular project didn't really occur to me until I looked at my first test shot for macro portion of the series. My work flow at that point went something like this: take photo > review photo > face palm > return to drawing board.
But after that trip back to the drawing board I came up with something that worked fairly well. I ended up putting the light source next the camera, very close at roughly a 90 degree angle to the lens axis, so that it could pitch light into the small gap between the end lens element and the sample. This would result in a fairly severe look for a portrait, but for the relatively flat surface of the samples it accentuated the texture of the surface. Then, by adding white reflectors on two sides very close to the sample (or perched on top of the larger samples, just outside the frame) I could lighten the stronger shadows cast by the very steep angle of the light. And there you go: directional light, controlled shadow, texture; all the stuff your looking for in a good macro image. All it took was a little trial and error.
**Don't forget to join us on Friday, January 17 from 4-6 pm in the Dexter Library on the Northland College campus for the opening reception of Bones of the Land. And stay tuned for more.