We’ve been having some really dreary weather in the UK recently, which has had the effect of encouraging me to make some studio still life images. For my last birthday, after suitable prompting, I received a studio backdrop system – basically some poles that make up a goalpost shape, adjustable in width and height, and two material backgrounds – one black and white.
It’s a fairly cheap set from China and I’m sure it wouldn’t last long at all if used in “professional” use. But the way I will use it is to leave it in place permanently in my spare bedroom / office / studio, and for still life use which doesn’t involve models walking on the material or potentially knocking over the support poles – I think it’s good enough for this purpose.
Prior to the purchase of the studio background, I had attempted to make do with dark cloth items draped over makeshift items such as a chair; but this restricted how wide and tall I could make the background and I was always having to keep the camera, subject, and background close together.
Using my new system, the backdrop can be something like 6 foot wide by 7 foot tall – which leaves absolutely loads of space around the edges of, say, a vase of flowers, to ensure that there is nothing but the backdrop showing up in the background.
The lighting for all of these shots was two anglepoise lamps, one was from B&Q costing about £5 and the other from Ikea costing about £14. The IKEA version has stronger controls on the position of the lamp, whereas the cheaper B&Q version sometimes needs the controls tightening so that the direction of the lamp is maintained.
In order to maintain the dark background, the subject and the lights should be as far away as possible from the backdrop, to minimise the amount of light falling on to the backdrop. In a small room at home, this can be difficult to achieve, and I may need to use the whole length of the room which means moving the pile of ironing out of the way ….
Even with angelpoise lamps which lack all of the directional modifiers that proper photo lights have – like barn doors or snoots – you can improvise with sheets of card, or even a magazine, to shape the light a little and further reduce the light falling on the background.
All of these shots were taken on a Mamiya RZ67, the mono images with Kodak TMax 100 film, developed in either Fotospeed FD10 or Rodinal (it doesn’t really matter which!) and the colour images with Kodak Portra 160, developed in the Roillei Digibase C41 kit.
With the Mamiya, my normal routine is to use a cable release and mirror lock-up. Pressing the main shutter button locks up the mirror, after which I have 60 seconds to use the cable release to fire the shutter. Once the mirror is up, I can then use one hand to hold a light modifier / cereal packet / magazine in between the light and the background, checking in the waist level viewfinder that the light modifier isn’t visible in the shot.
If I’m using two lights and need modifiers on both lights, I can make temporary modifications to the lamps by taping cardboard on one side as a cheapo “barn door”.
I find it a very meditative process to take my time adjusting the angle of the subject, camera, and lights, and trying to get it right before exposing a shot. In this way I’ve been able to get perhaps 6 useable images out of a roll (that’s ten 6*7cm images on the Mamiya).
One advantage of using a continuous-lighting source, as opposed to flash, is that I can immediately see the result of moving the lights around – which is particularly an advantage for a film photographer as I don’t have the luxury of shooting then immediately observing the result, which a digital user has.
Another aspect which helps to get the shot “right first time” (well, most of the time) is using a spot meter. I now use a Sekonic 758 spot meter which allows me to measure a very small portion of the subject, then set the exposure according to whether I want that portion to be mid-grey, or up to two stop either side of mid-grey). My “keeper rate” has definitely improved after making the investment in the spot-meter.
I’ve also changed the bulbs in the lamps. When purchased they had warm lights, with a colour temperature of about 3400k. I tracked down online some daylight-balanced bulbs, which have a colour temperature of 5600k. For colour film, this really helps to achieve a natural-looking colour-balance. It doesn’t really matter for black and white, and if Iwas shooting digital I could adjust the colour-balance in camera, or through processing the raw image.
Apart from the colour shots with the sack as a background, most of my still life images so far have been with black backgrounds. I’ve been able to get the backgrounds 90-95% as dark as I want them, with any further adjustment being made to the scanned images in Lightroom. I haven’t made many darkroom prints from these images yet, but the couple I did produced very deep blacks without needing extra burning-in.
I have found that using a white background, and keeping it white, is much more difficult with the equipment I have. In this case, instead of keeping the background as far away as possible from the lights and the subject, I need either to keep the subject close to the background, or employ additional lights aimed at the backdrop. This is something I need to do more work on – roll on more bad weather !