In The Studio, I: Getting Started

Shooting in natural light is so easy. Of course, using natural light means waiting for the sun to be in just the correct position, which can be a pain. Naturally, I assumed having a studio space would make life easier—much easier. As it turns out, playing with light in a studio raises a whole other set of problems.

First, I had to learn studio language: continuous, strobe, snoot, gobo, temperature, barn doors, main light, highlight, etc. Some books explain the terms better than others, but just about all of them seem to assume one already knows a lot. Next, I had to deal with light temperature. Browsing studio light options, I discovered everything was reported in terms of Kelvins. After reading and feeling I had a handle on the temperature thing, I went shopping. This started out as fun; then I discovered every light source with an adjustable color temp cost a fortune. Since I was not sure how much effort I wanted to devote to photography, spending a lot of money on lighting gear was not an option. Concluding that I needed to just get started and learn from there, I bought two dimmable desktop 5500k lights with colored gels, a medium-sized softbox, and two round lights with changeable bulbs and stands. (This collection sounds costly, but actually was not that expensive.)  Next, I bought 2700K (late afternoon yellowish light) and 5000K (bright mid-day light) bulbs.

Lights in hand, I realized I had no idea when to use one instead of the others or the best way to position multiple lights. It didn’t help that most lighting guides assume one is making portraits, while I am interested in still life images. My first attempts with color using the digital camera were 70% okay. Some image components were great; others looked like a five-year-old did them. I stopped doing color.

So far, my focus has been on low-key images. An aperture of f8 to f11 works to achieve the look I want, as does a shutter speed of 1-1.5 stops below the meter recommended level. Here are a few shots where the light angle and exposure turned out as I had hoped.

With B&W images, brightness, not color temp, is important, so I have been experimenting mainly with B&W. Using B&W, I began to get the lighting angles and effects desired but then had to deal with backgrounds.

When shooting around the city or in the garden, the background is a given—it is what it is. In the studio, one has to make a choice. And the choice includes not only color and texture but also size. Since I had no intention of buying fancy backdrops, I took a two-pronged approach to them. First, I went through my lenses to determine which lenses would provide a desirable field of view based on camera position (there is limited space to place the camera in relation to the still life table). The lenses include Minolta MD 135mm 2.8, Minolta MD Zoom 28-85mm, and Minolta MD Zoom 75-150mm f4 manual lenses, along with the 100mm 2.8 macro, 70-210mm f4, 28-105mm (non-xi) autofocus lenses. A Yashica Mat TLR with close-up filters and the Pentax 645 with 200mm f4 Macro lens round out the gear. I bought the Pentax specifically for studio work. The manual Minolta lenses are my favorite manual lenses, so they were included in the trials. Having a maximum of about nine feet from the camera to the still life scene, I calculated the minimum background size. If anyone is wondering, the frame size is 24 inches wide, 20 inches tall, and 24 inches deep. So, a 24 x 36-inch background works fine.

Since all meters are calibrated to 18% grey, shots taken using a meter are exposed at a specific level. This means if the goal is a darker, more moody shot, exposure compensation is necessary. But how much EC is required? This question also required experimentation. Since I have continuous lighting, the brightest of which is about 250W equivalent, I usually do EC with a slightly faster shutter.

I still have a lot of experimenting to do. For example, using a flash will allow me to use higher shutter speeds to darken or blackout the background. In particular, I want to try off-camera flash. Fortunately, 90% of my Minolta gear was purchased in lots, so I have plenty of working flashes. And just as you might expect, flash photography with guide numbers, modes, sync rates, channels, and such are another rabbit hole for me to get lost in for a few months.  But while I’m researching flash setups, I’ll be trying more B&W with Ilford FP4 or maybe Pan F 50 and the Pentax 645. Plenty to look forward to!

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