Several weeks ago, when I had been loaned the incredible Sigma APO Macro 180mm (OS) lens for our review, I got to play around with close-up and macro photography. One of my creations was the photo shown above, Setting of the Second Sun, which may just have been an excuse to play with my son’s LEGO Star Wars figures. Close-up photography is, to me, almost zen-like. While it is a an art that requires precision, discipline and a lot of patience, you have absolute control over every aspect of the shot. The process behind a photograph like this is often misconstrued as something that is entirely thought up in the photographer’s mind and then with a quick setup, you have the shot. It’s not like that at all, it’s a process. Using this photograph as an example, I would like to take you through the process behind it’s creation. In the end, I hope that you will have a better understanding of building a similar shot, and I hope that you garner some wisdom from my process.
You have to start somewhere, so let’s start with a basic setup. I used a piece of foam core as my ground plane. It has a clean white, smooth and slightly shiny texture that works well with close-up photography. As a bonus, you can pick up a good sized sheet of it for less than $5 USD. I’m using quite a large piece because I am also going to use it as a background. So with the foam core as my base, placed one of the figures roughly into place for something to focus on (the focusing object). Then I find an ideal camera position that gives me the angle and composition that I want, and lock it down with the tripod. Here’s a quick tip: I do my rough framing so that my focusing object is at the lower left corner of the frame. This helps me to figure out in real space where the edge of the shot will be. Then I can use a different object to find out the opposite corner, and that will help me with my composition. The composition is a little bit of playing around, mostly trial and error. Just keep in mind the impact that things like depth of field, perspective or angle of view might have on the finished product.
At this point, I can dial in my depth of field. I know exactly how I want the shot to look, so I selected a depth of field that puts that back guy in a little bit of blur: f/5.6. The depth of field is an important part of the photo for me, but it does introduce a challenge when I start introducing lights. More on that later, let’s take a look at the setup before we actually turn on those lights you see in the setup shot above.
Now I’m not expecting this shot to look good. It’s really just a composition check. But it does illustrate some issues that we need to overcome. The only light in this shot is the ambient light. And it’s casting awful shadows. But that’s not a worry at all to me because I’m going to completely overpower it with my flashes.
Introducing the Lighting
My lighting setup for this shot is pretty simple. I am working entirely in manual (a must for a layered setup), so I’m already expecting some trial and error. To trigger my light sources, I am using my camera’s pop-up flash. When it’s operating in commander mode, the flash does a pre-flash to communicate with the other flashes so that they all trigger at the same time. But I’ve instructed the pop-up flash not to fire at all while the image is being recorded. This all happens incredibly fast, but the pop-up will not influence the shot.
When I’m working with a multi-light setup, I like to think in terms of layers. Let’s start by dialing in the key light, the primary light source for the shot. My key is going to be a LumoPro LP160 with a 40″ shoot-through umbrella that I’ve positioned a little above and right of the camera. It’s a huge light source for this setup, but it will completely overpower the ambient, and the results will be quite soft. Maybe like the first sun of Tatooine (a fictional planet from Star Wars, which has two suns, thus the title of the photo). While dialing in the key light, it’s a juggling act between the shutter speed of the camera and the power of the light. Typically, the aperture helps you to fine-tune the power of the light source while the shutter speed helps to control the ambient light. But this is a macro shot. Not only do I have a really tight depth between foreground and background, but I’ve completely killed the ambient light. This is handy, of course, because I’ve already decided to lock in my aperture at f/5.6. My shutter speed becomes the fine tuning mechanism. But I’m getting ahead of myself because I need to dial in the power as close as possible before I start tweaking the shutter speed. Because of the scale of the set, I am also able to pull the umbrella away from the subject to help fine tune as well (that 40″ umbrella dwarfs the tiny pieces). The result puts me in around 1/200 shutter speed with the key light at 1/4 and of course I haven’t touched the aperture. Clearly, the lighting is improved both in terms of quality and in terms of directionality. But I’m not done yet.
Now it’s time to introduce that second flash. The purpose of the second flash is not to provide any illumination for the subject, but I do want to introduce a night highlight and some back lighting. So if you refer to my setup shot above, you’ll see that I have it back and left of the figures. The actual location is actually a little more to the left so the source is out of frame. Since the light source is basically aimed towards the camera, this light is going to be very sensitive. Case and point, my initial test shot, with the flash set for 1/8th power, completely overpowers the shot. Dropping it down to 1/32 power seems to a much more manageable range. And I say manageable because I”m not done with my light sources. The shot still lacks the interest that I want.
I like white light and it has its purposes. It’s great for portraits. But for this shot, it isn’t enough. That’s where the gels come in. If your’e not familiar with them, they are simply strips of colored plastic that you slide over the flash to change the color of the light. I tried a blue gel over the rear flash to get the shot at right. It’s a start, but not exactly what I want; I wanted something deeper. So I put a darker blue gel on the back flash. Of course with the blue gel, the scene has a very cold cast. So to warm it up, I also added a CT Orange gel to the key light. It warms up the foreground and makes those orange helmets really pop.
Gels eat light, so I needed to bump up the power a little bit. For the key, it was a matter of moving the umbrella closer to the subject by about a foot. For the rear light, I pulled it up to 1/16th power, but that was a bit too much. To balance it out, I pulled the light away. Bonus, it was then that I realized that a part of the flash itself was actually visible. Not a problem anymore.
Post processing for me is about refinement. I got as close as I could to my vision in-camera. But there were still a few areas where I thought I could improve. Contrast and clarity both got a boost overall. I also boosted the highlights to improve the separation. Finally, I used the graduated filter in Lightroom to fade out the contrast and clarity to the left of our figures. This helps to soften that left side so that the texture of the foam core is much more subtle. The finished product, of course, is the large photo at the top of this article.
Now I was taking all these stage shots in preparation for an article, which is why I took notes at each stage. Minus the notes you probably build a shot in much the same way. The difference is that when you’re done, you probably deleted all those interim photographs. You may have lost your opportunity to learn from your own works. The next time you do a setup, save those shots and take notes along the way. Save this information to compare to other setups and shots. In doing so, you’ll find points in your process or your setups where you might be able to streamline or improve.