It can be difficult to come up with an attractive way to shoot a figure like this. Satsuki isn’t exactly what you would call exciting or dynamic, but she does have the advantage of having an unusual backstory. That led to the idea for the main shoot, which was to put her up on a stage with a big election banner behind her. It didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped it would, as is often the case when I haven’t thought things through. This time, I didn’t adequately account for the glare coming off the background, and the wood panel serving as the backdrop doesn’t look that great, either.
When I photograph a figure, I often try to use at least two ideas. This lets me inject some variety into the post (albeit at the cost of consistency) and more importantly, it gives me a fallback option in case one idea doesn’t pan out. It also gives me the opportunity to do something unusual, unexpected, and in many cases, to learn to do something I’ve never tried before.
In Satsuki’s case, I was originally inspired by a picture that I saw in Joe McNally’s recent book Sketching Light. There’s four pictures on that page but the one that stood out to me is the one in the lower right corner, where a woman (yes, that’s a woman) is standing in what appears to be a small, delapidated room. As anyone who has seen my pictures can guess, I like scenes depicting desolation, atrophy, and ruin. (It’s not just me; Thom Hogan wrote a post pondering why photographers enjoy photographing decay.) I felt that Satsuki’s worried face – with her frown and furtive sideways glance – and such a scene would complement each other well. My major concern was that the disparity in tone between the election banner pictures and the dark, ruined room pictures might be jarring when combined in one post; however, for better or for worse, this website is a review website, and the presentation of photography takes a backseat in priority to the framework of the review.
I wasn’t sure how I would go about lighting the figure in a scale-size room; controlling falloff would be difficult, particularly if I wanted to use softer light than I could achieve with a snoot or grid. One obvious solution – though it took me a while to think of it – was to substitute a tunnel for the small room. This alternative also had the benefit of vaguely resembling a certain scene in the Gaspar NoÃ© film Irreversible (I showed a final picture to a friend and mentioned that I was thinking of that scene, and he said that was the first thing he thought of as well).
The best benefit of using a tunnel was that it was very easy to construct. It’s literally just a cardboard box; I blotted some yellow and black paint on the interior to simulate dirt and grime and spray-painted it with some yellow spray paint (bought for another idea that never got off the ground). The floor is a sheet of foamboard painted with some textured spray paint; I’ve used it for around a dozen figure reviews in the past year. The background is a sheet of black foamboard.
I did need to use a stack of DVDs and ero-manga to hold the whole thing up.
Anybody with an interest in photography knows that an inordinate amount of attention is paid to equipment. A quick survey of various gear forums, the Canon and Nikon Rumors sites, and DPReview will bring the observer into contact with some of the most deluded, hyperbolic, and reactionary camera-users on the internet, people who seemingly value megapixel counts and MTF scores over the content of images. It is no surprise that an opposing philosophy has thus developed, purporting that the photographer is the one who makes the picture and that the equipment used are merely tools. This doctrine is an attractive one, partly because it is largely correct but also, perhaps, because of the suggestion that a beginning photographer need not spend much money on equipment to get excellent results.
As appealing as this philosophy may be, that implication also makes it dangerous. It is pleasing, maybe, to imagine that images spring directly from the mind of the photographer straight into the memory card – but that isn’t how it works. Gear plays a role – a huge role – in the look of a photograph, and a photographer needs to know how to use one’s equipment to realize one’s intention. Furthermore, a photographer needs to know what capabilities one is missing due to a lack of equipment. It is right to dismiss the photography zeitgeist’s obsession with sharpness, microcontrast, megapixels (unless one really is printing that large), and even sensor sizes (to a certain degree). However, one should not avoid examining what one’s options are when it comes to designing a photograph, and equipment plays a vital role in making those options available.
If you follow photographic message boards, you will inevitably come across people who have just acquired their first DSLR (or other interchangeable lens camera) and are soliciting lens recommendations. If they say they are interested in taking portraits, invariably somebody will say that a telephoto lens – something in the range of 85mm to 135mm – is a “portrait lens” but for an APS-C camera, a 50mm lens is close enough.
This is not bad advice, generally speaking, but it ignores a crucial bit of information: namely, what kind of portraits is the photographer interested in taking? What if the photographer is interested in taking full-body portraits? Or what if the photographer wants to get into environmental portraiture? By simply ceding one’s choice of lens to the community, the photographer is making two mistakes: one, the photographer is admitting that he or she has no idea what sort of picture he or she wants to make, and two, the photographer is letting the gear dictate his or her creative options when it ought to be the photographer who makes those decisions.
When I thought of what kind of picture I wanted to take of Satsuki in a tunnel, I imagined the tunnel being dark, long, and narrow. I wanted the scene to be foreboding and ominous; I wanted a feeling of disquiet to suffuse every aspect of the picture.
Unfortunately, as I’ve recounted numerous times here, I don’t have a lot of available space and that precludes constructing a long tunnel. However, the set design gave me an opportunity to try out something that I’ve been wanting to try for a long time. I’d been interested in experimenting with perspective to alter the perception of depth in my images, but I didn’t have the equipment to do it. I typically only use two lenses: a 100mm macro lens, which typically compresses perspective in my photos and thus is not of much use in establishing depth, and a 35mm lens, which can exaggerate depth but doesn’t focus closely enough to be useful for that purpose unless the figure is a large one. I had planned on picking up some extension tubes but since I hadn’t yet come up with an idea that this technique would be useful for, it wasn’t a high priority for me.
A couple months back, I went looking through Amazon and found a set of 72mm close-up filters manufactured under the Vivitar name. Close-up filters reduce the minimum focusing distance of a lens at the cost of some optical degradation and the removal of infinity focusing capability. I’d actually experimented with close-up filters way back in the early days of this website; the first – and only – time I used them was to photograph Kotonoha, back when all I had was an 18-55mm kit lens and a 50mm f/1.8 prime. The results were terrible; I spent most of the evening after that shoot cleaning up chromatic aberration problems. However, the 72mm filters weren’t too expensive, and the lenses I planned to fit them on were better; I figured that if they were good, I’d save myself the expense of buying autofocus-compatible extension tubes, and if they weren’t good, I could still probably salvage the pictures in Lightroom and Photoshop.
Not only does my 35mm lens take a 72mm filter, my 15-85mm zoom lens also takes that filter size. This was serendipitous because that’s the only really wide angle option I’ve got. I used to use that zoom lens exclusively, but I haven’t used it much over the last year and a half, principally because I started subscribing to the ideology that primes are always better than zooms. However, it came in very handy here because of the specific look that I was trying to achieve. Here’s how focal length played a critical role in designing this image.
At 100mm – the focal length I most often use for photographing figures – you can’t even tell that Satsuki is in a tunnel. The background – a sheet of gray foamboard in this test shot – looms large. There’s nearly no sense of depth in this picture, and Satsuki doesn’t even fully fit into the frame.
At a focal length of 35mm, both sides of the tunnel barely appear. The gray foamboard background is still a very large element in the image.
At 24mm, the roof becomes visible, and the diagonal lines of the tunnel are more pronounced. The foamboard background looks smaller, even though Satsuki herself is not much smaller than she is in the previous picture.
At 15mm – the widest that my lens can zoom out – the tunnel appears to stretch towards the background and the sense of depth is much more evident. Note that Satsuki herself is about the same size as she was in the previous image, even though the appearance of the surrounding elements is vastly different, even ignoring the test lighting firing off on the backdrop.
Being used to prime lenses, I was concerned that image quality with the 15-85mm zoom would be less than what I’m used to. However, looking closely at the pictures, it doesn’t seem to have been an issue:
For a picture shot with a consumer-grade zoom wide open through a cheap, off-brand close-up filter with no output sharpening applied, I think that it looks pretty good.
The lighting setup is fairly simple; Satsuki is lit by one flash unit. It’s fitted with a LumiQuest Ultrasoft here, though I also used their little Mini Softbox. There’s not really enough space to control the light here, though I could have flagged off the edge with a long strip of black tape.
The background lights – the hard lights at the end of the tunnel – are generated by a few flashes piled up near the black foamboard background. The tunnel is offset from the background by an inch or so to allow that light to bleed into the image, giving a bright and eerie glow. These flashes are triggered via their optical slave sensors; there’s one other flash outside of the tunnel acting as a relay so that when the key light fires, it sends its own light pulse towards the background, and that pulse triggers the flashes placed at the end of the tunnel.
These images require quite a bit of tweaking in Lightroom. Quite a few people view post-processing as a chore, but I often find it relaxing, and I think I’ve gotten a decent handle on Lightroom now.
Here is one image from the set, before processing; I like how it looks but it needs a lot of work and one major fix. I want the corridor to be dark, so that means a big boost to contrast and a drop in the shadows value. To darken the tunnel, I applied a big vignette to the picture.
The other major change I made to the image was to jack up its color temperature. I wanted the photo to have a warm, oppressive feel, and I wanted the lighting to look unnatural, as if the tunnel were lit by sodium vapor lights. I took this a step further in the header image of this post by using Lightroom’s split-tone function to give the image a reddish hue.
The picture also required some distortion correction; her head is visibly stretched vertically. Lightroom’s lens correction tools makes fixing this problem a straightforward task.
This picture was shot with the camera tilted; I used to do this more often, back when I was completely clueless and thought that it was a good way to make my pictures look more exciting. I don’t do this as often now since I know better, but in keeping with the idea that these pictures should look unnatural, I decided to tilt the camera. The problem with camera tilt is that it looks like your subject is falling off of the planet; this is particularly true when the scene is otherwise tranquil. Another problem is that every beginning photographer’s guide suggests tilting the camera as a way of injecting artificial excitement into a picture (I think I got this suggestion from one of Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography books, which are very much beginner’s books). That means that everyone who starts dabbling in photography tilts their pictures at some point, even when it does nothing for the image. Here, I think it emphasizes the diagonal lines of the tunnel, so I’m comfortable with it.
The final image looks like this, which I’m pretty happy with.
This shoot was entirely experimental and I wasn’t sure what the results were going to look like. I can see a few areas that could be improved upon: one thing that I would change is the construction of the tunnel; I think it’s a bit large for a 1/8 scale figure like Satsuki, and I would prefer to have made it narrower, with a lower roof. I do have another 1/8 scale figure that I’d like to shoot with this set, and I’m interested in seeing what those modifications will look like. I also could’ve moved Satsuki forward an inch or two, and that would’ve given more depth to the picture.
On the plus side, the pictures turned out better than I had expected them to and I got some new ideas for shooting some other figures in my collection. I also gained a new respect for my 15-85mm lens, which should be useful for filling that big gap between the 35mm and 100mm focal lengths that I use. As an exercise, I subsequently photographed one of my bondage dolls with the lens and was very impressed with how well it rendered the subject. (I suppose I should mention that link is not safe for work.) I have to admit I’m now more than a bit interested in picking up an APS-C wide-angle zoom now, though the prudent thing to do would be to rent one first.