It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. That’s partly due to me not being satisfied with a lot of my photos, and it’s also because I’ve used a lot of the same techniques over and over and I didn’t think the shoots were interesting enough to write about. However, I used a new set for Tomo Asama and I figure that even a basic setup can be interesting to talk about. Here’s how I shot Tomo.
I had two ideas for photographing Tomo. The first idea basically involved the same set and lighting scheme that I’ve used for figures like Yagyu Gisen; it looks classy and is reminiscent of traditional Japanese interior styling, which seems appropriate for a character like Tomo. However, I’ve used this set a lot in the past and I’m sure I’m going to use it a lot in the future, and I don’t really like re-using the same exact set, particularly for shoots that take place within a few weeks of each other. Furthermore, the understated mood evoked by that background doesn’t really seem to fit the figure, being that Tomo looks sort of like she’s screaming in anguish.
The second idea was similar in pattern though much different in the mood it conveys. One of the things I liked about Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is the way that its style synthesizes that traditional Japanese look with sci-fi aspects. I’m a big fan of styles and settings that combine intergenerational elements. I’m also a big fan of ruined, dirty, and decrepit settings; I much prefer to shoot a figure in a rubbled, darkened streetscape than in front of a flower bed. In that vein, my second idea was to construct a backdrop with the same shoji-style pattern, but painted in a way to make it look like rusted metal. I thought that the juxtaposition between the Japanese theme and the industrial look would make for an appealing contrast.
The background is a big sheet of particle board with a bunch of wooden sticks glued to it. I’ve seen shoji screens use different proportions in their arrangement, and I’m not sure if the shape of the rectangles carries any particular significance. I figured I’d go with a typical 1:2 height to width arrangement, since it looked reasonable and simplified the length calculations.
Once I assembled the backdrop, I painted it with two shades of metallic spray paint. I wasn’t sure how to simulate rust; there are a ton of tutorials online regarding painting rust, but most of them apply to miniature-building, and I wasn’t too successful in trying to adapt those techniques. I even thought about ordering some rust powder, which some diorama builders have used with success, but in the end I simply dry-brushed some brown and orange paint in what I thought was a realistic manner, and I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out.
The floor presented a larger problem, though I didn’t think much about it at first. Originally I planned on using the concrete-colored floor that I’ve used for several other shoots, but after taking a few shots, it became apparent that it wasn’t going to work.
A big part of the problem is that Tomo is crouching down. I hate shooting figures that are crouching or sitting or lying down, in large part because that makes it nearly impossible to obscure the floor. My favorite mode of composition is the cowboy shot, where the subject is shot from mid-thigh on up. Most of the header images on this site – which are generally my favorite images from each shoot – use this type of framing, since it shows the important details of the figure while hiding the floor. That’s obviously impossible to do with Tomo; therefore, the floor has to look good.
I have this big piece of foamboard that I’ve painted in a mottled black and gray pattern. I’ve used it a whole bunch (most recently with Kuroko), but I’ve never used it as a floor. However, I was quite pleased with the way it turned out, and I wonder why I haven’t used it as a floor more often.
The lighting is provided by three lights set up in a fairly conventional configuration. There’s a key light, which is flagged to reduce spill on the background; an overhead light; and a rim light. First, the key light:
The key light is shooting through a LumiQuest Softbox III, pretty much my go-to modifier for photographing figures. It makes for a big, soft light, at least when the subject is figure-sized. It also helps a lot in getting some light into the face when a figure has big, overhanging hair like Tomo does. Note how little light spills onto the background; that’s due to the small flag (the fancy photographic term for an object that blocks light) attached to the softbox.
I don’t always use an overhead light, and there have been a lot of times where I did use an overhead light and really regretted it later (Alter’s summer holiday Nanoha figure is one such instance). Here, though, I knew I wanted to have a light above Tomo, to simulate the sort of noticeable overhead light you’d see in a factory or warehouse. I did tone down what I originally planned to do; I intended to go with something hard and harsh, the way I imagine industrial lighting looks, but I went with a softer light instead. This light is going through a LumiQuest Ultrasoft modifier, also one of my favorite modifiers. It functions as a hair light, separating the top of Tomo’s head from the dark background, and it also puts a highlight on each side of her butt, which is important for a figure like this. Besides that, it also places an appealing triangle of light on the background, revealing form and depth by casting shadows under the horizontal bars in the shoji-style pattern.
With a figure like this, a rim light seems appropriate, for at least three reasons. One, Tomo is posed (sort of) dynamically, and a hard rim light increases drama and contrast. Two, rim lights provide a sculptural look by outlining the form of what it hits – namely, in this case, Tomo’s ass. If I need to call attention to a figure’s rear, I’ll often use a rim light to highlight each side of the buttocks. The third reason is that Tomo’s wings need to be lit, and a rim light placed to light up her rear is also well-placed to light up the wings. The rim light also reveals her back leg, which is otherwise lost in the shadows. Most of the time, I use a grid or a snoot to constrain rim lights, but here I used a LumiQuest Mini Softbox. It was, if I remember right, the first light modifier that I purchased, and while I don’t use it much anymore, it does come in handy sometimes when I need a slightly softer light than a bare flash. Besides lighting up Tomo, it also puts a highlight on the floor, which I like; it gives a gradient effect on the floor, where the left side is brighter than the right side, and that offers a nice contrast to Tomo, who is lit from right to left.
The Camera Stuff
The photograph above was shot at a focal length of 29mm on an APS-C camera (46mm 35mm equivalent) at f/14. I wanted everything to be in focus, particularly the background, since I put a lot of work into painting it and I wanted the rust effect to be seen. The image that I actually used as the header for the review was shot wider, at 21mm (33mm 35mm equivalent). I like that picture better but I didn’t take setup shots for that specific photo, which is why I used a different one for this post. The focal length lets the background loom large without distorting Tomo’s body (though I did go for that effect in some of the other shots I took).
I placed Tomo low in the frame, which gives the background a more imposing presence. I placed the camera on the floor, shooting upwards towards Tomo’s face; this emphasizes the arch of her back and the tilt of her head. I like the framing, but it does have the drawback in that in its intended presentation format – which is to say, a web browser – she might not be completely visible and upon loading this website, the viewer might wonder why I took a big picture of a wall with a figure’s head poking up into the bottom of the frame. (This seems like a minor thing but I’ve ditched header photos before that I thought had too much space above the figure’s head for this very reason.)
I’m pretty pleased with the way the photo turned out. I think the dingy, angular gray and brown background contrasts well with Tomo’s bright colors and feminine shape. The main thing I’m not happy with is that it’s not obvious that the background was patterned after Japanese shoji screens; that was the main theme of the concept and it doesn’t show all that well. One thing I could have done differently was to select a different floor; perhaps a more traditionally-styled floor (such as the straw placemats I’ve used before) might have provided context while still preserving the industrial look I was going for. Ideas to store away for another time, perhaps.