Lights, Camera … Subject?

I bought a photography table tent a few weeks ago and a pair of tabletop LED lights to use with it. The lights were very inexpensive so I didn’t expect very much from them, but they produce quite a bit of light and are small and easy to use. The lights came with blue and yellow plastic filters that fit over the light, but let’s face it, I’m never satisfied with just two colors of art supplies! Are you?

So immediately I went looking online to see what else I could find — never mind the fact that I have no immediate use for these things. The filter gels, which is what they’re called, averaged about $12 for a sheet, but my lights are very small and I don’t have a need for a large square filter. I found a Roscolux sample book and ordered that. If I could cut out one of the samples and fit it over my lights, that would be great, but if not then at least I would have actual samples of the gel colors. Then, if I want to buy larger sheets later on, I’ll know what colors to order.

I’ve done traditional photography and darkroom work, so filters are nothing new to me. I still have a collection of Cokin and Tiffin filters that I use occasionally (hey, not everything has to be Photoshop!) but they won’t fit my new lights without being cut down and I don’t want to ruin them. So, here are some photos of my lighting adventure.

Here is the LED lamp. There is a gap between the white bulb and the black lamp housing, which is a bit difficult to see in this photo. The bulb I want to cover with the filter is just over an inch and a half wide. You can see the blue and yellow plastic filters that came with the lamps in the background, and that black ring top right (also shown below) is what screws over the lamp to hold the filters in place.

And this is a close-up of the ring for the housing. I really only need to cover the opening with any new filter or gel that I use, although the lamp housing will accommodate something up to about 2 inches.

Here’s the yellow plastic filter that came with the lamps. It measures about 2 inches across so it’s wider than the opening in the housing ring. I cut one of the Roscolux samples out of the book (actually not the whole piece, but about three-quarters of it) and placed it over the yellow plastic filter to compare sizes. I marked where the gel was too large and cut off the corners (not shown) so it would fit the lamp housing.

Well, it’s close! The red Roscolux sample gel is narrower than the yellow plastic filter, and here’s what it looks like when the lamp housing is assembled with the gel in place. Although the red gel doesn’t entirely fill the space inside the ring, crucially, all of the LEDs are covered. When I tried the lamp, it worked wonders. The white photography tent lit up like some demonic Halloween world, blood red and spooky and very, very bright. And that was with only one colored lamp!

So, it’s possible for me to use my samples for some actual photography, although I’ll need a second sample book to cover both lamps. If I buy larger photo lights I will need to purchase entire gel sheets, but for now, this is fine for experiments. I have my lights, and my camera. But now, I just need a good subject …

Crocus in the Rain

Crocus after a rainstorm. Focal length: 75 mm at f-16.

Crocus are wonderful little flowers, and are always the first flowers to bloom in our yard in the spring. A couple of years ago I bought a bargain bag of 100 assorted crocus bulbs and planted them along my sidewalk and in a small garden next to the house. These crocus are from that bargain bag.

The difficulty with photographing crocus flowers is that they are very short. It’s relatively easy to stand and shoot down at them, and the overhead view is good for showing the internal structures of the flower, but I think that the overhead shots aren’t always very artistic, even when the details of the flower are crisp and clear.

This year spring has been very fickle. Today we’ve had snow, sun, and more snow flurries — and it’s April already. I would have run outside to photograph the crocus in the snow, except that the little flowers have come and gone already. A couple of days of very warm weather followed by freezing temperatures did them all in. Crocus don’t last very long anyways, but this year they were out only about a week. This photo is from Thursday a couple of weeks ago. It had rained most of the day and was fairly chilly, so the crocus didn’t even bother to open up that day (they need both sun and warm weather to open).

I haven’t done a lot of work with flash photography, but the instant feedback of the digital camera and its built-in flash make it very easy to experiment with different exposures and f-stops. I took some photos without the flash, but had to use a longer exposure time to compensate for the overcast weather. Because I was hand-holding the camera, those images weren’t as sharp as I wanted, or else I had to open up the aperture to get the speed fast enough to get a sharp image. Bad combination: not enough detail or too dark or fuzzy. But I was too lazy to go inside for the tripod, and even with the tripod getting down low enough for the crocus is a problem.

Using the flash allowed me to crouch down close to the flower and hand-hold the camera, keep a good depth-of-field (f/16) to get maximum detail on the crocuses, and get a sharp image. My first shot was a bit overexposed (too much flash), so I adjusted settings to get approximately 1/3 power from the flash. This gave me the best exposure: the raindrops glisten and are crystal sharp, the color on the flowers and surrounding grass are correct, and there is enough visual texture in the photo to get a really good feel for what the little crocus look like.


orange beetles

These two orange beetles were so brightly colored that Ben had to take their picture. I have not had the time to look up what kind of beetles they are. (Note: I later identified these beetles as Pennsylvania leatherwings.

The beetles are lit by diffuse sidelighting, which helps define the detail on their bodies. It may not be obvious in these small photos on the blog, but hairs on the insects’ bodies are sharply defined, as are drops of dew on their heads. The camera’s aperture was set fairly large in order to get a short depth-of-field, which is why the white flower becomes cloud-like. The beetles had their photo taken with a Nikon D70, and no digital retouching has been done at all on the photo.

Look for a larger version of this photo to appear on the Tangent Graphics website shortly.

Pink Water Lily Close-up

Pink Lily Close-up

This close-up image of a pink water lily came about more or less by accident, rather than direct intent. We had gone out to a public garden to photograph water lilies, but there were a lot of leaves and other debris floating on the surface of the water. Faded blossoms from other plants, as well as torn and pockmarked lily pads, didn’t exactly help promote the site, either. While the garden would have been okay for a snapshot, trying to find a subject suitable for fine-art photography in this mess was a bit of a problem.

Since there was no “landscape” as such to photograph, and the water garden area wasn’t clean, I abandoned the idea of getting an entire flower in the frame. Sometimes leaves and twigs can add to an image, but there just wasn’t much of a subject here. I decided to try and get some close-ups of the flowers and to direct my energies to the details of the flowers, rather than the whole flower.

This image has a slightly soft focus, which some photographers might not like. I don’t remember the aperture settings, but this was likely shot with Velvia film which has a film speed of 50. Velvia is a nice film for plants and renders wonderful greens, but it is slow enough that you will need a tripod. I probably ended up with the soft focus because I got lazy about carrying around a 10-pound tripod and tried to hand-hold the camera. It didn’t help that much of the water garden was in partial shade, so a longer exposure was necessary.

Technicalities aside, I’m pleased with the final image. I like the asymmetrical shape that is formed by having the center of the flower at the left side of the image, while the petals reach up to the right edge of the photo. This creates a more dynamic image than if I had centered the flower in the frame. What do you think?

Edit: June 16, 2009: This image is available for sale on my FineArt America page. Click on the ad below to go to the site.
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