LOCKDOWN IS ENDING, GRADUALLY, BUT I’M NOT SURE WHAT’S LEFT ON THE OTHER SIDE. I’m hoping there’s work – assignments, maybe some travel – but it’s still too early to know. I have a box of books and another of envelopes, ready to send out to art directors and photo editors, but I have no idea if they’re in their offices, or if they’ll ever return to them. This would be a great time to be anxious, but I’m not sure what that would accomplish.
And so I return to still life work – the great discovery and consolation of the past five months. With summer came flowers, the first real blooms, lush and vibrant. The poppy came from a plant that persists in the most inhospitable spot in our front yard. Most years it never blooms, but this year it gifted us with two brief, beautiful blossoms, one of which I sacrificed to the lights in my kitchen studio.
The peony came courtesy my colleague and neighbour Steve Stober, who gifted it to me just after I took delivery of a new set of lights – a pair of LumeCubes that I’d had my eye on for months. Shooting up close in the kitchen studio had made me long for very small point source lights I could modify and shape easily, so I took the plunge and invested in a kit that came with a bunch of tiny gels, diffusers, grids, snoots and barn doors.
And as usual, the flowers looked just as interesting after their blooms had dried out or died. At least to me.
Food and cooking remain a preoccupation as long as dining out in a restaurant is either inconvenient or a risk some people are unwilling to take, so our regular deliveries – products of a system that seems to have created itself and matured in what seemed like weeks – are a constant source of subject matter.
We were once worried about shortages. Now there’s sometimes so much that regrettable spoilage happens. No matter – more subjects for the kitchen studio.
With July came my birthday, and a bouquet of flowers from my wife. Like any flowers that come into the house, they end up in front of the camera at some point, either while fresh or (preferably) while their bloom begins to wane. A gift of birthday money from my in-laws turned into another new toy: my first real macro lens, a 7Artisans 60mm that provided a new luxury – being able to change framing without swapping out macro extension tubes, and the ability to come in really, really close.
This year has been full of surprises, most of them unexpected and unwelcome. I think most of us would agree on that. But when I put on my (mostly unused) optimist’s hat, I have to admit that it’s given me the opportunity to explore and refine still life work more than ever before in the nearly 35 years I’ve been taking pictures.
And since it would be a shame to waste the brief, fine summer weather, I went out into the back garden with my camera, backdrop and stands to find subjects among the flowers, veggies and weeds. 2020 has been a year that few of us will forget; I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that, when it ends, the round of musical chairs we’re playing with the economy will still have a place for me.
THIS SUNDAY IS WORLDWIDE PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPH DAY. It’s not an event I would have noticed or taken part in until this year, mostly because I didn’t even own a pinhole camera of any kind until about a month and a half ago. I didn’t go to school for photography, or even have any interest in taking photos until around the time I dropped out of college, so I never built a shoebox pinhole camera for fun or learned about basic optical theory – camera obscuras and near- and far-field diffraction – as part of a foundation course.
In the days of film, building a pinhole camera seemed like a lot of bother, and perhaps (shudder) a bit of math. Even when simple pinhole “lenses” (and yes, I know, a pinhole doesn’t have any glass in it so it’s not really a lens) became available for digital cameras I barely noticed. I suppose it was only in the last year or so, when my interest in getting something more (or, really, less) than a technically correct, “sharp” image returned again after twenty years, did I start shopping around for options to create “technically incorrect” photos.
Late last summer I saw a Facebook ad for a pinhole zoom “lens” on Kickstarter. Made by Thingyfy in China, it seemed novel and a bit more flexible than other pinholes – basically just body caps with holes – so I pledged my money and waited. And waited. It finally arrived after spending months in transit and just in time for the coronavirus lockdown. I sat and stared at it for a week or so and finally pressed it into service while shooting several still lifes in my ad hoc kitchen studio.
The raw images were a bit daunting – very, very soft and marked with many small concentric circles: marks from dust on either the UV filter you have to use with pinholes or on the camera’s image sensor. (I had been warned about this – nobody’s camera is perfectly dust-free, and with an aperture of roughly f165 the technical focus extends from infinity to the film plane.) After some work put into spotting the images in Photoshop – nothing I wasn’t used to doing with old scanned film negatives for years – I had to contend with the peculiar nature of pinhole images: While not technically out of focus, they’re nowhere near what you could call “sharp.” A friend and fellow photographer compared them to certain old, uncoated film lenses. But worse.
Now, the look of old, uncoated lenses is something that interests me, but a lot of work had to be done both during and after pressing the shutter to get these images close to what I had in my mind. The first thing that was obvious was that contrast – often harsh, close to blown-out contrast – was going to be my friend, as the lack of glass to focus light on any spectrum meant an extremely diffused image. I needed a way to get deep blacks to take hold somewhere in the frame, since they were the only thing that was going to give the illusion of detail.
It took three or four still life sessions to start producing frames like the one above – still holding detail in the middle of the tone spectrum, enough to create a sense of something sharp floating amidst all the ethereal softness native to the pinhole image. This also demanded a lot of work in Photoshop, using layers and the Unsharp mask to pull that detail out of the clouds and mud. I’d panicked a bit when I saw those first raw images, but after a couple of weeks of solid work – a gift that came with all the time and lack of distraction in lockdown – I began to find a formula that edged close to the peculiar “technically incorrect” goal that inspired all this effort.
This milestone reached, I decided to take my digital pinhole out into nature – the place where most pinhole photographers seem to use theirs, as bright daylight is pretty much the only place you might be able to take a shot at less than half a second exposure – perhaps even handheld if you push the ISO high enough. My original goal was Mount Pleasant, the city’s most picturesque cemetery within hiking distance of home. But complaints about violations of social distancing saw management padlock the gates, as well as those of Prospect Cemetery, conveniently right next to our house.
My fallback was Mount Hope, the midtown Catholic cemetery where my grandparents are buried, but that also got shut down, so I was obliged to return to High Park again, just a few months after I’d hiked it with my Holga plastic camera shooting an assignment for the Shacklands Camera Club. The park was also supposed to be closed to the public, but with 400 unfenced acres, that’s not really possible, and when I arrived there on a bright Saturday it was hardly empty, though the hikers, bikers and dog walkers were largely masked and responsibly apart from each other.
By this point I realized that hoping for shadow detail with the pinhole was mostly wishful thinking, especially when rich, black shadows were the only way to make sure you created any defining image detail at all. So I arrived at High Park (a 14km hike there and back from our house) with my tripod and camera prepared to look for striking silhouettes; another lesson you learn quickly with a pinhole is that composition matters more than ever.
I know the park pretty well; I’ve been going there since I was a child, and it’s a reliable source of inspiration. But even on this bright spring day most of the best images I got (apart from the one at the top of this post) were decidedly crepuscular; almost “day for night” in look, the afternoon sunlight transformed into moonlight, and surprisingly like the old storybook illustrations I’d been trying to take in the park for literally decades.
This was enormously satisfying. I’ve said for years that I’m basically a graphic artist hiding behind a photographer. (The sad part, of course, is that I’m actually a late 19th century graphic artist hiding behind a 1950s photographer. Try living with that identity crisis.) Finally, after several false starts when the sun and clouds refused to cooperate, I returned to a spot I’d noted on a hike a few weeks ago where I suspected there’d be a nice sunset.
So far the experiment with the pinhole – pushed along by an unexpected gift of time and motivation – has been pretty successful. I’m not sure if this “lens” will become a permanent fixture in my camera bag, but it certainly expanded the palette of potential pictures I might take in either personal or commercial situations. I still need to see how useful it is for portraits, and that’s an experiment that’s going to have to wait until “normal” – whatever that might be – returns.
PRETTY SURE MOST OF US DIDN’T SEE THIS COMING. By which I mean being voluntarily locked down at home, testing the technical limitations of telecommuting and the strength of the emotional tether connecting us to our loved ones. We had to cancel a family trip to NYC at the last minute and go to earth with everyone else. I am not, by temperament, a people person, so the emotional hardships have been marginal for me. The challenge, of course, is staying creatively occupied.
Which for me means still life photography. If I could have predicted self-quarantining lasting weeks, even months, I might have laid in a supply of subjects for the duration – a quick trip to a florist, or to the bone and taxidermy shop downtown. In any case, there was a vase of roses drying on a shelf in the kitchen – the Valentine’s Day bouquet for my wife, ready and waiting to become the focus of so much pent-up energy.
Before the social distancing got serious I managed a trip to the craft store for black foamcore and Home Depot for plywood and hinges. The foamcore was intended to build a selection of light baffles; since the kitchen table had to become my studio, I needed walls and bounce panels and modifiers to shape the rather broad light coming from my Westcott LED heads. I’d had an idea for an adjustable baffle for months, sketched on a desk notepad – time to build the thing.
With all my previous kitchen floral still life sessions, I’d been working up the complexity of my lighting – from natural light, to single soft sources to spotlighting with LED flashlights. At this point I’m treating each dried flower like a portrait subject, working to find that point where their best side meets the nicest light. In a portrait session that means manipulating light and shade and backdrops over a whole room; at home it’s a matter of moving panels on a tabletop a few inches, and shifting my light behind a thin slit cut into a board until it falls on the right bit.
I spread these shots over two separate sessions a week apart. At the end of the second session I ran upstairs to grab a new toy – a Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X that I ordered from Kickstarter last year and only received in the mail from China a couple of weeks before the lockdown hit. I fitted it to my Fuji X-T2, pulled the light in as close as possible to the rose I had on the table and calculated an exposure of about 30 seconds.
The results are … intriguing. Not what anyone would call sharp, but technically in focus, which is the peculiar quality of pinhole photography as I understand it. I never went to photo school, so I didn’t get to build a shoebox pinhole film camera in first year or any of those elementary exercises. Thirty-five years later I get to play with the most basic kind of camera of all, and I have all the time in the world to see where this leads.
THESE ARE THE SAME FLOWERS as the ones I was shooting two months ago, even drier and more sun-bleached. Valentine’s Day is coming up so I needed to clear out the vase for the next bouquet. It’s winter – I’d rather do this than shiver on some hiking trail by the bluffs or windswept street down by the harbour. And frankly a day will doubtless come when I’d rather do this than anything else. Stay tuned.
My tabletop studio was mostly built from old clothespins and about twenty-five bucks worth of foamcore and construction paper from Michael’s. That’s the dirty secret of still life work – unless your subject is a car you can do it for pennies. The light sources were also low budget – a pair of LED flashlights. Work is slow right now so I’m experimenting on a very modest scale; let’s see where this leads.
WINTER’S ARRIVED EARLY SO I’M NOT LEAVING THE HOUSE MUCH. Which is perfectly fine – as long as there’s a vase of flowers in whatever state of freshness I’ll have something to put in front of my camera. This particular mix of roses and carnations was left over from my wife’s birthday – sitting on a shelf in the sun, they were finally ready to become still life subjects.
This was also a chance to test out my new toy – a Kamlan 50mm f1.1 Mk.2 I’d bought on Kickstarter as a portrait lens. Fitted with my macro ring, it turned out to work very nicely for close-up shooting, though I never opened it up to its lowest f-stop and unleashed the “Bokeh monster” that Kamlan dubbed it for the campaign. I’m feeling inspired, but Valentine’s Day is nearly two months away, so it looks like I’ll need an excuse for more flowers.
I HATE WINTER. Which means that, from December to March, I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid leaving the house unless it’s strictly necessary. That means mining inspiration from my hermit-like existence, and that means still life work.
I am also a creature of habit. This year, like last year, I bought my wife roses for Valentine’s Day, and just like last year I asked if we could let them sit and dry out in their vase to provide me, once again, with a subject for some still life shooting.
A week or so after Valentine’s Day I decided to take my first shot at my wife’s roses, which had just started to dry out at the edges of their petals and drop their leaves, though the hearts of each flower retained some moisture and colour. I set up in the kitchen again, only this time I had new pieces of gear I didn’t have last year – a macro ring for my Fuji X-T2, a cable release and a lightweight travel tripod with a ball head.
Locked off and holding my breath, I was able to shoot at much lower ISO speeds than I had a year previous. It took a while to get used to the macro ring; the autofocus on the Fuji needed to be disabled to find the sweet spot on each flower, and I had to pace myself to let the camera and the flower stop moving after I composed and focused, breathing in and out before I triggered the cable release. As the afternoon light in the kitchen started to dim, I pulled out a pair of LED mag lights and used those as hard light sources.
Two weeks later, after the buds in the vase had dried out even further, I got back to work with a black backdrop instead of the white. By this point the pink roses had faded while the red ones had darkened considerably. I started earlier in the afternoon to use as much natural light as I could, which meant that by the time I probably should have pulled out the mag lights, I had been at it for a couple of hours and felt inspiration waning.
I know I’ll be at it again, same time next year no doubt, though earlier if my wife gets roses for her birthday. One day, God willing, I’ll be doing this work in the studio I long to build out back in the garage. It’s hard to describe how immensely satisfying shooting this work feels.
IT WAS THE LONG THIRD MONTH OF WINTER AND I WAS GROUNDED FROM TRAVELING and I needed a subject. My wife said it was about time to throw out the roses I’d given her for Valentine’s Day, which had dried up in their vase. I had a long afternoon with nothing else to do and the cold winter sun was coming through the kitchen window, so…
The buds were so dry that moving them from the big vase to the bud vase left petals all over the kitchen table. I could have set up my strobes or LED lights but I decided to just use the light from the kitchen windows. (Note to self: Use a tripod.) It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon; I’d be perfectly happy doing this sort of thing every day.