Monthly Archives: September 2012

Six great tools for photography

How many times have you been asked the question, “What kind of camera do you use?” Or, “Is that made with a prime lens?” I hear that all the time. Many of my students are always focused on the cameras and lenses. And sometimes, not much else.

While the image capture apparatus is certainly important, how you make the picture is even more so. And as a follow-on to that statement, the little regarded accessories often save the day.

While it is true that we need a variety of tools that may be specialized or single- purpose, I have several basic tools in my armamentarium I would not like to do without. Each one is very inexpensive, quite handy and readily available through most hardware stores.

Nikon D2Xs, 60 mm, F2.8 Micro Nikkor lens, electronic flash with softbox and reflector.

These six tools include “A” style spring clamps, ball bungees, blocks of wood cut to a variety of dimensions,  bungee cords of various lengths, carabiners with a rope loop, and spring-style wooden clothespins.

The “A” clamps will hold a lot of things like backgrounds, reflectors and flags and are useful for making tents from foam core boards.  Ball bungees tie up extension cords, secure lighting cables to overheads and booms and of course, to stretch tarps, silks and butterflies to frames. One photographer claims to mount his speedlights on furniture with them.

Blocks of wood in a variety of sizes make their home propping up or elevating objects in still life or table top arrangements. I have a large bucket of pre-cut pieces from 1/2 x 1 x 1 inch to 2 x 4 x 8 inch material.

In my outdoor photography of plants and flowers, bungee cords work well to pull back vegetation and other unwanted material from the subject area. These are also great for stretching as a clothes line to support fabric backgrounds and diffuser material. I also use them to make light stands behave in their closet.

Carabiners are exceptionally handy, spring closing, safety clamps originally designed for mountain climbing. But, small light weight “beeners”, when married to a short loop of rope, are handy for hanging set weights, corralling coils of extension cords and safely securing lighting fixtures when in use.

And of course, the wooden spring clothes pin has many magical uses. More commonly, close pins are used for clamping gels and sheets of diffusion material to barn doors of lighting fixtures. Called C-47s in the movie industry, it is thought they received this highly technical nomenclature because they were once located in Row C-Bin 47 in the lighting department’s grip storage.

So remember, when you admire nice photography there may be just a few dollars worth of these special tools holding a very expensive set together in front of the camera and lens.

© Copyright 2012 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.

Table-top macro background holder

Many times it becomes necessary to use a card or other two-dimensional material as a background or light modifier for small scale table top photography.

Mounting these materials has been a previous challenge. The use of “A” spring-type clamps, wooden blocks and other mounting schemes is only somewhat successful. As illustrated below, some of these devices may get in the way on the table top.

The solution that really works is an adjustable clamp that will hold a variety of cards, plate glass or other materials vertically and securely. These adjustable clamps are very simple and easy to construct out of common, low-cost materials.

In use, these clamps allow the easy, yet secure, positioning of light modifiers such as glass, scrims, flags, reflector boards, and background cards or prints. They also require little space on the table top so they don’t interfere with positioning of the subject or other props.

(All dimensions, inches.)
1 ea-  1/2 X 1 1/2 X 12 clear lumber
2 ea-  3/4 X 1 1/2 X 12 clear lumber
1 ea-  1/2 X 1 1/2 X 12 clear lumber
1 ea-  3/8 X 4 inch coarse thread (all thread) carriage bolt
1 ea-  3/8 coarse thread recessed Tee nut.

Assembly of the holder is straight forward. Measure and cut all wooden stock to size. Drill a hole through one piece of the 3/4 inch stock at its center and mount the Tee nut as shown below. Screw and glue the two larger pieces to the base as illustrated. Insert the carriage bolt into the side piece to secure the smaller clamping board. In use, simple finger pressure is sufficient. Position the bolt side of the assembly away from the camera on the table.

My specifications suggest 12 inch long materials. Background holders of other dimensions may be desired depending on the required use.

Sample table-top macro with a mounted color photographic print as a simple background.

Silk iris and bud. Nikon D2Xs, 200 mm F 4.0 Micro Nikkor. Two SB-800 Speedlight electronic flash with background, reflector and diffusers.

Copyright © Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.

Create shadowless macro backgrounds

In the world of studio photography, it is relatively easy to photograph a subject on white seamless paper and create a bright white background, virtually free from distracting shadows. In the world of close-up and macro photography that task is a little bit more difficult.

Unidentified June beetle (Phyllophaga sp.) photographed 1/2 life-size in the White Box setup.

The difficulty in the high magnification scenario is that we are usually very close to the subject with our lens and don’t have much room for a lot of lights. And too, we really need a lot of light for ample aperture and depth of field. To satisfy that requirement, we often select electronic flash as our light source.

That’s good and bad. The benefit is that it is bright, matches daylight in White Balance and is fast, so that it stops most subject motion. The downside is that it it is highly concentrated as a very small, contrasty light source. Most flash heads are only about 2.5 square inches. We know that soft light requires diffusion and large light sources.

The perfect solution for macro is to build a “White Box”. Building on the idea of a lighting tent, the white box is straightforward, economical cheap and quite portable. It also works well and is easy to make.

To make the White Box you need a sheet of white foam-core board, sometimes called foam project board at the craft stores. You also need a sharp knife, like an X-acto, a ruler straight edge and masking tape. That’s it!

To make the White Box cut two pieces of the foam-core 10 x 20 inches and two pieces 8 x 10 inches. Tape the two longer pieces and a single smaller piece together in an “H” arrangement for stability, as shown below. Then place the second small foam-core piece inside as the floor. A piece of tape across the top will keep the sides from spreading.

For a lighting source an electronic flash in a small softbox like a Lastolight EXYBox Speedlight is perfect. Place the softbox on top of the foam-core construction as shown below.  All done!

There are several softboxes available for electronic flash and they should work just fine. Perhaps however, you may need to adjust the dimensions of your construction accordingly.

Exposures are rather straight forward. I prefer Aperture Priority (or Aperture Value) shooting mode because I am concerned about producing enough depth of field for my subject. At high magnifications, close focusing distances and longer focal length lenses, depth of field drops to ridiculously small dimensions. Usually only a few millimeters.

I prefer to use a longer macro lens for this type of work, usually a 105 mm F2.8 Micro Nikkor, or 200 mm F 4.0 Micro Nikkor because of the longer working distances.

In addition, I need to be certain that my exposure renders white as white, rather than mid-tone. Modern cameras help here, but remember, the electronic meter always attempts to make the world mid-tone or 18 percent gray. So in some cases, exposure compensation in the plus direction may be required to expose correctly.

Fifty caliber civil war bullets found in our family garden in Vicksburg, MS.

In some cases, the all-white background may not be suitable for your subject. An easy solution is to have pre-cut pieces of paper ready to slip into the box as a darker background.

Eggs of Lacewing insect (family Chrysopidae) on cactus spine. Life size.

© 2012 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.