How many lights in this shot?

One of the best places to find models is Akihabara. No. Not those girls. They have enough creepy dudes taking pictures of them. When I am experimenting with new ideas, I’ll often turn to my box of cheap used toys that I have aquired at various times from the rummage bins in front of the toy stores in Akihabara. I think Robot here cost me about ¥200. More expensive than I’m usually willing to go, but I made an exception for retro-awesomeness. Then, it was up to me to find a backdrop suitable for such a cool toy, preferably for something around ¥0. It’s a good thing all the photos that NASA releases are public domain! Thank you, William Anders, and the Apollo 8 program! Now, how to get the shot?

One of the first things is to separate your subjects. Here, we’ve got two. Robot here in the foreground, and Earthrise in the background. Robot is pretty much at my mercy, but how to get Earthrise into the shot? I could print it out and set up lights, and work to minimize glare, but the easy answer was to put it up full screen on my computer monitor. That solves both how to get it in the shot, and how to light it. The monitor is it’s own light source. Now, Robot. It’s space, and it’s Robot, so hard light works great. Wonderful! No need to fiddle with umbrellas and diffusers and all sorts of gimcracks. But, of course, there’s a catch. If the light spills onto the monitor, you run the risk of getting shiny glare that will wreck the illusion. So out comes the fancy expensive modifiers. Ok. so I used a gridded snoot made from a bunch of straws from ¥100, taped together with electrical tape. The gridded snoot gives me a pretty tight spot of light, and you can see that in the final shot, with the fall off putting Robot’s head and feet a little bit darker than his hand. You can also see from the shadow of his hand that the light is to the side, and up, keeping the spill off the monitor.

Now that your lights are in place, you’ve got to think of this as two photographs. First, I set the aperture so that Earthrise is distinguishable, but not so much so that you could zoom in and see the pixels of the computer screen. Now, here’s the trick: Strobes only pop for a short time. If you want to allow more ambient light, go for a long shutter speed. With the strobe manually adjusted to light Robot, I could then lengthen the shutter speed to allow the constant lighting of the monitor to burn in the background. It ended up being quite a long exposure, with the camera on a tripod, and me standing there in the dark, waiting for that click of the shutter to close. Monitors aren’t as bright as you’d think.

So there you go. One strobe on a cable, one back-lit, infinitely-variable backdrop, and a toy from the discount used bin in Akiba. It’s a great, low-budget way to take your first steps into getting that strobe off the hot shoe. Happy shooting, and I hope I see what you do with it!

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