Sunday, January 26, 2014

Shooting Products with a Single Strobe - Fig Rolls

I want to spend some time going back to some basics of shooting products with one light using a variety of techniques and tools. This series of hands on projects will attempt to shoot a variety of different products using different techniques and tools with a single strobe (flash).

The first product is something close to my heart – cookies. Before I start any product shoot I always consider how the final image is going to be used. For the cookie shot I want to create a product photo that could be used for an online or print ad so I want to make sure I leave space for text and want to include the whole cookie.

This is the kind of ad I have in mind.

I have no personal relationship to any fig roll making company, however I do have a very personal relationship with fig rolls and have for as long as I can remember.

I want to get fairly close to the image to capture the texture in the crust and fig layers so I’m using a 100mm macro lens. Because I’m going to get close, I need to think about the depth of focus of the cookie; too shallow and the eye won’t have anything to focus on, too deep and my eye won’t be drawn to anything particular in the image. I decided on a middle aperture of f/9 and it’s a good starting point. Finally, as I’m using a single strobe to provide all the light, I set my speed to between 1/160 and 1/200 and ISO at 200.

The first thing I want to do is see if I could get a good enough photo with the flash straight on.

 This rarely works, but there is no harm in trying.

With the harsh shadows and flat image, straight on flash is not going to work.

I’m still keeping the flash on my camera, but this time I’m going to turn the head of the flash and point it upwards to bounce the flash on the ceiling to see what that will look like.

Bouncing the light off the ceiling should give a nice big light source and provide a nice soft light.

Although it looks better it’s still flat but at least the harsh shadows are gone.

There is another problem though, the image is rather dull and the whites are more grey that white. This is because there is a lot of white in the image and it’s tricking the camera to reduce the amount of light the flash generates. To counter this I increase the output of the flash by 1 stop - which means that I am doubling the amount of light that the strobe will generate.

Here’s some articles that describe exposure compensation:

Here’s the image with the +1 stop increase in light.

I’m happier with the light and the softer shadows, but there is still a lack of texture in the roll’s crust on the top and the fig paste in the front.

Now that the exposure is closer to where I want it to be, I’m now going to focus on creating texture in the fig rolls. To do this I need to be able to cast light across the fig roll to create small shadows in the crust. The best way to do this for food is to have the light come from the back to the front of the image.

To achieve the back lighting with the flash on my camera, I need to turn the head on my flash to face toward the back white wall.

This will create a big light source pushing light across the top of the crust and creating a nice texture.

I’m really starting to like the lighting now. There’s good texture on the top of the fig rolls. I’m ready to control the light hitting the front on the fig rolls. To do this with one light on the camera I need to do something that may seem counter intuitive, I need to make sure that the light from the flash isn’t directly hitting the fig rolls.

To keep the light off the food I attach a gobo (short for “go between”), which blocks the light on the bottom of the flash hitting the food. I use Honl Photo products, but any piece of black card will work. Why black, because using white card would bounce light up to the ceiling and create a second light source, which may affect the image.

This is a top view of the gobo on the flash.

The gobo fits on the bottom of the flash. Using a card and rubber band works just as well as the Honl Photo Speed Gobo and Speedstrap.

Here are the fig rolls with the same lighting settings as before except with the gobo. You can see that the front has lost some light, but not all of it, as the large light bounced off the back wall wraps around them.

To bring light into the front part of the fig rolls we use some white board (or paper) that will bounce the light from the back of the wall onto the front of the fig roll.

A look toward the camera shows the flash with the gobo on the camera and the white card in front that is bouncing the light back on the front of the fig rolls.

This is a side view with the near card removed for this shot.

The resulting image has the lighting that I am trying to achieve. Now I can go ahead and find the angle that will help me create the final image I have in my head.

After shooting a few different angles this is the angle that I’m looking for.

Now all I have to do is some final adjustments and clean up of crumbs (Fig rolls have a terrible crumbly outside which means you will always have some post to do).

This is what I am looking for and would be able to use for my ad.

The main problem with using the flash on camera is that as I move the camera round to find the right angle, the flash moves with it and the lighting angles change. This means that I have a lot of adjustments to make with the angle of the flash and the bounce cards every time I move my camera.

To solve this problem I need to take the flash off the camera and see how we can get the same quality of light. The way to do this is to take the flash off the camera and put it on a light stand behind the fig rolls and aim it at the back wall.

(Editor's note: if you look closely you'll notice that one of the fig rolls disappeared whilst shooting the setup shots - sorry about that, but I did warn you in the beginning that I had a special relationship with fig rolls!)

Setting up the light this way allows me to replicate the same affect as have the light on my camera, but now I have the ability to move my camera without worrying about having to keep messing with the light and bounce cards.

Of course it doesn’t mean that I don’t have other things to worry about!

Using the same settings on my flash as before (set at about ½ power) you can see that the light is now a lot brighter. This is because the source of the light is now a lot closer to the back wall and is travelling a shorter distance to light the subject and therefore effectively becomes a stronger light source. All I need to do now is take a number of images while reducing the light by 1 stop each time to find the right settings.

This is at 1/4 power and is nearly right, I’m going to try and take off 1 more stop.

This is now at 1/8 power and is too dark. I can now increase the the lighting by 1/3 stops to try and get the right power.

I end up with 1/8 +2/3 stops and finish off the image by cleaning up the crumbs.

Although I’ve already got two good images using a bare bulb flash, both on and off camera, I’m going to try and use some light modifiers to get the same affect.

The first light modifier I’m going to use is a simple shoot through umbrella.

I start by setting it up at roughly the same position as the previous bare bulb flash bouncing off the back wall. After a few shots I realize that using the umbrella is creating a much smaller light source than the big wall that I was bouncing the light off before. To create the same big light source I move the umbrella a lot closer to the fig rolls.

This now allows me to explore different angles that may work for my image, like this one.

After a few different angles I decide that I still like the same angle that I’ve used in my other images.

I finish off by cleaning up the image in Lightroom, but realize that there is now a pattern on the plate that wasn’t there before. The pattern is caused by the reflection of the umbrella ribs on the plate. If the plate weren’t so reflective the ribs probably wouldn’t have appeared.

Because the umbrella gave me the quality of light I was looking for, but created the pattern with it’s ribs I’m going to use another great light modifier - a softbox. This should give me the right light I’m looking for, but without the patterns from the umbrella ribs.

The above shot shows the softbox up high, but just like the umbrella, I ended up with the softbox up close and at about an 25° angle above the fig rolls as shown below.

All I need to do now is clean up the image.

This is the final image that I then used to create my ad below.

I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you have any questions or comments you can email them to