Friday, February 16, 2007

Tiny Dalek Hordes

Dalek Hell, 2007
Canon G3, +4 Close-up lens

As a result of my recent Micro-Dalek-buying binge, I've been getting back into table-top photography. This was a favourite activity back in my teens when I got my first "proper" camera. It was my dad's old 1964 Canon FX SLR, which had neither TTL metering and nor even a multiple exposure lever.

My schoolmate Mark Wheeler's Japanese robot kit,
photographed circa 1985 with a 1964 Canon FX SLR, cheapo 35-135mm zoom
and two bursts of flash from an old Sunpak manual flash gun.

I nevertheless worked out a way of making multiple exposure shots of my mate's Japanese robot kits by shooting in total darkness, the camera mounted on a rickety tripod with the shutter locked open on "bulb", me stumbling around with an ancient flash gun in my hand, firing it more or less at random in what I hoped was the right direction. With no means of making an accurate exposure reading (or even of seeing what I was doing), I would get one barely usable shot out of every six rolls of film, but I probably had more fun with photography than I've ever had since.

Once I started working, I got a Nikon kit with proper macro lenses and even a multiple-TTL-flash set-up, but after an initial burst of enthusiasm it somehow all seemed too easy. On top of that, I realised that reliably shooting minatures was only the half of it; what I really wanted to do was create still photography versions of the sort of effects set-ups I saw in films. These relied on compositing a number of images onto a single frame, an activity could only be accomplished using incredibly expensive optical printing machines at that time.

Models shot on film with Nikon F4 and 28mm lens, circa 1994
Scanning and compositing done 1998

When I acquired my first Mac, with scanner and Photoshop, it occurred to me that I could start thinking about doing my own compositing; I had a go with some photographs I'd shot a few years earlier, but lack of time for model building rather put a stop to the whole business.

Switching to digital in 2001 sort of got me started again; the Canon G-series compacts I favour have a good built-in macro mode, plus the ability to take close-up filters. Indeed, I bought my original Canon G1 to photograph aircraft models for reference for a storyboarding job.

Radishes, 2006
Nikon D50, Sigma 18-50 f2.8 EX Zoom, SB-24 flash, Auto mode

Rather than getting back into effects-type model shots, I became interested in still-life, largely because I could quickly set-up shots around found objects (mostly leaves and foodstuffs) without needing time for model building (the results can be seen in my Filckr set, Macreaux). I did stray back to my roots a couple of times with whimsical photo-stories featuring toys; both Little Blue's Big Adventure and The Dalek Invasion Of Matt's Desktop, 2004AD involve not only close-up model photography, but effects work that would have been impossible for me a decade before.

From The Dalek Invasion Of Matt's Desktop, 2004AD
Canon G3; multiple shots combined to create artificial depth-of-field
Compositing and "exterminator" effects added in Photoshop 7

With Dalek Invasion, I also discovered the neat trick of taking the same shot several times at different focussing distances, then compositing the shots to make a single photo with a large apparent depth-of-field that's normally impossible to obtain when shooting miniatures (though the 1/8in chip on my Canon G3 meant I was getting pretty good depth-of-field to start with). Used along with a wide angle lens set at a low angle, this artifically extended depth-of-field makes miniature toys and models look life-size(see below).

If you look carefully at the in focus area in the shot above, it's actually nonsensical; instead of a plane of focus extending across the frame, it goes into the picture, keeping the Daleks in the background and the toys in the foreground equally sharp, while the wall to the right of the frame is always out of focus, even though it also extends front-to-back. The eye doesn't question it because it makes sense from a storytelling point of view; the important elements (toys and Daleks) are sharp, and the out-of-focus wall doesn't distract from them.

Again, lack of time put a stop to further playing about, but in the last month my new-found addiction to Product Enterprises Micro-Daleks has given me a ready source of models for new set-ups. For me, having stuff on hand to photograph is a big spur to getting stuff done.

Micro-Dalek Horde
Canon G3 with lens adaptor and +4 close up lens with 550EX flashgun,
f8 @ ISO 50 with TTL flash bounced off wall to left of shot

At about 2" tall, these Dalek toys are just large enough to allow for full articulation and a good level of detail. They're a little bit bigger than the Corgi ones I was playing with back in 2004, so they're easier to photograph. Even on the wide-angle setting, my Canon G3 can get in close enough for "upper body" shots. Some experimental group shots show that, even with foreground Daleks at frame-filling size, depth-of-field at f8 is reasonable. The shot above has some sharpening on the two closest Daleks, but even without it's much better than I expected; defocus is consistent with life-sized objects rather than the madly-shallow focus of the classic miniature shot. I reckon I could get complete front-to-back depth of field in two composited shots, when I'd anticipated needing four at least.

Nikon D50 with Sigma 10-20mm zoom, 10mm @ f22
SB-24 flash on Auto, bounced from wall on right

Almost as a joke, I tried my Sigma 10-20mm wide-angle, not expecting to get in very close, but thinking the angular distortion of the lens might yield interesting results. Then it occurred to me that at F22, the enormous depth-of-field of this lens might allow objects well within the minimum focussing distance to appear reasonably sharp. It worked better than I expected; you can make a Micro-Dalek fill the frame with reasonable defocus. The extreme angle of view really does make these miniature toys looks life size, though at f22 you get considerable image degredation (fringing) at the edge of the frame. The results were good enough to make me think about a close-up filter for this lens, though with a 77mm thread, it wouldn't come cheap*. In the meantime, I'll try the wide (FoV 24mm) adaptor on my G3, though I'm not sure what that will do to the close-focussing distance.

*And I've already blown the next three month's spending money on Daleks.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

It's Still Life, But Not As We Know It

I'm lucky enough to live a short walk from Edinburgh Central Library, which has, tucked away in a turret at the top of the building, one of the best arts libraries I've encountered. The photography section is excellent, and among its many gems are a number of books by the great Irving Penn. Having already borrowed Penn's 1990 retrospective Passage: A Work Record, I decided this time to go for Still Life. There's a lot of overlap between the two books, but Still Life devotes whole pages to pictures that appear as mere thumbnails in Passage.

Penn's still-lives broadly divide into two groups. There are those shot on commission for magazines (mostly Vogue), as illustrations for articles. These usually tell a story or express a theme; the items a lady would take to the theatre, cholesterol-rich foods, moisturising face-masks, frozen foods (above).

The second group are personal projects, groups of photographs themed around subject matter or technique; animal skulls from Prague Zoo, blocks of metal and sections of bone, photographic distortions made by painting with light, tulips.

What unites all the photographs is Penn's bold, modernist approach, his rigorously balanced compositions, his eye for form and texture. Everything he photographs looks lusciously glamorous, yet at the same time there's always a little nod to imperfection, wear and tear, decay; smeared lipstick, rusted metal, rotten apples and dying flowers all play their part in his compositions, even the commercial work. As T.S Eliot said of Webster, "...(he) saw the skull beneath the skin." That dash of memento mori is what saves his work from becoming an empty collection of beautiful surfaces.

The effect is at its most striking in Penn's food photography. He treats foodstuffs purely as raw material for compositions, without any concern for making them appetizing; raw frog's legs, oysters and live snails make up one composition, yet the photograph itself is still beautiful.

Fired up by all this, I decided to pick on some mushrooms bought at the farmer's market this morning; though somewhat limited by having only one on-camera flash (and a fifteen-year-old SB-24 at that), I'm pretty pleased with the results.

Mushrooms On The Loose

Nikon D50, Sigma 18-70 f2.8 EX, SB-24 Flash

F9 @ 1/125 sec, ISO 200, Auto Flash set for f8

Flash bounced off a white wall to the left

Background is an old baking tray

Friends Of Sigmund

You're never alone with an AF-Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 AF Zoom.
The chap in red has my borrowed zoom lens; I took their photo with his.

Rather a nice, if unexpected, international encounter today at the end of Princes Street. I was grabbing a quick architectural detail shot with my big telephoto zoom (nicknamed "Sigmund" as in "Sigmund Freud would have a field-day") when I caught the eye of a nice non-English-speaking asian* chap with a D70, who pantomimed a request to try my lens. What the hell, I thought, so we swapped and I tried out his Nikkor 18-70 while he blasted away at distant objects with mine. Then I took their photo with my lens on his camera, we swapped back, they took my photo with them, and off they went, leaving nothing behind but the big grin on my face.

*Possibly Malay - I base this on the dimly-remembered notion that plurals in Malay are generated by repeating the word in question, and he kept saying "thankyouthankyou" in a rapid fire manner.