Photographic effect
April 29, 2006 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I love this photograph (I don't remember where I found it, unfortunately). How would I go about taking similar photos with a 35mm and/or digital camera? What kind of lense/lighting/setup would have been used for something like this? Is there a name for this kind of effect? Is there a good way to duplicate this effect in digital post-processing?
posted by devilsbrigade to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could experiment with a flatbed scanner.
posted by popcassady at 1:03 PM on April 29, 2006

I'm not sure what part of the photo you're interested in. Is it the shallow depth-of-field (only a small part is in focus)? That's accomplished by using short focal lengths, as b1tr0t describes very well, or using macro lenses on small subjects (as is the case in the picture you link to). The term bokeh is generally referred to as the "creamy softness" of out-of-focus areas. Some of this is due to the number of aperture blades in the lens, a lot is just a product of the overall lens design.

When photographing very small objects, you need to use a macro lens (a lens designed for the purpose of close focusing distance). Generally macro-photographers use very small focal lengths because when you're that close to an object, it's very difficult to get everything in focus at "normal" focal lengths. If you don't actually care about the focus, or instead want to accentuate it, you don't need to shoot at f/1.4 or other wide-open focal lengths because at the scale you're shooting, just about anything over f/16 is going to have large sections that are out of focus.

In conclusion, just buy a macro lens, put it on a tripod, aim a lightbulb at the side of your subject, and prepare yourself for a long exposure.

One extra note: if the effect you're interested in is the contrast between the light and dark parts of the picture--that is, you can't see the table that the shell is sitting on--this is a very simple effect to reproduce. Since cameras have very narrow exposure latitudes, anything that's more than 2 or 3 "stops" off neutral gray is going to be rendered either completely white or completely black. Photographers commonly use this to their advantage when they want to obscure the background of their subject.

In practice (for this example) if you throw a bunch of localized lighting on just the shell, but make sure none of that light spills to the table (or whatever it's resting on), then set your exposure for the shell, everything else that's more than 2 or 3 stops darker will turn to black.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:21 PM on April 29, 2006

The colors look to me like platinum processing. Reminds me of Sally Mann's work. She uses a large format camera and mostly platinum processing.

My crude way to try to reproduce that digitally would be to take a picture, blur the background with the blur tool, download a Sally Mann image, grab some of her colors with the eyedropper and play with overlays.

With my experience I think I would have a 50/50 chance of getting something similar with that method.

If you take a picture in a normal indoor room everything will go dark around the image - I'm saying I don't think that image was shot on a black seamless background.

The background is not totally black. There is some texture - that's good.

I'm not sure what light they used. You could use a very long exposure and paint the light on with a diffused flashlight.

I have taken similar images with an old 4x5 camera with a beaten up long focus antique lense. With natural room light. Long exposure.
posted by 9000.68 at 1:33 PM on April 29, 2006

Is that image hosted on a 300 baud modem or something? It's been loading for more than 2 minutes and all I can see is a inch-wide strip at the top. How about using flickr or something?
posted by Rhomboid at 1:34 PM on April 29, 2006

Also, it could be a pinhole camera image. That would give you shallow depth of field and if you opened the pinhole in front of the object that was indoors, for a long exposure, with some light on the image, I think the background would go dark like in your sample image.

I don't think I've ever seen a pinhole image indoors. They are usually scenic. But I think that is what an indoor pinhole image would look like.
posted by 9000.68 at 1:39 PM on April 29, 2006

Response by poster: Its on cable, which today seems to be extra slow for some reason. This should load faster, sorry about that.

I have a 35mm SLR (Nikon) that I'd prefer to use. I've been meaning to get some decent lenses for it, so the lense suggestions were helpful.

To clarify, I'm interested in both the contrast & the blur. My impression of bokeh was that it only refers to *lights* when out of focus, not simply lit objects. Does it apply to any lit object out of focus?

Platinum processing is outside of what I can do, I think. The background looks pretty black to me... I opened it up in Photoshop, set the image curve to [0, 20] or so, and except for a few specks, it was solid black, except immediately around the shell. Is that what you were referring to?
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:47 PM on April 29, 2006

Response by poster: The same type of effect I'm after is on a lot of Gary Snyder's books, also. Regarding Wave & The Back Country come to mind as good examples (I don't have scans, sorry, but if you know the books you should know what I'm talking about).
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:59 PM on April 29, 2006

"it was solid black, except immediately around the shell."

Yes, I'm trying to describe how I don't think it was shot on a black background. Because of what is reflecting on the outer edge and back end of the shell.
posted by 9000.68 at 2:03 PM on April 29, 2006

This is definately a macro shot, unless the shell was HUGE. So to reiterate and expand on what others have said: DOF is dependant on four factors:

1) Focal length (longer = shallow)
2) Distance from focus point (closer = shallow)
3) Aperture (larger [smaller value] = shallow)
4) Sensor size (probably the least important to you, large = shallow)

You can calculate all these factors using this great online DOF calculator.

At 35mm what you're going to want to do is get a macro lens, nothing crazy expensive, a 100mm lens will do. The great thing about macro photography is that you don't need "high tech" lenses for it. You don't need IS, you don't need an ultra-sonic motor, you don't even need AF.

The key to good bokeh is either a round-aperture lens (which is pretty much a given in large format lenses, but surprisingly uncommon in 35mm lenses) or shooting 'wide open'. Shooting wide open means the aperture is set to the largest size (lowest value). That will give you nice, soft, out of focus areas.

Check the macro and bokeh groups on flickr to see some of this stuff in practice.

As far as lighting goes, that looks like it could've been lit with a flashlight or a normal room lamp. The shell was probably on black cloth.
posted by jedrek at 2:19 PM on April 29, 2006

You could probably duplicate the shot quite easily with:

1. A camera. /snark
2. A 50mm macro lens with a large max aperture (f/2.8 or better)
3. A tripod
4. A table lamp - preferably one of those gooseneck lamps that's easy to position
5. A shell, a table and a dark cloth to put over the table.

-Place the cloth over the table, place the shell on the table and prop it up from behind so it's tip will be facing the camera lens.
-Set the camera on the tripod and position it fairly close (you'll probably be within a couple feet of the shell).
-Position the light, turn it on, adjust as necessary - you'll probably want to aim most of the light towards the top/back of the shell, or depending on how close the lamp is to the shell, past the shell to avoid any harsh highlights
-Set the lens aperture to a large setting (f/2.8 or larger) and focus on the tip of the lens. If you have an SLR you can check the actual depth of field by pressing the DOF preview button, which will stop down the lens and show you exactly what will be in focus. Because it might be a macro shot, you may be a few stops away from wide open, but most likely not that far off.

If you're shooting digital, it will be far easier to recreate this effect. All you need to do is get the general light/shadow ratio and focus/depth of field down and much of the rest can be duplicated in photoshop. In PS you can up the contrast and darken the image easily. With film you're either going to have to scan it and then play with it in PS, or know how to process b&w film (or know someone who knows how to process it) to give it added contrast.
posted by adamp88 at 2:44 PM on April 29, 2006

Oops, skipped past the part about Nikon. The 60mm or 105mm f/2.8 mentioned above would be a good choice.
posted by adamp88 at 2:47 PM on April 29, 2006

For the ultimate in bokeh, be prepared to shell out $6,000 for a Leica body and the Noctilux F1.0.

Actually, most Leicaphiles would say that the "ultimate in bokeh" is the 35mm Summicron 4th generation pre-ASPH, if by bokeh quality you mean smoothness in transition of tones (and not merely how shallow of DOF you can achieve with the lens). The Noctilux is infamous for its "swirly" bokeh due to its severe coma (a type of optical abberration), which evokes ethereality and dreaminess in some viewers -- and induces motion sickness in others.

In Leica-land though, bokeh is a subject of religious debate, so YMMV.
posted by DaShiv at 6:51 PM on April 29, 2006

I have a 60mm f/2.8 Micro, and I couldn't be happier. It's a great lens on both my D70 and my F3HP, and it can work fairly well as a portrait lens, just so long as the light is soft.
posted by bshort at 7:44 PM on April 29, 2006

When photographing very small objects, you need to use a macro lens

Not necessarily, the photo could have been taken with a normal (45-55mm) lens mounted to a bellows, extension tubes or the lens could have been reversed. It's also possible the person used diopters mounted in front of the lens. Any of those options will produce a shallow depth of field.

As for doing it digitally, this might be a long shot but, the new lens filter in photoshop CS might be able to replicate the blur. There are a number of tutorials out there on duplicating the effect of a tilt shift lens that might be useful.

As for the contrast it looks like there is a faint ring around the whole shell, maybe they used the burn tool?
posted by squeak at 10:25 PM on April 29, 2006

Squeak nailed it with the lens.

I've reversed a standard 50mm lens and have been able to get a similar result (extreme limited depth of field, macro) - just take your lens, turn it around and gaffer tape it to the body of your 35mm camera (given that have a relatively basic 35mm camera with manual override to control exposure). You should be able to meter through the lens - but if you can't, bracket the exposure over a wide latitude.

You can even get a piece of PVC pipe from your hardware (about the diameter of your lens) and make an extension tube that will turn your standard lens into any kind of macro you want - for a couple of bucks. You can get really interesting focus effects if you mount the lens at a slight angle also.

Lighting for this particular shot is fairly basic also - looks to me like a single key light. As you don't need the depth of field, you don't necessarily need an overly bright light either. Higher contrast is favoured by slower rated film (25 or 50 ISO).

Alternatively you can get a similar effect using photoshop - just take the marquee tool and drag a circle around the area that you want to keep in focus - go to 'select' and choose 'feather', experiment with the amount of pixels to feather (start with 50) and then invert the selection (cmd i) and hit the gaussian blur filter - again, experiment as to how much you want to affect the focus.

I'd throw a nice diffused backlight into your shot and bounce some light off the very top (the way food photographers do) and you'll make it look even better.
posted by strawberryviagra at 3:44 AM on April 30, 2006

There is absolutely no reason to shell out (aargh!) oodles of dough on a fast lens when you're shooting macro if you want a shallow depth of field. It's basically a given at that distance with any aperture less than f/16. Take any garden-variety macro lens and shoot at f/5.6 (or reverse your lens if you're feeling adventurous, or stack and reverse your lenses if you want to experiment around with ultra-macro photography... &c, &c, &c).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:46 AM on April 30, 2006

I don't recognise the picture, but it looks very much like something done in the style of Edward Weston.
The Daybooks of Edward Weston will give you some clues about his technique
posted by Lanark at 10:59 AM on April 30, 2006

looks like it was shot on b/w film with a normal light bulb - im guessing it was handheld above the shell with that centre focus thingy at f2 point something or other - don't try to copy it my friend - buy some wee prawns and shoot them instead , no-ones doing prawns at the moment , or even fish fingers , which is kind of sad really.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:35 PM on April 30, 2006

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