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Tight Fit + Offbeat Lighting=Great Shot

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Our friend and neighbor Michael Callison is an award-wining Washington architect who also loves to design beautiful furniture.

Last winter, during the annual Christmas Eve party that Michael and his wife Caity throw every year (and which also features yours truly dressed up as Santa Claus to give goodies to neighborhood kids) Michael asked Judy and me about the problem he was having making a decent shot of one of his recent creations. I was long out of the red Santa suit by that time and sucking up some of Michael's single-malt so it was no problem talking a little business.

The piece in question was a gorgeous arts and crafts-style breakfront cabinet that Michael had designed and which had just been completed. The floor-to-ceiling piece had been meticulously crafted, including custom-made hardware and glass, and dominated the corner of a comparatively small dining room in his client's home.

Michael needed a really first-rate shot for his portfolio, but had been unable to get what he needed on his own. He showed us a picture he had made with his digital camera and it was clear that something more was needed. That picture, shown here, clearly illustrated how beautiful Michael's piece was, but that was about it. Because the breakfront was in a corner, Michael had shot from an angle. Because he was using what amounted to a point and shoot camera, Michael's lighting was limited to his camera's piddly on-board flash.

If ever a job called for a view camera, this was it.

View cameras – the spiritual heirs of the cameras used by Mathew Brady and his associates during the Civil War – are photography's imposing big guns, yet they are surprisingly simple pieces of equipment. That's because they have virtually no modern bells and whistles to get in the way of making an image. In essence each is a wooden box with a lens on the front and a ground glass on the back. But the lens is attached to a lens board that itself is attached to an accordion-folded set of leather bellows, the movements of which are dictated by a set of metal tracks. It is the movement of the lens via these bellows and tracks – called tilts and swings – that give photographers perspective controls that simply are impossible to obtain in other, fixed lens, photographic formats.

When Judy and I showed up for the shoot (having first scoped out the place to make sure there would be no surprises when we began work) we knew that we would have to have all the furniture removed from the dining room. Michael obligingly did all that donkey work before we arrived. He also moved a high-tech swag lamp out of the way that otherwise would have shown up in every shot.

Obviously, we needed a totally unobstructed view of the cabinet (hence removal of the dining room table and chairs). But even with the furniture out of the way, we knew we could not shoot the piece head on because a mirror in the middle of the cabinet would reflect us and our camera. In addition, whenever working with a piece containing glass, there is the possibility that an errant reflection of the photographer or his or her equipment will degrade the shot.

That's where the view camera's perspective controls shone.

We were able to position our wooden Zone VI 4x5 field camera and tripod just enough to the left of the breakfront so that it was not visible in the mirror. (We also pulled closed the window curtains directly behind us so that there would be no reflections from this source either.). By swinging the camera lens to the right while keeping the camera back in its original position and perfectly parallel with the cabinet, the image on the ground glass looked as if we were standing almost directly in front of the cabinet. Of course, to see that image, we had to place a heavy black darkcloth over our head, as well as get used to seeing the image upside down and reversed. [This latter part is surprisingly easy to get used to once you do it a few times. Trust me.]

We made a baseline available light 4x5 Polaroid and were satisfied with the camera position.

Now all we had to do was light this sucker – which proved to be easier said than done.

Because the cabinet was stuck in a corner, we could not simply position two softboxes or shoot-through umbrellas of different intensities at 45-degree angles to the piece, well enough out of the way so that they would not be reflected. In this case the lighting would have to come totally from the left. I set up a big 4'x5' softbox on a lightstand and started making Polaroid tests. The first shots looked OK, but the righthand corner of the piece was unacceptably dark, even when I rode the ambient room light during a seconds-long drag-flash exposure.

I had to throw some specific, almost surgically precise, light into that dark right corner. Enter the grid spot.

Normally, I never would use direct flash on a job like this. But here, using a lower power strobe head than the big gun in the softbox, I was able to light up the dark corner with surprising ease. A waffle-pattern grid spot attachment on the front of the second strobe let me aim the light just where I wanted it. This lower-power direct light combined nicely with the softer, wider, more intense light from the softbox to create acceptably broad lighting even though all the lighting is coming from one side of the cabinet.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Michael Callison
DC architect and furniture designer Michael Callison designed a beautiful breakfront cabinet for one of his clients – but was stymied when he tried to make a good picture of his work with his digital snapshooter. In fact, this record shot was more a way for us to see what we had to photograph than it was an attempt to make a real photograph of a real work of art.

©Goodman/Van Riper Photography
The quarters were cramped and the piece really could not be moved from its corner location, but Judy and I managed to get the picture anyway. We worked in several formats: 4x5 transparency, Hasselblad SuperWide, as well as digital. The keeper image was the one on large format because of the camera's perspective controls. An eleventh-hour lighting trick prompted by the tight location, added to the session's success.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Digitally, Now It's Easier Being Green

Of Proust, Pictures and Damn Fine Home Fries

A Cautiously Glorious 4th

The Classy Hassy H1: Portable Studio Camera

Hail Mary – and Other Divine Photo Tricks