Bowl Games

Many moons ago, I taught an Essay and Research class.  One of the things I taught my students was to narrow their focus.

Every time a student was stuck, it was because they were overwhelmed by a big subject and didn’t know where to go with it.  Creating a more current, hypothetical example, a student writing about the economic crisis of 2008 would get as far as “it was awful”  and then not know what else to say.  If they wrote about what caused the economic crisis, they would have something to go research.  But, since none of them were interested in writing a dissertation, that would also lead to writer’s block.  If they wrote about one cause, they would get further, but were usually bored.  But if they wrote about one family and what happened to them, suddenly, they would not be able to stop writing.  As you narrow the scope of what you write about, you often find a nugget of inspiration.

Taking a lesson from my own class (although, I shouldn’t take credit–there was probably a teacher I’ve forgotten who shared this wisdom with me), as I look for photographic inspiration, I switch from thinking about every possibility in the world to giving myself a highly constrained assignment:  shoot one bowl in one place as many ways as possible in about an hour.

As I clear off the largest surface I have available to work on, creating a space about 2 feet by 2 feet (how I miss having a big table), and place a weathered copper bowl under a light, my husband watches me.

“Do you know what you’re going to write about?” He asks.

I ignore him because I, in fact, have not a clue what I’m going to write about.  I am only worried about what I’m going to shoot; the story will come.

He watches me spend my hour on about 40 shots of this poor, beaten bowl.  I start with my 24-70mm lens on a tripod with a simple light bulb behind the bowl.  Then, I try it with my flash with an 1/8” grid strapped on top.  Not satisfied with the spread of the light, I try it with a softbox attachment.  This ruins the contrasting shadows.  I try with a snoot (I still love that word!) and hold the snoot in various positions to create a spotlight effect on different parts of the bowl.

Finally, I ditch my flash and switch to my 100mm macro lens.  I get up close and try to get as much depth of field as possible (not much) across the gleaming rim of the bowl.

“Have you decided what you’re going to write about?” my husband asks again.

I give him a look.

He says, “Well, you’re over there taking all these pictures of that bowl, I assume you know what you’re going to write about.”

I still haven’t told him.

One Light Burning

I talk Pat into sitting for me so I can play with lighting.  Having just returned from 2-for-1 margarita night at Taco Mamacitos, he’s a little more patient than usual.

I want to play with one studio light with an umbrella and I want to try a snoot.  I think it’s a life requirement to try something called a “snoot.”  How often do we get an opportunity to participate in a real-life Dr. Seuss scene?

First, I try aligning the umbrella light with the ambient light.  This is possibly because of the margaritas.  I read an article about lighting in which the photographer “chased the sunlight” with off-camera lighting, but I can’t remember why.  I decide to try it.

The shadow is unpleasant (see first photo in gallery).  Scratching my head trying to remember what conditions call for that setup, I decide to scrap that idea and move on to placing the umbrella very close to Pat at various heights and angles.  I have to move the umbrella many times.

Through this process, I learn why my “great deal” on lights may not have been such a great deal–the power goes no lower than 1/8th.  I have to move the umbrella stand further away to reduce light further, but then I don’t get the effect I want.

I play around and find that raising the light high above my head and pointing it down on Pat gives the most even lighting with a nice shadow under the chin.  However, it’s not exciting.  I play around some more.

By this time, my marriage may be in jeopardy.  I attempt to engage Pat’s inner MacGyver by asking him to make me a snoot.  A snoot is just a tube that goes around a light to basically turn it into a spot light effect.  It might have just as easily been called a snout or a spout.  Totally Dr. Seuss.

Pat, who has no interest in playing model, is more interested in thinking about creating a homemade snoot.  Pat’s idea is to get a PVC pipe, but the size we need isn’t available at the local home depot.  I suggest we create one from a cereal box, but in the end, Pat uses a piece of poster board he happens to have laying around.  This is surprisingly effective.

However, Pat doesn’t want to model anymore.  I have to move my setup to the couch so he can do some work on his laptop while I shoot.  Tisen doesn’t seem to want to model anymore than Pat does.  Add “carpool dummy” to my list of essential equipment for the aspiring photographer.

The snoot creates such tight light that Pat and Tisen don’t fit inside it together.  I’m also at the end of my leash and can’t try different angles–the cords are stretched tight.  I switch back to the umbrella to see the difference (see the last photo).

Pat and Tisen both breathe a sigh of relief when I put the camera away.