There are times when art must be photographed both with frontal and subtle rear illumination in order to best convey its construction. This miniature art (5.25 x 4 inches / 13.3 x 10.2 cm) by renowned artist Maria Moya is exceptionally delicate, being made of assorted small wires, threads, beads, shells, tiny buttons, fur, pins, and hand-made papers. It has a small thread loop on its back that allows it to be hung on a wall. The artist wanted the photograph to show the translucence of the paper in addition to the intricate elements on the front of the art, therefore, for this photograph the art was hung on a small foam core panel that was attached to the end of a metal rod. The horizontal rod was attached to a Bogan “auto pole”. The auto pole was placed behind a large piece of black velvet that was suspended between two weighted light stands. The velvet was held in place using small “A” clamps. A small hole was made in this cloth to allow the metal pole to be stuck through it. The end of the metal pole was approximately 20 inches (50.8 cm) from the front surface of the cloth. This distanced allowed the placement of lights behind the art to reveal the delicate nature of the hand-made paper.
One might assume that a light-valued piece such as this would be better shown against a light background of a similar color and reflectance to compliment the piece. However, this was rejected out of hand because the piece would in effect be visually “competing” with such a background. If such a background paper were to be used the texture of the paper itself would also compete with the art. This piece’s distinctive shape is immediately apparent with the dark background. The key to showing this piece after the decision to use a dark background was made lay in the deft use of front and rear light sources.
The primary light source used was a 3x4 foot (91 x 122 cm) soft box with opaque sides and a Dynalight flash head set inside. This was suspended above and slightly in front of the art and was tilted toward the camera so that only the softer edges of the light struck the front elevation of the art. Below the piece and just out of the composition I placed a 2x3 foot (61 x 91 cm) piece of white foam core angled to reflect light from the soft box back up at the art. This served to balance the soft directional light from the soft box and fill in what would have been significant shadows under each of the elements that protrude from the front elevation.
Rear light was supplied by two additional Dynalight flash heads placed above, behind, and to the sides of the piece. Each of these was fitted with short metal snoots. At the end of these snoots I attached 10-degree “honeycomb” grid spot attachments. The combination of snoots and 10-degree grid spots was used to be able to better control the rear light sources. These lights were carefully aimed so that only the extreme edges of their light beams struck the rear of the piece. The power settings on the front and rear flash heads were balanced so that a reflected spot meter reading of the paper when the rear lights were used was only 1/5 of a stop brighter than with the frontal flash used by itself. This small increase from the rear flash heads affected only the translucent paper elements, allowing the soft light that fell on the opaque elements to remain unchanged.
To render the art without distortion I used a short telephoto lens (150mm focal length) on a medium format camera. Extension tubes were employed that enabled me to focus closely. A working aperture of f-22 insured sharp focus for the entire depth of the piece. A detail of the center of the piece was also made using the same camera and lens. However, in order to focus even closer a bellows device was placed between the camera and the lens. (This detail photograph is reproduced above.) Often with miniature art such detail photographs are advisable in order to better reveal the design and components of the art. Finally, it must be noted that electronic flash was used rather than constant quartz lighting for safety reasons: paper ignites at approximately 454 degrees Fahrenheit. The surface temperature of quartz halogen bulbs is about 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Quartz lighting was never considered as an option.
This article was originally published in 2007.