As happens from time to time, I was unable to see a group of silver religious art objects prior to shooting them on location at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico. Upon arrival I was asked to photograph them against a stark black background for publication use. Each of the pieces photographed has highly polished surfaces that accurately reflect anything and everything around them ---including black velvet background cloth. An additional photographic challenge with this piece is that its center box is deeply recessed and has a glass pane covering its front to protect an old reproduction of a painting of a saint that someone long ago placed within the box. The box itself was designed to be somewhat portable with its four polished silver panels hinged so that the entire device can be folded up and carried. A small silver metal loop was soldered on its back so that the box can be hung on a wall. The box is approximately 13 x 19 inches (33 x 48 cm).
To summarize, the overall challenge photographically included (1) to “float” the object against a background of black without having the rounded edges reflect black and thus become very indistinct, (2) to insure that the complex, multi-paneled, highly polished silver surfaces look like silver by using large frontal diffused light, and (3) to light the interior of the deeply recessed box evenly and without causing reflections in the glass pane which would obscure the reproduction painting mounted within. All three of these normally conflicting goals had to be met simultaneously in one exposure. I say “normally conflicting” goals because usually if one places large diffused light sources in front of polished metal to make the metal look realistic, such lighting will also cause a massive reflection on any glass surface that is in close proximity to the polished surfaces.
The technical solution was surprisingly simple. First, the box had to be securely suspended in front of a black background. Using “A” clamps, I clipped a large rectangular section of black velvet between two weighted light stands. Behind the center of this cloth I placed a spring-loaded Bogen “auto pole” with a rigid metal arm adapter that held a sturdy metal rod at a 90-degree angle to the vertical auto pole. A small hole was cut in the fabric to allow the horizontal metal rod to protrude about 24 inches (61 cm) through the fabric. At the open end of this metal rod I attached a wooden plate with a clamp. The wooden plate was cut so as to be somewhat smaller than the dimensions of the recessed box. To the wooden plate I screwed in a metal screw. Upon that screw I hung the silver box using its silver metal loop. The head of the screw was covered in two layers of masking tape to protect the rear surface of the silver box. As a precaution, I threaded a piece of braided stainless steel wire through this silver loop and attached it to the metal support rod.
Although the box was safely secured in this manner, and was hung only about three feet (91 cm) above the floor, I placed several cushions underneath the box as extra precaution. Nothing bad happened, but it is important to take precautionary extra steps in case someone enters the room and trips over one of the many power cables, flash head cables, flash sync cords, light stands, tripods, camera cases, grip equipment cases, etc., and falls toward the art being photographed. As per my normal practice, I asked that pedestrian traffic be kept at a minimum in the shooting room. Otherwise, people tend to stray in to “watch the show” that I’m putting on as I assemble equipment, adjust lighting, and actually make the exposures of the art.
Second, I needed to create a single lighting set-up that would achieve all three of the objectives. Therefore, I made a large, long paper cone by taping part of a roll of white seamless paper that is nine feet (2.75 meters) wide. I made the diameter of the cone’s larger end 1.5 times larger than the dimensions of the box with its panels extended. I viewed the box with a 150 mm lens on my Hasselblad 2.25-inch square (6x6 cm) medium format roll film SLR to determine the proper distance to place the camera for the composition. By doing this I also determined the length of the cone that I needed to use as a horizontal “light tent”. This was approximately five feet (1.52 meters) so the cone’s length was cut to this size. The 150mm focal length lens for this medium format provides approximately a two-power magnification. This slightly telephoto lens was chosen to narrow the angle of view. Had a normal or wide-angle lens been used I would have had to fashion a larger end for the cone and the length of the cone would have been shorter. This would tend to make it more difficult to provide a large enough inner reflective surface for the silver panels to reflect as silver and would have caused reflection problems on the glass pane.
Four light stands were set along the sides of the cone (two on each side) that had been placed in front of the silver box. The paper cone extended back toward the tripod and camera. The cone was then held in place while long gaffer tape bands were attached to the two opposing light stand pairs on both sides, and then the tape straps were attached to the paper cone itself. After the cone was suspended the light stands were raised so that the large open end of the paper cone light tent extended over and slightly behind the suspended silver box. This placed the entire silver box with its panels extended within the mouth of the paper cone. The camera and tripod were then positioned at the small end of the paper cone and focused and composed symmetrically on the silver box with its four hinged panels in the open position.
Finally, I needed to light the translucent white paper cone light tent. The paper itself is quite dense so I used a large studio flash power pack and set its power setting at 2,400 watt-seconds. I set up two more light stands on either side of cone and set two wide angle flash heads on these which were pointed at the sides of the paper cone and away from the box itself. The “stage was set” so that the white paper would be extremely bright when the flashes went off. This would cause the walls of the cone surrounding the polished silver surfaces to reflect as silver. The glass panel was essentially at a right angle to the primary curved surface of the paper cone light tent and so did not receive light at an angle that would cause reflections in the glass. Indirect, soft, even, shadow-less illumination was thus projected to the entire interior of the box and its rear wall-mounted reproduction of a painting. The semi-open opposite end of the paper light tent cone where the camera was located was 5 feet away and so, with the inverse square law “working” in my favor, the transparency of the glass from the camera perspective was preserved.
If one looks closely at the four polished silver, hinged panels, it will be noted that each of them are closed very slightly at a natural slight angle inward. An assistant set this angle manually while I looked at the art through the viewfinder of the camera. They were adjusted to reflect the blindingly bright inner walls of the paper light tent cone when the electronic flash was tripped. The flash heads have quartz modeling lights that allowed critical angle adjustments of the panels.
Several light meter readings were taken using a spot meter aimed at the polished silver surfaces. These were placed on Zone VII so that they would show some textural detail, but still look realistic. [This refers to the “zone system” of exposure control that was developed by the late Ansel Adams and upon which all modern light meters are calibrated. Zone V is represented by an average 18% reflectance. All light meters are calibrated to indicate this exposure. Zone VII is two f-stops brighter. The interior meter readings of the box were approximately halfway between Zone IV and Zone V. Therefore by placing the exposure of the polished surfaces at Zone VII (opening the lens two f-stops from the indicated reflected spot meter settings of these surfaces), the interior of the box was only ½ stop under-exposed. This is well within the range of film to capture.
After firing the power pack at its full power I realized that I did not have sufficient power to obtain the small aperture that was necessary to maintain sharpness throughout the depth of the box with its panels. A single flash “pop” resulted in only enough light to give a correct exposure at f 8.0. This was not sufficient to achieve sharpness throughout the piece. In order to adjust for this I focused at the hyper-focal length focusing distance (usually this point is approximately 1/3 of the way into the desired depth of focus of the object being photographed). I also set the camera’s shutter speed on “B” [for “bulb”] so that I could fire the flash four times to build up a sufficient volume of light for the smaller aperture that I wanted to use, f-16. An assistant turned off the room lights and modeling lights in the flash heads, I opened the camera’s shutter using a flexible cable release and then manually fired the flash four times before closing the shutter. This firing of the flash four times gave me a large enough total quantity of light to use f-16.0 instead of f 8.0. Therefore, depth of focus was achieved throughout the depth of the art object. By placing the edge of the lighted cone beyond the back of the silver box, the box was literally surrounded and set within the paper light tent cone. This insured that the curved edges of the four panels would reflect white and appear naturally as the polished surfaces that they are.
Although this description of how this art was photographed may sound complicated, it really isn’t. The box was suspended securely in front of a black background and a long horizontal translucent light cone tent was used to illuminate each component of the intricate silver box and its recessed interior. The entire set up and shooting time was about two hours. This was a reasonable time investment given the quality of the artwork and the high profile use of this image by one of the truly great small museums of the world, the Millicent Rodgers Museum.
This article was originally published in 2012.