Seven photographs that changed fashion

You may have already seen it on the “What’s the jackanory?” blog, but I felt remiss if I didn’t at least mention the BBCs recent piece on fashion photographer Rankin reproducing 7 of the most iconic images by some of the masters of fashion photography.  It’s a really wonderful piece, with a lot of fascinating insights… worth the watch:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:

The Nuts and Bolts of off-camer flash – part 4, miscellaneous topics

Note: this is the final part of a 4 part series –
PART 1 – basics

PART 2 – manual flash

PART 3 – TTL wireless

Let’s talk about sync speed.
Sync speed is probably the most misunderstood topic for folks starting out with off-camera lighting, and for good reason.  There is a ton of seemingly contradictory information out there, misinformation, disinformation and downright wrong information… but really it’s not all that complicated, so let’s break it down.   First off to understand “sync speed” we must first understand how an SLR shutter works.  SLRs (whether digital or film) all (generally) use a type of shutter known as a “focal plane” shutter –

Obviously the job of a shutter is to expose your film or sensor for a prescribed period of time (usually less than a second).  The way a focal plane shutter work is by using 2 “curtains” that travel across the film plane.  The first (or “leading”) curtain starts by moving outward, exposing the film plane, and when it is done the “trailing” curtain follows it closing off the exposure.  Now what happens when the shutter speed gets faster than a certain point is that the 2nd curtain starts its travel before the first curtain has cleared the film plane.  In other words, the film/sensor is *never completely exposed* as a whole.   As the exposure get faster and faster, there is an increasingly narrow “slit” created by the two curtains that kind of “paints” itself across the film.  While this poses no problem for a shot using a continuous light source, for flash this is quite problematic.  Since normally the actual duration of the flash burst is much faster than the actual exposure, if one of the curtains is in front of the film plane when the flash “pops” it will partially block the light, yeilding the dreaded “black bars” across part of the image.

(Ben Mathis of the Lighting-Practice blog has a great animation of this here)

So in essence when you talk about “sync speed” this is what you are referring to – the maximum shutter speed at which the film is completely exposed at a point of the exposure.

Now if you think abou thtis process, it is a actually a hard physical limit.  There is physically *no way* to change how the shutter curtains operate, or the maximum speed at which they are fully open.  In other words, when folks throw around the term “cheating” or “hacking” the sync speed, it actually has *nothing to do* with the physical x-sync per-se, which is a common point of confusion.  What they are talking about is actually different ways of manipulating the flash burst to “work around” they shutter limitation.

*of course having said that*, let me first point out the exception to the rule 🙂

Invariably, during any sync speed discussion, someone will inevitably chime in with “you must be wrong since I normally at up to 1/2000 or so all the time with flash”.    They are, in fact, correct but it is a special case – they are generally using a Nikon D70/D40 when they report this.   There is a unique feature on some Nikon DSLRs (and a few other cameras), which is that they actually don’t use a purely mechanical focal plane shutter – they use what is called a “hybrid” Electronic/mechanical shutter.   This works similarly to a regular focal plane shutter, in that there are the normal first and second curtain, however after a certain point (usually 1/60th) any exposure faster than that does *not* precipitate an increase in the physical shutter speed – the curtains still open/close at 1/60th, however the camera merely “grabs” a smaller and smaller “slice” of the exposure recorded by the CCD.  In other words, even at 1/2000, the shutter is still opening for 1/60th, and then a tiny slice of that exposure is recorded.  The practical ramifications of this is that in essence the shutter is *always*  fully open for the eposure (for all practical purposes) – you never have to worry about the curtains blocking the flash.
Now for those of us who don’t have one of these cameras, we need a different method if we want to use flash with shutter speeds higher than the sync.

The first, and most common is known as HSS (High Speed Sync), sometimes also referred to as “focal plane sync” (FP sync).  Remember that at speeds higher than the max sync speed, the shutter curtains are essentially creating a “slit” that travels across the film plane.  In HSS, the flash will “strobe”, firing a series of superfast bursts (instead of one single burst) that are timed to match up with the shutter movement, ensuring that the whole frame is exposed uniformly as the “shutter slit” passes across each part.  HSS works great, although there are 2 major downsides.

1) it is proprietary – because the flash needs to “talk” to the camera in order to ensure that it’s pulses are timed properly with the shutter movement, HSS is limited to the manufacturers TTL capable flash units, so manual flashes and studio strobes are out :-).  This also means that triggering solutions like cables/pocketwizards/any manual triggering will *not* work (remember they only provide a “dumb” fire signal, no communication which is needed for HSS).  This means you are limited to using the manufacturers wireless ttl triggering if you want HSS off camera (and Radiopoppers potentially) with the associated drawbacks)

2) because the flash has to fire a bunch of little “pulses” across the entire exposure from a single charge of the capacitor (as opposed to one big burst), the flash output is *drastically* decreased.  HSS really eats the output of your flash (hence Dave Hobby & Joe McNally’s desert shoot using *7* SB800s 🙂

That being said, if you are using system flashes with something like radiopoppers (or in an indoor/studio situation) HSS is probably the easiest way to sync past the max sync speed of your camera.

Another (and much less optimal) method actually involves turning the flash into a conitnuous light source!!

Consider:  even though the flash may seem to be an instantaneous burst, it still takes time for the burst to occur.  (this depends on the flash and the power, but often in the range of 1/4000-1/7000 second) that is the time that the flash is physically “on” putting out light.  Now consider if your shutter speed is faster than that, the sensor “sees” the flash output for its entire exposure!  in essence the flash has become a continuous light source as far as the camera is conernced.  Now this isn’t a particularly flexible solution (requires very specific parameters from both camera and flash in order to work), however in the right circumstances in a pinch it will do…  (one thing to remember if you are doing this as that as a “continuous light” the flash contribution to the exposure is now affected by shutter speed just as ambient is!)

I personally shoot with a Canon 5d which has a max sync of 1/200. for faster, I generally use HSS with radiopoppers, or in a pinch the Canon G9 has a hybrid electro-mechanical shutter as described above (similar to the D70/D40) which allows syncing up to 1/2000 or 1/2500 pretty reliably.   Between those 2 methods, I cover all my bases pretty well.

Anyway, that about wraps it up for “the nuts and bolts of off-camera flash”.  I hope this series has been informative, and I may add/refine/clarify it as time goes on 🙂

-Ed Z

Dodge and Burn – Lightroom 2 beta vs Aperture 2.1

Preface: this is a “sequel” to my previous article on the new dodge and burn plugin in Aperture, so it’s best to read that one first!

Here’s a quick rundown of my experiences with the new dodge and burn tools in the Lightroom 2 beta, and how they stack up to the same in Aperture 2.1. After a weekend of working with both tools, I’m still of very mixed feelings:

there are a few things I *really like* about Lightroom’s implementation, but in a lot of ways I feel they fall short. I used the same image as I did with my Aperture article for ease of comparison. Once again, here’s the original image:

Now Lightroom and aperture seem to approach the whole “brush based tools” paradigm in a very different way. Here’s the basic interface panel for the new tools in Lightroom 2 beta develop module:

Clicking the little “brush” looking icon brings up this dialogue. You’ll see the adjustment you want (exposure, which is essentially dodge and burn together depending on if you set a positive or negative value for the tool) and the standard size/feather/flow for the brush.

Note that as far as I can tell there is no kind of pressure sensitivity control when using a pen tablet as with aperture. You have 2 brush “presets” A and B and can switch between them. I usually keep one as a soft brush and one as a hard brush.

Another interesting feature is the “auto mask” which essentially tries to keep the adjustment you are painting within the boundaries of the area you are working in (by finding the edges and containing it within them). This seems to work fairly well on some images (that have clearly defined areas/regions, like burning the sky against a building for example) and not so well on others. Still a neat addition.

Now here we come to a fundamental difference between the Lightroom and Aperture implementations. While Aperture essentially has a “layer” for each adjustment (dodge, burn, saturation etc…) which you paint into, Lightroom uses discreet “point based regions” for each adjustment. To clarify: in Lightroom every time you make a “new” adjustment it creates a “point” which is a little white dot around which that brush stroke adjustment is based. This is essentially the anchor for the adjustment region, and you simply paint on the adjustment you want.

You can also switch to the erase brush with the same controls (feather, softness etc…) or simply toggle it by holding the option key (alt on windows I believe)

The interesting this is that once painting, each “pinned” region becomes just another adjustment on the image and can be changed/refined after the fact, by selecting “edit” and editing the adjustment – you can adjust the amount of exposure (dodge/burn) etc…

Now the annoying thing (to me at least) is the fact that there is no way of toggling the “overlay” of the brushed/adjusted area the way there is in aperture. When you hover over on the the “pins” it comes up with the area highlighted, but only while you are hovering over it. Sometimes you really want to be able to fine tune the edges of your adjustment area, and it is difficult to do this without having an overlay view. Hopefully this is something that will be implemented by the final release. I also wish they would make the overlay a color rather than just a translucent grey/white as sometimes it is difficult to see when brushing an effect onto a bright/white area.

As opposed to the Aperture paradigm of having a single adjustment layer with various intensities, here you are more likely to make multiple overlapping “point” regions, and adjust them individually after the fact. Unfortunately what I found was that this lead to a lot of “guesswork” for example when you want to lighten an area, first you have to guess how much exposure should be applied, then brush it in, then further refine it by adjusting the level, then if a “sub-area” need to be lightened/darkened more you have to create a new overlapping point region and again guess how much exposure is needed and adjust from there.

I give the win to Aperture’s implementation for ease of use and intuitiveness, but I can see the potential in having independently adjustable brush-edit regions.

Now after complaining about the implementation of the tool, I would like to point out the one incredibly awesome feature of Lightroom’s adjustments, that by itself may even be significant enough to swing the decision in it’s favor despite my favor for Aperture’s implementation:

that is the inclusion of the edits in the adjustment history for the image.

As mentioned before, Aperture creates a separate .tiff file from your master .raw when you invoke the burn and dodge tools. While not a huge drawback (it’s no different than roundtripping it to Photoshop for example) it adds a layer of complexity, as you are now essentially adjusting 2 images.

Lightroom on the other hand, makes the adjustments exactly the same as any of it’s other adjustments – meaning they they apply to the raw file, and are included in the history. Being able to step back and forth through the edit states of an image is just a fantastically useful feature, and a huge point in Lightroom’s favor.

In conclusion after using both tools for a short time now, I am really torn. I like apertures implementation overall better – it feels more natural and almost “painterly. I can definitely appreciate the approach of Lightroom’s implementation, but to me it isn’t quite “there” yet – there are a few annoying little details that make it less useful overall – the overlay is rather useless, with no toggling option and there really should be some kind of pressure sensitivity. It would also be nice to be able to label the “pins” to easily remember which pin went to which adjustment. I also really miss brush based blur and sharpening (both of which Aperture has).

Nonetheless, Lightroom gets big points for incorporating the brush tools into it’s standard workflow and history panel. This is simply an amazing feature which cannot be overlooked. If Lightroom can fix/improve the issues with the masking/overlay transparencies by the final release, it may still win out over Aperture. For now I reserve judgment – I will play with both and wait for the Lightroom final release 🙂

Aperture 2.1 dodge and burn module – a quick tutorial and review.

Aperture 2.1.

“brush” based Dodge and Burn based tools.

The verdict?  Awesome.

After a weekend of playing with aperture’s new burn and dodge plugin, I remain as impressed with it as I was at first.  Quite frankly with this module and 1 or two more plugins, I may well never open photoshop again! (hyperbole, I’m sure).  So without further ado, a quick summary of how the tools work, and my experiences working with them.

First off – there has been some complaints that aperture creates a .tiff copy of your image when opening in dodge&burn (D&B) rather than working on the actual raw image.  The way I see it is that you would be doing that *anyway* if you were round-tripping to photoshop, so you are not losing anything – and you are gaining the ability to edit “in house”.

As a quick demo I took some screenshots from a shot I did for a local food magazine’s article about cheese.  Not the worlds greatest picture, but it illustrates the dodge/burn functionality well. Here’s the original image, straight out of camera (raw)

Note the heavy shadow on the grapes.  Yeah, I should have used another light for fill – sue me.

Now on to the plugin.  Unlike the standard image adjustments, the dodge and burn tool (the name is slightly misleading as it actually does more than just dodge and burn – it also allows saturation, sharpening and contrast brushes. Cool!) is invoked by selecting an image and going to image -> edit with->dodge and burn.  This opens the image in a popup window with the dodge and burn controls. If you’ve used photoshop, these controls will be immediately familiar – there is brush size, hardness and strength right up top.  By default, scrolling the mouse wheel increases/decreases the brush size, and pen pressure controls the effect strength.

Fantastic if you work with a tablet (and you should be!)  The control scheme is very natural and took no getting used to whatsoever.  You can hit “Z” to zoom to full size just as in the normal viewer, and holding spacebar “grabs” the image allowing you to scroll around it quickly in fullsize view, just like photoshop.  

With regards to the actual tools, they are divided into separate sections, selected from the dropdown menu on the left.

As a photoshop user, you might think of each tool as a separate layer with it’s own quickmask.  Click any tool to select it and start “painting on that layer”   I have selected dodge, to lighten up the shadows on the underside of the grapes, to make them “pop”  I select a large, soft brush and start with a relatively low effect strentgh (repeated passes will build up the strength of the effect so it’s good to start low to begin with).   I quickly paint over the grapes, and there is a noticable lightening of the shadows (amaizingly without bringing up much noise!) Now what’s really cool is that as you work, you can instantly swith between the normal image view where you can see the effect of the tool, and what apple calls “overlay” mode which actually shows you where you have paintined on the effect and the strength (kind of like quickmask in photoshop).  Clicking “O” toggles between the two modes.   I found this to be absolutely critical and gave a very fast and accurate tool to fine tune the area and strength of effect, allowing very precise control.   Note that you can still brush on the effect in overlay mode.  You can also switch back and forth between tools, each get’s it’s own “layer” to paint on, with it’s own overlay mode.  As you select each tool, you can turn the effect on and off to see the results by pressing “S” I found myself quickly going back and forth between tools, dodge/burn/saturation to tweak the images in various points.  And if you ever find that you’ve painted too much or in the wrong area, simply select the eraser tool, and erase the effect back.  The eraser works much the same way as the brushes, meaning it can have varying hardness and strength so that you can simply lighten an effect that was painted on too strong, or completely erase a mis-stroke.

Another tool worth mentioning is the “feather” brush.  This allows you to quickly blend the edge of an effect to make it more subtle.  I found this to work *very* well, and really allowed for some sophisticated effect blending to look totally natural.  To illustrate the feathering, I have brushed on an effect with a brush at 0% softness  and 100% effect strength, to give a completely hard-edged, stand out effect.  Now, I go over the edges with the feather brush, and they soften and smooth out, giving a much more natural transition.  Now that was just a dramatic example – when you feather a more normally applied effect, it works even better.  The results are subtle, but it really adds an edge to the image.



I found it quick and easy to switch between different effects, painting them on and erasing them, and quickly toggling overlay to view the progress.  Though not used in this image the sharpen and blur brushes can be used in much the same way in portrait/glamour retouching (although photoshop may still be required for some of the more sophisticated retouches of that sort!) And that’s about it! it’s rather simple, but I found it to be one of those “does exactly what it is supposed to do without a lot of extraneous junk” kind of things, which I really like.  Basic dodge and burn +brush based adjustment functionality, basic yet powerful controls. The image after a quick D&B: Now if you are a photoshop user, none of these features may seem like a big deal – “So what” you might say, I can already do all that in Photoshop”.  And you are right – none of the tools themselves are revolutionary, but the fact that you can now do it *not* in photoshop is quite intriguing.

The image after a quick D&B (no other adjustments)

Dodge and Burn functionality was something that I was honest surprised was *not* included with aperture or lightroom to begin with, as it is pretty fundamental to a lot of photograhic processing (at least for me coming from a wet printing background!)  It’s addition really takes the processing capabilites of aperture to the next level.  The fact that it is based on an open plugin architecture further leaves the door open for other modules and even more powerful processing capabilities.  It will certainly be exciting to see what comes down the pipeline in the next year or so!

From the "why didn’t I think of that?” files…

I recently read about a great idea for a new slr innovation over at  Zoltan Avra-Toth proposes an entirely new focus mode for modern SLRs.  Frankly I am somewhat surprised no camera maker has thought of/implemented this before as it would be pretty easy to do from a technical point of view.  Anyway, what he proposes is to have a focus mode that automatically focuses to the hyperfocal distance as the focal length of the lens changes. 

Focusing a lens to it’s hyperfocal length is a very useful technique, used mainly by landscape and street photographers, but the lack of a distance scale on most modern SLR lenses makes it rather impractical to use, particularly with zooms (as the H.D. changes with the focal length).  However, making the necessary calculations would be a trivial task for the camera’s on-board processing, and since the camera and lens “communicate” focal length and focus settings it could easily adjust the focus to hyperfocal dynamically as the focal length changed.  In fact, adding this mode probably wouldn’t even need any hardware changes, it could likely be done with a firmware update!

Of course the hurdle would be practical implementation – in other words, how would you “set” this mode, and how would it “handle” the camera.  E.g. when in normal af modes, the camera focuses when you 1/2 press the shutter button.  In this new AF-H (autofocus-hyperfocal) mode, you definitely wouldn’t want that, as it would be refocussing every time you tried to take a shot.  I think the easiest solution would simply be to add another position on the af selector switch for AF-H and have it decouple focus from the shutter button when you switched it on.  This could also be done in a menu, without changing the hardware, but that could get confusing as people would forget they had it on and wonder why their camera wasn’t focusing when pressing the shutter button. 

Anyway, I think it’s a fantastic idea that would appeal to a large set of pro & advanced ameture photographers.  So if anyone out there from a camera company is reading this – bring it to your R&D team, and get it done!

Tags: , , , ,

POLL: how do you do b/w conversions.

So I love black & white photography.  Back in the old days, I don’t think I ever even shot a roll of color film (maybe a few slides here and there, but whatever…) 

Now while I’m one of those crazy folk who would love a dedicated black and white sensor in a dSLR, (resolution, no bayer filter etc…)  I’m realistic enough to realize it’s probably never going to happen, and really I’m ok with doing b/w conversions.  It has the added bonus of being more flexible than a straight up b/w image with regards to what you can get as the final output. 

The thing is, there are just *so many* ways to do it…lightroom, desaturation, color mixer, LAB color etc… I still haven’t decided on a favorite.   Usually I just convert in lightroom, use the channel mixer and then adjust contrast to taste.   But I’m always open to new techniques!  So I’m opening it up to y’all:

What’s your favorite method of b/w conversions in digital?  Post it here and I’ll give it a whirl! 

G9 panorama mode

I never did much in the way of panoramas, but the G9’s little panoramic mode makes it so easy it’s hard not to.  you simply put it in pano mode, and it provides guidelines to line up your shot as you pan from side to side.   Click off the number of shots you want, matching them up as closely as possible using the LCD.  I did a quick 3 shot pano of the view off our balcony in St. John.  Opened them in photoshop, and stitched together, preserving perspective.  The results were quite nice, I think I will definitely be using the pano mode more.

Just another reason the G9 rocks my face.

(click for larger image – note: even scaled down it’s a pretty big image)


Street Photography and Hyperfocal setting with the G9

As I mentioned in my previous article, I see the canon G9 as a excellent camera for “street photography” (at the risk of offending the leica-philes!). However, it still poses the same problem as any other digicam for street photography and that is LAG.

Luckily, the G9’s lag is not all that bad to begin with, and can be minimized a bit further. First off- the shutter lag is not bad at all, the predominant problem is the focus lag in low light (especially on the street where the AF assist lamp is not much use). Luckily this is one case where a small sensor actually *helps* us… since the small digicam sensor has such a large depth of field, it facilitates setting the hyperfocal distance (the focal point at which the DOF is from 1/2 the H.D. to infinity – eg if the hyperfocal distance is 10ft, then everything from 5ft to infinity will be in focus)
Continue reading Street Photography and Hyperfocal setting with the G9

Avoiding cliches in landscape photography

I love landscape photography. It is an amazing feeling to capture the majesty and splendor of the world around us in a photograph.

Of course, thousands of other photographers have felt the same way over the years. And plenty of ’em are better photographers than me!

It is very easy to take the exact same snapshot as everyone else. Especially when it comes to beautiful, scenic locations and landscapes – The very thing that makes them so appealing to you, has almost definitely made them appealing to hundreds/thousands of other photographers over the years. The task of creating a unique photo is daunting – how does one find a distinguishing vision in a scene that has already been done thousands upon thousands of times?

Take for example, the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. It is a wonderful photo destination, the glacial rocks create an almost otherworldly landscape and the cutest of quaint little fishing villages surrounds it.

It is a spectacular landscape, wonderfully scenic –

and incredibly “over-photographed”

A quick flickr search reveals the following. (flickr search on “peggy’s cove lighthouse”. )

As one can see by the first few pages of the flickr results, it is quite beautiful and “photogenic” but one quickly gets tired of looking at essentially the same photo over and over… (not to put down any of those pictures, many of them are quite good, but it illustrates my point)

When I was at Peggy’s Cove I really wanted to get some nice photographs, however I also wanted to avoid the overused, “standard lighthouse shot”. This got me thinking about the technical elements of creating a good landscape photo and how to use them to create one’s own personal vision in a landscape, and hopefully avoid shooting the same shot over and over.

The following are just a few tips to hopefully help “break out” of the standardized landscape rut (we’ve all had ’em!).

(BTW, this is the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse shot that I got. Despite a few technical flaws, I think it works overall – Note the use of tips #1, #3 and #4 – I was actually flat on my stomach to shoot this)
click for larger version:

Now, without further ado:

1. Try a different angle. (aka don’t be afraid to get dirty!). standing straight with the camera at eye level is actually a rather “boring” perspective – especially when it comes to landscapes. It is not conducive to either a dramatic foreground or background, and gives no dynamic perspective. Try something different. Even something as simple as crouching down or standing up on something tall can give a different angle of view that creates a more dramtic shot. I frequently just flop down on the ground to get my camera almost on the ground to create a dramatic foreground to juxtapose the elements of foreground and background. This works especially well with a wide angle lens (see tip #4). On the other hand, in contrast to this, we have tip 2…

2. Think long. Landscapes don’t always = wide angle. Often a moderate tele or even a telephoto lens has the effect of “compressing” the scene visually. It also allows to focus on one dramatic element – not all landscapes have to be wide, sweeping vistas!

3. Use “frames” within the frame. Often including some elements around your main subject to “frame” it within the frame of the photo can create visual tension and interest in the scene. I particularly like this example:
Window to the Sea #2

I was doing seascapes on the rocky shout shore of Bermuda, and I was getting bored of the standard “waves crashing on the rocks” shots. I saw this eroded “slit” in the rocks and I really wanted to use it in a way. I tried a few shots of the rock face etc… but nothing really “worked” then I got the idea to put on a wide angle lens, and get right up close to the crack so I could see through it to the sea beyond, while still including the “frame” of the rock face, emphasizing the strong diagonal lines etc…

4. dont forget the foreground. Using a very wide angle lens is actually surprisingly difficult – with such a large field of view, it is easy for the composition to “lose focus”. Use the perspective distortion to your advantage – include a dramatic foreground element to “anchor” the composition. Because of the wide angle perspective distortion, the foreground elements become large, and provide a point of focus in the overall composition.

5. remember the basics. Standard “rules” of photography also apply – remember the rule of thirds, and don’t put the horizon dead center. Of course all these rules are just guidelines – do not hesitate to break any of them if the composition calls for it, but remember – they are called “rules” for a reason. Most of the time they will add to the photo.

Now go out and landscape!

Photographing 2d artwork (part 2 of 2)

NOTE: part one of this article is HERE (opens in a new window), read it first for a discussion of equipment and available light techniques

artificial light:
Artificial light comes in two predominant flavors: strobes (flashes) and continuous (sometimes called “hot lights”)  the main problem with both of these (from a “photographing artwork”) perspective is that they tend to be very directional and rather harsh – leading to the dreaded, detail destroying GLARE!

Basically what we need to do is *modify* the light to make it:
1. soft
2. diffuse
3. give even coverage to the artwork.

Now there are any number of ways to do this.  Photographic lighting is all about modifying light by bouncing, reflecting, diffusing etc… there are reflectors, umbrellas (reflective & shoot through), softboxes, bouncecards for flash… There is a whole world of lighting modifiers for studio lighting, and it is easy to get overwhelmed, so we’re going to keep it simple!
Now, If you already happen to have studio strobes, you probably *already* have various lighting modifiers that can soften the light – softboxes, umbrellas, etc… If you don’t, fear not!  You don’t have to spend hundreds (thousands?) of dollars on professional lights to photograph your paintings.

The cheapest (and arguably easiest) way to diffuse and soften your light is to bounce it off something.   The reflected light, will be *much* softer than the harsh direct light.  Even better, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to do it.  (note that for the following techniques, strobes with brollys or softboxes will work just as well)

For the DIY-er, you will need:

– 2 photoflood lightbulbs, available at any photo store – these are balanced to 3200k, so you know what color temp. your light is.  (there are also daylight balanced bulbs, they work just as well, just remember to set your white balance!)
– 2 fixtures with reflector dishes, available at a hardware store (you know, the ones with the spring clamp on the back, with the big silver reflector dish?)
– 1 or 2 large pieces of white foamcore (generally comes in 32″x40″ sheets, a good size)

First thing is to set up the artwork.  I like to hang it against a background of black velvet, as the velvet will cut down even more on extraneous reflections.  I got a huge piece of black velvet fabric from a fabric store for <$20.  once the artwork is hung and straight (use a level)  set up the lights.

You want to position the lights on either side of the piece, at around a 45 degree angle, both equidistant from the artwork.   The trick is to position your lights pointing *away* from the artwork, and use the foamcore to reflect the light back to it, creating a much softer, diffuse light.   I like to use a plain old straight-backed dining chair.  Prop the foamcore against the back of the chair (where your back would go if you were sitting in it) and clip the light to the front, pointing at the foamcore.  The light will reflect and give even coverage to the artwork.  Move around the position and angle of the setup until you get proper coverage.

Another thing to keep in mind, although it may seem counter-intuitive, is that the *closer* the light source is to the subject, the larger the “apparent size” of the light souce will be, giving softer light. (Check out Strobist’s explanation of “apparent size” here:

in other words, put the light sources closer rather than farther to get more even coverage!

Finally, use a polarizing filter on your camera lens.  This will cut down any remaining glare from the piece and give you a perfectly lit photo with no specular highlights.  (to use a polarizing filter, attach it to the lens, and while looking through the camera, rotate the filter –  when you see the glare go away, stop rotating 🙂

with your setup in place, and your lighting ready, snap away and enjoy the fantastic results! (don’t forget that this technique applies equally to strobes, so if you’ve got a couple of speedlights or studio flashes they work just as well (if not better))