Recently, I did a couple of timely studio shoots that were a lot of fun and not nearly as complicated as they might appear to be.
COOKIE SHEET AND SPINACH BECOMES A SWAMP
For a Halloween “Opening Shot” feature in October’s Boys’ Life magazine, the editors wanted something that said “Frankenstein’s Monster” without being too scary. How can anyone be scared by a Funko toy? But like any good photograph, it needed environment and context, like the monster emerging from water.
The Boss frowned upon a three-day shoot in a tropical locale, so the next best thing was to create a scary lake in the studio. Finding an extra-large, dark-colored cookie sheet and getting some water from the faucet, I had my lake. As long as I got close to the subject and was careful with my lighting and my angles, I knew it could work.
Ever out walking after a rain and notice how a stop sign is perfectly reflected in a puddle depending at what angle you’re looking at the water? That is exactly how I determined how I wanted to shoot my little green guy and where I wanted him in the water.
The lighting was simple. I put a red paper background behind the lake, put one light on my “Monster” and one light on the background. Done! I was able to use a couple of camera flashes, but I could just as easily used regular lights and some foil to control where the light hit the subject. Another method I could have used would be a simple small flashlight using a technique called “light painting” which I may talk about in another post.
Once I had the basic shot, the real fun began with the help of Art Director Kevin Hurley. We turned the model this way and giving it a little “life.” The mirror-like reflection was creepy, but wouldn’t it be cool if it looked like the monster was moving through the water? We tried flicking the water, dripping the water, moving the pan (Bad idea. I’ll clean that up later.) until finally we stumbled upon using air.
Using a blower used to clean lenses, I blew just a small puff of air in front of the toy to make a circle of small waves around Frankie’s feet while taking the shot.
Lastly, let’s not make it a lake but a swamp. Yucky green stuff to the rescue! We found that a little canned spinach was the perfect swampy-mossy complement to any four-inch monster. The combination of angles, waves and spinach gave us our final image.
CAT LITTER AND BAKING SODA BECOMES A WINTER WONDERLAND
Our November Boys’ Life cover was a little more complicated. We wanted a snow scene for even smaller models: LEGOs. Again, The Boss said “no” to a five-day shoot at a ski resort, so we needed to build a tiny set for our tiny talent.
The idea was to make a scene that looked like the old stop-motion holiday films like “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.” Our Design Director Eric Ottinger was the hero of the assignment figuring out how to make trees to scale using inexpensive materials from a craft store.
I was in charge of the “snow.” I knew we needed a solid base for our models and props, so I created the landscape with the cheapest cat litter I could find. For the snow, we found that baking soda looked fluffy like a perfect powder day. A little common sugar sprinkled on top gave it a nice twinkle under the lights.
Again, the lighting wasn’t that hard. Some blue paper behind the scene created the sky, and two flashes lit our heroes. Another light overhead provided light “from the sky,” but this could also be done with some window light, a couple of flashlights and some patience.
We experimented with the arrangement of the figures and adding some “snow” in their hair and on the trees. Once we had what we wanted things got a little silly as we added other toys for a laugh.
We have a lot of toys around here.
These were both assignments for work, but by setting up little projects like this you can learn about lighting, angles, and the gear you have or may want. Since there are no live subjects to get hungry or bored, you’ll have all the time you want to experiment and play. Photography isn’t hard. It’s just a little bit of magic and a whole lot of fun.
Garth Dowling, the Director of Photography for the Boy Scouts of America’s magazines, occasionally writes about photo shoots and assignments. Topics include interesting backstories; talk about tips, tricks and techniques; or even a few Q&As.
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