Nicolas Moreton is s a real sculptor – that is to say, someone who carves stone. He creates some fantastic pieces and is kind enough to commission me to take photos of them from time to time.
I always enjoy doing this as it presents a technical challenge to light the sculpture in such a way that shows the 3D shape and texture on a 2D picture.
I generally use a variation of the traditional three light portrait set-up – a main light from the front, off centre, a fill light, and a “hair” light from behind to highlight the rim of the piece.
The positioning and intensity of the lights is very important. I usually use one as a side light in order to create shadows and bring out the texture – exactly the opposite of what a fill light usually does. It helps to have lights where the modelling light is adjustable, as it can take quite a bit of experimentation to get right and this lets you see changes as you go.
In photo on the left the main light was pretty high up and to the right in order to fill in the shadows on the man’s lap, and I used the “hair” light to fill a shadow on the man’s face as well as to light up the rim round the heads. A fill light on one side and a reflector on the other were used to lighten shadows, while leaving enough to show the texture.
I also often find that the flash heads pump out so much light that it just kills the shadows and makes the texture look flat – so I use just the modelling lights to take the photo. Of course the camera is on a tripod and I use the self timer to minimise the possibility of camera shake (I haven’t found it necessary to use the “mirror up” feature on my camera.)
For “Snapdragon” (which won the “People’s Choice” Award, National Sculpture Prize 2010, I had to show the translucency of the stone, so I positioned two lights directly just below and behind the piece, with another gentle fill light to the front and side.
I set the exposure using an incident light meter, and check colour balance using a grey card and a Gretag-Macbeth colour card. If you are not familiar with using lights, the trick is to set your camera manually to the exposure you want. Using just the modelling lights means I am typically using 1/10th to 1/4 second whereas, when firing the flash I would use 1/125 second (for flash sync and stopping minor movement). The aperture is generally f8 for reasonable depth of field, great quality, lowest ISO (for best quality) and adjust the lights to suit. It’s best to check with an incident light/flashmeter, although you can do it by trial and error using the LCD on the back of the camera and looking at the histograms.
One big advantage of using a digital camera is that you can check the results by looking at the LCD. Even if it looks right in front of you, you can never be quite sure because your eyes behave differently to a sensor or photographic emulsion. So you can check, then adjust the recipe until you get it right. Before digital, you would either have to use a polaroid back, or hope you can sort it out in the darkroom.