The Field Studio Technique & History

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How to make field studio photographs by MYN co-founder Niall Benvie

If you’d like to shoot for Meet Your Neighbours, find out here how to make the photographs. It’s not easy but with a little practice you’ll master the technique.

But a little bit of background first. When I started to research the lineage of this style, I turned in the first instance to respected American photographer Susan Middleton. She and her collaborator David Liittschwager have produced a number of important books (in respect of the outcomes that resulted from their publications) including Witness: Endangered Species of North America;  Here Today: Portraits of our Vanishing Species;  and Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World’s Most Remote Island Sanctuary, works that gave  me the confidence to develop my own field studio collection.

Both photographers worked for a spell in the mid 1980′s with that late 20th century giant  of portraiture, Richard Avedon, whose photograph taken in Sicilly in the late 1940′s of a boy and olive tree against a white sky was pivotal in the development of his characteristic out-to-white style which although he would not claim as his own, he became a master of.

“After working with him, I became fascinated with the idea of making a portrait of a plant or animal that could evoke the same kind of emotional response in the viewer that a fine portrait of a person could, and now, nearly 25 years later, I am still at it and thoroughly convinced that it is possible!”

She further explains, “ The book and exhibition of Archipelago were heavily leveraged in the designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a National Marine Monument (now the largest marine protected area in the world) a few years ago. . .that effort brought David and I to the White House, where photographs from Archipelago were shown, and I was invited to give a presentation to first Lady Laura Bush and then accompanied her on Air Force One to Midway Atoll to see the place at first hand. It was her passion that persuaded the President, not known for his conservation policies, to protect the area.”

Meet Your Neighbours photographers are carrying this tradition forward, using new technology to refine the techniques and distribute the work in the belief that we too can move viewers to care about our subjects – their neighbours.

The protocol
All the MYN photographers shoot to the same protocol as we want a uniform “look” to the pictures: the subjects are the stars in this project, rather than any particular photographer, so we level the technical playing field for everyone.

The protocol requires that:
• All the images are shot in the field, on location and no subject is collected to photograph indoors – unless it’s there in the first place!
• The background of each image must be uniformly 255 in each channel and backlit. This gives the characteristic brilliance and translucence seen in MYN photos and facilitates design and compositing. Photoshop cut outs can’t match this look, especially in respect of how out of focus edges are rendered.
• Front lighting must be diffused and near shadowless to render maximum detail.
• Any subjects that require to be handled must be returned as soon as possible to the spot from which they were collected. Photographers are expect to observe the normal ethical standards of their discipline.

File format
The images should be shot as RAW files as the optimal in-camera exposure normally needs at least a little post-production work. I recommend Adobe Lightroom 3 or 4 for this work, but the RAW converter within Photoshop Elements is normally adequate.

Equipment
The good news is that you can produce MYN images look with very simple, relatively inexpensive equipment. More money buys convenience and productivity. I’ve outlined different equipment options at the start of the three articles on photographing plants, invertebrates and aquatic subjects

Basic:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• A tripod to support the camera.
• 2 manual flash guns and sync cables to connect them to each other and the camera.
• 1 A2 3mm sheet opaque acrylic.
• 1 A3 sheet Challoner Flyweight opaque envelope stiffener as front diffuser.
• At least one helper to hold diffuser and background.

Making life a little easier:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• A tripod to support the camera.
• 2 manual flash guns triggered by a radio transmitter such as the Seculine Twin Link T2D or IR slave unit such as a Wein, trigger by a flash or Prolinca IR transmitter.
• 2 x Benbo Trekker tripods to support backgrounds and diffusers.
• Manfrotto clamps and goosenecks: 2x Manfrotto 035 clamp; 2x Manfotto 237HD Heavy Duty Arm 520 mm; 2x Manfrotto 175 clamp.
• 1 A2 3mm sheet opaque acrylic
• 1 A3 sheet Challoner Flyweight opaque envelope stiffener as front diffuser.

In an ideal world:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• A tripod to support the camera.
• Elinchrom Ranger Quadra with 2x A heads (max 400 w/s) with Skyport radio trigger.
• 2 x Benbo Trekker tripods to support softboxes.
• Elinchrom Rotalux 60cm x 80cm softbox as background.
• Elinchrom Quadra portalite 40cm x 40 cm for front diffusion
• Elinchrom Quadra to EL Mount Adapter for 60cm x 80 cm softbox
• Elinchrom Translucent Deflector with Rod.

Note: softboxes designed for use with compact strobes may not always be lit corner to corner owing to the small size of the strobe’s window and distance the strobe is positioned at relative to the fabric.

Introduction
Long before I started to shoot digitally, I was intrigued by the simplicity of studio photos made against uniform white backgrounds. Images of plants, in particular, took on the appearance of textbook illustrations, free from the distraction of surrounding vegetation. But most of the images I saw lacked one vital component – backlighting – and therefore failed to describe fully a subject’s translucent qualities. More importantly, I was not prepared to move wild plants indoors simply for photography: the studio would have to go outside.

The technique I refined over four years is designed to produce maximum subject detail with a minimum of shadows where the subject is set against a brilliant white (R 255, G 255, B 255) background. From a designer’s perspective, this is very useful; pictures can be dropped straight on to a white page and text laid out around them without having to make any additional selection. Moreover, the task of creating composite images of several species or individuals is made much easier when the elements are already, effectively, cut out.

Finding your model
These pictures, devoid of any clues about the plant’s ecology that would be given by its surroundings, are all about the subject’s appearance. So, in celebrating the form, shape and colour of any particular species we are looking for specimens that exemplify the characteristics of their kind. Not slug-eaten, not wilting, not mutated. This is the time-consuming part. Before setting up lights and tripods, I place the piece of white acrylic I will use as the background behind several candidates to decide which one best typifies the species. Surprisingly, it is often the more slender, elegant species rather than the extravagant, showy ones that make for the most attractive subjects. Look for specimens along the edge of colonies so that you can set up your gear without crushing other plants; isolated ones without too much vegetation round them are ideal. This is a great way to photograph species that are normally hard to see clearly because they grow amongst a lot of other plants. But don’t destroy the neighbouring greenery; often it can be held out of the way temporarily under sheets of envelope stiffener weighed down by small stones. Traditional plant photography calls for mellow lighting and still conditions. In contrast, this method gets all its light from flash, so you can work on dark windy days and still produce brilliant, sharp images.

Step by step
Before you do anything else, set your camera’s and strobes’ exposure modes to manual.

1. Once you’ve identified the plant you want to photograph, support the piece of acrylic behind it, at an appropriate distance – the paler or more translucent the subject, the more distant the white background should be. The same applies if you use a softbox: its front panel acts as your white background. Position the main flash far enough behind the acrylic to light the whole area that will form the background. The flash head inside the softbox should light it corner to corner.

2. Frame up the plant, remaining as parallel as possible to the subject’s principal plane of focus to take full advantage of the available depth of field.

3. Run some test exposures to determine if the background is pure white (blinking highlights) or only partially over-exposed. If it is not, there may be some vegetation intercepting the light. Hold it down with small stones, twigs or envelope stiffener but avoid crushing or breaking it.. The background should be over-exposed so that it is 255 in each channel – but only just. It is important not to provide too much additional light from behind the subject or you may find it hard to recover dark values at the RAW processing stage. Once you’ve determined the correct background exposure, don’t adjust your aperture again.

4. Assuming that the background exposure is fine and no part of the subject’s highlights are blown out, you will normally need to provide some diffused front fill lighting. The exception is some white flowers that may receive all the light that they and their leaves need from the main flash behind the background. Undiffused flash is not suitable for this technique.

5. Refine the front light exposure by adjusting the flash’s manual power setting – I normally dial back to ½ or ¼ power if I’m using a strobe –, fit additional diffusion or simply move it back or forwards. If you adjust the aperture, you will affect the exposure for the background too. Remember too that the closer the front light source is to the subject, the softer and more open the shadows will be. If you want to emphasise translucence, boost the backlighting and diminish the front fill.

Balancing background light
The distance between the acrylic background (or softbox) and subject matters hugely. When the background is fully lit, light spills forward so you should position it depending on how much of this you want to affect the subject. A background will render 255 255 255 at a given exposure whether it is 2 cm or 2 metres behind the subject but the difference is how much that light affects the subject.

Reading the histogram
The histogram for a “255” picture typically looks “too hot” with lots of values bunched at the right hand side of it. Put on the Highlight warning and no parts of the plant itself should be over-exposed. So long as you have values occupying at least 2/3rds the width of the histogram, you’ll be able to recover the shadows later during processing. If there are no values to the left of the hisogram’s mid-point, try reducing the exposure for the background to the point that it is almost under-exposed (

Composition
Without a supporting cast, all attention is focused on the subject; there’s no hiding a poor arrangement of elements in this open space. If I’m photographing plants, I prefer the specimen to be as discrete as possible from its surroundings. If the subject has a lot of “unconcluded edges” you may have to use a frame (even a narrow black keyline) to contain it.

One of the main reasons for paying such close attention to the purity of white backgrounds is so that elements from different pictures can be loosely selected with the Polygonal lasso tool and dropped on to a white document without any concerns over tonal discontinuity. Is this still nature photography ? Well, it’s not representing nature exactly as it was, so probably “no” but it is allowing you to represent concepts such as biodiversity much more clearly than can be done in conventional photography.

Successful compositing relies on consistency in magnification ratio (so that subjects remain in proportion to one another) and lighting (so that the different elements look as it they were all shot at the same time). I prefer too, to choose subjects that have some sympathy with each other in terms of form, shape, texture and colour.

If you convert the elements of the composite image to Smart Objects you can scale them non-destructively until such time as the are rasterized.

Part 2. Photographing small animals in the field studio.

Equipment:
Basic:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• 2 manual flash guns and sync cables to connect them to each other and the camera.
• A large reflector (such as a sheet of white polystyrene)
• 1 60 cm x 30 cm sheet of transparent Lexan (by Sabic) or Makrolon (by Bayer) flexible plastic, made rigid along its short edges with wooden batons and held in an arc by short bungee cords, with ends formed from Flyweight. This is the set.
• 1 A3 sheet Challoner Flyweight opaque envelope stiffener as front diffuser.
• Two helpers to hold diffuser, flashes and set.

Making life a little easier:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• 2 manual flash guns triggered by a radio transmitter such as the Seculine Twin Link T2D or IR slave unit such as a Wein, trigger by a flash or Prolinca IR transmitter.
• 2 x Benbo Trekker tripods to support set, flashes and diffusers.
• A large reflector (such as a sheet of white polystyrene or Lastolite).
• Manfrotto clamps and goosenecks: 2x Manfrotto 035 clamp; 2x Manfotto 237HD Heavy Duty Arm 520 mm; 2x Manfrotto 175 clamp.
• 1 60 cm x 30 cm sheet of transparent Lexan (by Sabic) or Makrolon (by Bayer) flexible plastic, made rigid along their short edges with wooden batons and held in an arc by short bungee cords, with ends formed from Flyweight.
• 1 A3 sheet Challoner Flyweight opaque envelope stiffener as front diffuser.

In an ideal world:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• Elinchrom Ranger Quadra with 2x A heads (max 400 w/s) with Skyport radio trigger.
• 2 x Benbo Trekker tripods to support softboxes and set.
• Manfrotto clamps and goosenecks: 1x Manfrotto 035 clamp; 1x Manfotto 237HD Heavy Duty Arm 520 mm; 2x Manfrotto 175 clamp.
• Elinchrom Rotalux 60cm x 80cm softbox as background.
• Elinchrom Quadra portalite 40cm x 40 cm for front diffusion
• Elinchrom Quadra to EL Mount Adapter for 60cm x 80 cm softbox
• Elinchrom Translucent Deflector with Rod.
• 1 60 cm x 30 cm sheet of transparent Lexan (by Sabic) or Makrolon (by Bayer) flexible plastic, made rigid along their short edges with wooden batons and held in an arc by short bungee cords, with ends formed from Flyweight. This is the set.

Notes:

• Softboxes designed for use with compact strobes may not always be lit corner to corner owing to the small size of the strobe’s window and distance the strobe is positioned at relative to the fabric.
• A Benbo Trekker used to support the set allows it to be positioned easily for overhead shots (for example, of beetles) or side-on shots (such as frogs and grasshoppers). Benbo tripods make excellent lighting stands and set supports – and awful camera supports.

How to
The same principles of lighting and exposure for photographing plants apply equally to these subjects. The principal difference is that the subject is placed on a transparent set which allows its distance from the white background to be managed effectively. Place a pale subject directly onto a white background and you will have a tough job to differentiate the two. The rear lighting is provided by either a flash fired into a large reflector or one in a medium to large softbox.

Set up the equipment and determine correct exposure before you collect your subject; this will cut down on the time you need to contain it. I collect my subjects with a soft brush paintbrush and plastic tub then introduce it onto the set. Some animals are intent on exploring their new space straight away, while others are happy to sit still where released. Calm highly active subjects by covering them for a short time. I don’t refrigerate invertebrates not least because I couldn’t be sure if they were sitting naturally on set. Portrait photographers don’t, after all, routinely get their sitters drunk to make them more compliant in the studio! Learn to read an animal’s body language; if the antennae are up and twitching, it’s likely to go walking again and soon. Biologists can quickly tell if an invertebrate is stressed in a photo: a scorpion, for example, only raises its tail when if feels threatened.

Contrary to what you might expect, most creatures gravitate towards the back of the curved set rather than try to escape over the front edge; the photographer clearly acts as a deterrent.

Go with the animal’s biology to help secure pictures: butterflies, moths and dragonflies, for example, are much more torpid in the cool of early morning or late evening and you’ll have more success at installing the set you would normally use for flowers at these times of day without the insect flying away. Alternatively, you can try your luck during the day by placing your set around nectar rich flowers and hoping for a visit.

Part 3. Photographing underwater subjects in the field studio.

Equipment:
Basic:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• 2 manual flash guns and sync cables to connect them to each other and the camera.
• A large reflector (such as a sheet of white polystyrene)
• A small self-constructed acrylic tank with transparent front (1.5 mm) and back (3 mm) and white (3 mm) sides and base. You’ll also need a clear (1.5mm) sheet to act as a partition inside the tank, held in position by small rubber suckers fixed to the side of the tank. My standard one measures 30 cm x 20 cm x 20 cm.
• 1 A3 sheet Challoner Flyweight opaque envelope stiffener as top/front diffuser.
• 2 nets and holding tubs.
• Two helpers to hold reflector and flashes

Making life a little easier:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• 2 manual flash guns triggered by a radio transmitter such as the Seculine Twin Link T2D or IR slave unit such as a Wein, trigger by a flash or Prolinca IR transmitter.
• 2 x Benbo Trekker tripods to support flashes and reflector.
• A large reflector (such as a sheet of white polystyrene or Lastolite).
• Manfrotto clamps and goosenecks: 2x Manfrotto 035 clamp; 2x Manfotto 237HD Heavy Duty Arm 520 mm; 2x Manfrotto 175 clamp.
• A small self-constructed acrylic tank with transparent front (1.5 mm) and back (3 mm) and white (3 mm) sides and base. You’ll also need a clear (1.5mm) sheet to act as a partition inside the tank, held in position by small rubber suckers fixed to the side of the tank. My standard one measures 30 cm x 20 cm x 20 cm.
• 1 A3 sheet Challoner Flyweight opaque envelope stiffener as top/front diffuser.
• 2 nets and holding tubs.

In an ideal world:
• Digital camera with close focusing zoom or macro lens, manual exposure capability and RAW mode.
• Elinchrom Ranger Quadra with 2x A heads (max 400 w/s) with Skyport radio trigger.
• 2 x Benbo Trekker tripods to support softboxes.
• Elinchrom Rotalux 60cm x 80cm softbox as background.
• Elinchrom Quadra portalite 40cm x 40 cm for front diffusion
• Elinchrom Quadra to EL Mount Adapter for 60cm x 80 cm softbox
• Elinchrom Translucent Deflector with Rod.
• A small self-constructed acrylic tank with transparent front (1.5 mm) and back (3 mm) and white (3 mm) sides and base. You’ll also need a clear (1.5mm) sheet to act as a partition inside the tank, held in position by small rubber suckers fixed to the side of the tank. My standard one measures 30 cm x 20 cm x 20 cm.
• 2 nets and holding tubs.

How to
The principles of lighting and exposure that apply to shooting small animals on a transparent set apply equally to tank photography. If you choose to fit a white back to your tank (to get round having to use a reflector as your “white” light source for the background, you may be able to render a “dense” subject like a toad well enough, but the detail of fine ones such as water tigers or damselfly nymphs will blend with the background. With these creatures, the white light source needs to be at least 1 m behind the tank to get adequate control over forward light spill.

You may expect reflections to be a problem. But they are not. Since I am aiming to expose the background as pure white, anything in the picture that is not the subject will be pure white – reflection free. The only place reflections could show would be where the acrylic is darkened by the subject. But if you shoot in the shade (which is basic good practice), have a sync speed of around 1/200 second, an ISO of 200 and an aperture of f18, the ambient light would have to be extremely bright to render any reflections.

What is much more of a problem is the appearance of tiny fibres on the surface of the acrylic; when it is cleaned it generates a static charge and draws dust, pollen and fibres from a cleaning cloth with great enthusiasm. Use anti-static cleaner to save yourself time later in Photoshop. Be aware too that acrylic is very easily scratched and where these coincide with out of focus parts of the animal, they will show up clearly. I expect to replace the front pane of the tank 3 or 4 times in a busy season, especially if I am photographing animals with even small claws.

I use mineral water in the tank, cooled to the same temperature as the pond the animal is coming from, set everything up and determine my exposure before catching the subject. I aim, if possible, to work with no individual for more than about 15 minutes before release at the same spot. One net is for use only in the pond while a second, smaller one is used only for transfer into the tank. The animal is transferred from the “catching” tub to a second cleaning tub to free it of as much detritus as possible before being introduced into the photography tank. Since you need to shoot through as little water as possible, you can contain the subject at the front of the tank by gently moving it ahead of the clear acrylic partition (which, once in position, rests back on two rubber suckers). Just make sure that it still has enough room to turn. If an amphibian is too restricted it may well end up with “Curly Finger Syndrome” as it presses against the front pane. Conceivably, fingers could be pressed against all sorts of things in the wild but in a field studio picture, it just looks like it’s pressed against the front of the tank.

NOTE: Amphibians worldwide are dying of Chytridiomycosis, plunging some populations into catastrophic decline. Help to prevent its spread by using purified water in your tank (place the bottles in the host pond to warm or cool it to the same temperature) and using new nets for dipping in each pond. Do not discard the water after the shoot near watercourses with amphibians and clean the tank thoroughly after each shoot. Avoid handling the amphibians with your bare hands.