The Most Difficult Aspect of Photographic Lighting
Chinese Cabbage in Fumie's Kitchen -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2007 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl,
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 — 1/250 sec, f/4.5, ISO 200 — full exif
Chinese Cabbage in Fumie's Kitchen

While Fumie was cooking dinner the other day, the proportions of a Chinese cabbage (hakusai白菜) in the kitchen caught my eye. I thought it was beautiful, so wanted to try my hand at photographing it.

The difficulty in many aspects of photography – as in life – is knowing first what you want to accomplish, and then how to go about it. Unlike my earlier water-glass shots where I just copied someone else's setup, in this case, I had an immediate gut instinct about what I wanted to do, and, especially after having read Light — Science and Magic, I knew exactly how to approach it. The problem this time was the third step: actually putting a plan into action.

Metaphorically speaking, it's as if I knew I needed to hammer a nail into the wall, which itself should be a simple task, but in my case, all I had on hand to complete the task was a broken umbrella and a slightly-ripe banana. In photography – as in life – not having the proper tools can make an otherwise simple task gruesomely frustrating.

I got the shot I wanted, but it's almost comical how I eventually did it...

The Setup -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2007 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl,
The Setup

I knew that I wanted the light to come from above and slightly forward, and that I wanted a diffuser in between to soften the light. So, here's how it went...

I took a tray that had a slatted grill-like top and short legs, and propped it up on four up-ended tissue boxes so that it was well above the cabbage. On top of the tray I then lay a tissue, which acted as my diffuser. If I could then position the flash above the tissue and aim it down, the light would filter through and illuminate the cabbage below. From the cabbage's perspective, light would engulf it from the entire surface of the tissue, bathing it in a light that softened the harsh shadows that the bare, small flash area would normally create. But since the bulk of the light would come from above, there was enough “direction” to the light to create shadows in the many veins and ripples of the cabbage, giving it definition.

The next step was to actually get the flash up there. I didn't feel like drilling a hole in my kitchen ceiling, so I had to jury-rig something. I ended up taking a cheap tripod and attaching a lighting umbrella clamp to it, then extended the closed umbrella out from it like an arm. Onto this arm I rubber-banded my SB-800 flash unit. To keep the thing from tipping over, I had one leg in the sink and another had a heavy beanbag draped over for support. (The SB-800 was controled remotely by my Nikon D200, with its on-board flash acting in Commander Mode.)

To keep the background from being cluttered, I propped a large futon mattress well behind the cabbage. Then, to block light from “spilling” from the flash to the mattress and the counter behind the cabbage, I taped a sheet of paper onto the back edge of the flash and let it hang down to the tray. (It ended up not blocking enough light, so I eventually added a big sheet of heavy cardboard, which did the trick. Still, I wish I would have had a black cloth for the background.)

I also draped a sheet in front of the flash, as a precaution against flare from light shining directly into the camera lens.

Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2007 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl,

I took a few test shots, and after adding the extra cardboard, I felt that the shadow under the cabbage was a bit too harsh for a pleasing balance, so I added some aluminum foil on the sides to reflect a bit of the wasted side light back into the scene. This filled in the shadows just a bit, and I got the result I wanted.

Not having the proper equipment turned a 10-minute task into a 45-minute task:

Thinking about desired result 10 seconds
Thinking about the theory of how to do it 10 seconds
Actually figuring out the mechanics of doing it 25 minutes
Test shots, adjusting flash output, tinkering, final shot 16 minutes
Putting stuff away 5 minutes

The moral here, of course, is that I should go out and buy a bunch of lighting equipment. The problem is that the moment something is labeled “for photographers”, they add a zero to the price, and maybe a second zero if it's for lighting. I was at a huge camera store last month and considered some $50 “photographers gloves” (gloves that allow some of the fingers easier access to camera controls), but $50 for a pair of gloves is just too much. Last week, I found the same pair of gloves for $8 at a home center, the only difference being the label.

Another example is that a cheap lighting stand to hold an off-camera flash might run $60 here, but a cheap $9 tripod can do the same task, as seen here.

Last week at the home center, I also found a bunch of small clips, stands, and bendy things intended for point-of-purchase displays (to hold price/info cards, etc.). At only a couple of bucks each, I picked up a few. They wouldn't have helped much with this shot, but I'm sure they'll come in handy some day.

All 8 comments so far, oldest first...

Very interesting post on lighting, especially since I suck at indoor lighting myself. However, all through this post I keep picturing Fumie just out of the frame. She’s wearing an apron, holding a spatula, tapping her foot, and wondering WHEN she will be allowed back into her kitchen to finish dinner. She has already determined to forevermore buy only ugly food. Meanwhile, Anthony cries weakly from hunger in the background.

— comment by Marcina on December 11th, 2007 at 12:31am JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Great job! No, don’t waste your money on a lot of specialized lighting equipment. They are usually overpriced, and often still don’t solve the problem you have for any specific shoot. Every shoot is unique and has its own challenges, so what you did here is actually considered by many to be the best way to do lighting — scrounging for anything and everything that will get the job done. Check out the blog The Stobist — it is filled with tons of wonderful light hacking ideas. I love it.

I’ll second that – I’ve been a fan of Strobist since I discovered it a couple of months ago. Along the same lines is the Flickr setups pool, showing images and their lighting setup. —Jeffrey

— comment by Daniel Sroka on December 11th, 2007 at 1:04am JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

This would be the process for me:

Thinking about desired result: 10 seconds
Thinking about the theory of how to do it: 10 seconds
Start piling a bunch of junk around Yoshiko’s dinner prep space: 1 min. 42 seconds
Yoshiko attacks me with meat tenderizer mallet: very next second

— comment by nils on December 11th, 2007 at 10:47pm JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Come on, now, I’m a guy, but I’m not that stupid.

Of course, before I took the photos: I enjoyed Fumie’s delicious dinner, washed the dishes, put Anthony down, gave Fumie a long foot massage, went out and bought her flowers, cleaned the house and took out the trash, scheduled an evening of Ballet with her, and took her for a walk along the beach to collect seashells and tell silly stories. I then gave her my credit card and told her to go shopping for a while… perhaps get a few new pairs of shoes.

Only then did I pull the remaining cabbage out of the fridge and do the shoot.

Sheeze, give a guy some credit…..

— comment by Jeffrey Friedl on December 11th, 2007 at 10:55pm JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Well, when Fumie sees your explanation, you are really going to be a very, very busy husband not making a liar out of yourself so Fumie can have some SERIOUS bragging rights with her married girlfriends. What a wonderful son Dad and I have raised! Your brothers and brothers-in-law are liable to give you some grief as a result. Now I must go and have a little talk with your Dad about what I would like for Christmas.

— comment by Grandma Friedl on December 12th, 2007 at 1:48am JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I would title that photo “If Apple sold Napa cabbage”. It’s great! If i had a shiny stainless steel kitchen, I’d frame your picture and put it on the wall.

— comment by Andrew S on December 14th, 2007 at 3:22pm JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

This post convinced me to go out and get a light box…
I know I could have made one, but I am lazy…

check it out…



Wow, that is so smooth I thought it was CGI. Amazing! —Jeffrey

— comment by Michael Menichetti on July 10th, 2008 at 9:48am JST (15 years, 11 months ago) comment permalink

“Fumie’s kitchen”, haha! 🙂

— comment by Anne on September 8th, 2012 at 10:02pm JST (11 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink
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