Creating a Rembrandt like still life

Last night I decided that I wanted to try to create a Rembrandt like still life photo using a few squash and apples… To set the scene, I placed an old eight sided table in the middle of my studio, and then ran the backdrop down the wall and then draped it over the table.  

Next I arranged the produce in a fashion that seemed pleasing to the eye (at least to my eye anyway.) What I call the “Rembrandt Look”, is basically a fairly dark image with very focused light that illuminates, for the most part, just the subject along with subtle hints of reflected light.

In the photo below, I snapped a long exposure of the scene showing the table, the backdrop, and the produce, just to better illustrate what I was working with. The only light in the scene is the light bulb up in the ceiling fixture.  I used a long, 1/4 second exposure on ISO 1000, to show how the room looks to the naked eye, no flash is used. This is pure ambient light.

(Note: clicking on any of the images will bring up larger versions of the photos, and the larger versions better illustrate the sometimes subtle changes from one photo to the next!)

ISO 1000,  50mm,  f5.0,  1/4 second exposure

It actually looks pretty good right there, and if I had composed it tighter, I would probably be happy with it as is!  The light is coming from the upper right, and there is plenty of reflected light bouncing off of the wall curtains.  However, I don’t have much control over this light. I can brighten it or darken it by simply adjusting the shutter speed up or down, but as far as changing the direction or temperature (color), there isn’t much I can do.

The solution is to eliminate the ambient light and instead use strategically placed flash units.  Now… To eliminate the ambient light from a photo, one could simply switch off the light switch (and then, stumble and trip over everything in the studio!!!), or a better approach would be to make adjustments to the camera.  Lower the ISO to 100, and set the shutter speed fast enough to not let enough light in to be seen in the finished photo. In this case I used 1/250 of a second. The photo below is the same shot as above, but with the faster shutter speed and lower ISO setting.

ISO 100,  50mm,  f5.0,  1/250 second exposure

As you can see, it’s totally black, there is no ambient light in the scene at all! Yet the light bulb is still on, and to my eye the room looks like it does in the first photo, and I can see to walk around without worrying about tripping over things!!

Next we need to setup the lights.  For me, I think it’s easier to set them up and adjust them one at a time. Once you have one dialed in, then you move on to the next light and repeat.

What I was “seeing in my mind”, was having the primary light coming from the left. So I set up my first flash unit above and over to the left of the produce.  I didn’t use the umbrella on this unit, and I also zoomed the flash head to it’s max 105mm to narrow the beam more like a spotlight. Also, I moved the camera closer to the table to fill up the scene creating a much better composition.

ISO 100,  50mm,  f5.0,  1/250 second exposure

The physical position of the flash unit looks pretty good, but it’s way too bright.  There are a few things we could do here. One is to turn the power down on the flash head, or we could close up the aperture of the lens, or we could move the light further away.  I don’t want to mess with the aperture however because I’m going for a shallow depth of field (blurred background) and closing up the aperture will not only reduce the amount of light coming from the flash, but also increase the depth of field; And I don’t want to move the light too far away either or I risk having the light hitting areas of the scene that I don’t want. So turning down the power was my only real choice. Below I turned the power all the way down to 1/128 of full power.

ISO 100,  50mm,  f5.0,  1/250 second exposure

It’s looking much better now, but it’s a little too white, not warm enough.  We need to add a colored filter to the flash head. (NOTE: adjusting the white balance will also change the temperature of the photo)

ISO 100,  50mm,  f5.0,  1/250 second exposure (yellow filter)

To warm it up, I tried a yellow filter. Now the light looks warm, like sunshine spilling into the room from a small window, or door partway open.  This will be my primary light source.  However, there is no reflected light in the scene.  We need to add a second flash unit on the opposite side of the primary light to use as fill.  In my mind, I thought that a blue filter on the fill light would look pretty cool.

ISO 100,  50mm,  f5.0,  1/250 second exposure (yellow filter and blue filter)

Here you can see the subtle blue glow of the second flash unit. This was also set to 1/128 power, plus it was moved further away to make the light a bit more diffuse and dimmer, and like the primary light – no umbrella.  This will be my fill light. It really isn’t too bad at this stage, but there’s one more thing we can do. We can add a third flash head and sit it on the floor behind the table to light up the backdrop a little.

ISO 100,  50mm,  f5.0,  1/250 second exposure (yellow filter and blue filter and amber filter)

To add some color to the backdrop, I added an amber filter to the third flash unit.  It’s looking pretty good now, but in experimenting a little, I tried tipping the primary light upwards ever so slightly to see what it would look like, and the table isn’t as illuminated now like it was before… Plus.. I wasn’t so sure that I really liked the blue filter on the fill light either, so I replaced the blue filter with another amber filter, and I tipped the primary light back down to the original position, and now I think it looks pretty good!

ISO 100,  50mm,  f5.0,  1/250 second exposure (yellow filter and amber filter and amber filter)

The final photo. Nicely illuminated using just flash units and colored filters!

In the end, I like the final two photos for different reasons. It’s all a matter of taste or feeling as to what I like better.  The blue filter on the fill light gives the photo a cooler counter balance of color to the scene.  The amber filter on the fill light however adds to the overall warmth and gives the photo a more “cozy” feeling.  One thing is for certain, I find it really fun to do!  I can’t wait to try this out on a person!  🙂 …

EDIT – Nov 23rd, 2014:  After posting this blog post yesterday, I decided to keep experimenting with the lights.  I attached the umbrellas to both the primary and fill lights, and rotated the lights 180 degrees to have the flash bounce off the inside of the umbrellas. This creates a softer light with softer highlights and softer edges to shadows, and it takes more power too – instead of 1/128 power, I had to set the primary to 1/16 power on the primary, and 1/32 power on the fill light. On the fill light I doubled up on the filters stacking a yellow filter plus blue filter.  I also bumped up the power on the backdrop light as well.  Below is the new final picture.  Experimenting and learning is fun!  🙂 🙂 🙂