How I Did It
In case it helps someone else out there just starting to learn, I thought I’d document how I arrived at the image above, from start to finish.
Let’s start with the equipment I used: Nikon D610 body, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, Nikon SB-700 flash (no diffuser), Cactus Transceiver V6 flash triggers (x2 – transmitter and receiver), tripod, 8.5 x 11 inch white printer paper, a couple of yoga blocks, and one Lego gorilla. Camera gear aside, I didn’t really use anything crazy for this photo—just some random things that I had laying around my house.
Before I could get to shooting, I needed to find a subject. After a little digging, I landed on a Lego gorilla stored away in a basket that I picked up on a nostalgic trip to the Lego store a few months back. The little model would be big enough to shoot without a macro lens, and flexible enough that I could pose him however I chose.
I find the easiest way to solve a problem is to tackle small chunks at a time. So, to start, I simply sat the gorilla down on my desk and tried shooting.
ISO 200 | 70mm | f/4.5 | 1/100s
I intended to only use light that I created with my flash, so I started by eliminating any light coming from other sources in the area that I was shooting in. Next, I raised the shutter speed high enough to where the sensor wouldn’t have enough time to gather any light from other sources, giving me a solid black frame, pictured above. After eliminating all other sources, I knew that the only light that would help expose my photo would come from my flash.
I chose to manually focus each of my shots for a few reasons. For starters, because I dimmed the lights in the room, it was pretty dark and Auto Focus may have had a hard time finding a focal point. Also, since I used a tripod and wasn’t moving around too much, I really didn’t need to refocus once I got it locked in.
ISO 200 | 70mm | f/4.5 | 1/100s
For my first shot using my flash, I sat the gorilla down in front of a green yoga block on the surface of my desk, thinking that it might work out as a decent background. I decided to shoot level with the gorilla, hoping to get a powerful and dominating look from my little subject. Since I had my starting point set from the previous photo, I didn’t change any of my exposure settings. I simply turned the flash on—leaving the power settings at their default—and took the photo, pictured above.
In the above shot, my flash was definitely over powered, and the focus wasn’t perfect either. I did, however, like the shadow being cast from the hard light source, a look I decided to keep throughout the rest of my shots.
ISO 200 | 70mm | f/3.5 | 1/100s
In the above shot, I recomposed from a different angle, then dropped the flash power, and aperture. I raised my camera, looking down on the gorilla instead of level to him, as compared to my previous shot. The exposure in this photo was a little better, but I didn’t like the composition adjustment, and the depth of field was too shallow.
I also realized that the yoga blocks weren’t really making a great background, and I knew that I wanted the gorilla’s shadow to be a little more prominent, instead of being tucked behind his body. Additionally, because the edge of the yoga blocks were angled, the soft focus turned them into a gradient that I didn’t want, and I noticed that the logo and the seam between the two blocks were visible. All of this would have created more post processing work than I wanted to do, so I knew that I needed to try something different.
ISO 200 | 56mm | f/4.0 | 1/200s
It turned out that the yoga blocks actually made better paper props than a background. I added a single sheet of white paper and it made a huge difference—much better than the ugly green blocks. I also dropped the camera back down, slightly lower than before, shooting up towards my subject, thus bringing the more powerful and dominating perspective back. I increased the shutter speed and moved the flash to a different spot, improving the exposure even more.
Looking at the gorilla’s shadow in this shot, the flash fired almost directly in front of his body, which I wasn’t quite happy with. I knew for my next shot I would like to move the shadow to the right and away from his body, hoping to create a little more separation.
I was happy with the depth of field though—there was nearly a perfect balance of foreground (left arm) and background (shadow). I knew I was headed in the right direction.
ISO 200 | 56mm | f/4.0 | 1/200s
I was happy with the previous exposure settings, so I didn’t touch anything in my next shot. I moved the flash to the left a little, putting the shadow just about where I wanted it. I added two more sheets of paper into the mix this time around—one on top of the yoga blocks and one below the gorilla’s feet— trying my best to create a seamless background. I knew that the seam below his feet could be fixed in post processing, but the problem could also be solved by just shuffling the paper around. I planned to keep improving my makeshift background, and knew I was getting closer to the final product I was hoping for.
ISO 200 | 70mm | f/4.0 | 1/200s
While fidgeting with the background, I knocked the gorilla over and had to reposition him again. I lifted the flash a little higher to shorten the gorilla’s shadow. I started filling in the white background, adding two more pieces of paper to the back. I knew I was getting somewhere, but I noticed that the sides of the gorillas’s body were a little dark—this made sense, as there was no light coming in from either side. The gorilla’s shadow was also pretty dark and distracting. Because I was trying to work only with one flash, I knew my best bet was to try to fill in those dark areas with reflection.
Something else worth noting in the above shot: the new focal length affected the depth of field. To avoid adding more paper, I zoomed all the way in to 70mm, reducing the depth of field to a little more shallow than I would have preferred. Looking at the gorilla, granted that his position is slightly rotated from the previous image, you can tell that his right arm was now moved into the background.
To get a little more technical: the distance to the subject was just over 2 feet, so for the math, I would guesstimate about 2.25 feet. Zoomed into 56mm at f/4, the depth of field was just about 1.32 inches. Zooming further into 70mm, the depth of field was now about .84 inches. These aren’t huge numbers, but at this scale, it made a difference.
To learn more about DoF calculations, check out this calculator.
ISO 250 | 70mm | f/5.0 | 1/200s
I rotated the gorilla’s body slightly to the left and opened up the aperture a tiny bit, trying to bring more of his body into the depth of field (back to about 1.08 inches). I also bumped up the ISO a bit, attempting to soak up just a little more light. I then added two more pieces of paper, one to the left and one to the right, attempting to reflect light back onto the subject. The gorilla’s shadow was now a little lighter and less prominent—not a bad improvement considering I just added in a couple more pieces of paper. I would have liked to have seen the shadows filled in on the gorilla’s sides a little more, but it was close enough at this point that a simple shadow slider adjustment in Lightroom would be just the fix I needed.
After stepping back and looking at what I just pieced together, I realized that I had created a poor man’s light box.
At this point, I was content with my setup, so it just became a matter of getting the shots I wanted.
ISO 250 | 24mm | f/5.0 | 1/200s
This is what my setup looked like, zoomed out to 24mm. I’m pretty happy with the results considering I was able to only use a single flash and printer paper. Below are the end results after playing around a bit more, then editing in Lightroom.