Thursday, June 7, 2012

Still Life Photos on the Go (Review of the Creative Light 20" Light Shed)

Waya Island, Kadavu; March 15, 2012 (Fiji Beachcombing series No.6)

My plans for vacationing in Fiji involved days of beachcombing and afternoons of photography. When I take the Beachcombing photos at home, I use a jury-rigged lightbox made of a three-foot-wide foamcore box filled with four construction lamps, topped with a sheet of Plexiglass, and lit from above with four more construction lamps. It's unwieldy even in the studio, and I couldn't image how to begin packing it. In addition, we had very strict weight limits for the flight from Viti Levu to Kadavu. Not only were our checked bags limited to 50 pounds, our carry-ons couldn't weigh over 15 pounds. My usual carry-on bag weighs 7 pounds empty. My camera with the big lens on it weighs just over 4 pounds. And I was traveling with three scuba divers and all their gear. Packing for Fiji was an exercise in 'do we really need that?" So when it came to a still life set-up, I had to find something that would weigh as little as possible.
Creative Light 100897 20 inch Light Shed

Enter the Creative Light 20" Light Shed, a simple wire-framed pop-up tent. Mine weighs exactly one pound, in its case. There are a lot of similar products out there, but I read through a lot of reviews and this one stood out as sturdy, reliable, and affordable (not cheap, though). The colored backdrops are junk, as many of the reviewers pointed out. They arrive creased, and this type of fabric never sheds its folds, so I tossed them as soon as they arrived. They weren't my style anyway. I cut a piece of foam core to fit the bottom. I like foam core because it reflects enough light to soften and brighten the interior, but not enough to cause glare or reflections. Of course it got bent in my luggage, but fortunately just a corner and I was able to work around it. I also brought a roll of white paper but didn't like working with it: it wasn't reflective and it got creased and dirty too easily. I'm still pondering other suitable materials.
I chose this particular size because I need a pretty large area to lay things out, and this was the smallest I thought could be useful. Any smaller and you're talking product photography, not my peculiar layouts. I'd have like something larger, but worried that it would be too heavy and bulky. Mine folds to 13" x 11" x 2"  - If it were round it would be about 12" diameter x 3" deep. Folding it is a challenge. If you've ever had one of those beach shelters that is supposed to twist up and get stuffed into a bag, you've run into this problem before. They like their freedom, they don't want to go in the bag, they fight being twisted, and they never fold as neatly as the factory did it. I found the video above on YouTube and watched it over and over and I twisted my damn light tent over and over until I finally got it folded up. It looks like this now:
 Lumpy, but contained. It fits nicely in a suitcase, which was the whole point. Oh - be careful when you open it. It springs open with some force. Boing! Right on my nose. You also need to straighten the wires a bit after it has been in storage (or squashed in your luggage) but it's easy to do. Bottom line reviewing this: hard to fold but totally worth it.

Before leaving, I tried hard to find a light source that was inexpensive, lightweight, packable, and bright enough, but failed utterly. I can tell the day is coming when I will have to invest in flashes, but I'll need at least two, and I have expensive taste. Plus they are bulky and awkward and ugly and I don't know how to use them well. Sigh. Although now that I think about it, I said something similar shortly before I bought my DSLR.

So what did I do for light? I used the sun. I really wanted artificial light because our trip was planned for rainy season. As it turned out, the skies only opened up on a still life session once. I brought the tent and my tripod out onto our bure's deck, tried to angle it so I would get maximum sunlight but no direct light into the tent, and took the best shots I could. Here's an image shot in RAW (shrunk for web display and watermarked, but otherwise straight out of the camera):
Keep in mind that RAW always has that flat look to it - it hasn't had any formulae applied to the data yet, which is the whole point of shooting in RAW. 
And here's what it looks like after brightening, color-balancing, and sharpening:

And there you have it: light tent + sunlight + tripod + Photoshop = portable still-life studio!


The light tent link above leads to Amazon, where it is selling for $58. It's also available at B&H Photo for $58, and both sites offer free shipping. Disclosure: I get a slight commission if you follow the link and purchase from Amazon. I personally order from both companies: I tend to buy from Amazon when I have a random bunch of things that qualifies for free shipping, and from B&H (or my excellent not-quite-local camera store) when I'm getting some expensive technology.

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