Recreating a Classic

Number 1 Part 1 – Available Light.

I stumbled on Ted Forbes (link at bottom of page) through this assignment at the start of isolation in March 2020 in the UK. It was posted on fstoppers (link at bottom of page), and watching through the assignment video it stood out significantly from a lot of the other lockdown keep busy videos. So here’s my take on the assignment, both the initial assignment and the updated goals posted shortly after.

Number 1 Part 1 Sub-part 1 – Light through the day.

The first part of the assignment was to take photos at regular intervals through the day observing how the light changed as the day progressed and the sun moved. So on the last day of March I setup the OM-D E1 MkIII with a USB power source on a tripod in the front room on the 1st floor. This faces roughly east, and catches the morning sun. The brief was a little vague about what to shoot, but I figured a simple still life of an object casting a shadow on a white field would give me good information on the behaviour of the light through the day.

The camera was setup on a tripod with the power pack on the window sill, 60mm f2.8 was chosen to control the field of view, since there isn’t a lot of space in this room. White balance was set to ‘daylight’ which gave the camera a little latitude.  In retrospect maybe I should have set to a specific K value. However shooting RAW I could do that in post. Otherwise the camera was in Aperture Priority, f5.6 and ISO 200, with the shutter speed free to vary. I set the interval timer to start at local sunrise (5:40am UTC, 6:40am BST) and take 1 frame every hour from then for 14 frames, which would get us to local dusk. Given that this is within a fortnight of the equinox the extra hour of light is quite some shift though.

So here is a screenshot of all the files in Capture One. Note that Capture One still doesn’t support the E1MkIII (at time of writing) which only came out at the start of March, so they have been routed via Adobe DNG converter. When the promised support arrives, hopefully Capture One will be more useful.

A day in the life

Looking over the images you can see a few things immediately. Probably the first thing is the colour temperature varying through the day. Initially the first picture is before the sun was above the roofline opposite. As a result we get diffuse sunlight very blue in tone. The same hue we get at the end of the day after the sun has moved behind the house. The next frame has direct sun on the apple. Despite this being a pretty cloud free sunny day it is the only shot where we get a strong direct light. Which is a little odd. The window is large, and the apple was at the north end of the sill, so I’d have expected more of these strongly lit images. What’s also odd is that with the sun at its lowest angle the shadow cast by the apple itself is pretty short, the shadow from the roofline being long. I suspect this is because the sun is bang on the roofline at this point, and the shadow length is curtailed by only part of the apple being lit directly. In the next frames as the sun moves to the south the shadow is at first quite long, then shortens as the sun goes out of direct line a couple of hours later. From then on the main change is only the colour temperature, getting gradually bluer. So this window has a relatively small window of opportunity for direct lighting at this time of year, and it’s an antisocial hour for a late riser like me.  It also came as a surprise because this window looks like a sun trap, but clearly that depends on size and non direct light.

Number 1 Part 1 Sub-part 2 – Replicating a Sudek Masterpiece.

Not just imitating the style but trying as closely as possible to recreate the same work. Ok. Right. 

Episode 1 - Eggs and glasses

I started by hitting image search for ‘Sudek still life’ and picking a picture I liked. I happened pretty quickly on the picture of a faceted glass with an egg in front of it, and egg(s) visible through it. Looked a nice picture, simple, with some interesting lighting. I spent some time looking at this and analysing the lighting. I’d love to show the original to you, but I cannot find a permanent link on the web or an image that is licensed. It is however on a lot of blog type sites, so it can easily be found.  It comes from his Composition collection and is dated 1950 as far as I can see.

At first I did nothing for a few days. I had a number of other ideas going on, and wasn’t sure I could do this. After a few days though I took the plunge and sat down with a pen to disassemble the image to work out what I needed to replicate it.

Here are my notes taken at the time.

Breaking down the scene

In terms of props I was resolved not to go shopping explicitly for photo props, but only to use what I had around or could replace on my next scheduled shopping trip. I had not been able to source fresh eggs at this point for a few weeks, and only had a few around for critical baking. So I had 3 eggs. Looking at the image the eggs beyond the glass were in multiple shades of white and brown and were standing on end. There then seemed to be a second set of eggs further back which were lying down. Not obvious at first glance, but the eggs refracted above the liquid are not the same as those below. 

For the glass itself I had a faceted jam jar with a similar shape, and for the liquid initially I wanted to work out the shot with plain water because I don’t drink carbonated drinks very much and only had one bottle of tonic.  I did not want to waste it setting up a failed shoot, I only wanted to commit when I knew the shot was feasible.

The table is a wooden open grained table arranged diagonally in shot with variable grain patterns running from the top left, and the far edge visible. Beyond the edge is a wall with a vertical stripe pattern that is parallel to the edge of the table. 

As for lighting, the light is clearly split. There seems to be something casting a shadow in the middle, with the light coming onto the egg and glass from a fairly low angle. The light beyond seems to be from a different source, casting a bigger pool of light on the surface. It also seems to be both above and beneath the table, illuminating the far wall, which the light from this source seems unlikely to reach looking at the shadows on the table edge.

Now I have wooden tables, but they’re holding up this computer I’m working on and getting them near a window is non trivial. It would require disassembly to take them out of the study, downstairs, make space near the window, reassemble, and so on. Not practical. The light in the study coming from a west facing skylight, which again would require fairly major re-arrangement to get the table near the light.

So cheat.  I decided for the purposes of initial setup I’d use one or two of my macro LED lights to create a diffuse source, and assemble the scene where I could tether the camera for shooting. 

I setup the basic scene using a wine bottle to cast the shadow, with the jar just in front, and one egg just to get the lighting on the scene. I fairly quickly got the lighting I wanted but didn’t have enough table space to get the LED where I wanted it with the bottle out of scene. Next bit was to position the eggs behind the jar. At this point I had the camera handheld, so I could work out where to hold it to get the eggs refracted in the jar. Which I managed kind of. But not with any great satisfaction. In order to get the eggs to image though I needed them held away from the jar. In contact with it I was getting the eggs out of focus and could not get them to refract well. I did find I could get the eggs refracted above and below the water, but the jar is too small. 

First Attempt

The eggs are large, and the jar facets maybe ½” (12.7mm) wide. The jar being 3” (76mm) or so tall. Clearly I need a taller, larger jar for the eggs. Maybe quails eggs would be ok, but needless to say, I had not got any and since I don’t like them much not sensible to buy any at this time. 

I could get most of the lighting, I needed a second light source beyond the bottle or a bit more tweaking of light to illuminate there.  I had to use a sheet of greaseproof paper I’d been using as a support for some other macro work as a secondary diffuser as even diffused the LED was too strong and drowning things.

Second Attempt

I thought I was ready for carbonated water, so I decided to be clever with a little vinegar and baking soda. Which didn’t work, I got millions of tiny bubbles which just looked cloudy. So I emptied out the liquid and being generally dissatisfied went back to plain water while I fiddled some more.

Added fizz

And then the batteries in the light went and I gave up in frustration.

Importing the images into Capture One, they are not as far off as I thought. The actual scene building was getting there even with the props. However the photography is another matter.  After a simple conversion in Capture One to B&W the results are nowhere near as contrasty as Sudek. I’ve done some simple curve manipulations and contrast tweaking, but not with any great confidence. I’ve tried to limit what I do in post because I don’t know what darkroom techniques Sudek availed himself of. I suspect they are just a contrasty paper print. I don’t know though what camera, whether it had movements or not, or whether these are enlargements or contact prints. It feels like he may have been using a studio 4x5 or 10x8 camera with front movements, which would possibly make the focussing of the refracted eggs easier using tilt, and could extend the height of the glass using a small shift, but I don’t think looking at it that he did any gross movements, perhaps a little, but equally this could be medium format, which takes away the likelihood of movements, but adds in enlarger tricks like dodging or burning areas to enhance contrast or lighting.

All in all with this one, I gave up because I could not get close enough to the scene and lighting for my satisfaction as a replica. What did occur to me was the conditions Sudek himself had, and I was speculating that the light may be direct sunlight on a southerly window, through a net curtain, with darker curtains at the edges controlling the fall of light, hence the foreground strong shadow. The dark shadow beyond the glass could be a vertical bar in a sash type window, and the table top could be above the level of the window sill, allowing for light to pass beneath the table and illuminate the wall. The sun probably being at a low angle, so this could be a winter morning, hence the light falling asymmetrically and illuminating the far wall.

However, although I’d say this was a fail, I felt I was learning a lot about the analysis needed.

Episode 2 – Glass on a sill

A few days later I decided that what I needed was to simplify the scene. I searched again and found an image where the glass alone was standing on a dark sill, in front of a strongly lit wall, with the edge of the sill refracting in the glass.

For lighting I thought I could simply use the east facing sill downstairs in the morning, and use a black book and a black card to manage the light. 

The problem here was I don’t know where the light is coming from when it falls on the scene. The background fine, but I think I missed a trick here with reflectors and in practise the lack of working room on that sill just annoyed me really quickly. I did manage to get the edge of the book refracting in the glass, but only by changing the scene to have the glass almost illuminated. I think I sold myself well and truly short here, but I spent the whole of the morning light failing to understand the scene, despite the apparent simplicity.

Refracting jar

I think looking back I was getting to the right idea, but needed a better working space.

Episode 3 - Eggs and bread.

The drawing board was again hit, looking for another option. The simple egg and bread composition looked ok, but would have to wait till I finished the shop bought loaf I was on and baked one of my own. 

A few days later I had the bread, and an egg, just one left, and I setup half the loaf and the egg on a chopping board in the kitchen. I took a few shots thinking this was much easier, then after putting everything away, didn’t look again till the evening. At which point it was obvious I was missing something with angles, and again the lighting. The biggest part of which was that I had missed the window bar in the back lighting. I retired annoyed, and wondering just whether I was wasting my time trying to emulate Sudek’s work, even though I knew the lessons were not just ‘replicate the image’, but really understand the interaction of light and objects.

Next morning I woke early and not terribly lively. I dragged myself downstairs in the direction of the kettle, only to stop on the first floor landing looking at direct sunlight through the window casting a shadow from the bar on the floor. So I grabbed the bread, the last egg and the chopping board and set them on the floor, trying to get an angle with the shadow on the bread, the board and the floor. Annoyingly I could not find the angle I wanted no matter how much I moved me or the props around by iotas or inches.  The biggest problem again seemed the relative size of the props and how to get the light where I wanted. If I placed the egg as Sudek had it I needed a steeper lighting angle to get any light onto the egg at all. So I compromised and pushed the egg slightly wider to get a larger shadow, and more light on the egg. It is not the posing Sudek had, nor is it quite the camera angle he had, but at his angle I lose the background beyond the loaf, and everything goes into shadow.

Bread and egg final

So again in some ways a fail, because quite frankly I think the only way to succeed would be to go south to Prague, find a similar room to Sudek’s studio, and wait for sunny days at the appropriate time of year. This for me is where this assignment breaks down a little. I can be very literal minded, and for me replicating a shot is more than producing something comparable, but to my idea of standards, I cannot at this time of year, in the place I live and am isolated into, with the resources in my home, get as close as I want.

Perfectionism aside, did I learn anything. Yes. Stick to scrambled eggs on toast. Photographically, did I learn anything?  Yes, but not just from this exercise. Through lockdown I have been doing more still life, a genre I’m not terribly interested in, but one where lighting is everything. The objects are mundane, it is in the shadows and interplay of light that the interest comes I guess. I did go and do my own kitchen still life shoot after eggs reappeared in the shops, but the results are now retired. I did broach the tonic water, but only when I was sure the egg would do something interesting in it. And yes, the egg was washed thoroughly, though I did add rhubarb gin to the recycled tonic to make sure anything harmful was well pickled. Unlike the egg (yuck).

External Links.

Ted Forbes Assignments 2020 playlist on Youtube Photography Youtuber Shares First Photo Assignment to Subscribers