Assignment 4 – Languages of Light

“Revisit one of the exercises on daylight, artificial light or studio light from Part Four (4.2, 4.3 or 4.4) and prepare it for formal assignment submission:

  • Create a set of between six and ten finished images. For the images to work naturally as a series there should be a linking theme, for instance a subject, or a particular period of time.
  • Include annotated contact sheets of all of the photographs that you’ve shot for the exercise (see notes on the contact sheet in Part Three).
  • Assignment notes are an important part of every assignment. Begin your notes with an introduction outlining why you selected this particular exercise for the assignment, followed by a description of your ‘process’ (the series of steps you took to make the photographs). Reference at least one of the photographers mentioned in Part Four in your assignment notes, showing how their approach to light might link in to your own work. Conclude your notes with a personal reflection on how you’ve developed the exercise in order to meet the descriptors of the Creativity criteria. Write 500–1,000 words.”

Re-visiting Studio Lighting

I really wanted to re-visit studio lighting (exercise 4.4), as it frustrated me a lot! I wasn’t at all happy with my pebble photos, and it seemed a good idea to look at this topic in more detail.

I wanted to focus on the subject of ‘food’, which I know is particularly tricky (!) Why? Because I want to be able to apply some of my new found er…’skills’ to my other visual communications studies. In particular, I noticed that a future graphic design assignment will be a 12 page brochure on the subject of food. So it seems perfect to try and produce my own images, rather than seeking permissions elsewhere…Thats the theory anyway!

Consequently, I asked my fellow students what sort of equipment they used for an inexpensive basic ‘studio set-up.’ I received some excellent well considered answers – particularly in reference to using flash and soft light box tent cubes. Drawing on this advice, I went ahead and bought a few items which allowed me some control over my lighting – namely a small pop up tent to diffuse the light, and a small pair of lamps. Plus I have a speedlight to attach as a better flash.

My influence comes from one of the photographers mentioned in our course notes; Jean Baptiste Huynh. The studio lighting is very beautiful, and although its dramatic, it retains a quality of softness too. As I was expanding on the rather mundane theme of food, I was drawn to his series ‘Vegetaux’, which includes a lovely image of (judging by the title) a celeriac. (The website is in French, and I’m not a veg expert so I’m making a reasonable guess here!)


On a more practical note, I’ve also been reading a how-to manual by photographer Tony Northrup. The ebook comes complete with hours of instructional videos that I’ve been watching avidly. He and his wife Chelsea are so unfeasibly attractive, with such a perfectly lovely home it would be easy to hate them. But luckily I don’t. Which is good because there are a lot of videos.

Happily, I have picked up a few tips from them about still life. As I’m aiming for a high key effect, with a white background; I’ve gathered I need to light the background as strongly as possible, and overexpose the white cloth behind my object. Of course the tricky part is not to overexpose the subject itself.

I shot these pictures over a few days, taking note of what did, and didn’t work. After some experimentation, I decided my lighting was pretty puny, so to get a good enough background, I needed to use my tripod and a slow shutter speed, sometimes in combination with my flash, which can be angled above, or to the side if needed.

Some of these images turned out OK. Of course, ideally no photoshopping would be needed – but I made an error with the back cloth – I now realise I should have ironed it! That doesn’t account for all the problems, but it hasn’t helped.

Fruit and Veg – Contact Sheets 

For my main body of work, I simply concentrated on trying to get reasonable quality images. Here’s the contact sheets.

(NB Left hand side, second row down – its a post processed apple – shouldn’t be part of the contact sheet! Sorry!!!)


Some items were easier than others – I found the onion, lentils, peppers and spinach the best to work with. On the other hand, each time I tried with the brie, or cheddar, its blown on the top. And the bananas have seriously wrinkled fabric. I don’t think I could be bothered to photoshop to that extent!


I used a total of 5 lights: both sides of the cube, back, above (just a light bulb), and in some cases, flash or the tripod and a low shutter speed (such as a 1/4 second) and a low/lowish f stop.

There are numerous photos of bread, as this was my second afternoon of shooting, and I spent a lot of time working out my lighting/settings before moving on to other food. I tried to pay careful attention to the results by stopping and viewing bread pictures on my laptop.

I took such a large number of pictures, it took a while to sort through them all and decide on the best ones – a few almost made it, but had rather wrinkled backgrounds that I wasn’t quite able to eliminate whilst shooting. These have been lightly photoshopped, but would need quite a bit more to look OK



My Final Images

Bread  1/25  f13  ISO 200



Citrus Fruit 1/6  f10  ISO 200


Lentils 1/6  f10  ISO 200



Onions 1/6  f10  ISO 200


Sandwich 1/4  f13  ISO 200


Spinach  0.5 f10 ISO 200


The images that made the final cut, are all made without flash, and a slow shutter speed. I found it helpful to move away from a very shallow depth of field, as it can be a little limiting. I did notice with the lentils, the nearest to us aren’t in sharp focus – I’m thinking this isn’t ideal, and something I should have spotted at the time.

At this point, I felt I had achieved what I set out to do (not having to source some free stock photography for my future graphic design work) but of course I’m now in danger of being labeled The-Most-Boring-Student-Of-All-Time.

So, as an antidote to all this blandness, I decided it was time to let my hair down. The next series are playful, and a little less conventional. I simply gathered together items I found interesting, to interact with the food. Here are the results.

Contact Sheets Again


Final Images The Sequel 




Foot in Mash


Clockwork Apple


More Time


Lost Property




During this exercise, I feel I’ve learnt a lot about low and high key lighting as you can see from my pictures. The low keys ones looked fine on my computer, but now I’ve uploaded them, I think I should have made a small adjustment to bring up the lights. What is it all about? Well it’s really up to you!

Conclude your notes with a personal reflection on how you’ve developed the exercise in order to meet the descriptors of the Creativity criteria. Write 500–1,000 words.”

I began the exercise by not thinking ‘creatively’ at all(!) This was a conscious decision, as I wanted to understand how to light my objects, and produce them for use in a graphic design project. Its understand that this approach – producing generic bland pictures, seen countless times on stock photography websites, is something that goes against the spirit of our process of enquiry. However, simple images on plain back grounds do serve a specific function, and one that is useful to me. I feel this is a legitimate exercise, as its furthers an area of learning that works for me as part of my Visual Communications studies. On a more practical level, obviously it would be difficult to shoot food on a coloured background, as a coloured tinge could be rather off putting for a general audience. This set of images will be useful for graphic design purposes, as they work work easily as a set, can be cropped, or altered to portrait, to assist ease of layout. I can also envisage combining the images with some illustrations for a booklet on healthy eating, these images are unlikely to ‘fight’ or clash with other elements. They could play a supporting role, and I’m happy with that.

So what inspired me to move on to a different approach? Well, I’m aware that I have spent a great deal of this course learning basic camera skills – rather like a musician playing scales, its an important grounding. But at some point, its good to ‘play a tune’. This often comes more easily at the moment when you have done enough practise to perform basic co-ordination skills without it using up all your available attention. This is beginning to happen for me. I enjoy being creative, and I think like most people, when inspiration strikes, its a pleasure, and a discovery too, as ideas can veer off into unexpected tangents.

The best things happen when you let yourself play. I found my ideas came pretty quickly by simply glancing around the room. I scribbled down my ideas on a piece of scrap paper first, as I knew I wanted to incorporate various items of food and objects, but was initially unsure which to ‘pair up’ . You could for example stick a plaster on any fruit, as as apples bruise, some of these ideas developed quite easily by themselves. Again, the title came quite easily, as they were inspired by the narrative of the images.(Do they have a narrative?) For me, they do, and I will try to explain my thoughts behind each one:



Bruised – Obviously I enjoyed the absurdity of protecting fruit, and the suggestion that they have feelings. I like the wrinkled fabric, and rather clinical setting while the apple has obviously received some medical attention. Ouch.


Foot in Mash – When I was reading up on food photography, one of the things I learned was that mashed potato is a common stand in for various types of food, particularly ice-cream. I quite often suffer from a lack of props (who has that many interesting items hanging around?). But as it happened my partner had just dug up a couple of mysterious items from our garden – a plastic snake, and a small black boot. Perfect.


Clockwork –  Perhaps this begs the question ‘What is real?’. There are so many photoshopped images, it was fun making this series from real objects instead. I like the combination of the organic with the mechanical. I think I often enjoy a sense of the absurd, which may be a linking theme for these images.


More Time – Here I’ve switched to a black cloth, and explored the possibility of making more time. To my surprise, I find this a bit poignant, not really my intention, but time is a delicate thing. (Perhaps that should be the title?)


Lost property – What if all our lost possessions end up being snacked on, by something pretty weird? (Just saying….) This is often where my mind wanders. I like the sense of a parallel universe just out of our reach, and I’ve really never outgrown the impulse to image strange creatures, talking objects, odd events.


Fake – Enter the plastic snake, brooding amongst a pool of lentils. I just don’t have to justify this. Its silly. Maybe some of our fears are too?

Have I succeeded in expressing my creativity? Yes I think so. We are often asked (or urged) to be experimental – Theres plenty of scope to push this in other directions – blurred images, pictures of my rubbish bin etc, but this style works for me. I’d also like to point out when you are a complete beginner everything, even the very mundane is out of your comfort zone. The scariest but most satisfying part of this course so far has been switching to manual, and grasping the possibilities it offers.


I’ve already mentioned Jean Baptiste-Huynh, but I also drew inspiration from these images:

I’m quite drawn to both dramatic pictures, and ones that appear to ask questions or tell a story. Apologies, I don’t have full information about this image, its from Pinterest

Escadas para o Céu” (Stairways to Heaven).


This woman passing through a door is also very dramatic, and leaves the viewer to create their own narrative,


Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois was an artist, often returning to the theme of spiders in her work. (Said to represent her mother) Her sculptures have been photographed many times, all over the world. I particularly like the drama created by using black and white, and the use of scale.


Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer is an American conceptual artist. She has often used photography in her work, most often to capture her series of slogans. An antidote to consumer culture. Its interesting that many conceptual artists use photography in their work, and in Holzer’s case, attempt to communicate quite directly with the viewer – no obscure metaphors here. I can’t help thinking photography is the perfect medium for this kind of work.


And general inspiration on still life and food photography

For humour and absurdity, I love Terry Border


Tutor Report

View PDF of Tutor Report here

Response to tutor report – I really feel I upped my ‘game’ here, and had the chance to become a bit more creative. However I am kicking myself VERY HARD that I didn’t ask my tutors advice before attempting food photography, as he is very experienced in this area, and at commercial photography in general. Doh. Instead, I chose to rely on my trusty ebook (stunning digital photography). Unfortunately I got the idea that I was supposed to blow out the background. Whimper. In the instructional video of shooting still life with a white background they even turn the the ‘blinkies’ indicator, so the camera flashes in the white areas. The video wasn’t specifically about food but I thought it was applicable!

So, this is the point tin the course where exposure is beginning to make sense to me, only for me to deliberately mess it up. Sigh. I also wished I had looked more throughly at how to light low key lighting – as my tutor explained this isn’t the same as simply underexposing!

I’ve altered some of the dark ones to my preference, though I understand they aren’t really ‘correct’ – as my tutor showed me, as correctly balanced they look pretty ugly! I used a combination of levels, curves and exposure in photoshop, plus masking some areas to maintain a black background for the snake picture.

I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to post production, but I have also deliberately avoided relying on it too much. Its quite nice to attempt to tweak my work though, as it gives it a helping hand!

Altered Exposure




As for the overall comments, I was quite pleased, and feel that I have gained in confidence, experimentation and skills.



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