TABLE TOP PHOTOGRAPHY a guided practical session provided by Stephen Crawley

by Mar 15, 2023

Our club talk this week was a hands-on experience, set up and run by Stephen Crawley.  We have had a number of talks and other guidance from Stephen in recent years; and indeed he has been instrumental in showing us the benefits of moving our evenings into the St Patrick’s Centre this year, a church community project he was heavily involved with.

Stephen worked as a professional photographer for his entire career, and among other specialisms he has been tasked with photographing luxury goods for some of the most high quality brands in the world.  Stephen started the evening by passing around images and catalogues from fashion shoots and of detailed product catalogues ranging through clothing, leather goods, porcelain, glass, fountain pens, jewellery, and very many more.  The fine details and texture visible in these images was exquisite, and showed off the products for maximum impact.  These are not the mail order catalogues of yore.  They are each a masterpiece of the photographer’s and the printer’s art in their own right.

General view, by Dave S

Stephen then moved on to a typical studio table top set-up he had prepared for the evening, incorporating an overhead studio flash softbox with stand, illuminating a white backcloth draped with an infinity curve at the base.  There were numerous small local white surfaces to control the light falling on the subject.  He then went on to show us how reflected light can be directed onto the subject by moving these surfaces around the object to best control the direction and intensity of the light.  He went on to bring in black reflectors to locally reduce light intensity, and mirrored reflectors to amplify local effects to pick out particular details.  Some of these mirror reflectors can be very small to provide small scale effects.  He showed us how these tiny mirrors can be held in place with various clamps or even Blue tack.

Manfrotto Multiclip 635

Stephen had a large selection of clamps and stands available, including school lab type test tube holder systems, sprung woodworking type clamps and an interesting double / linked pair of bulldog clamps.  He also explained how old (non-functioning) angle poise lamps can be pressed into service as versatile holders when setting up and lighting a scene.  These were in addition, of course, a full range of clamps associated with standard lighting stands.

The home studio set-up

Having shown us a professionally lit studio light set-up, Stephen went on to work with a more DIY ‘home’ set-up utilising an overhead halogen reading lamp (bought second hand) coupled with an array of reflector cards.  Some of these had been crafted from mirror finish card or even kitchen foil faced card, as well as black flags to block off light, together with further pieces of mirror. Again, all of these surfaces were carefully adjusted to achieve just the lighting effect required.  Also used were aperture cards fitted with tracing paper, to act as translucent light modifiers to control intense highlights.

Stephen then showed us one of his images where he had spent what sounded like half a day getting the lighting just right to reveal the texture of his subject against a challenging background, all before taking the final image.  He also pointed out that most of his commercial work used JPEG images.  He could achieve this because the images were right in camera and did not require heavy post processing.

Legacy communications hardware, by David M

The members present then used the two table top setups to begin taking their own images of the various subjects provided by Stephen.  These were selected to provide as many different textures as possible, to add to the challenges of the evening.  Stephen provided guidance and help  as we faced the hurdle of overcoming issues arising from specular highlights, shallow depth of field, and the close focussing distances involved with these table top studies.

Shell, by Kevin B

Stephen explained that he will work in manual mode on his camera, including white balance selection, for full control of the final images. He then briefly showed us a specialist tilt-shift lens with an aperture range running from f/2.8 to f/45, used to obtain an extreme depth of field in his captures as well as to control issues such as converging verticals. He also showed us the power of his studio lighting setup with an intense 3000 Joule flash discharge from a specialised power bank triggering a 1/3000 second duration flash – no danger of camera shake with such a lighting source. The power cables running to the flash heads from this source looked more like small hoses than cables when being handled.

Mallard, by David M

To finish off the session, Stephen made use of an articulated artists’ wooden model to illustrate control of lighting onto a subject.  He introduced rim lighting effects, strong shadow effects, and Rembrandt lighting with these arrangements. 

Lighting effects, by Dave S

Finally Stephen explained how the texture of different surfaces can be revealed using strong side lighting ‘grazing’ the surface of the material at a very shallow angle, to display the ridges and valleys of the surface to best effect.

All in all a very useful and informative evening combining some understanding of the world of the professional photographer with practical advice about table top work, together with enough hands on practise to show us all how quickly useful pictures can be obtained, but how difficult it can be to control all of the variables involved to achieve truly outstanding images such as those we had seen earlier

Our thanks again to Stephen Crawley for providing us with this informative and entertaining evening, and especially for the time he took in setting up and dismantling the room and the sets long before and after the club members were even in the building.  An extraordinary contribution on his behalf, for which all present are grateful.

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