Exercise 4.5 – leaves in the foreground

This set of images represents an almost complete reversal of my intentions but, hey, that’s what experimentation is about. I started with the idea of using parts of trees as foreground elements to architectural details. The organic and the inorganic would contrast and, I hoped, complement each other.

In the large view, with the Kings College Chapel window, both elements are equally sharp, both being at somewhere near effective infinity. This is the kind of thing I was initially looking for. The smaller view, of a wall at St John’s, has the elements more widely separated and I was able to throw the wall slightly out of focus, which gave me the germ of an idea.


It was as I took this shot, with bicycles chained to railings, and the stone walls behind, that I realised I could evoke Cambridge with a series of images having tree leaves as a sharp foreground element and the background defocused but still ‘readable’. Effectively, I would be doing the same kind of thing as Gianluca Cosci or Kim Kirkpatrick, as described in an earlier posting.

This is something that I managed with varying degrees of success in the images above. The cyclist on the towpath is too soft, and the pedestrians in the street perhaps a little too sharp. I was particularly pleased with the kayakers and the punting scene with the swan (which would have been my ‘final pick’ if only the background buildings had been sandstone.

Instead, my final pick (and the final pick image for the whole of Exercise 4.5) uses punts in a different way, as a purely graphic element.


Exercise 4.5 – bury my heart at wounded tree

(with apologies to Dee Brown for the title)

In this posting, I have concentrated on a single damaged tree.


This gives me an interesting set of shapes and textures. The first set of images above show the larger picture. There is a fresh wound where the large branch has split away and the signs of an older, greyer wound at low level.

The new wound is a violent entry into the heart of the tree and this set of images concentrates on some of the shapes it has created. I deliberately oriented the two ‘arch’ images upright to emphasise the cathedral-like form. I also enjoyed the shapes around the ingrowing branch at the top.

Whereas in the old wound, we see how the tree protects and heals itself.

I then looked at the detail of the split and the fibres within it. This set is a sort of progressive view of ‘essence of tree’, as they are at successively larger scale; the final image is almost 1:1 macro. I particularly enjoy the third image, which has a feel of surf.

My favourite image from this series is below. It is sufficiently abstract to permit multiple meanings. The two things I see most often are a beetle and a frown. Reader, please tell me your impressions in a comment.


Exercise 4.5 – some ideas

Time to get creative with trees. OK, so we are looking for something different from the standard Google Image Search bobbly broadleaf against a few cumulus in a summer sky. The Creativity criteria include experimentation, imagination, invention and something called ‘personal voice’ (not defined but ‘you’ll know it when you find it’)

All of the images in this posting, and the next two, were made in Cambridge using a Pentax K-1 in aperture priority mode. Most were made with a 28-70mm f/2.8 standard zoom; some of the ‘wounded tree’ images were made with a 100mm f/2.8 macro prime.

My first thought was ignore the big picture and go for bark textures.

The next set zooms out a bit. The archetype image has trunk, branches and leaves, with the crown starting some distance above the ground. As a variation, I started looking at the suckers that grow at the base of the tree – and are a bit of an embarrassment in the standard view.

These images have some unusual graphic shapes. Some look distinctly runic. I found the most satisfying images are those taken in diffused light; full sunlight is contrasty and I found the shadows a distraction.

However, shadows are the whole point of the next set. I was looking for a way to evoke the presence of a tree without showing it in frame. These are shadows of a willow on a stone wall.

These images work for me, and tick the creativity boxes, but there is something missing. One further element is required to evoke a ‘sense of place’, and this is Cambridge. Therefore:



Exercise 4.5 – Googling a tree

These are screen grabs of the first five screensful of images in a Google search on ‘tree’, accessed on 7 October 2016. There is a mix of photographs and graphic illustrations. I  considered restricting the search to photographs only but decided to leave it open because the illustrations, having been created ex nihilo, show what their creators regard as the essence of a tree.


In the first two screens we see almost exclusively single-tree ‘portraits’, mostly in leaf. What is fascinating is that they are nearly all images of mature, isolated broadleaf trees. The first conifers appear toward the bottom of the second screen. Mostly, we see complete trees – even the two images that are tightly cropped show trunk, main branches and leaves. Those photographs that include skies show blue sky and clouds which (whether intentionally or not) reference the shape of the crown of the tree.

There is a clear archetypal shape (with the exception of the ‘tree circus’ stick man), strong single trunk with radiating branches starting some distance above ground, supporting a rounded crown. With the exception of the tree in blossom, the colour scheme is brown and green.


The third and fourth screens are ‘more of the same’, but we do start to see images concentrating on individual features rather than the whole trees: the trunk of the redwood, and some close-ups of leaves and fruit. We also see some ‘zooming-out’ to show isolated trees as elements in larger landscapes, and some less conventional shapes.

There is also a more playful element to some of the illustrations, and in the image of carvings. The leopard and its prey show another way in which trees might be ‘used’


The fifth screen continues these themes.

It is also interesting to reflect on what we do not see in these images. There are no fallen or felled trees, no logging camps or lumberjacks (tree surgeons first appear towards the bottom of the page, just above ‘show more results’). There are no pictures of pests and diseases. Also, surprisingly, no Christmas trees. At this stage, we are presented with an idealised (if not sanitised) concept of ‘the tree in nature’

The first images that are not recognisably trees are advertisements for ‘Fever-Tree’ tonic water and a children’s cartoon character ‘Tree Fu Tom’, both of which appear at about the tenth screen.

Responding to Mount Fuji

Fujiyama (Mount Fuji) is said to be the most-photographed mountain on the planet. This must be due to its location, 60 miles from Tokyo and visible from the city on a clear day, while more spectacular mountains such as Everest are rather more remote. I am not convinced that Fujiyama would attract the attention that it does, based on its appearance alone.


Google images search on “mount fuji” (accessed 4/10/2016)

Geologically, Fujiyama is the archetypal stratovolcano, an almost perfect (if rather shallow) cone which is snow-capped for much of the year. The majority of images that appear on a Google images search use the mountain as a backdrop; those which show Fujiyama as the main subject appear (to me) very static and boring.

The use of the mountain as backdrop can be seen in the classic paintings of Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858), both of whom produced series of landscape prints entitled ’36 views of Mount Fuji’. Hokusai went on to add another 10 prints to his original series and, later, another series of 100.

The images above, three from each artist, are typical of the sets (source: Wikipedia Creative Commons). All show Fujiyama rather small (or very small) in frame, as a background element, and I note that both artists have chosen to dramatise the mountain by depicting it with much steeper sides than we see in photographed reality. Although both collections are described as ‘views of Mount Fuji’, it is the foreground elements that are most important and in many cases they show the 19th-century Japanese equivalent of industry or transport.

Set against this background, I suggest that the ‘Fuji City’ images of John Davies and the ‘Fuji’ images of Chris Steele-Perkins are very much in the tradition of the old painters, showing Mount Fuji as a backdrop to contemporary life. Indeed, Steel-Perkins tells us that his book is a response to having been presented with a copy of Hokusai’s.

In summary, there is a tradition, both photographic and painterly, of using Mount Fuji as a background element to give a sense of place (rather than just being incidental) not as a foreground subject in its own right.


Davies, J. (2008) Shizuoka Prefecture & Fuji City [online] at: http://www.johndavies.uk.com/fuji%20text.htm (accessed 4/10/2016)

Steele-Perkins, C. (2002) Books – Fuji [online] at: http://www.chrissteeleperkins.com/books/fuji.html (accessed 4/10/2016)

Wikipedia (s.d.) Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji [online] at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-six_Views_of_Mount_Fuji (accessed 4/10/2016)

Wikipedia (s.d.) Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Hiroshige) [online] at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-six_Views_of_Mount_Fuji_(Hiroshige) (accessed 4/10/2016)

Exercise 4.4 -lighting ex nihilo

For this exercise, I stole a basil plant from the kitchen window ledge. This gave me two contrasting textures, the organic form and slight sheen of the leaves, and the flat sides and glossy surface of the ceramic pot.

Equipment and general set-up is shown above. I created an infinity curve with a roll of mid-grey background paper on the dining room table. The camera is locked-down on a tripod, manually focused and set in ‘X’ mode at an aperture of f/16. Exposure adjustments were made by varying the light intensity. Although I shot in RAW format, I made no post-processing adjustments before exporting to JPEG.

This is my default starting point for lighting set-up, perhaps influenced by my architectural drawing background in which shadows, if added to an elevation drawing are conventionally shown as if the light source was at 45˚. It does a workmanlike job, the combination of sheen and shadow on the leaves giving a good indication of overall form and individual curves.

As I suspected, lighting with a single point source gives unacceptable (in the context of this subject) shadows on the left side and loses detail in the ‘internal’ leaves. Of the two alternative methods for lighting the shadows (fill light or reflector) I consider the fill light to have worked best in this case. Being close to the lens axis, it has been better able to penetrate to the interior of the plant.

With this set-up, the main light is behind the plant with the intention that the form of the leaves would be defined by sheen. It is inevitable that the front will be in shadow, so some fill lighting is essential. It is interesting to compare the main+fill and main+reflector images as the effect on the pot is very different, with different facets lit.

Again, my preference is for the final image in the sequence, with both lights and a reflector.

The starting point for this set-up is similar to the basic 45˚ lighting but with a large light source to give a softer light. Because the light wraps-around to some extent, there is better lighting to the interior of the plant, but we still have the heavy shadow and undefined leaves at the rear left.

The intention of the kicker is to define that part of the plant by a combination of rim light and sheen. It work tolerably well (third image) and it is arguable whether it is improved by the addition of a reflector. The reflector improves brightness at the left, but also flattens the lighting on the left side. On reflection, this image could be improved by the use of a smaller reflector or by placing it further from the subject.

Lighting from above gives a different set of shadows, and emulates the lighting that the plant is most likely to be seen in. It was interesting to watch the changing light, particularly on the pot, as I changed the angle of the reflector.

Overall, my preferred image from the exercise is 2D, rear diagonal lighting with front fill and reflector.

Exercise 4.4 – Lighting the lion (a mistake to learn from)

For this exercise I chose to light a soft toy lion. The reasons for the choice included the surface texture and the mane, which I hoped would pick up rim lighting. In practice, the furry surface texture killed the definition of the shadows and specular highlights and, thus, the definition of form.

On the basis that every mistake is an opportunity to learn, I will post the results anyway, but will repeat the exercise with a new subject.

This is intended as the ‘control’ exercise. The camera is, effectively, at the bottom-centre of a 1000mm x 2000mm soft box, giving flat an almost shadowless light on the subject. The outline shape and colour are clearly delineated but there is no sense of three-dimensional form.

It is said that the skill of studio lighting lies not in where one places the lights but where one places the shadows. This is explored in the other lighting set-ups.

I first attempted this set-up using the large soft box, but the light-source was too large and the lighting too flat. ‘Rembrandt lighting’ is intended to emulate the painter’s studio, which had large windows at high level. The main light is large, and high at at about 45˚ to one side. Because I was operating in a small room, there is a lot of stray bounce-light, which fills the shadows even without a reflector on the lit side. Having tried both, I prefer the version without reflector which has a greater lit:unlit contrast.

Of course, the shape of the subject’s head is non-human and does not show the characteristic triangular light on the far cheek.

This is a first attempt to emulate ‘Karsh lighting’, which fails because the shape of the subject’s head does not suit the technique. However, experimenting was instructive and it appears that the placing of the rim lights is critical.

I first placed them at 45˚ to the rear of the subject, which gave really good backlighting to the mane but put the face in deep shadow that could not be relieved by the reflector. This might have worked if a third light was available as fill-in to light the face from the front.

With the lights only slightly behind the subject, there is better wrap-around but a lot of spill onto the background. ‘Feathering’ the lights forward reduced the background spill and, usefully, put more light onto the reflector and, therefore, onto the face.

On reflection, I am pleased with the final result (largest image)

This is the same set-up as the Rembrandt lighting but with a much larger light source, therefore softer lighting. The image shown above is made without the reflector. With a reflector in place at the left, the contrast is lower and the lighting almost flat.

The large soft box is a light-source that extends from 45˚ in front of the subject to 45˚ behind, causing the light to ‘wrap around’ the right-hand side. The version without the reflector is reasonably successful.


The same set-up as above but with a bare-bulb light-source. The shadow cuts the subject in half and, unlike the set-ups with large, soft light sources, the version with a reflector is preferable  as it gives some detail to the left-hand side of the face.


Finally, and just for fun, an exercise in sinister lighting from below. Lighting is a single flash with a snoot and honeycomb, and a red gel, directed at a mirror on the table in front of the subject and reflecting upward.