First Time in the US: Gulf Photo Plus is Coming to Seattle.

On Assignment: Hi-Def Asparagus

If you ever get to Barcelona, you owe it to yourself to go to the Picasso Museum. I never really understood the guy's work until I visited there in 1996. I wish every major artist had a museum like Pablo's.

As a photographer, it resonated with me because it was all about finding your style. Which, by the way, is exactly how the Picasso Museum relates to the asparagus photo above.

The museum is laid out chronologically, and that's the special sauce. By walking through Picasso's work -- in order -- you experience his life as an artist. And during that visit, you watch him try (and usually master) then reject pretty much every significant painting style that pre-existed him before finally settling on his own. All you can do as a photographer is to watch, slack-jawed, as the transformation happens.

You could do a lot worse as a role model. And I have long-adopted that process as a photographer: Study the styles and techniques of others, then try to adapt/mash-up/evolve things to discover my own style.

That's exactly how my style has evolved with respect to product photography. And now that I have a style (technique?) that I like, I especially enjoy using it on objects where the style might seem a little out of genre.

A lot of the products I shoot tend to be either tech or photographic in nature. The arm above, from an editorial shoot (see 'On Assignment' here) is a good example of what I enjoy doing. But I also do a lot of product shots of lighting gear for this blog, mostly because I think many of the canned shots are boring crap.

I first started playing around with lighting individual planes with hard lights when I shot the setup shots for the lunch box post in 2009. I just considered each plane to be its own subject, lit separately. Two years later I use a combination of on-axis and textural edge lighting, done with multiple hard flashes.

This approach highlights both shape and detail, with a combination 2D/3D feel. You can get a pretty wide range of looks depending on how you ratio the on-axis light to the edge lights. (And where you place the edge lights, how many, etc.) Lately, I have been stretching it a little bit out of genre -- including this photo of local asparagus, shot outdoors on location at a farmer's market.

A Little Backstory

I am working on a multi-year project to create a definitive "user's guide," of sorts, for Howard County, MD. I am blogging some of it kinda haphazardly as I go. But ultimately, the full body of info will be recast into a very comprehensive Guide to Howard County.

Hyper-local is very interesting to me right now both because it is what I know and love and because there's a lot of untapped opportunity there. The low-hanging fruit of the web has already been picked. But ultimately, pretty much everything will be online in a cohesive, high-quality format. And done right, these remaining niches will have commercial value. The trick is to find a subject which is photographically interesting to you, is untapped and is of a scale such that you could potentially own that niche as a photographer.

For this project, the goal is to produce an organic, comprehensive, long-lived document that defines Howard County, MD. It will have value for the people who already live here (~250k) who want to better discover their community. But it will also be valuable for those who are considering moving here. Ditto those who are recruiting people to move here. Or selling them houses, etc. You get the idea.

So, what's all of this have to do with asparagus? Not much, except for that the veggie pic will be one of the photos illustrating the locavore/farm-to-table movement that is one of the things that makes HoCo a great place to live. It is just a detail photo. But I am putting a lot of thought and planning into this project, because I want it to rock.

And part of that planning includes a continuity of style across object and/or still life photos. Thus, the techie lighting approach to a pedestrian asparagus detail photo.

Outdoor Studio

So I shot the veggies at the farmer's market. The markets happen five days a week in HoCo, from May though November. And this particular Wednesday was sunny, so I found some shade in front of a farm truck and went to work on the ground. I exposed for full sun to kill the ambient light in the shade. That gave me total control over the tones when I later added flash.

I had brought a cutting board to use as a backdrop. So I placed it on the ground in the shade, and surrounded the asparagus with three LumoPro LP160 flashes. (Lighting something with bare LP's at this distance at full-sun levels is child's play for them -- probably 1/16th power or so.)

So all of this is happening basically on a similar plane. Everything is pretty two-dimensional, but not totally. And those slight differences are where you create texture. I placed the cutting board on the ground and elevated it with a couple paperbacks so the edge-light flashes could see the asparagus -- but not the cutting board. This was done just by eyeballing the veggies from the position of the flashes laying on the ground. (I had to prop one of the LPs up a little to get the right angle -- using another speedlight to do so.)

Here is the photo with just the edge lights. It is heavy on shape and light on detail. By bringing in a 4th LP160 (on-axis) in an Orbis, I could dial in the detail to exactly the level I wanted. The level of control is practically anal-retentive.

I stuck the photo up on Flickr a couple weeks ago, and a few people were calling 'Photoshop' right out of the gate. (Um, nope.) Besides, if you think about it, lighting is kinda the 3D version of Photoshop. As of right now at least, Photoshop is still limited to two dimensions. (Give 'em time…)

And granted, it's little trippy because you are taking an object that is pretty 2D and tweaking the light to accentuate the depth. Every physical object is three dimensional. Even objects that appear to be 2D can be lit to bring out depth and texture.

For me, it's a playground. I am looking forward to seeing just where this lighting style takes me. Between the ring and the edge lights, it is kinda like compressing everything to flatness, then extrapolating the edges.

Even thinking of playing with it on some portraits …

Next: Mathieu Young, Moonlighting


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Blogger Jay said...

You've taught me 95% of what I know about lighting, DH. Your words of finding that niche have inspired me and a project has resulted. I hope it is unique and can be capitalized upon in a way that will at least cover the costs of the work and maybe pay for an upgrade or a lens or two.

I hope your Europe and Asia endeavour excels, too. I cannot seem to read enough Strobist material, lately.

June 06, 2011 12:25 AM  
Blogger Ian Servin said...

Speaking of applying this to portraiture, this type of style reminds me of some of Brad Trent's work with heavy rim lighting and hard on axis ring light. I really like the harsh detail and 2d-like separation the combination yields and I would love to see you try similar lighting styles while incorporating your normal technique.

June 06, 2011 1:43 AM  
OpenID kurtwerks said...

...a few people were calling 'Photoshop' right out of the gate.

They obviously don't know much about you.

June 06, 2011 2:17 AM  
Blogger gretsch said...

To be fair to the flickr doubters, it does look pretty frikkin' 3D, and the board almost looks green-screened. If I didn't know your work, I'd have knee-jerked a PS response.

Making sure the lights just don't see the board is neat. That's what I missed so couldn't reverse engineer the lighting (yep, we prob all worked the Orbis out ;-) )

June 06, 2011 4:32 AM  
Blogger Raul Kling said...

The first thought that came to my mind when I saw the picture was "Photoshop". But then I remembered I was on Strobist blog :-) Very interesting look!

June 06, 2011 4:52 AM  
Blogger Dev Wijewardane said...

Great shot David.
If you don't have a ring flash can you get a similar result by using the ambient? Unfortunately I don't have a ring flash so I can't experiment!

June 06, 2011 5:34 AM  
Blogger Tom Diakun said...

I like the way you use the LumoPro flashes in this setup. I have a couple of them myself and find them to be reliable, versatile, and cost effective alternatives to the "name brand" speedlights.

Do you also use them in the hotshoe of your camera, or do you reserve that spot for the name brand flash to protect the camera electronics?


June 06, 2011 6:26 AM  
Blogger ftir said...

I think what was mentioned by the people about photoshop should not be taken as an offence.

I feel that the fact of the wooden board not being lit by the edge lights at all, (very clever trick with the elevation to mask the light by the way!), provides a not-so-natural look of a natural thing (the asparagus), which seems fully detached from what was supposed to be naturally supporting it.

It all comes to a personal taste and although I really appreciate and admire the approach, I do find the result a little bit odd.

June 06, 2011 7:12 AM  
Blogger Project 27 said...

This is one of those posts where I see pure testosterone oozing out of it... (And yes, I realize Strobist is sorta a boy's club blog, but hear me out!) I hate women who blog constantly that natural light is God and nothing else should EVAR be used, but here's one where I'd lean towards believing them.

The asparagus is just too over lit, giving it a very unnatural glow. Gorgeous, I'll give you, but that industrial arm is much more suited to the style. Putting such industrial lighting on such a natural product just messes with people's heads, I wouldn't buy that veggie, it looks like some genetically modified nightmare. A very well lit nightmare, but not something I'd want to eat. I'd say a little sunlight might have been a better approach if the goal was for people to want the product.

Is is beautiful "art for art's sake" though? Definitely, Mr. Picasso...

June 06, 2011 8:52 AM  
Blogger Tonia Mc Caskill-Johnson said...

the thing about bare flash which i love is that "look" the 3d look and there's no way photoshop could replicate that look. I enjoyed this post I look forward to more on this topic -- thanks.

June 06, 2011 10:01 AM  
Blogger HKM said...

If your ever looking for an assistant in HoCo, I'm here in Fulton. Howard

June 06, 2011 10:14 AM  
Blogger Tom Diakun said...

Responding to what Project 27 wrote: any particular genre, be it a musical or lighting style, addresses a particular target audience. 

Would this make a good ad photo for the weekly produce specials in your local supermarket? Maybe not. 

But it would make a very eye catching poster or lead photo on a feature article about local businesses, IMHO. 

June 06, 2011 11:15 AM  
OpenID timhuybrechts said...

Funny, the instant i saw this picture it really reminded me of a cooking book we have in Belgium.

It's titled with the original name "Our Cooking Book" and is a book that exists since 1928 but after a period it gets updated and the front picture looks very similar to yours.

June 06, 2011 1:33 PM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

The photo at the top DOES look like there was some Photoshop trickery going on because of the lack of shadow on the board. For viewing this on a monitor I much prefer the shot 3/4 the way down the article, with perhaps just a touch more fill, but this is all about end-usage, right?

It'll be interesting to see what this project looks like finished!

June 06, 2011 2:00 PM  
Blogger fastmike said...

This is obviously a very good and inventive lit shot of an arguably not so glamourous veggie.

As far as i'm concerned it sooner makes me wonder if asparagus isn't something i should try, then to think of it as a nightmare.
The 'unnatural' glow is just the thing that gives it sexappeal.

Mr. Picasso? . . . . .maybe not just yet.
A work of art? . . . . . definitely!

June 06, 2011 3:08 PM  
Blogger Virginia Wedding Photographer said...

It's like HDR photography with strobes, rather than with software. A great shot, and thanks for describing the technique.

June 06, 2011 3:29 PM  
Blogger Yugo said...

The question with "motivated light" is deciding what your motivation is. As Project27 pointed out, if the goal is to promote local produce, an unnatural look might be at cross purposes.

On the other hand, if you are trying to create a layer of surrealism (like maybe Magritte?), this does the job.

While the technique is fascinating for its own sake, I'm not convinced that the "fake" look of no depth cues between the asparagus and the cutting board communicates what you intend. If I posted that photo as my own work, I'm sure Strobist readers would exclaim that I was making an amateurish mistake by lighting the subject so surrealistically - unless I explained a motivation that fit the style.

June 06, 2011 4:13 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


This photo has absolutely nothing to do with motivated light. FWIW, I consider motivated light to be a technique, not an absolute rule. In fact I don't really subscribe to any absolute rules in photography.

June 06, 2011 4:34 PM  
Blogger Marcell said...

It's a very interesting picture, David.
I was also experimenting a bit with asparagus, mainly using a fisheye lens and trying unusual angles. Also a bit with macro, but too much detail on the asparagus made the pictures not so appealing.
Here are my tries:
However, your great photo motivated me to eat asparagus again in the weekend.



June 07, 2011 4:24 AM  
OpenID patrickwenz said...

What i do not get is how you included the Orbis into this. The elevation and the other lights make perfect sense but trying out this setup the on axis orbis created ugly overexposed direct reflections, even when stopped down. How did you solve this problem David?

Regards, Patrick.

June 07, 2011 5:37 AM  
Blogger Matt Birdsall said...

@Dev Wijewardane If you have a camera where the pop up flash can trigger your other flashes you could use that for on-axis fill (David's done that before) or you could hold an off-camera flash right next to the lens.
Neither would look exactly the same as a ring-flash but would be a similar "flavour"

June 07, 2011 7:27 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


My subject was not very specular. I am guessing yours might have been more so.

June 07, 2011 4:14 PM  
Blogger Alonzo Riley said...

I STILL think it's photoshopped and David is still testing us. :) Patrick started cluing into it. The Orbis shoud not have blown out all the texture in the wood without getting speculars or some type of shading. Wood is shiny, a little bit. It's a dull shine sometimes, but you'd still get something.

But if isn't photoshopped, it is simply a lighting technique that can be used to make something looked photoshopped.

Since the cutting board was skrimmed by itself, no light from the off-camera strobes touch the board itself. None of the SHADOW from the Orbis hits the background. That gives you two completely different lighting setups, one for the asparagus, another for the board.

June 07, 2011 11:22 PM  

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