We have been involved in amateur photography since childhood. KJ’s mother was an award winning photographer in Southern California and KJ has an excellent eye – much better than mine. I started shooting photographs when I won a Brownie camera through a newspaper selling contest in Memphis a very long time ago. Virtually everything we have learned has been through using a camera and reading a few books and frankly it is about time we took classes but there always seems to be much more to do.
I was involved for several years in shooting the Bay Island Bonsai show book which can be found at Blurb. A bit of digression, KJ and our engineering team and myself built the original self-publishing book projects known as MyPublisher and Blurb. We got involved in 2002 and then helped Blurb with is foundation and first product launch in 2006. It is an excellent way to record your photographs for a very long time. To check out the BIB books simply go to Blurb.com and search for Bay Island Bonsai.
When we decided to really turn our attention to suiseki of course the next thing was photographing them. Frankly, this has turned into a frustrating exercise. I’m sure many of you would agree. If we were blessed with a studio, thousands of dollars in studio lights and backgrounds then the task would begin to be more manageable; however, very few if any of us have that kind of setup.
Our suiseki club – San Francisco Suiseki Kai reaches a big milestone this year it’s 30th anniversary. To commemorate that event Mas Nakajima, Janet Roth and I a few months ago began a discussion of publishing a book of the club’s important and sometimes historic American suiseki found principally in Northern California. To undergo this type of book is going to be real commitment of time and energy which the three of us have but what about shooting these stones correctly?
I would first suggest that you visit Mas and Janet’s site “Suiseki Art” to see the artistic approach that Mas and Janet have to shooting their suiseki. Mas has an incredible eye and this is represented in not only his suiseki, but his diazas and his accompanying art. The three of us have discovered that it is extremely difficult to capture on film, or digital bits these days, the beauty of the suiseki we own. As in nature, the lighting of the stone can change, sometimes drastically, the way the stone appears much as viewing it in changing natural light. If you have ever been on the Eel River collecting, you quickly realize how much easier it is to find “good” stones in the morning light versus the afternoon light. If you don’t believe me, keep a record the next 2-5 times you collect and see how many stones you find in the morning vs. in the afternoon. We believe a part of this is the eye becomes tired in the afternoon but we also believe it has a great deal to do with the quality of light.
Let’s take a peek at our first suiseki we shot yesterday and then begin to discuss the inexpensive setup we used to create these photographs.
Let me say that this first stone we shot required about twenty photographs to “zone” in on how we wanted this stone to appear. Sounds like shooting a suiseki would be a simple process – just grab your camera, aim some lights at it and shoot away. Oh how we wish it was this simple. First, many suiseki are hard and shiny stones (this stone isn’t that reflective but presented other problems) therefore using just any kind of lights could create harsh “hot spots” that greatly detract from the photograph. Next, seeing a suiseki in a photograph just like seeing a bonsai in a photograph will bring out any flaw in the photography as well as in the stone.
A side note: If you really want to know how well your bonsai trees are doing, go and take a few photographs. You will be amazed at how critical you become very quickly over the quality of your tree vs. how it looks with just the naked eye. The brain does a marvelous job of blending over harsh details and we find it often makes one’s trees look better than they actually are. Don’t believe us try it. 🙂
So let’s talk about the setup. We were using our Canon 5D Mark I, the original 5D released about five years ago, with a Canon 85mm 1.8 lens. This camera was tethered to our HP laptop using Canon’s remote shooting software. The laptop was running Adobe’s Lightrooom and monitoring the folder where the photos were being downloaded. Therefore within seconds after shooting a photograph we were inspecting it in Lightroom for focus, color quality and sufficient light. If you are going to casually shoot your suiseki then perhaps you can just shoot and then go look at your photos but for this kind of production work for the book, it is critical that we see exactly what we shot immediately. I spoke to Mas last week about shooting our suiseki in a light tent. You can do a Google search and find out everything you need about light tents. The value of using one is that you can shoot in a sunlit room, or at night, and the impact to your photograph is negligible. This post isn’t meant to go into lighting details; however, it is important to note that more photographs are marred by intermixing light sources and photographing under light sources that have different temperatures. Our setup included just two lights from Kuhl that used four fluorescent lights measured at 5,000 degrees Kelvin. This is very close to natural sunlight and therefore gives us a better color reproduction.
We also use the light tent, which disperses the light very evenly, to try and avoid the “hot spots” often seen using flash photography or with lights that are not filtered. Because we knew in advance that our light tent would be an unusual size we decided to build our own tents. My first attempt at building a 30x30x33 inch tent took about four hours including running down to the hardware store to pickup something I had forgotten. You can purchase light tent material by just doing a Google search and there are many articles about how to build them.
In the light tent we used a white background paper draped from the top/back of the tent to the front/floor so that the back of the tent would be completely seamless. This is very important as you do not want “seams” in the background of the shot. Next we took several photographs at various shutter speeds trying to determine how to capture the stone most naturally. The 85mm lens was not as fast as our 50mm 1.4 lens but its focal length was much better for having the right ratio of background vs. suiseki in the shot to avoid a lot of cropping in Lightroom or Photoshop.
This first suiseki was shot without a top light, something we will add in our next setup, and with a key light on the right and a secondary light on the left pushed up against the light tent. This photograph was shot at f11, ISO 100 at 1/5th second. In general, we found that shooting between 1/5th and 1/3rd second was best using f11. The reason we chose f11 rather than say f16 was we wanted to have the sharpest photograph possible even if we did have to give up some depth of field. The camera was in manual mode and we manually focused as well. If you aren’t going to shoot manual and focus manually, you already are going to compromise your photographs. Also, if you have an IS lens, meaning it is image stabilized, turn it off! Image stabilization is nice when you are shooting a long focal length without a tripod but you sacrifice sharpness because the internal processor of the camera is going to modify the photograph no matter how still you think you are holding your camera. So put your camera on a tripod, set it to manual, turn off IS, and then manually focus on your suiseki.
If we do a critical analysis on the photograph above, the diaza is a bit dark but the color of the stone is faithfully reproduced. To insure that we had correct color balance we used a gray card to do this step.
Shooting with a gray card in our opinion is critical to obtaining the correct color balance otherwise you are going to need to do a lot of color correction work. You simply insert the card in the photograph and then shoot a photo. In Lightroom, you can use the eye dropper against the gray (or white) color where the RGB values approximate equal values; this is more than we will cover in this post but there is plenty on the web on how to do this step. Once we used the eye dropper to select this neutral gray it sets the white balance for our photograph thereby matching our light sources. Our lights were 5,000 degrees Kelvin and what we saw was 5,050 was best for color balancing all of our shots yesterday. This insured that we were capturing the correct color values. Color is so difficult to reproduce correctly with so many variables it takes a lifetime to master – we are not masters. Books have been written on this subject and they will continue to do so. Our suggestion is to simply make it look to your eye very pleasing – that is what matters and that is what we did in our shoot. OK so on to the next suiseki.
This suiseki was chosen because of its reflectiveness to light. This stone is jade which is a very hard and highly reflective. Look at the first yellow mountain stone against this green jade stone. You can immediately see how much more difficult it is to photograph this jade stone. Without a light tent this stone would have numerous harsh “hot spots” that would greatly detract from the photograph and the suiseki. Do we want to eliminate all of these hot spots? In a word – No. Some need to exist to allow the brain to recognize that this is reflective, shiny, material. We believe this photograph does exactly that without having the hot spots blowing out the photograph. To obtain this photograph, we not only used the light tent, we did for every photograph presented today, but we also moved the light source several feet back from the light tent. This further reduced the chance that we would have a hot spot that would detract from the photograph.
First what can one say about the quality of this suiseki. It is frankly beautiful, rare, and invokes the imagination. Secondly it is a very hard suiseki to photograph. Why? Because it has a snow covered top and we are shooting against an all white background. Therefore, it is very easy to have the snow cap mountain top disappear in the background. The trouble is that if we set and photograph this suiseki to bring out the shadow detail in the lower half of the stone then we will almost always risk blowing out the top where the white is dominant by making the top too bright and thereby having it begin to merge into the white background. So what do we do?
In order to facilitate a better photograph, we took the original photograph into Lightroom and used a highly useful feature whereby we can modify the luminance of a particular color range. I selected the yellow/white color in the snow cap and then using the luminance adjuster increased the these colors by just a bit. This actually darkened the snow cap to make it separate from the white background thereby improving the photograph and increasing the detail.
Let’s compare them side-by-side.
The first thing you notice is that the background color was darkened a bit in the after photograph on the right. Frankly this is fine because you will never see the photo on the left to compare it to therefore there is no reference that it is a tad darker. Notice how the snow cap peak is now much more visible than in the leftmost photo. Certainly, the overall tonal value of the rightmost photograph is darker than its counterpart, but we believe the after photograph shows this suiseki off at its best.
This is not the name of this stone but I’m calling it that as it represents the three dimensionality of this stone. This was the most difficult suiseki we shot yesterday and it was chosen just for the dimensionality of the stone. It is incredible hard to represent this dimensionality in a two dimensional photograph. This photograph isn’t bad but frankly we thought we could do better. We reset the lights to an unusual choice. We removed the right most light, backed off by several feet the left light and then placed what was the right light actually behind the light tent. Let’s observe the results.
Several things we like about this lighting setup and resulting photograph. The first is the colors are more pleasing to the eye. Secondly, and even more importantly, the suiskei looks more three dimensional than the flatter first photograph. Why? Because we have added much more shadow detail to this second photograph.
Do you see the immediate improvement in the second photograph over the first? Clearly there is some shadow detail lost in the diaza in the second photograph, which we could recover in Lightroom had we taken the time, but the suiseki itself is much richer in dimensionality than in the first photograph.
As we continue to prepare to shoot the club’s suiseki, we must address several fundamental issues: 1) How much time can we, or should we, allocate in photographing each suiseki?; 2) Should we add a third light to provide top lighting of the subject; and; 3) How much color correction do we perform on each selected photograph?
To be frank, our discussion at first was let’s get a standard setup and shoot therefore minimizing the time in the studio as we need to shoot upwards of perhaps 200-300 suiseki. This would allow us to schedule members in with their stones because the setup was predetermined and the amount of time to shoot each stone rather consistent therefore maximizing our time and theirs. If we continued down this route, most purchasers of the book would likely not know and would still appreciate the photographs. However, how can we do that after seeing the impact of the last two suiseki based on sometimes just subtle changes to the lighting position. I would much prefer to look at the second rolling mountain photo as it engages our sense of imagination with its deeper dimensionality. Is the first photograph bad – heavens no – but the second photograph is frankly more artistic and realistic and therefore the photograph we want to use.
That being said, there is the reality that we will be under time pressure so that we don’t have a club member sitting around for eight hours as we try to obtain the “optimum” image. The conclusion we have drawn though is that it is worth taking a bit more time and shooting just a few more photographs in order to obtain the best photograph we can of these suiseki. Lastly, there is the issue of seeing these photographs on screen and then seeing them on paper. I have written many articles on this subject and you can see one or two on my other site www. bonsai-photography.com where most of the photographs are behind the home page – meaning not available to the public. But in short, your screen uses RGB (sRGB, AdobeRGB 1998 etc) and paper printing uses CMYK. One is additive and one is subtractive – and you can read the articles to understand exactly what that means but to us lay people it means that the same photograph is likely too look much darker on paper than it will on screen for the simple fact that your computer monitor is backlit. Therefore we will need to take multiple photographs at different shutter speeds and then test these photos at the press to insure they are bright enough in the CMYK printing process. There are also other issues such as the color space differences between RGB and CMYK and how to overcome that at the press but that is for another day as it is a truly a very deep and complex subject.
We think we are closing in on what our setup will look like and how we will approach the shoot and post color correction process. If there is sufficient interest, drop us a comment on this post, then we will continue to share with you along the way as we photograph, color correct, test print and eventually publish our 30th anniversary book.
P.S. Mas will be giving a lecture on stone appreciation at 10am, Sunday January 16h in Pleasanton, CA at the Bay Island Bonsai exhibit. I strongly encourage you to attend this lecture. You will also see some of the best bonsai in the Bay Area. You can learn more at the BIB website.