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A number of us decided a few months ago that we would like to photograph most of our suiseki collections.  As you can well imagine, this is quite an undertaking.  It requires a place to shoot, not always so easy to find if you consider a central location to those living in the Bay Area, hauling lots of equipment, and then coordinating the shoot so that people aren’t just standing around.

This weekend five of us decided to test run our photography process by shooting approximately 150 suiseki.

You might ask, why publish an article about this subject?  There are many reasons with the top one being there are virtually no articles, that we can find, on the subject.  Mas, Janet and I have been discussing photographing suiseki for the better part of a year.  We have had experiments from natural light on a foggy day to constant source lights using light tents.  To many unsuspecting suiseki book readers, one would think you just plop down a stone, point a camera and then click.  Well as they say “not so fast.” It is much harder than it looks to get the results that we want.  Let’s look first at our setup.

Mas holding a gray card as we set color balance in Lightroom

Mas holding a gray card as we set color balance in Lightroom

First let’s discuss our setup.  Mas and I experimented a month or so ago with shooting suiseki in a light tent.  There is plenty of information on the web about light tents so if you don’t know what this is just do a Google search.  The experiment proved successful so Mas then built the light tent seen in the above photo for our shoot.  His design is quite brilliant in that it can be easily assembled and disassembled in under 15 minutes.  This allows it to be moved from location to location thereby it’s design making it quite portable.  We could have purchased a similar one for several hundred collars but we were interested in doing it ourselves since we believed that we needed one of certain dimensions to shoot our stones well.  We used a white background paper as we believe this best overall for the photos we shoot.

The light tent is placed on a standard 6′ table that you can purchase at Costco or any office supply store.  For lighting we purchased Kuhl lights; six of them to be exact of which we used five for the shoot.  I selected this series of lights for three reasons: 1) they are inexpensive; 2) being fluorescent they stay quite cool; and, 3) they use natural light at 5000 degrees Kelvin (color temperature).

Our setup was in a friend’s garage where we stayed nice and warm even though it rained just about the entire time we shot over the weekend.  Our other equipment was as follows: Canon 5d with a 85mm f/1.8 lens.  The camera was tethered to a laptop running Adobe Lightroom. The laptop monitor had the Canon camera control and the secondary 24-inch monitor displayed Lightroom.  We shot every image in a tethered fashion – meaning the camera was controlled, except focusing, through the Canon software running on the laptop. Through this we could control F stop, exposure, ISO setting etc.  I can’t stress the importance of using this setup.  So our standard process.

1. Set the lights with a visual inspection. Meaning we adjusted the position of the five lights to optimize lighting of the stones and reducing flare or reflection that we did not want in the photo.

2. Focus the camera.  Do not use auto focus and if you have a lens with image stabilization turn it off!  Image stabilization while nice when hand holding a camera isn’t required when shooting on a tripod. Also, image stabilization will reduce image sharpness. Don’t believe me – try it and see the results or Google the issue. It was a surprise to me as well but it is a fact.

3. From the camera control on the laptop set the exposure time and F-stop.

4. Take the exposure.

5. Immediately review the results in Lightroom of the photo just taken.

Through this setup we obtained immediate feedback on the quality of our photo including: exposure, color quality, framing of the stone and focus.  If we weren’t pleased we adjusted one of the above variables and shot again.  In some cases it took 6-7 photos to get the look we wanted. In other cases just 1-2.

A few other notes about the shoot.  We averaged 6 minutes per suiseki to get a photo that we believed represented the look we wanted. Our intent is to use these photographs in self-published books (Blurb) and for the web.  I will not get into the differences required for using in these two mediums as this will be a post at a later time.  Over the weekend we shot over 750 photographs during the 11 hours that we were actually shooting.  Setup time was another hour and breakdown about 30 minutes.  As you can see, it is a commitment of time and the team needs to be pretty dedicated to the process as we had lots of stuff to move around.  Additionally, we had a 4′ table for the computer and monitor. A secondary 6′ table for stone check-in where we standardized a form to record the metadata on each suiskei.

Cataloging each suiseki

Cataloging each suiseki

We devised the above form to capture data about each stone so that it would be easy to track for data entry at a later date. We captured owner, stone classification and/or title, size, daiza maker, etc.  Janet was very smart in that she took a photo of the stone and sheet so that we “locked” in the data and which stone it belonged to.  One might think this is easy to track but believe me when you are shooting 400-500 suiseki you need structure and process to keep things in order.

We had filled out the forms in advance of our shoot. It and its corresponding stone were checked in with Janet where she then recorded this data into an Excel spreadsheet along with the photograph’s file-name for each the stone.  This last record is key as it ensures we can match form, to Excel data, to suiseki to photograph.

So let’s look at some photos.

A beautiful black mountain stone.

A beautiful black mountain stone.

I start with this stone because this is a very difficult stone to shoot well. You can decide if this is a good photograph for yourself, but let me describe why it is difficult and why we believed we achieved a good result.

First this stone is dark and shiny.  Incorrect light placement will create numerous “hot spots” thereby reducing the beauty of the stone.  The stone needs to be evenly lit so that we don’t lose detail in the recess areas of the stone.  We also want the daiza to be lighted properly and this is most difficult as this is where most of the shadows occur from our lighting setup.

So how did we light this stone.  We had one light on a boom so that it was overhead.  We had two key lights on the right and left side of the light tent. We had two more fill lights front left and front right.  We then positioned these lights until we obtained the lighting we desired.  In a few instances we used a gobo on the top light to knock down some of the direct light to keep very reflective stones from being “too hot” on the top.

The trick in this photograph is that we want some shine in the photograph because this provides the eye/brain with clues as this is a shiny/reflective stone but not so much that it ruins the photograph.

Waterfall Stone (8cm)

Waterfall Stone (8cm)

This is a waterfall stone from the collection of Mr. Sugii Chugi from Kyoto.  He passed away in 2007. He was an avid collector of small suiseki and owned a reported 3,000 small suiseki.

Waterfall suiseki (6cm)

Waterfall suiseki (6cm)

Another fine small suiskei from Mr. Sugii Chugi’s collection.  Both of these waterfall stones are in KJ’s personal collection of small stones.   This is a very rough textured stone with a small but elegant waterfall. The daiza is made by a very famous daiza maker who uses the name of Waseki.  He no longer makes daizas so they are quite collectible.

Mountain Stone from Black Butte

Mountain Stone from Black Butte

A very color mountain stone that reminds us of fall when the maples are changing colors.

Mountain Stone

Mountain Stone

A beautiful stone with a rosewood daiza made by Jerry Braswell.  So many people desire only black stones for their suiskei.  We certainly appreciate them as well. However, we love this colorful stone. They remind me of suiseki from Sado Island in Japan. Those are principally only a single color – red; whereas, these stones have red, yellow, white and sometimes even green, blue or black in them as well.

Small mountain stone

Small mountain stone

A Cache Creek stone that is only 11cm long. A really beautiful little stone.  This daiza was made by Brent and myself just two weeks ago. It was my first attempt at making a daiza with much of the work being done by Brent in showing me how to do it.  Thanks Brent!  Notice the little waterfall on the right side of the main peak.

A beautiful Mountain stone

A beautiful Mountain stone

We saved this photo for last. What a beautiful suiseki.  Very nice color and shape with a well made daiza.  This photograph represents this stone quite well.  There is a lot of detail in this photograph without losing the highlights or shadows.

So what were the results of the weekend. Well confidence in our setup.  We are convinced that we can now capture our suiseki and represent them well in photographic form.  We also learned a few things about our process that will help us improve our next photo session.  We learned that we need more staging tables for our stones.  We verified that we can shoot about 1 suiseki every 6 minutes therefore we can schedule people without wasting too much of their time just standing around waiting on us.

We also learned that we can’t shoot for 8 straight hours.  Our eyes were just too tired by the end of the day.  A great deal of energy was exerted in focusing and photo analysis.  As in hunting for suiseki, one needs a fresh eye to perform best.

It is our hope that this post will encourage all of you to record your suiskei by shooting good photographs.  We as American suiskei collectors need to record our stones for future generations.  We not only have this value but are putting this value into action by recording our stones for our family or future owners.

Let us know what you think and share some photos if you start to shoot your suiseki.

Again, thanks to Mas, Janet, Brent for all of your hard work this weekend.

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