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Board Game Photography 102: Soft Light from an Artificial Source

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This is the second installment in an ongoing series of photography guides. Make sure start at the beginning: BGP 101

Welcome back class. Last time we discussed the difference between soft and hard light. I focused on the qualities that make soft light generally preferable and recommended window light as a source of soft light. Window light is some of the best light around, but it has some major drawbacks. Windows are hard to move so if you want to change the direction of the lighting that means you have to reposition your subject. Quite a hassle. It’s also not always available. Unless you have the power to control the sun, you are at its mercy. By the time you get home from work, it might be dark already (yay daylight savings time). So rather than rely on unpredictable light, let’s take matters into our own hands. Let’s harness the power of artificial light.

We’ll define artificial light as any light that does not have the sun as its source. The source could be anything from a simple light bulb to large LED panel. Anything that emits light can be used to varying degrees of success. For photography purposes, strobes or flashes are generally used. These sources put out a momentary burst of light as opposed to the continuous light found in an everyday light bulb. The benefit of using a strobe is that they can put out much more light in a short amount of time than a continuous source in a smaller package. Here’s an example of a shot I took with a strobe as the main light source.

By the end of this article, hopefully you will have enough of an understanding to create something similar. This shot was taken with thousands of dollars of equipment. I don’t expect any sane person to spend that kind of money just to increase the quality of their board game photos. It just happens to be the equipment that I have and use, but the basic principles can be applied no matter what kind of equipment you use. That said, you will need some equipment and it will likely cost you something. Sometimes there’s just no getting around the fact that photography is inherently an artform married to technology. Using strobes is much easier when your camera has a hot shoe or a sync port. That means you’ll want something more capable than a smartphone camera. Using them together is possible, but beyond the scope of this lesson. But if you’re really interested feel free to ask me after class. Now camera phone owners aren’t completely out of luck. I’ll try to recreate the above shot with a continuous light source on my own camera phone on a budget towards the end.

Equipment? Technique? Setup? This is all beginning to sound like a lot of work! I can be. It’s a move away from taking spur of the moment snapshots towards a more deliberate approach. Just because a photo can be taken in an instant doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. It’s all about preparation.

Off Camera Flash

If you do a little searching online you might see the words strobe and speedlight tossed around. Strobes are generally more expensive and larger, while speedlights are more compact and generally battery operated. For our purposes, a speedlight works just fine and I’ll just be using the word flash. Many cameras have built in flashes, but as we discussed last time, it’s not in the best location. We want to get the flash on a different axis than the lens in order to get directionality and texture. Since we can’t pull out the flash from the camera, we’ll need a separate unit. I don’t want to get bogged down on specific brands here and there are many methods to getting your flash off of your camera. There’s a lot of resources out there to help you with that, but here’s one with some recommendations that I agree with.

Now that you’ve got your flash setup squared away let’s get a little technical and talk a little bit about our exposure. I recommend shooting in manual mode in this case. It allows us to isolate a single variable and manipulate it as needed. If you’re unfamiliar with the basics of exposure, I recommend checking out this article.

Unless you are working in the dark, you have to consider the ambient light. What’s that? Look around you. Unless you are in the dark, there is light all around you. Whether it’s from a lamp or a skylight or a computer monitor, all the light that just there be happenstance is ambient light. Our goal is to cut down the ambient exposure so that our subject is mainly lit by the flash. Without getting too detailed, shutter speed is used to control your ambient exposure and aperture controls your flash exposure.

Generally, I set my shutter speed to the maximum flash sync speed (1/250th in my case). You can find this number in your camera’s manual. I also set my ISO fairly low in order to minimize noise/grain. I tend to work with apertures around 5.6 to 8.0 because I to have most of my subject in focus, but you can play around with that. Just know that the higher your aperture the more powerful your flash will need to be. Once you’ve got your settings dialed in, you can take a test picture without the flash. It should be very dark, nearing total darkness. Once you are set, turn on your flash and put it into manual mode as well then adjust the power in test shots until you have a nice exposure. You will get hang of the settings with practice. So let’s see what this gets us.

It’s a start, but notice the harsh shadows. We have hard light. As we learned last time, it’s because the flash is a small light source. We need a way to make it larger in order to achieve the soft light we’re after. You might be thinking, “But that looks good enough for me.” Sure, it’s a decent photograph, but it’s not what we set out to do. Getting a grasp of photography means having an idea in your mind’s eye and being able to achieve it in reality. In order to get soft light we need to modify the light coming from the flash. Light modifiers can very from beauty dishes and octoboxes to something as simple as a bounce card. The idea is to have the light bounce or pass through something so that the item the light bounces off of or passes through is now the light source. If that new light source is large, we get soft light. Each modifier has its pros and cons. For our purposes, I prefer a softbox since it gives me a nice large source with some control of the direction it goes. In reality, anything you use will be an improvement and should get you the type of light you’re after.

Here is the setup I used to achieve our target photo. It’s a simple one light setup and once you start getting comfortable with it, you can start adding more light sources, but this will do for our purposes. Notice that the light is positioned directly to the right of the subject. This gives is the directionality needed to give the photo texture. You can experiment with the exact position of your light later, but for this exercise I’d recommend this positioning.

If you’re modifier is not large enough, you might find that the shadows created are too dark. If you want to cut down on the contrast you can do a few things. The simplest thing would be add a reflector directly opposite of the light on the other side of the subject. A reflector is simply an object for the light to bounce off of. You can use all sorts of things like foam board or a sunshade you use to keep your car cool. Whatever you use, make sure it is neutral in color so it won’t introduce funky colors to the subject. You could also add another light, but that’s probably not advisable until you’ve had some more practice. Finally, you could just lighten the shadows in a post processing software like PhotoShop or Lightroom, but our goal is to get it as presentable in camera.

With some patience and practice, you’re sure to get some great results. If you have questions or things aren’t quite working out how you’d like, feel free to leave questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to help.

No Flash – Cheap Solution

If all you have is a smartphone camera or you really can’t invest in some lighting equipment, you’re not completely out of luck, but the path ahead of you is going to be a bit harder. I took it as a challenge to create as similar a shot as I could with only object most people would have laying around. I ended up using a desk lamp and a fold-up reflector that’s essentially a sunshade for a car. Positioning the desk lamp to the right of the subject and angling the light upwards, I positioned the reflector above it so that the light bounces down on the game. Here’s what my setup looks like.

There’s a couple of issues that came up when shooting this way. Firstly, it was incredibly awkward to balance my camera in one hand while balancing the reflector in the other. Aside from that, I was now dealing with a significantly less powerful light source. My main light was only a little more prevalent than the ambient light which means that my final exposure is a mix of all light in the room. Since it was a dim room to begin with, I needed to push my camera harder, by using a lower shutter speed, wider aperture, and higher ISO. Thankfully, my camera was up to the task. This might not be the case for your camera. A possible solution would be to use a stronger light (maybe a floor lamp with a high output bulb) or multiple lights aimed the right direction. This setup definitely takes some experimenting, but you can make it work. Here is the result.

A few things to note. The shadows are not as soft as I’d like because I had to place the reflector close to the lamp in order to get enough light onto the table. This means there wasn’t enough room for the light to spread across the reflector and get the size I would ideally like. Again, this could be remedied with a stronger light. The depth of field (the amount of the photo that is in focus) isn’t as deep as I’d like because I had to use a wider aperture and the high ISO has affected the dynamic range. All told, it’s not exactly what I’d like, but it’s a reasonable attempt given the ramshackle setup.

Sometimes, photography is about making do. I made do. I know not everyone has all the tools I recommended earlier. Even I would like some more tools. But if you’re really serious about taking a step forward, I would recommend investing in something. If not equipment, invest in time and invest in the craft. Don’t be content with just snapping a photo and saying, “That’s good enough.” Set some time aside and practice. Experiment with light setups, however meager they may be. Don’t underestimate what can be achieved with a little ingenuity.

As always, feel free to ask any questions in the comments and I’ll be glad to answer.

I love board games. The more esoteric, the better.

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