Part 4

Exercise 4.5

For this exercise, I have chosen to continue my exploration of the humble onion, also my subject in exercise 4.4. This time, I am looking at different ways to photograph an onion that is not “conventional”.

Googling “onion” yields the photographs shown in the screen grab below:


Onion pictures in Google – grabbed on 18/02/2017 at 20:39

Most of the photographs have a white background, which indicates that these were mostly shot for “stock” photography applications, which just show the subject in its cleanest, most distilled way. Some pictures show a whole onion, others a section cut of the onion or slides, and some others just show a bunch of onions together.

If we scroll down, we can see other types of pictures:

  • We see onions with their leaves attached, just taken off the ground
  • We see drawings / designs based on onion shapes
  • We see close-ups of onion rings / onion parts
  • We see sacks full of onions and pictures of hundred of onions together
  • We see food prepared with onions
  • We see people dressed up as onions.

One of the approaches suggested by the coursebook was to make the subject incidental to the picture. Looking at Chris Steele Perkins and John Davies approach to Mt. Fuji, I believe this mostly works in cases where the incidental object is easily recognisable and / or is sufficiently unique to be able to counterbalance the main subject. For example, in John Davies “Fuji City” (see here), if any other generic mountain was at the back of the picture, it would not be considered as an alternative way of portraying that mountain, but it would just be considered truly incidental to the picture, in other words, completely dispensable.

The question then becomes, if a subject is just something generic or ordinary, how do you make the “incidental” approach work? One way of looking at it would be to make the object incongruous to the frame. In a way this is a bit dangerous because it may be interpreted as making the object stand-out and then it ceases to be incidental. The approach, for it to work, would require a balance between subtlety and assertion.

Based on the above, I attempted a series of shoots where I placed onions in places where we would not expect to see them. Some of the better shots are included below:


“The bookends” (1/50s at f8. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – I took a series of photographs using onions as bookends, a use for which they are not particularly well suited given when shape and lightness. This is one of the better shots of this series, showing the onions as a small part of the frame and plenty of other objects more overwhelming in size. Yet the onions manage to become the subjects by virtue of the unexpectedness of seeing them being used as bookends.


“Failed bookend”  (1/50s at f4. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – As expected, during the shootout some of the books ended up falling because the small onions were not heavy enough to support them. I took some pictures of the fallen books and the onion, such as the one above, but in my opinion these, while aesthetically pleasant, give too much prominence to the onion, which no longer can be called incident to the picture.


“Fruit bowl” (1/60s at f8. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – Another idea was to make the onion the odd one out by placing it inside a bowl of fruit. I like the simplicity of this concept, but in the end I deemed this too subtle.

Another approach I wanted to try for this exercise was the “lens vision” concept used by Bill Brandt successfully in many of his nudes and body part studies (see for instance here and here), where the use of a wide-angled lens in close up results in distorted, slightly surreal images.

I took some of these shots with a combination of lenses mounted on extension tubes to achieve extreme close-ups and also with a compact camera in 1cm macro mode, which only worked at the wide end of the lens, allowing for extremely close wide-angle shots of the onion. Here are some of the resulting photographs:


“The top end” (0.4s at f22. ISO 800. 43mm mounted on extension tubes) – This shot is a more than life-size close up of the top end of the onion, where the leaves were cut. It has quite an abstract quality to it, but it is hard to tell it is an onion.


“Top end, too” (1/60s at f2. ISO 500. 6.1mm lens (equiv to 28mm in full frame)) – This shot, also of the top end of the onion, was taken with a wide-angle macro lens compact camera. The extreme close up allows for the narrow depth of field, in spite of the small sensor, which gives a pleasant background blur; but the background is too bright and clean which makes this picture look too much like the ones in Google.


“Sideways” (1/60s at f4. ISO 1250. 6.1mm lens (equivalent to 28mm in full frame) – also taken with a wide-angled compact camera in macro mode, this was one of my favourite shots, as it shows a bit more clearly that is an onion, but at the same time, it is not embellished like in the shots at the top of Google. It shows the rough, ageing skin of the onion and does not hide its blemishes.

The final shot I selected for this exercise was taken with a 135mm telephoto lens mounted in extension tubes to allow a closer focusing. It is shown below.


“Cracked skin” (0.8s at f11, ISO 800. 135mm lens mounted on extension tubes)

It shows a close up of the side of the onion, where the outer skin is starting to crack. In spite of the close up, the contour lines and the crack would make the image instantly recognisable as an onion to anyone who has ever handled one in the supermarket or the kitchen. To me the crack signifies both the imperfection of real life – it is hard to get an onion as clean as those found at the top end of the Google search – and provides a focus point which is slightly different from the object itself: it is an onion all right, but the onion becomes a bit incidental to the crack in this instance. There are close-ups of onions in the Google-searched pictures, but these tend not to be as close as my picture above and tend to focus on more harmonious aspects of the onions, such as the concentrical inner rings, and not on the imperfections of its outer parts, as in here.


Exercise 4.4

For this exercise, I decided to take various pictures of a red onion. My initial ideas were to create a series of shots over a white background, emphasising the shape of the onion but also playing with the effects of direct light when creating shadows, to give a more of an abstract, unnatural feel to it.

My first idea was to use a flash ring to shoot and illuminate the onion from above. The onion itself was going to be suspended on a small stand, about 5cm tall, to create separation from the white surface below (a sheet of white A3 printing paper).  I was expecting the onion to show right in the middle of the shot, with its hard, dark shadow symmetrically surrounding it on the white paper below. A diagram of my initial set-up and what I expected would be the results are shown below:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Initial idea for harsh light picture of an onion

After initial testings, I concluded that the ring flash created a far too big and diffused light source for it to cast a hard shadow and that I would not be able to get the results that I wanted from it. I then decided to modify my set-up slightly by using the flash from my mobile phone (single LED light) as the light source (in continuous mode). The modified set-up was as follows:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Modified set-up for harsh light picture of an onion

With this set up, because the flash was not exactly aligned to the camera lens, I could not replicate the idea of a symmetrical shadow, so instead I tried to explore the movement of the shadows as I moved the light source around the onion:


Red onion 1 (3s at f8, ISO 100) – This was taken with the LED light right above the onion


Red Onion 2 (0.3s at f8, ISO 100) – for this shot, I moved the LED light downwards and towards the front of the onion.

In this first session, I used a 100mm macro lens (full frame) set at an aperture of f8 to ensure adequate depth of field. ISO was set at base level of 100.

The first image was shot straight from the top. The single LED light (a very small light source) creates a very well-defined shadow, which size was increased by the separation between the onion and the surface below. Although this is different from my original idea of the symmetric shadow, I was quite pleased with the result and particularly liked the soft rim of white light surrounding the onion, which helps delineate its contour against the dark shadow below.

The second shot plays a bit more with the angle of the light to create something more abstract. This was achieved by lowering the light source while maintaining the camera above the onion. The final result still shows a very harsh light, but the contours are not as defined as in the first shot and the onion’s shape is slightly less obvious. Because the light was lateral rather than from the top, the background is slightly muddled rather than white.

I completed a further session on this subject to explore subject isolation against a dark background (rather than the white surface used in the first session). For this, I used two different types of light: a small LED reflector, of the type used to shot videos, and a light box (with a permanent lamp inside). The first shots were done using the led light modified with a paper cone (like a snoot), which reduced the size of the light surface by a factor of 10 approximately. The onion was set on a table on top of a dark tea towel. A diagram of the set up is shown below:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Set up for harsh light picture of an onion against a dark background

On this occasion I used a camera with a 43mm lens (full frame). With this set-up, I took photographs from two different angles: from the top of the onion and from the front looking upwards. Some of the resulting pictures are shown below:


Red Onion 3 (1/5s at f4, ISO 3200) – Taken from the top, the light was hitting the onion from the top and sideways, creating the long shadow and reflection seen at the bottom.


Red Onion 4 (1/15s at f4, ISO 6400) – Taken from the front of the onion, looking slightly up

The first shot was taken from the above and with the aid of a tripod. The ISO was set at a relatively high level to show some of the background, particularly the light reflecting on the tea cloth. This shot was partly inspired by the earlier lateral shadow photograph, and I particularly liked the effect of the long shadow eating into the illuminated strip, rendering the effect a bit like the tail of a comet, the whole thing taking a bit of an abstract turn. As the light source is small, the shadow is strong and well-defined while the light is highly directional.

The second shot was taken from the front. Here the idea was to shot the onion as close as possible, with the small light from the snoot hitting it just on the top and the camera looking slightly up. This shot reminded me of the photographs of planets from deep space when the sun is just partially illuminating them.

——————- oooo ——————-

Following from the shots above, I proceeded to remove the cone from the front of the LED light source in order to increase its size. As the light was now more powerful, it was spilling towards the back of the room and illuminating the background slightly. In order to minimize this, I feathered the light by moving it against the onion and placed a piece of black foam board in front of it to stop the light from bouncing against the walls. The set up is as shown below:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Set up for onion illuminated by full led panel

The resulting photograph is shown below


Red Onion 5 (1/50s at f4. ISO 800)

Even after removing the paper cone, the LED light source (about a 10 x 10 cm box) is relatively small and consequently the shadows remain well-defined and the highlights are focused on a small area of the surface of the onion. The slightly larger light source, however, allows for a better definition of the contours of the onion and a better separation of this from the background of the photo, though it also results in a harsh, clinical look.

Next, I decided to increase the size of the light source considerably. I used a soft box with a square opal white front of approximately 70 x 70 cm. The light in this case proved to be quite strong and was illuminating a fair amount of the room’s background. Since I had no way of regulating the intensity of the light source (a plain lamp), I decided to cover about 2/3 rds of the box surface with the black foam board, as shown diagrammatically below:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Set up for onion illuminated by soft box

The resulting photograph is shown below


Red Onion 6 (1/60s at f4. ISO 800)

The longer, more diffused light in this case has produced a more organic result, with a less defined contour and softer shadow. The highlights also cover a larger portion of the face of the onion. The whole picture has a more “painterly” feeling, as opposed the more abstract results of the first session.

——————- oooo ——————-

The photographs I have taken for this exercise are generally distinct from the shots taken in exercises 4.2 and 4.3. In all the shots, I used only one light source, thus avoiding the mixture of colour temperature lights that prevail in the shots taken for 4.3. By using a single source and setting the shutter speed relatively high for some of the shots, I also managed to obscure the background in some of the studio shots, which would not have been possible in the daylight shots of 4.2. Above all, the light in this excercise was highly directional and in most cases quite harsh, which contrasts with most of the light in the shots I took for 4.3, which was more colourful but reasonably self-contained; although in both cases the light was capable of generating strong contrast, high dynamic range shots. Similarly, most of the shoots I took for 4.2 have a light which is less directional, more diffused and has less contrast than the shots done for 4.4. Having said that, I believe it would be possible to achieve similar results to the ones obtained with controlled light sources in this exercise by using both artificial and natural light in an uncontrolled scenario (eg by making use of harsh mid-day light flowing through a window or a sky-light, for instance), and in return, it should also be possible to imitate a natural light source or to complement an artificial one by making use of flash or other controlled light sources while achieving a natural result. This is what I intend to explore in assignment number 4.

Exercise 4.3

For this exercise I took a series of shots both indoors and on the street under various artificial light conditions. Here are some of my favorites:


18.5mm (28mm equivalent). 1/100s at f5.6. ISO 1600

This is a picture of a zebra crossing light post against the cinema marquee, in central London. The shutter speed needed to be relatively fast in this case to capture the crossing light full on. What I particularly liked about this set up was the simplicity of the shapes and the color contrast between the warm glow of the lamp-post and the mainly cold light coming out of the marquee.


27mm (42mm equivalent). 1/30s at f8. ISO 6400

In this picture of brickwork in the Barbican estate, in central London, what captured my imagination was the rim of cold light created by the street lamp-post directly above it. I tried to render it as dark as possible while still showing some shadow detail.


27mm (42mm equivalent). 1/30s at f8. ISO 6400

This is an indoors shot of the ceiling of the Barbican centre. Light is filtered to alter its colour when reflected on the concrete shades. I like the combination of warm and cold light and this is what pulled me to this scene in the first place.


27mm (42mm equivalent). 1/30s at f2.8. ISO 6400

Returning home on a foggy night, I started by capturing the lamp posts only, but then was dragged down by the contrast between the warm glow of the lamps and the cold, blue light coming from the cars’ headlights.


18.5mm (28mm equivalent). 1/100s at f5.6. ISO 3200

As part of this exercise, I did a series of night shots of traffic signs. Many of these are self-illuminated and come in bright blue or red colours. In the night they stand out against the dark background. In this shot, like the in the previous one, there is a combination of warm and cold light that blends together well.


18.5mm (42mm equivalent). 1/30s at f8. ISO 400

The above is another indoors shot inside the Barbican Centre and is the only one that combines natural and artificial light. Once again, the cold light of the ring lamp surrounding the lightwell contrasts clearly with the warm light coming from this art installation (by Omer Arbel – see here for more details) and the neutral light from the skylights above.

—————— oooo ——————

The light in this pictures shows very little in common with the daylight shots I took for exercise 4.2. Other than perhaps the warm / cold contrast present in the early morning shot, which is also a feature of the artificial light shots shown above, daylight is much more diffused and results in a lower level of contrast than artificial light, which is much more contained or even directional. The lack of an even illumination also allows for the shapes of subjects to be more clearly defined under artificial light under certain circumstances, but this does not always work perfectly well. In the first shot of this series, the light coming from the top of the zebra crossing lamp-post is too weak to illuminate the entire top of the fixture, resulting in an area that the viewer is left to guess. Some subjects, particularly those which may be self illuminated, may exhibit better colour definition under artificial light, and when these are combined, like in the last two pictures in the series, they generate interesting colour combinations that cannot be easily perceived under daylight.

Exercise 4.2

For this exercise, I took several photographs of an office building near where I work. The pictures were taken over two days, both of which were sunny. Here is a set representing the best pictures from various times of the day.


29-12-2016, 8:42:24 – 1/60s at f8. ISO 200

Early morning light, with the sun still rising and directly hitting just part of the building, with many other parts receiving limited light and being partially in shadow. Light has a warm glow, it is intense but not particularly harsh.

The low position of the sun creates an area of focus in part of the building which is quite pleasant, giving something for the eye to rest after surveying the frame. Elsewhere, the light reflected from the sky gives a subtle fill which allow the viewer to have a good idea of the shapes without these becoming overpowering.


29-12-2016, 12:58:28. 1/125s at f8. ISO 200

Just after midday, the light reaches directly many parts of the building. Being winter, the light is still lateral rather than coming from above, but is significantly less warm than in the early morning shot.

Overall, the midday light, even during winter, lack a clear sense of direction and does not create the areas of focus we saw in the early morning shot. It is an intense, honest ilumination that makes the whole subject stand out against the background blue sky, but does so at the cost of excesive contrast, particularly in the front side of the building, and perhaps lack of pictorial interest.


02-01-2017, 15:17:40. 1/60s at f8. ISO 200

Late afternoon shot, with warm, soft light illuminating the side of the building from a relatively low angle. The light is more subtle than in the early morning shot, both in warmth and intensity, but fills a greater portion of the frame. Contrast is lower than in the mid day shot, but still more marked than in the early morning shot.

The glow here is subtle and too disperse. The light has now entered at such an angle that is iluminating not only the main subject but also some of the adjecent structures, creating a bit of a distraction, rather than the clear, intense focus provided by the patch of warm light in the early morning shot.


29-12-2016, 16:07:02. 1/60s at f8. ISO 3200

This shot was taken right after sun set, with the illumination mostly coming from the reflection of the sun in the sky. The light is noticeable colder than in previous cases and there is less contrast in the building.

The low intensity and relative coldness of the natural light here accentuates the contribution of the artificial light elements (which are present but less noticeable in the other shots) to the overall aestetics of the image. The light conditions also make the viewer more concious of the border features of the main subject, particularly the details of the roof which has an intresting crown-like shape that is less noticeable under the harsh midday light.

When considering the subject and how it is illuminated, out of the four shots my favourite is the early morning one. The reflected light from the sky creates enought detail in the shadows for us to have a clear idea of the main shapes, while the warm, direct sun patch of light makes the subject stand out without significantly overpowering it.

Exercise 4.1

For this exercise, I took pictures of white, grey and black card under natural light (overcast day). The three pictures came out almost the same, even though the three cards were of clearly distinct tones:


White card (aperture priority) – 1/200s at f2.8. ISO 200


Black card (aperture priority) – 1/15s at f2.8. ISO 200


Grey card (aperture priority) – 1/125s at f2.8. ISO 200

Out of the three photographs, only the grey card was correctly exposed. The white card picture was underexposed while the black one was overexposed. The camera was set in average metering and aperture priority mode with ISO set at the base level of 200. For the black card it selected a significantly lower shutter speed than for the white and grey ones. The histogram for all three pictures was almost the same: a relatively narrow curve in the middle of the tones, as depicted below


Histogram representation – white, grey and black cards, aperture priority

Switching now to manual mode, we took again all the pictures moving the exposure dial so that the histogram (in the camera) fell in the correct exposure section: The white card was overexposed (when compared with the aperture priority shot) so that its exposure curve fell entirely on the right hand side of the histogram (highlights), whereas the black card shot was underexposed so that the exposure curve moved to the left hand side of the histogram (shadows). The grey card shot was exposed so that the curve of the histogram fell in the middle:


White card (manual) – 1/60s at f2.8. ISO 200


Histogram – white card (manual)


Black card (manual) – 1/125s at f2.8. ISO 200


Histogram – black card (manual)


Grey card (manual) – 1/160s at f2.8. ISO 200


Histogram – grey card (manual)

There is a full stop difference between the white card and the black card correct exposure. The grey card exposure was actually about 1/3rd of stop slower than in aperture priority mode, but not too different from the correct exposure for the black card. Shooting at this speed would have likely resulted in the white card being underexposed. The more balanced exposure would have lied somewhere between 1/60s and 1/125s, as we will see next.

To understand a bit better how the camera works when presented with multiple tones at once (like in real life), I took a picture with half of the frame filled with white card and the other one filled with black card. The resulting picture is shown below:


White / black card (aperture priority – 1/80s at f2.8. ISO 200

On this occasion, the camera did a better job at calculating exposure, as the white section is closer to true white (but not there yet), while the black card section was closer to black (but still showing as dark grey). The histogram on this occasion had two separate peaks at the two extremes of the curve, but no values in the middle, which is consistent with the picture not showing any mid-tones. As anticipated, the exposure in this case is between the manual exposures for the white and black card, indicating that when the camera is confronted with a wide range of tones, none of which are particularly dominating, it is more likely to yield a reasonably correct exposure when used in average metering mode.


Histogram representation – white/black card combination