Low-Tech Photography

This month I’d like to explore some of the craft, rather than the art, of photography. In other words, making really useful rather than really pretty shots.

It occurred to me recently when replacing the sway bar bushings on my long-term project 356, that there was a pretty good chance that I was not going to remember just how things went together. In the past, I’ve either reassured myself that surely I’d remember (bad idea), made a few notes (better, if you can find both paper and pencil at the same time) or done a diagram (better yet if you don’t lose it before you get to the reassembly).

This time I went a new route, grabbed the little point and shoot that backs up my back-up camera, and did a few really quick and really dirty auto-focus, on-board flash documentaries of the old bar, both in place and after I got it off and onto the workbench. No need to bring the file into the computer or to make prints; I just wanted to remember on which side of the body bushings the retainer clamps went, and which bolt to nut orientation was original—on the unlikely assumption that what had been running on the car for the last 30 or 40 years was what the factory intended in 1964.

The point and shoot camera does a very capable job of showing relationships of parts.
LEONARD TURNER

 

Work done and back in place; a tighter shot reveals details.
LEONARD TURNER

 

Think how much more useful this would be with a really complex job, say rebuilding the transmission, or dealing with the color coding of the wiring behind the dash (was it the black and blue wire or the blue and black wire?)

Color-coded wiring is a natural for photo documentation.
LEONARD TURNER

 

Now the PS is a good camera type for this job; the lens will focus close to the subject, and the on-board flash, typically really close to the lens and thus prone to produce horrible red-eye in people shots, can minimize shadows in close-up work shots. Relatively inexpensive, it’s a comfortable camera to have in the shop and use with less than pristine paws to take the needed images, and the built-in screen is all you need to jog the memory as to what went where when rebuild time comes.

Never being one to be sated by simplicity, however, I wondered about more complex and expensive approaches to the problem, and resolved to try an SLR digital with internal flash, external flash, multiple flashes, light painting with a continuous source, reflected light (off a photographic umbrella), natural light and filtered light. Might as well try engine shots; it’s something I need to do pretty often, and it’s hard to get light into that black hole where the horses live.

Direct flash using program mode with a digital SLR produces a superficially acceptable picture.
LEONARD TURNER

 

A closer look at 4 reveals poor sharpness with the camera selected (program) f stop, and there are heavy and confusing shadows.
LEONARD TURNER

 

Here’s the bottom line. On board flash with an SLR behaves pretty much like the PS camera. An external flash is higher in power, and allows you to indulge in the SLR’s ability to shoot in the manual mode and thus select a higher f-stop to get better depth of field; it is especially effective with one of the snap-on diffusion devices that came with my strobes. Using a pair of flashes, one on either side of the camera, helped some with the shadows, but didn’t eliminate them. That required my secret weapon, the tripod.

We all have a love-hate relationship with the bulky, awkward, clumsy and heavy tripod, but it can do magic. Once I locked the SLR down onto this three-legged device, I was able to solve both the depth of field problems, in which items in one plane are sharp but in another are not, and shadow issues, in which a strong shadow can pretend to be another wire or mask the margin of an important structure. Three different light sources worked well when using this for engine shots: natural light from a broad sky source (not direct sun) did a nice job, as did bouncing the strobe into a silver photographic umbrella. Moving a continuous light source during a long exposure also did the trick, and permits considerable customization of the final result.

A tripod and manually selected f stop solves depth of field and sharpness problems, but even with twin diffused strobes shadows persist and can even be worse.
LEONARD TURNER

 

Diffuse light from the sky can work well, but not with direct sunlight.
LEONARD TURNER

 

Bouncing a flash into a silver-lined photographic umbrella is easy and effective.
LEONARD TURNER

 

"Painting with light" by moving a continuous light source during a long exposure is a little tricky, but can give a variety of useful and interesting effects.
LEONARD TURNER

 

Returning to my first area underneath the car where the sun don’t shine, I found that a continuous light source, in this case a single incandescent bulb, can provide more detail around the sway bar mount and minimize shadow issues if it is diffused through a translucent materiel for a time exposure. I used a "one-stop silk" to spread out my light here, but you could get a similar result with a translucent white plastic, like an old shower curtain. One promising source I didn’t try is a ring-light; mine is defunct, and I didn’t have time to build a new one; maybe for a later blog.

Diffusing light, here with a single small incandescent bulb filtered through thin, fine mesh cloth, can light a wide area without too much in the way of hot spots or heavy shadows.
LEONARD TURNER

 

Diffusing light, here with a single small incandescent bulb filtered through thin, fine mesh cloth, can light a wide area without too much in the way of hot spots or heavy shadows

So, if you want to document what you’re doing as a source of information, the humble PS camera does a great job for not much money. If you’d like to instill a bit more art into the craft, maybe do a scrapbook on a restoration or illustrate a tech article, try some of these lighting tricks, maybe even combining them when needed.

Keep shooting and let me hear from you at: leonardt@pca.org. And special thanks to everyone who shared their feelings with me on the questions raised in last month’s blog; more on that later.