One of our end-of-the-decade stories at my newspaper, The Salinas Californian, was a look back on how cellphone technology had changed in the past ten years. I volunteered for the assignment and came up with the above photo.
This was one of my first real attempts at tabletop photography, although I grew up seeing it done frequently. My dad, an accomplished photographer himself, was known as the king of tabletop photography among members of his color slide club. He’d turn our dining room table into a beach, or a winter wonderland using 30 pounds of sugar, but I barely noticed because I was too busy skateboarding.
For this photo, I figured out the lighting for this as I went and took shots at each step.
|STEP ONE: Establish a base exposure for the iPhone screen. Even though I’m in a studio with a bunch of powerful strobes at my disposal, I’m going to use mainly modeling lights for my exposure. I want the live view from the iPhone’s camera to be my starting point, then I’ll light everything else based on that.
|STEP TWO: Add a light from above. I’m using a medium softbox, slightly back and angled forward, modeling lamp only. This provides a nice rimlight on the top of the iPhone and a bit of a forward-facing shadow.
|STEP THREE: I aim a light with a grid spot at the front of the old Motorola, which I found by putting out a call to the entire newspaper for old phones. A little Internet research told me that this guy is from 2000.
|STEP FOUR: Another light with a grid spot is added, this one from behind, pointing toward the first one but aimed so it hits mostly the Motorola and some of the iPhone. This gives me good separation between the Motorola and the background and a nice highlight on the iPhone.
|STEP FIVE: Now I add the only flash in the photo: A speedlite on very low power, shooting through a Honl snoot, aimed to hit the right sides of the Motorola and the iPhone, as well as light the tabletop. Firing the flash didn’t affect the live view on the iPhone until a moment after, when it winked at us.
|STEP SIX: The iPhone actually belongs to photographer Travis Geske, a recent graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who was hanging out with us at the office for part of the day and gave some pretty good suggestions about lighting. He got a text from a friend during the shoot.
|STEP SEVEN: The flash was lighting too much of the tabletop, so a bit of Cinefoil taped to a light stand formed a nice gobo, casting a shadow across the front of the frame.
|STEP EIGHT: All the photos to this point were shot with my 24-70 lens, at about 70mm. I tried my 70-200 from back farther, which made the Motorola appear a lot taller than the iPhone. Which is true, but kind of disorienting in the picture. So I stuck with the 24-70.
|STEP NINE: We’re almost there, but I need a little light on the front of the iPhone — I want to see the button. I add a reflector, white paperboard stuck to a light stand. My first attempt shows some pretty poor placement.
|STEP TEN: The second attempt with the reflector is better — a touch of detail is now visible in the iPhone. Remember, it’s not that the reflector is bouncing light into the phone, it’s more like we’re seeing the paperboard in the reflective front of the phone. As in, the reflective surface needs something to look at.
There was actually one more step, because at this point I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. A wind-up LED flashlight provided a touch of blue on the inside rim of the Motorola. You can see it in the setup photo below, along with Travis.