In November last year, back when it was warm and relatively sunny (remember those days?), I was invited to make some photographs for an RMIT book – ‘Designing the Dynamic‘ – a collaboration of various super-clever researchers ‘…from architecture, boat design, industrial design, mathematics, aerospace, structural engineering and computer science to explore the design and representation of dynamic systems’. In short, a satisfyingly weighty tome contributing new ideas to sailboat design (amongst other things). So the brief was to photograph some of the design models used in research for essays in the book, with a view to providing some good illustrative content, if not the cover!
So with that in mind, I trotted up to the shiny new RMIT Design Hub building, to set up a makeshift studio, and photograph some of the work with a view to editorial use – so illustrative rather than documentary.
Given something of a free creative rein in this regard, the first thing that struck me about the array of models constructed to test airflow and aerodynamics, was that in operation, with fans blowing, sensors ‘sensing’, and sails responding to airflow – they would be quite dynamic… However, catching the sense of that life and movement in a static two-dimensional picture is another kettle of fish entirely. So I thought to treat them as ‘performance’ instead, and use colour to infuse a theatrical dynamic into the pictures.
The setup was a simple four flashes on stands: a ‘key’ off to my right with my biggest umbrella – for soft detail lighting. A ‘fill’ to my left and further back, to reduce the shadow contrast from the key, and two backlighting flashes with COLOUR. I used a combination of BLUE and YELLOW gels (either gaffer-taped or in a holder) on the flashes to give the blank ‘arctic white’ background a better sense of space, AND to feature light the models. I was sensitive to leaving a bit of negative space in the pictures as well, for text and barcodes and other book-stuff – and I think the colour helps to give those areas a bit of pictorial purpose as well.
With the closeup of the sail used for the cover of the book – the blue light gives much better contrast to what is a white sail on a white background. My fancy is that this is how it would look at sea, if the model maker were brave enough to take it out there. The book designer (Sean Walsh Graphic Design) has (hardly cropped at ALL, and) used a BIG YELLOW STRIPE for the subtitle text on the cover too, which is nicely sympathetic to (the big yellow electrical clip on the very frame of the photograph, but also) my lighting. Thank you!!
Similarly, as you can see in the last photo (used in the book in a two-page chapter spread), the YELLOW backlighting is placed to stream through the plywood ‘airflow grid’ – which behaves like a photo grid in a fancy photo studio, breaking up the light into directional boxes, and not-at-all-evenly (because there are fans inside blocking some of the light), which makes the object come alive visually, rather than looking like a plywood box (which it is, but it’s also more!) The chair in the setup pic for this was for me to make a series of extreme closeups of the lasercut components of that model, and to my delight, those pictures are used liberally throughout the book as well.