How I Got That Shot:The Illusion of an Explosion

October 21, 2011

© Jonathon Kambouris

Kambouris shot a series of tests, trying different lighting techniques on smashed pills.

Still-life photographer Jonathon Kambouris was recently assigned to illustrate a story for Shape on cutting pill dosage in half. The goal, he says, was to shoot a pill being broken apart in such a way that the reader could see the particles inside. The assignment inspired him to explore further, creating a series of test shots of pills that appear to be exploding in mid-air.

Kambouris wanted to create as much of the shots as he could in camera, without relying completely on post-production to produce the illusion. “I realized that this was going to have to happen with excellent prop styling. I experimented with breaking pills with a hammer and found that it created this amazing explosion quality.” Figuring out just where to hit each pill, he says, meant a lot of trial and error. “I kept going back to the drugstore.”

His next challenge was to make particles lying on a flat surface appear to be moving in three-dimensional space. He did that through his lighting and choice of focus. “By creating different shadows on the objects with the lights, it helped to make these pills feel like they are floating in space and gave them dimension. Also, I played around with focus, putting certain particles in and out of focus which would create a greater depth of field.”

Kambouris knew he would be shooting the pills on a sheet of glass, so he had to hammer the pills off set. “I had some clear 11 x 14 acetate sheets for my portfolio,” he says, which provided a surface on which he could smash the pills and a way to carefully transfer them to his lighting set up. “After I created a smash that I liked, I transported the acetate surface with the pill on it to my lighting set. I then went in with various different tools—Q-tips, tweezers, chop sticks—and slowly started to move the little particles around and manipulated them to accentuate the exploding motion.”

The set up he created in his Brooklyn studio was simple: The gray paper backdrop was placed on the floor. Saw horses standing on the paper held a sheet of clear X-inch Plexi. Two apple boxes placed on top of the Plexi supported a piece of glass on which he placed the acetate sheet and the pill particles.

Lighting: “I used a mixture of Profoto and Broncolor lighting packs,” the photographer explains. He lit the gray background using two Profoto heads with a small Chimera strip on each head. “The main light on the subject was a Broncolor P70 bare head,” he says. “It was very low, right above where the top of the pill was.” Kambouris says that his go-to light is typically a hard light source, which he uses to create strong shadows and play up the texture of objects he shoots. “I think it added drama and dimension” in this shot. He also added another P70 reflector, just below the bottom of the pill, to provide slight fill. He explains, “I added a little bit of a fill to lighten those shadows, so it would still be dramatic but you would see the information” in the photograph.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II with a 100mm Macro lens shot at f/16 at 1/100th of a second at ISO 50. “I captured so many variations of focus. I focused back more than I needed and forward more than I needed, just to have it” in camera, he says, adding, “That’s part of being a still-life photographer.”

Post production: Retouching included some color correction and adjustments to contrast and clean up. The most important part of the retouching, he says, was compositing a few particles from images shot at different focal lengths, “to create the feel that certain objects were coming towards and away from the camera.”

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