How I Got That Shot: Still-Life Photography on a Grand Scale

July 19, 2013

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Nigel Cox

Client: Dwell
Photo Director: Anna Alexander
Creative Director: Alejandro Chavetta

For a story in Dwell, the home design magazine, Photo Director Anna Alexander assigned New York City-based still-life photographer Nigel Cox to shoot new upholstery fabric designs. Cox, a longtime fan of the magazine who had frequently sent promos to its editors, says he was eager to collaborate with them. The initial assignment, he recalls, was to show the fabrics loosely draped over furniture or objects. He suggested an idea to cover several objects of different shapes, and arrange them in clusters that appear to be suspended in the air. “I always pictured them as floating,” he explains.

One challenge of having the objects hover above the ground, however, was making sure the shadows they cast on the floor were clearly defined. Another was to ensure the shadows cast by light stands and the C-stands used to suspend the objects wouldn’t appear in the shot. Cox also wanted all the fabric-covered forms to be brightly lit with their edges sharply defined. He decided to use a black sweep to create what appears to be a wide-open space. “I like shooting against black because it allows you to fully utilize highlights and shadows,” he notes.

Working with prop stylist Peter Tran, Cox looked for a variety of objects that would be large enough to show off the patterns in the fabric. “We went to hardware stores and walked every aisle looking for some random shapes,” he recalls. He selected several, including some large, cylindrical wastebaskets and a pine tabletop; other shapes were cut from foam. He and Tran then had to pair the fabrics with shapes that would complement their patterns and textures, and decide how to group the rectangles and spheres together. “We wanted to make it look random, in a way, but we had to plan the randomness—which can be sometimes harder” than creating a symmetrical pattern, Cox recalls. “Once we had the shapes here, I was able do some sketches,” which he sent to Alejandro Chavetta, Dwell’s creative director, to illustrate his concept.

In planning the shot, Cox says, “I was determined to get the crisp shadow by having a light that was a long, long ways away.” He originally considered shooting down on the shapes from a ladder, and putting a light source about 20 feet away from the cluster of objects. The problem, he found, was that when the shapes were laid on blocks only two to three feet from the ground, he wasn’t able to backlight them. To make the shot work, Cox says, required “a lot of rim lighting and backlighting so everything is defined with a bright light on the edges.”

He decided instead to clamp the shapes onto stands, and shoot them from the front. This gave him room to place lights a few feet behind the cluster of suspended objects, where they would be hidden from view. To cast shadows on the floor, he placed a single light source above the cluster, near the ceiling of his studio. One of the biggest challenges, Cox says, was rigging the objects, including heavy ones like the tabletop, so they were secure, and “and then hiding the rigging.” Many of the shapes were clamped to Plexiglas rods that wouldn’t cast shadows on the ground.

Lighting: Cox began by lighting from above to see how the shadows looked on the floor. “I had a single head up on a boom at the highest point of the ceiling,” about 12 feet from the floor. He adds, “It was an open reflector, with just a slight diffusion in front of it so the edges [of the light] weren’t too hard.” He had originally planned to use tungsten, but was worried about the heat of the continuous light source being so close to the ceiling. Instead, he says, he used Broncolor strobes.

Once he had his overhead light in place, a combination of open heads and strobes with grids were placed between four and ten feet to the left and right of the cluster. On most of the shapes, he says, “I just wanted to have a little light hitting them in an area, with some nice fall off.” He explains, “I like grids where the light is more focused, so it exaggerates the fall off.”

When he wanted the edges of an object to be crisply illuminated, he would light it from behind with a light placed on a high stand, then direct the light to touch the object’s rim. Thanks to these rim lights, Cox says, “There was contrast on the edges [of the shapes] so they weren’t receding into the background.”

For an additional pop of light, Cox likes to use mirrors and reflector cards. He placed mirrors on the back of some objects, to “bounce the light to the object behind it. If you catch the light with a small mirror,” Cox says, “that adds a little kick of light for filling a shadow.”

In setting up the lights, Cox says, “Everything was designed to avoid spill.” To make sure the shadows cast on the ground by the objects stayed distinct, he used black cards to flag some of the lights

Camera: Cox used a Sinar p3, with a Sinarback eVolution 75 digital back and a Sinaron 55mm lens for the shoot.

Post-Production: Josh Auckenthaler, one of a few retouchers who work in Cox’s studio, handled the post-production on the Dwell job. The retouching was minimal, according to Cox: making the shadows cast on the ground slightly smaller, smoothing out some seams in the fabric, and removing “one or two C-stand legs that were visible.”

Doing the retouching in his studio, Cox says, is efficient. “It’s just ten yards down the hall so I can look at a print anytime.”

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