Lighting Chameleons: Thomas Brown on Creating Simple-Looking Lighting
September 13, 2016
Simplicity and believability are essential elements of Thomas Brown’s still-life and interiors photographs. His lighting technique helps him achieve both qualities. “Believability comes from an awareness of what happens in the everyday world,” he says. For instance, the simplest light we see is from the sun, because it’s “all coming from the same direction,” he explains. “When you’ve got a highly stylized set, if you can then add a little bit of realness through simplicity in the lighting or direction of lighting, I think that really helps you [from] dropping off into this world of too much fantasy.” Brown believes people’s brains are “cleverly trained to work out when something isn’t quite right” in an image. His clean, graphic images reflect his belief in “the idea of the organic and the natural and the imperfect making something believable and real and beautiful.”
Of course, he adds, “Simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve.”
Brown was recently working on a 40-square-foot set which required multiple lights. To make all of the lights on a set that size appear to be one light means rigging them so they are “coming from a very similar place on the boom or on the gantry or however they’re being suspended.” Merging multiple lights seamlessly means cutting into them with shapers and diffusers. “That can become very time consuming and it becomes very technical,” Brown adds.
Brown says the same principles apply to small still-lifes and to large-scale interior sets.
“The only real difference is the type of lights, and you have to be much more controlled [on a small set].” On a large set, one can be a bit less precise. “A small change in the lights on a large-scale set is not particularly noticeable, but on a small-scale set, you’ll see it instantly.”
It’s for this reason that Brown’s standard kit includes a lot of c-stands. “I love c-stands [and] lots of grip because when you’re shooting small stuff you need to have everything locked down.” If things move, he’ll have to start over, and while Brown likes to get everything in camera, there’s frequently the need to shoot certain elements separately, to be composited later. Other gear in his standard kit includes six or seven Profoto strobes, and “a variety of shapers, honeycombs, snoots, bundles, flags and nets.” His favorite tools have “a sort of inherent flexibility to them, because I know I can adjust them or control them to do a manner of different things.”
On a recent project for Le Monde d’Hermès, the magazine of the French luxury goods manufacturer, Brown used a simple lighting setup and multiple reflectors to make still-life images of tableware on sets that recalled natural history museum dioramas. The plates, teapot and other china are adorned by the naturalist scenes of deceased French artist Robert Dallet, and the brief called for Brown to present these natural textures out of context. In Brown’s images, the tableware is mixed with branches, leaves and other foliage and set against two-tone, monochromatic backgrounds. A central light above the sets, and a spotlight crossing the sets, casting shadow on the back wall, were the two lights. “The reflectors are a really key part of this because they keep the light consistent. You don’t want to have too many lights crossing each other because you’ll end up with about a million different shadows.” Mirrors pick up the highlights, and bits of foam core “bounce light into the shot and fill the shadows so it doesn’t feel too heavy.”
A recent interiors project for the January issue of Wallpaper* also took inspiration from a visual artist. This time, Wallpaper* Interiors Director Amy Heffernan was inspired by Suzanne Redstone’s graphic paintings and sculptures, which Brown describes as “very blocky and modular and on different levels and different plains.” Doorways, walls and split levels were built into the set. “We designed these kind of apertures into the sets,” Brown recalls. “I could use those effectively as light shapers to create these patches of light and dark, and lines of shadow—using the light as a physical thing to create interest within the spaces and also to give them a sense of scale as well.” The floors and walls, some of which were painted red or blue, were integrated into the lighting setup. “This is a perfect example of using the set to reflect the light,” which came from strobes on a gantry and boom, Brown says. Gels helped enhance the light reflected by colored surfaces. Brown also made long-exposure plates of lasers casting streaks of light into the sets, and added smoke to pick up the streaks. The smoke creates a softbox-like diffusive effect, Brown explains. “You get this really beautiful softness.”
Brown’s laser and smoke experiment reflects his method of learning to light. Though he studied photography in art school, he taught himself to light, working with different equipment when he had the budget to do so. Assisting Dan Tobin Smith, who was also self-taught, gave Brown the confidence to try different things. “When I could spend a little bit of money to try out a new sort of fitting or a new light shape or whatever, I would. And more often than not, it wouldn’t work. That was some money wasted, but I’ve learned now.”
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