Lighting Recipe: Dan Saelinger’s Sci-Fi Still Life

March 12, 2013

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Dan Saelinger

Dan Saelinger is often asked to create conceptual still lifes that convey complex or far-out ideas. For a story in the health section of O, The Oprah Magazine, he was asked to illustrate the idea of using cloning to replace organ and muscle tissue as it ages. “It’s kind of a dark story for the magazine, so the challenge was making something beautiful out of it,” Saelinger says. Once the sketches were approved, Katherine Schad, the director of photography, and Photo Editor Melanie Chambers talked to Saelinger about how to bring the idea to life and “make it look realistic as a photograph, and not make it feel cheesy,” the photographer says. Though the final shot—showing four test tubes, three of which contain the same woman in different poses—required digital compositing, Saelinger’s lighting contributed to the illusion that the woman’s body was actually behind glass.

Saelinger shot with a Hasselblad 501 CM medium-format system, a Phase One IQ160 digital back and an 80mm lens. All his lights were Broncolors, running on Broncolor Scoro A4 power packs. (Saelinger has done business seminars on behalf of Broncolor.) Greg Krauss served as digital tech.

To provide a backdrop, Saelinger painted a 12 x 10-foot section of wall in his studio lavender. “I prefer paint to seamless,” he says, “because I tend to light with a lot of gradation and the paint carries the gradients much more smoothly.” He lit it with one medium head with a grid that he placed on a floor stand about two and a half feet high, midway between the camera and the wall. Just to camera left, he set up a head with a reflector; in front of that, he placed a 4 x 4-foot piece of white Plexiglas that was 1/4 inch thick. He often uses Plexiglas when lighting still lifes, he says, adding, “I like it to have one side matte.”

He then had to light and photograph a test tube, which was held in place on armature wire. Once again, he placed a head behind a piece of Plexiglas just to camera left. “That gives the test tube that nice, white reflection,” he says. He again used a medium head and grid to light the background, about half way between the tube and the camera. This time, he placed 4 x 8-foot black foam cards on either side of the head. With their black sides facing the test tube, he says, the foam cards “give you those nice black reflections down the side of the tube.”

Rather than using Photoshop to clone the test tube three times, he says, “What we did was move the test tube over while keeping the camera in the same spot” and using the same lights. When shooting for composite shots, Saelinger says, “I think that small imperfections and perspective are important to make it feel believable and not computer generated.”

In photographing his nude model, his challenge was: “How do you apply the modeling that happens on the test tube to lighting a person?” He also had to make sure areas of her body were in shadow, “because we could only suggest things.”

The model stood on a 4 x 4-foot piece of Plexiglas held a few feet off the ground with apple boxes, and he placed a white card on the floor underneath her. He then placed two Broncolor heads with reflectors on light stands pointing down close to the floor, so they bounced light onto the card, illuminating her from below.

Once again, he had a head behind Plexiglas at camera left, and a medium head lighting the backdrop.

He set up two medium heads with grids to the model’s left and to her right: one hitting her head and shoulders, the other lighting from her midsection to upper thigh. Each set of heads was shining through 4 x 8-foot sheets of white Plexiglas that were placed to the left and right of the model. To prevent this light from spilling onto the background, Saelinger set up two black foam cards, at right angles to the two Plexiglas sheets and parallel to the back wall.

To make strong highlights on either side of her, Saelinger says, “We had two medium heads with grids hitting from her head and shoulders down to her midsection to upper thigh.” These were placed near the backdrop, just behind the black foam cards. “We had one more head with a small grid hitting the back of her hair, just to add a rim.”

Over four hours in the studio, the model struck several poses. Saelinger and Krauss made a rough comp from the images that the photo editors liked. Then the photographer collaborated with retoucher Ashleigh Millman on the final composite. In the process, they also darkened shadows on the model’s body. “We added shadows to add drama and hide the sensitive bits the magazine can’t show,” Saelinger explains. “We also added reflections of her into the test tubes to help make the image more convincing.

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