A Portrait of the Figurehead as a Young Bear

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Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was
a bear coming down along the hallway and this bear
that was coming down along the hall met a nicens little photographer named Brock.

Sorry, James Joyce. You’re probably rolling in your grave at my weak attempts at imitation.

Not long ago the museum was host to the Naval Academy Alumni Association for an evening reception. During the event, museum staff pulled artifacts into the galleries from storage in much the same way we do for the Gallery Crawl each September. One such object was the figurehead of the steam auxiliary barkentine Bear.

The bear was last photographed in the late 80s or early 90s by our estimation. It seemed appropriate that she come by the studio for a new headshot. So how does one go about photographing a single object comprised of white, black and metallic gold all at the same time? One light at a time.

I began, as I almost always do, with a single light from overhead. I have a few reasons for this. First, it provides the backdrop with a subtle gradient tone. Second, we, as humans, are accustomed to seeing things lit from above. That’s where the sun is, after all. That’s also why lights are on the ceiling. It’s comforting to the eye, and it feels natural.

The first step is a single light from above.

The bear was going to require more than just one overhead light since she was still mostly in shadow. My second step was to get the front of the bear lit as well. I did this by adding a large softbox to camera left. I added a grid to the softbox to make the light more directional and avoid ruining my backdrop toning.

Step 2 was to add a softbox to camera left. The grid makes the light more directional to avoid changing the backdrop tone.

I then wanted to decrease, but not eliminate, the shadows on the right side of the figurehead. Some shadows are useful to show dimension and add depth. I reduced the shadowing by adding an oversize reflector to camera right which would reflect light from the softbox at camera left. I also added two white bounce cards at an angle on the floor to reflect the overhead light into the base.

Step 3 involved the addition of reflectors on camera right and the floor.

Only a few more steps to go!

The next issue I spotted was that the bear didn’t have much separation from the backdrop. This problem is easy to solve by adding what is known as a “rim light.” Rim light is a light positioned behind and slightly higher than the subject to provide a subtle glow that follows along the outer edge.

Step 4 added a rim light to provide separation from the backdrop.

The final piece to this lighting puzzle was to give the base a little more light than the reflectors were providing. I left the reflectors in place because I liked the way they made the gold detailing look. I merely added a low light pointed directly at the front of the base to make the deep black slightly lighter and provide additional separation from the backdrop.

Step 5 was the addition of a light aimed at the black part of the figurehead’s base.

The end product is a figurehead that is light enough to see details but with enough shadowing left to provide dimensionality and depth. The goal with photographing collection materials is to show how it currently looks but to present it in a way that makes it pleasing.

Pieces like the bear are particularly challenging because of their variety of materials and finishes in addition to its size, standing at about five-feet tall. By adding lights or reflectors one at a time and taking a new photo with each step I can track the changes in how the object is presenting and make small adjustments until I’m happy with the result.

7 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Figurehead as a Young Bear”

    1. Thanks, Cliff! I’m sure I will be writing more of these in the future. We have no shortage of challenging pieces to photograph!

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