Fixing Old Mistakes

Having discussed multiple attempts on a landscape subject, let’s talk about returning to an image in the studio, where we define “studio” broadly enough to include my dining room.

In March 2010, right after buying my beloved 35mm f/1.8 DX Nikkor, I decided I’d try the picture-a-day thing for the month. Starting such a project in the middle of Lent when you’re married to a church organist requires a loosened grip on reality, but my family and I survived and even enjoyed the experience. On several occasions I found myself without a picture after putting my son to bed, and used the evening to concoct and light a still life. Most of them were awful, but two stood above the rest, the first one being this:

Compendium Evangelii (2010)

Rosarium Virginis Mariae is one of my favorite of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s writings, and the passage in the opening paragraph where he describes the Rosary as a “compendium” of the Gospel was easy to translate into a photograph, although it took some time to get the rosary draped in a pleasing shape. David Hobby had been talking about hard-key/soft-fill combinations on Strobist at the time, and I saw that filling the shadows to a legible level with an umbrella while emphasizing the rosary-draped page with a snooted light was the combination I needed to make the image work. I hadn’t been in the habit of taking a setup shot along with the final product, but something poked me to do so this time:


It’s a good thing I took this shot, because later, when I was editing the images, I noticed two glaring defects in every frame:

  • The composition is a little crowded at the edges; the rosary should not be cut off as it is by the bottom of the frame, nor come so close to the left edge.
  • Focus is in the wrong place. Only afterward did I notice that the crucifix, appropriately, is lying across John 1:14 (“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”). This little detail is key to the intent of the image, yet it is handled haphazardly, both in the arrangement of the objects and the point of focus.

Since I needed my image-of-the-day, I went with the best frame I had. Nonetheless, my failure to clinch the picture gnawed at me, and continued to gnaw until September 2012. The push I needed to do something was provided by the University of Illinois’ Newman Center, which was hosting an arts festival for which this image would be admirably suited. I knew that, if I wanted a shot at getting my picture exhibited, I needed to redo it correctly.

Reconstructing the arrangement of objects was more difficult this time; in fact, I had to use a small piece of tape to secure the crucifix over the word σὰρξ (flesh), the minute edges of which had to be cloned out in post. By the time I had the objects set up I was tired and didn’t pay attention to the precise orientation of the snooted light in my setup shot, which wasted a half-hour until I finally figured out that I had to rotate it about 30°. When I was all done in post, I had this:

Compendium Evangelii (2012)

Everything I wanted had been achieved. My image was accepted and displayed at the arts festival; it caught the attention of a friend’s son, and I was privileged to be able to give the framed print to the young man at the festival’s conclusion.

Without the setup shot, I do not think I would have been able to redo this photograph. I wish I could say that I have since reformed my practices and now take a setup shot every time I do complex lighting, but sadly I do not. Perhaps it’s time to so resolve.

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