How To Photograph Powder With Flash

The Quick How To

Set up a dark colored background, place your powder container at least two feet away from the background to keep the flash from spilling onto it. Set up a single flash above and just slightly in front of the bottle. The distance of your flash above the bottle will depend on the output of your flash and the modifier used. I used a speedlight and small softbox with the face of the softbox about two feet above the powder bottle.

I recommend using a tripod for best results but you might do okay handheld. The distance between your camera and setup will be determined by your lens and desired framing. I shot this at 55mm and added width to the background in post. Camera settings were ISO 200, f/8 and 1/200 of a second to knock down the ambient light. Flash power was 1/8.

For more details, including the mistakes I made that you will want to avoid, continue reading.

The Story

Participating in a year long photo challenge has lead to me shooting themes and objects I might not normally have considered. A few weeks ago 52Frames.com dropped a theme for the week that left me scratching my head. The theme was “smell”. How in the world are you supposed to photograph smell?

Thankfully the pages of 52 Frames’ website are filled with examples and explanations of their challenges. Turns out, I needed to photograph something that conjured a smell just by the sight of it. I searched the web for a list of the most recognizable smells and came across baby powder and considered it for a moment. I thought almost immediately that I wanted to capture it as a cloud in the air. I also thought just for a moment about the mess I was going to make but hey, if I got the photo I wanted cleaning up would be worth it, right?

“My basement studio is an old door laid across two plastic saw horses, a plastic wardrobe hanger and a black sheet.”

I started setting up for the shot in my basement studio. My basement studio is an old door laid across two plastic saw horses, a plastic wardrobe hanger and a black sheet.Powder Setup We’re talking a low budget, low tech, no frills “studio”. I draped the sheet over the wardrobe hanger, pulled it over my table (door) and set my baby powder on the sheet.

I set my camera up on a tripod about four feet from the front of the table then set up my Yongnuo flash and on camera trigger. The flash was mounted on a light stand and aimed straight down over the baby powder bottle. I attached my Honl Traveler speedlight diffuser to the flash and was ready to go.

I walked around to the left side of the set, opened an app on my phone that allows me to use my phone as a camera remote control and got ready to shoot. I grabbed the bottle down low and out of frame, gave it a squeeze and hit the shutter release on the phone app. The photo at the top of the blog came after a little trial and error and of course a few mistakes.

The Mistake

I need to start by telling you a critical mistake I almost made. Baby powder is very fine, much like dust. As such, it can get into a bunch of places you really don’t want it to, specifically your camera body. Having an assistant who handles the powder side of the shoot would be ideal. If you’re going solo like I did, it would be a good idea not to change lenses once you’re using the powder and to be aware of any powder on your hands and clothes when you handle your camera. I grabbed my camera to change lenses and realized I had powder on my hands just from handling the closed bottle. I had to stop, wash my hands and clean the dust off the outside of the camera before changing lenses, which I did in another room (better safe than sorry).

“…be aware of any powder on your hands and clothes when you handle your camera.”

After the first few bottle squeezes and photos I realized I wasn’t getting a very big puff of powder. To address this, I decided to load the top of the cap with a small pile of powder between takes.Powder red This resulted in larger puffs of powder which was great for the image but was starting to make a fairly large mess of my table and the floor in front of it. I noticed the powder on the floor only after noticing the appearance of white footprints going back and forth between the setup and the rear of my camera. I would put something on the floor that I could pick up for easy cleanup if I were to shoot this again.

The other mistake I made can be seen in the photo at right. I wore a read sweatshirt while I was shooting. If I stayed behind the camera this wouldn’t have mattered but the smooth white surface of the bottle and the flash combined to cause the color of my sweatshirt to show up on the side of the bottle when I stood there squeezing it. I was able to save the image but only as a result of extra time spent editing.

Overall this was a lot of fun and I really recommend giving it a try if you’re looking for a fun flash project. Just be aware of where the powder is going because it’s going to want to go everywhere.

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