favorite effect, applying select pieces of Scotch tape
to a lens filter. This effect can look as good as anything
I can dream up in Photoshop, and the high-speed film gives
the whole scene an impressionistic look.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved
One of the things that many
good photographers struggle with is sharpness. I have spent years of
my life working on getting the most tack-sharp images, and have even
written a few stories for your favorite magazine explaining some of
the things that I do to make things really, really sharp. Now I'm
going to go in the opposite direction.
If you ever have the opportunity to look through one of the big creative
directories like The Black Book or the Photography Workbook, you'll
notice that the styles of most photographers have changed over the years.
My 1979 Black Book shows page after page of perfectly lit, perfectly
exposed, tack-sharp pictures of red peppers on black Formica, and other
typical studio shots of the '70s. My '98 book shows page
after page of motion blur, excessive film grain, high-speed black and
white work, and creative Photoshop expressionism. In today's competitive
commercial photography marketplace, you've got to have an identifiable
style to make it at the top, and that style has gotten looser and more
expressive. In my world, which consists of lots of corporate brochures,
magazine ads, and product shots, too much of a style can actually be
a hindrance. Get known as the Apple Pie guy and they'll look elsewhere
when they need a shot of a Blueberry Pie.
overall diffusion I like clear packing tape. It's
very soft and can kill the detail, but combined with some
high grain it looks interesting.
I have made a living taking
gorgeously lit, perfectly exposed pictures of people and products, but
like all the other copycat photographers out there, I have been really
energized by the changing photography scene. I now mix lots of sharp but
predictable product work with some very different and usually soft product
work. Lots of photographers have experimented with different levels of
in camera diffusion, post-process Photoshop diffusion, and even commercial
solutions like the Hosemaster and Turbo Filter lighting systems. Without
investing in expensive equipment, there are a number of different techniques
that you can apply to get interesting diffusion effects. The nicest of
the softening filters are the Nikon diffusion filters or the Hasselblad
Softars. Pop one on your lens, take your picture, and you've got
a perfect soft image. If you shoot weddings, great. If you're trying
to get some interesting effects for product work, forget about it.
One way to spice things up is to apply selective diffusion. One popular
technique used by photographers has been to apply the diffusion filter
to the lens for selected portions of the image. With a multiple flash
head setup, you can darken your studio, open the lens, and fire off your
main softbox with no diffusion. Then selected flash heads that only light
small portions of the product or background can be popped while varying
levels of diffusion are applied to the lens. I use this technique a lot
and tend to prefer three or four flash heads mounted in Fresnel spots
aimed through theatrical "cookie" scrims. I filter each of
the Fresnel lights with varying levels of Hasselblad Softars, but leave
one light undiffused.
is a simple setup. A daylight-balanced softbox, a white
reflector card, and some creative Scotch tape. With Fuji
1600 loaded I can shoot handheld with no problem.
I'll assume that you
probably don't have a studio full of high powered flash heads mounted
in 10" Fresnel spotlights, so here are a few techniques that can
look really great and can be done with the equipment you already own.
My first and favorite technique is the famed Scotch Tape Selective Diffusion
Technique. (Hereafter referred to as STSDT.) Here's how I do it--using
small flash units, a couple of photofloods, or some nice window light,
I cut up small pieces of crystal clear Scotch tape and a few pieces of
that slightly opaque "invisible" stuff. I then apply a small
sunburst of pieces to a skylight filter, usually leaving one main area
clear. I screw the filter on the lens and turn the filter around until
the diffusion effect is to my liking. According to the brightness of the
scene, the tape will diffuse the image or obscure it with a white frosty
effect. You can experiment with clear packing tape, laminating film, and
tiny pieces of Roscoe Toughlux. In the old days photographers put Vaseline
on the lens, but this is a little cleaner and can deliver some dynamite
looks. Obviously you'll need to experiment with tape on different
areas of the lens, but this costs next to nothing so it is easy to mess
As you can see from the photos I shot using the taped lens, the effect
can be pretty nice. The tape is not enough to get a really impressionistic
look, however. For that I like to shoot with some very high-speed film.
For a long time everyone loved high-speed Scotch film for high-speed,
high grain expressive work. I can't find that stuff anymore, so
I use the Fuji Provia 1600 (RSP). This is really ISO 800 film designed
to push process. I apply two stops of push for ISO 1600. The great advantage
of the Fuji is that it has a very accurate color balance, but still exhibits
the fabulous grain that gives the images that expressionistic quality.
To shoot these images I used daylight-balanced lamps and shot handheld.
With the amazingly high film speed you can work fast without a tripod
and still get f/11 at 1/250 of a sec.
tape and fast film can have a very dramatic look. Shot through
a 50mm lens at f/11, just enough diffusion is present to
soften the image up, and the film grain adds some extra
For the shot of the two colored
goblets I chose a different approach. One of my favorite looks is to "frame"
the product within a box of diffusion. While this works really well when
shooting on a surface that has some detail, even on white this looks pretty
cool. As you can see the right side of the image goes almost white, yet
it looks like snow on a windowpane. With semi-opaque tape you can vary
the effect by determining how much light actually falls on the surface
of the tape and on how bright the scene is. The other shot of the goblets
shows how effective overall diffusion can be when combined with fast grainy
film. Here I applied a single sheet of clear packing tape over a skylight
filter and fired off shots at different aperture/shutter speed combinations.
Smaller apertures yield sharper images; wider apertures are softer and
more romantic. For the overall diffusion look, I usually prefer a wide
angle lens since this increases the sense of intimacy.
One of the nicest looks is to mix daylight-balanced light with little
bits of warm tungsten light. I have often left the modeling lamps on when
shooting flash with long exposures. After the daylight-balanced pop of
the flash, the tungsten lamps burn in a little bit of red or orange color.
Applied to the correct areas of the scene it can be really interesting.
For a really dynamic effect, I pop darken the studio, pop the flash, and
then drop the diffusion filter in front of the lens for the duration of
the tungsten exposure. This gives you tack-sharp details, but a soft warm
look all the way around.
The best way to develop a style that you are comfortable with is to experiment.
Since I shoot a lot of digital images, I can play around in Photoshop
without spending any money on film. That said, there is still a look that
you can only achieve with film and actual optical diffusion. For inspiration
I suggest that you get a hold of a major creative source book, whether
for the country or just for your area. It's never nice to rip-off
another artist's work, so use what you find for inspiration only.
I don't know of a photographer who wouldn't be flattered to
know that his or her work had inspired another artist.