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  • Writer's pictureRamakrishna Dhanasekaran

Why DIY lighting is the best way to learn studio lighting?

Updated: May 27, 2021

During the last week of February, my good friend Lucky called me up to do some food photography in Puducherry. We at Roam Free Films have done many photoshoots and films for corporates, events, portrait and wildlife, but this is our first food photography project.

Lucky also known as Lakshminarayanan and I went to the same college. Even though we pursued our own interests after graduation, we were in touch once in a (long) while. After the 2020 pandemic lockdown, Lucky moved to Puducherry, India to venture into the food business. Bai’s Kalyan’s Biriyani, locally known as BKB is a humble biriyani startup along with his partner Michael near the Airport Road in Puducherry. The task was to create a brand logo and a few pictures of his food for packaging, social media and promotions. The story goes that Lucky and Michael went on a tantalizing quest of tasting many varieties of biriyani's such as the true authentic Afghani biryani from the North of Afghanistan , the fruit and nutty Kashmiri biryani , the spicy Memoni biryani, the famous Lucknowi biryani, the subtle Calcutta biryani, the Hyderabadi dum biryani, the aromatic Thalassery and the scintillating Chettinad, however, nothing came close to the Tamil muslim wedding biriyani from Vaniyambadi. There was something that clicked when they were first introduced to the God-blessed wedding biryani. They wanted their customers to feel the same.

To me it was a distant memory of not a Muslim wedding feast, but, visiting a town called Nagore on the East coast of Tamil Nadu. This ancient beach town is home to the Nagore Dargah and the mystical Sufi singers. From then on, the sandy beach town of Nagore was my reference for the shoot. I imagined a post-colonial-muslim-wedding-dinner feast on the beach. All the elements we made were to recreate that feeling.

I was looking forward for some travel, work and of course the delicious food, after a long time during the lockdown. We agreed to shoot the subsequent weekend as commercial activities became more unpredictable ever since the pandemic breakout.

I arrived at Lawspet in Puducherry, along with production designer and illustrator Kalai Karthick the subsequent weekend. Karthick is an immensely talented painter and craftsman who can do just about anything. With Lucky and Michael to guide us through the shopping, we immediately hopped on our vehicles to purchase things for the next day’s shoot.

On our way, we quickly came up with a list of things to be purchased such as , light bulbs, wood, wires, electric points, card board, papers for backgrounds, plates, cups, torches, batteries and everything else.

What we made for the shoot;

  • DIY Hanging lights

  • LED Diffused Light Panel

  • Coconut leaves mat

  • Mughal lamp shades

To make the DIY Hanging Lights:

100 W Light bulbs - 5

Thick Wooden strips - 3 meters x 2

Electric cables - 5 meters

Bulb Holders - 5

Switches - 2

Plugs - 2

Insulating Tape - 1

To make the LED Diffused Light Panel,

Warm LED Strip - 5 feet

Electric cable - 2 meters

Switch - 1

Diffusing papers - 2 feet x 2 feet x 2

Insulating Tape - 1

To make the coconut leaf mat

Two tall fresh green coconut branches

To make the Mughal Lamp Shades

Hard chart paper sheet - 1

Paper cutter - 1

Tape - 1

Tools at hand

Bosch GST 650 Jigsaw Bosch GBM 350

Camera and Lenses Used

Canon 80D

Canon 50mm

We did most of our stationery purchase at Sri Sakthi Stationery Mart. I highly recommend this place in Pondicherry as they have a lot of variety of tools and material. For the amount of purchase we did in a very short time, they were very quick, patient and courteous.

Around 10 pm, we were back at the restaurant with everything that we bought. The only thing remaining to get was the coconut leaves, which Lucky promised to fetch from nearby trees in the morning. It was time we rested before our long day started the next morning

The next morning, two coconut leaf branches were ready and Karthik got onto to making the mat and lights for the shoot. Lucky and I turned a dining room of the restaurant into a dark shooting room. We assembled an old bed with a plywood surface for the food and lamps and we sealed a window with black matte paper so that there is no unwanted light interfering with the lighting that were going to create .

Excited about the photo shoot, the master chef Chand Bhai promised us to make the best looking biriyani as opposed to a great tasting one.

As we made these lights and decorative from scratch we knew how exactly they needed to look. We improvised our light and Mughal lamp shade as the shoot progressed. With tools that can help you make things from scratch, the process becomes easier and more interesting.

Above are the behind-the-scene pictures of Ramakrishna and Karthick at work. Picture courtesy - Lucky

When I saw how one small source of light at one point added or subtracted in the right place can change the look and feel, experimentation started happening. In the quest of achieving the image that came up in my mind led me to what we have onscreen today. The key here is to play with small easy tools so that learning is made simple and easy.

We did not have light stands , but we had rope to adjust the height and position the lights anywhere we wanted. These ropes ran to a grid that we made out of wood. Never ever have we come with such an idea. Whereas, when working in a proper studio, which encourages a plug and play, it also paralyses a craftsman in the long run. I am not proselytizing that everyone make their own lights before every shoot. But to trying to make your own light setup at least once can immensely help you understand why lights have to stay in certain positions and why not. Personally, I like working with both a DIY light setup and the studio setup in order to achieve the desired output than just having a robust studio setup.

Smoky and steamy food with the addictive aroma of the wedding biriyani filled the room. The coconut leaf mat and the leaf plates and cups took us way back memory lane.

BKB Mutton biriyani - shot by Ramakrishna D
The all-organic elements in the frame take us back memory lane.

Chicken biriyani with accompaniments and black tea. Shot by Ramakrishna D
A wedding feast at a coastal town

We finished the shooting many stills by late night. With all the pictures in the camera now, we decided it was time to stop the shoot and start our way back to Chennai.

Kalai Karthick aka Mindscracth, Lucky and I were also brainstorming about the logo that was to be subsequently designed. Lucky was telling us that most of his customers bought a bucket of the biriyani. This gave a clue to how the logo can be.

Overall, I felt that as an artist one needs to keep the creativity alive by working on different formats and medium in the same or different art form or language. The idea is to keep exploring and learning the infinite possibilities.

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