Doing my craft with real craft as my subject. Giving it the boot.

Welcome back to the VSL blog. I've been running around Texas for the last three days photographing food and cowboy boots and now I'm back home in the land of perfect swimming pools and heady post production. I thought I'd jump right in and talk about the job photographing cowboy boots, today. You probably know that there are cowboy boots and then there are COWBOY BOOTS. And the difference is pretty wild. 

Most boots are mass produced and aren't really made for the long haul. The advantage the mass produced boots enjoy is that they are cheap to buy. If you have the time, the money and the inclination nothing really compares to a pair of boots that have been created specifically for your feet. You'll want each foot to be exactly measured (most people have one foot that's bigger than the other...or differently shaped) and you'll want your boots hand crafted out of the very best materials. The icing on the cowboy boot cake, at least for Texans of means, is the ability to specify custom designs, colors and materials that make a pair of boots a one of a kind art piece the inspiration for which springs from you.

I spent the last two days at Little's Boots in San Antonio. My mission was to photograph all the different kinds of boots the company makes and has made over the course of the last 100 years. I photographed current designs and historic boots and everything in between. From boots made of cow leather to Nile crocodile to ostrich. Each pair was unique with different hand tooling, designs and intricately cut patterns. 

(note: The boot images I'm sharing here have not been retouched or post processed to completion. You'll see small specular reflections on the boots and tiny flaws on my background that will be excised in the find images....).

Over the course of two days, working with the owner of a very successful San Antonio advertising agency, we photographed nearly eighty pairs of boots, handmade wallets, belts and some boot accessories. We also photographed the craftsmen who make the boots. Most of the men have been with the company for decades. Little's Boots is a family business with three generations  working in the shop and in the showroom. People come from all over the world to buy boots from Little's but they have to be patient...from the time you are measured until the time you get your boots you might have to wait up to six months!

On this particular project I really wanted to work with continuous light. It was be so much easier to see exactly what we got as we shot. My recent experiences with my oldest LED panels led me to know that I'd finally zero'd in both the filtration for the lights, and the best way to do a custom white balance with my Sony a99 camera, in order to get rich, accurate colors every step of the way. I packed two of my 1,000 bulb panels, three of my 500 bulb panels, four of the Fotodiox 312AS panels and a new addition to the studio cool light arsenal, a Fiilex high output par light that's fan cooled and comes with barn doors. It runs off A/C power and uses very large diameter LEDs in a tight pattern to give me the kind of beam spread we used to get out of focusable tungsten fixtures like the Lowell DP lights or the Lowell Pro-Lights. 

I packed ten light stands, a full set of Westcott Fast Flags and frames, three Chimera panels with a selection of diffusers and nets, background stands, my hand painted (and coffee encrusted) background and a hand steamer.

The Think Tank Airport Security rolling case contained the cameras, batteries, lenses and other necessary tools. I took just two cameras, the Sony a99 and the Sony a57. Lenses included the 70-200mm f2.8 G, the Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro, the Sony 24-105mm f3.5 to 4.5, a 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. The two zooms saw all of the action.  And I have to tell you that at f4 to f13 on the big lens everything is Nirvana. Sharp, contrasty and detailed. The shorter zoom has a bit of veiling flare wide open but it clears up one stop down and by the time you get to f8 it's just as good a lens as the big guy.  The Sigma 70 is very, very sharp but I didn't need the close up capability and the flexibility of focal lengths on the big zoom made it my all the time lens for this job.

We arrived at the boot company's spare building at 8:30am on Thurs. and I began hauling all the gear into a temporary studio space. I could have used an assistant but I also have fallen behind on my weight training program so I practiced doing curls with bags full of light stands as I brought them into the space. I did overhead lifts with the sandbags. Everything else I just muscled in as well as I could. You should see me now. Totally ripped. (kidding).

First thing we did was block as much of the windows as we could with two enormous and crazy heavy solid core doors that were hanging around. Then we set up a shooting table and draped the background that I had painted, specifically for this project, over the table, hanging from background stands. Our key light source was a 1K (LED)  and a 500 (LED) aimed down through a silk diffuser stretched onto a Westcott Fast Flags Frame. We used a frame with a black fabric to scrim light off the top part of the background so we'd get a gradation from dark at the top to light at the bottom.

I added a front light as partial fill. It was a 1k (LED) with a layer of ToughSpun diffusion clothes-pinned to the front of the unit. I use the new Fiilex light as a back light or skimming side light in situations where we needed to add a little more detail to dark boots without sacrificing the continuity of our background look. All the lights except the Fiilex were filtered with a 1/4 minus green (magenta) gel. We buy it by the yard now and it's a great correction tool. The Fiilex was tested two days before we packed, has a CRI of 90 and is very close in overall color to the filtered resident panels without needing any filtration whatsoever. 

Since we didn't need to match any existing light sources we didn't need to worry about mismatches and could just go with a good custom white balance. I used a Lastolite Gray Target to white balance with and then modified the WB setting by adding one step of cyan in the WB menu on the Sony. Their cameras are very, very easy to custom white balance and the custom setting can be further tweaked in the menu. All of the product shots were done at my favorite high quality ISO setting: 100.  If you are using a fifteen pound Series 5 Gitzo Studex tripod do you really need anything higher on your ISO dial?  Our basic exposure was f8 at 1/13th of a second.
Sounds slow if you are used to using flash for everything but it seems just right for stationary boots.

In the interest of practicing best technique I used an electronic cable release and I insisted that no one walk on the bouncy pier and beam floor during exposures. You can have the best tripod in the universe but if the floor it's sitting on is bouncy you lose. I shot two frames of every set up as a superstitious ritual. I wanted to ward off the spirits of file corruption... I also lit candles and burned a little sage just for good luck.

Generally the lights stayed in the same spots and we modified our set by changing angles on our diffusion scrims or blocking errant light with our black flags (see behind the scenes images below). The only light that moved around during the times we were shooting all the pairs of boots and single boots was the Fiilex spot light that I just added, with the barn doors pulled in to form a very surgical slice of light. I could position this light to add just enough light to the back boot, in most cases, to give me adequate separation.

One thing I will mention (and I learned this the hard way in the days of film and polaroid) is that the LCD screen on most (all) cameras is not calibrated in any meaningful way. It is contrastier than you think and tends to oversaturated colors due to its more limited (compared to a good monitor) gamut. With this in mind I decided I could save us all a lot of time in post if I brought along a MacBook Pro 15 inch laptop, recently calibrated with a Pantone Spyder, equipped with a matte screen and set up to emulate what we normally see on the screen of our monitors back in the studio. Then, instead of wasting time trying to make the images look good on the camera's LCD (and screwing up the real color, which would add so much wasted time in post....) we did some tests on the first few files and iteratively adjusted color and tone based on seeing the images on the known screen. 

You can shoot tethered with the Sony a99, it comes with the requisite software, but I find tethering a camera, once you have a test and you aren't changing lights, to be a process slowing encumbrance. We tested, nailed our color and then went commando with the camera.

A master craftsman fine tuning a heel.

We started our product photography in the morning on Thurs. and finished shooting products, including belts, wallets and accessories on Friday around noon. Our only break on Thurs. was to go to an amazing BBQ restaurant and meat market in the neighborhood called, Bolner's. I had the best beef rib I have ever eaten in all of my 57 years. Amazing texture and flavor. I will make a pilgrimage back to Bolner's in the very near future. You should go there too. Amazing.

On friday, after shooting the last of the product images we had lunch at a local restaurant called, Nicha's. The enchiladas verdes were really good and the refried beans were so much better than what we get in Austin....

So, after finishing with products and lunch we came back to take available light images in the workshop and the show room. My favorite part, from a photographer's point of view was a room filled with shelves filled with lasts. Every custom boot starts with a custom last. The older ones were carved from wood while the newer ones are done in resin. I could spend a day making art of the old wooden lasts. The hand making of a good wooden last is also one of those vanishing skills.

The "Last" Museum.

On many shoots I don't have the leisure to step back and make a few behind the scenes documentary photos of how we set the lights up. This time I decided to do so to show the many people who e-mail me asking how we actually use the LED lights for product and still life shoots. It's more like lighting for movies than the traditional (short cut) still photography method of blasting everything with one big softbox and then adding some fill cards to the dark areas....

This is my general set up. The two top lights blast through the 24 by 36 inch white scrim over the top of the boots. Just behind the white diffuser is a black blocker that gives a gradient to the background: dark at the top to light at the bottom. It's a way of building contrast between the background and the product.

To the far left you see another 1000 bulb LED light aimed in at the front of the set. It is flagged off so that it doesn't add light into the darker part of the background gradient but it does add shadowless fill light to the front of the boots, helping to even out the top light. Note the orange sandbag that anchors the light stand holding the heavy, top main light. Safety is good.

On the surface of the table are three white cards (one is gray on the side facing the camera....) which also adds light to the dark leather and other materials without adding appreciable light to the background.

This is a closer view taken slightly over to the right of the set compared to the view above. You can see the Fiilex light just to the bottom left of the main top light. It's adding a bit of separation  lighting to the rear boot.  It is also scrimmed with a black blocker to keep light on the boots but off the background. I think the scrims and modifiers are vital to good photographic work. So many people miss the boat by concentrating on the light fixtures (which can, for the most part, be considered interchangeable) and not even considering the critical tools to control and shape the light. Silly economies, I think.

Here's the back of the little Fiilex LED "spot light" that the company sent  me to test. I'll have a more in depth review of it in the next week or so.  It's one of the first LED lights I've used that throws a tight enough spot to be used as a hard light or a controlled beam light. It was incredibly useful.

When the boots switch direction the accent light switches sides. It's there to light up the space between the two boots. 

The a99 is hands down the best production still life digital camera I've ever used. Live view coupled with focus peaking coupled with no vibration means accurately focused images with no camera movement or vibration at all. What that translates into is amazingly detailed images. I'd bet, with the exception of shooting with fast flash to freeze motion, that the actual resolution of this camera rivals the D800 for this kind of work. The flexible rear screen is wonderful for high tripod, high angle work and for sharing real time images with clients.

The exposure tracking between the rear screen and the exposure parameters I see in Lightroom is the best I've seen. I anticipate ordering a second body in the next few weeks as a peer backup. My clients deserve it and as I work more and more with the camera I want to make sure I have no downtime and no down market time (lesser back up) for high dollar assignments.

I don't have cost figures yet from Fiilex on their LEDs but if they are at all reasonable I'm pretty certain, based on their functionality and great color, that I'll want to end up with four of them to use both in still productions and even more so in video production. Used straight (no modifiers) they are hard and bright; used through a one stop silk they are creamy and still have some kick. Add in a fan to cool the semi-conductors for long life and you have one heck of a professional tool set.

If you are serious about good still life then bring your "A" game tripod. It's the foundation for everything else...

The project was a lot of fun and a pretty intensive two days of work. I feel like I've gotten back into photographic shape and I'm ready for more. Hope everyone enjoys the Super Bowl....I'll be out shooting.

Please consider using the Amazon links below and help support the Visual Science Lab. The kid (always) needs new running shoes....


  1. I'm sure your client was delighted with your images Kirk, they look spectacular.

    I ordered a Fancier 1k after seeing your setup. I'm more interested in lighting video, although you make a very compelling case for LED lighting for still images.

    Have you tried a wired remote to take the last bit of possible camera shake out of the equation? You can pick up a 2nd hand Minolta 1000s from KEH (http://www.keh.com/camera/Minolta-Maxxum-Releases-and-Remotes/1/sku-MA850090147510?r=FE) for a pittance. The current Sony model is a re-brand, they're identical. Also note KEH now offers USPS shipping for small items for a few dollars.

    1. Graham, I did use a wired remote in conjunction with an electronic first shutter. Vibration? That's for Nikons and Canons...

    2. Jim

      Love how propped the one reflector with a lens, reminds me of the old days. Good job of lighting with the continous set-up, no polaroids necessary!

      Great post, thanks for sharing.

  2. I take it you were pleased with the bsckground you made Kirk? It certainly looks great in these shots. Overall the job sounds like fun, with the opportunity to shoot the craftsmen at work a real bonus I should think. You sound very happy with the way the shoot went and your preparation and professionalism is very much apparent. Good job!

  3. Your photos of the beautiful boots came out beautifully! Thank you for the behind the scenes shots, they tell a great story all by themselves. You backdrop worked great. I thought it was funny to see the spare lenses and car key being used to prop up the smaller bounce cards!

    I realize that the Sony a99 doesn't need to use "mirror lock-up", as the mirror doesn't move.... but isn't some sort of mode needed to get the vibrations caused by the aperture to die down before the shutter is released? The more you tell about these Sony cameras, the more interested I seem to get - so please stop! ;-)

    1. The Sony ( like most upper end DSLRs) has a setting in the drive menu that allows you to do a two second delay. But I don't know if it pre-triggers the aperture. The good thing about aperture movement is that it tends to be self-cancelling since it is round and there is not non-symmetrical inertia created. Thanks for the compliments about the photos. I am happy with the shoot. It was a fun one.

  4. Beautiful photos of beautiful craftsmanship. Plus, at no additional charge, a mini-textbook on lighting. Thanks for taking the time to walk through all the equipment and procedural choices.

  5. If you have the requisite permissions, please share some of your shots of the craftsmen at work, and factory details like the lasts.

  6. Those are some really nice boot shots. I am amazed at how useful the LEDs have turned out to be in your hands.

  7. Thanks! I think continuous lighting is the preferred method of lighting most still life. The two things that hot lights never did well were people and food. Too much heat got generated. People felt uncomfortable and food melted and dried out. But for most stationary subjects being able to see the EXACT effects of each light and their relationships to each other seems very worthwhile and efficient to me. I can remember back in the baddest old days doing this kind of work with flash and Polaroid. It took forever and cost a fortune. In the less bad old days we'd do it with digital and flash and it was quicker and cheaper but still a completely iterative process. Shoot, chimp, re-shoot, chimp, fix, shoot, chimp, etc. Now, with cool running LEDs and Live View on steroids (focus peaking, hurray!) it's all about how well you light not how good a mechanic you are...

  8. Very nice product shots. If I had the $$$ to spend on boots your work would
    most likely motivate me to visit their shop.

    On another note, a Texan not watching a football game, the Super Bowl?! The world
    has taken a different course.

    thanks for a wonderful blog

  9. Truly master craftsmanship, by both parties. Bravo, Kirk!

    Many thanks for the BTS photos and write-ups (including the one on your hand-painted backdrop). It's great to see how a real pro does things.

  10. Do you ever get knee-deep into a setup like this, Kirk, then step back and ask, "I wonder if there's a simpler way to light this"?

    1. No Michael, First of all it's not that complex of a lighting set up. You can always default to a one light set up IF you aren't trying to match a comp, please a client, please an art director or do justice to the product. In this case every light in there serves a specific purpose. Could I do it with different lights or cheaper lights? Sure. Fewer lights and modifiers? No.

      The top light is the essential key light. The black flag behind and under it creates the gradation on the background. The front light provides fill for the insteps and bottom parts of the boots while the black flag in front of that light keeps spill from ruining our background gradation. The little spot light gets in a provides separation between the two boots or, in the case of a single boot, creates some additional separation from the background.

      Could you make a different photo with less lighting control? Sure. Could you get exactly the look and feel that the art director standing right next to you demands with less? No.

      Why does this seem complex? Seems routine to me..

    2. Fair enough. I suppose it's about using the right tools to fulfill the vision and please the client. And the results are first-rate. Thanks for the extended "look behind the curtain."


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