Shooting Origami for a Book

Sometime last year while at a mutual friend’s house, John Szinger was talking about photographing his origami.  We got to discussing this topic and he asked for some advice on how I might do this.  I happily offered to help and expected nothing more than some time together showing some basic lighting ideas from the “this is how I would do it” perspective.

When we discussed it again sometime later, I found out that he was writing a book on origami (“Origami Untamed” from Tuttle Publishing) and actually needed pictures for the book.  I was still interested in helping and we found an evening where I could stop over and take some shots.  The process he had been using for photographing his (quite amazing) creations was to position them on paper backgrounds on his kitchen table and shoot them with the camera on a tripod. While the mix of fluorescent and incandescent lights might have played havoc on a human subject, his results were not too bad for the paper subjects.


With that said, I was pretty sure that with some strobes and light modifiers, a much more flattering image could be created.  We had dinner together and then I set up several lights and modifiers.  After several hours of shooting, we came to some realizations…
First, we found that we could work well together on this and as much as I was enjoying the challenge of capturing these images, he was happy with the images and having me do it.  We decided that I would take on the part of shooting the entire book. My only conditions were that I get proper credit in the book, I could use the images – and most importantly – that I could shoot the remainder of the images at my place rather than his.

While I fundamentally knew that this was not going to be a one or two night project, I did not expect it to take the time that it did!  What pushed out the timing was a lot of experimentation with lighting and techniques for photographing the objects.

An interesting side note on this project.  The publisher specifically asked for there to be very loose crops on the images.  I was constantly reminding myself to not tighten up shots in the camera – and I ended up re-working my first batch of processed images to *not* crop them as I would like – but leave a lot more room for them to do the cropping.  The publishers checked our first round of test images and gave the go-ahead to complete the book.


The strobes used for the shoot were mostly Canon Speedlights – a mix of a 580 EXII and some 430 EXIIs.  A manual slave strobe was also used.
The basic setup was an Apollo softbox with a 580EXII boomed over a table as a fill light.  The positioning was such that the back of the softbox was over the back of the objects so there was minimal spill on the background.
A small 8″ Honl softbox with a 430EXII was frequently used as a key light on a small Manfrotto mini-tripod on the table. Sometimes this light would be without a modifier or with a simple diffuser.
Another 430 EXII was used with a 1/8″ grid or diffuser for additional fill or rim lighting.

The optical slave was used with some gaffed flexible fiber optic pipes or a snoot for very precise spot lighting on some of the shots or for background lighting.

A white reflector was also used to add additional fill when shots needed it.
Typical setup for a shot.  The snoot provided some rim lighting for separation and the diffused light on the right was added to fill in some shadows.  Tethered laptop bottom right.

I had experimented with lenses when I started and ended up mostly using a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L II lens.  I felt that this lens gave a ‘feel’ that would match how these critters might be photographed in the wild – if they were real.

Asian Elephants

All flashes were on manual triggered with (crappy) Impact wireless triggers.  (The BTS shots were shot with a Lieca X2 with the wireless trigger on it – too lazy to change lenses!)  Once ratios were dialed in, I found that moving lights around provided an easy way to make small changes to ratios.  I paid particular attention to details in the shadows, for instance on the underside of the grey elephant in this shot.


I am always a fan of shooting tethered when you can.  This was an example of a project that just about demanded it.  First, when John and I were working together, he could see the results of the setup as well as details in the objects easily in order to make adjustments.  It was a little comical at first – John was used to picking up his models to make quick fixes in a some folds or creases then putting them back on his table.  He kept picking up the models in my studio and did not realize how precise the location and orientation was for the lighting.  Think about your lighting distances for a human subject and how “small” changes in distances from a key light can be – now imagine that on a five-inch origami model with three lights on it!  We did joke about this – but it was never a real issue getting things right.
Shooting tethered let me play with lighting changes more easily since seeing details of the paper texture were frequently important – something not easily seen on the back of the camera.  Note the laptop on the right in the above picture which was tethered.  The laptop on the desk was playing tunes 🙂


When I started shooting, I tried to duplicate the use of heavily textured paper as a backdrop for the pictures.  For anyone who has not seen the selection of papers available – it is quite amazing.  There are all sorts of handmade paper for various arts including origami and for the uninitiated, the different combinations of fibers and materials integrated into these papers was really cool.  Some of these papers were used for the origami creatures, but larger sheets were also used for backgrounds in most of the shots. There was thought into which papers were used for the backgrounds – either to provide contrast, mood or just context.
The first couple of shots at John house that first night were no more than “corporate headshots” in creativity.  Key, fill and rim light on a seamless background.  Yawn.  After a bunch of these, I grabbed a second piece of paper, rolled it up into a tube and put some animals on that.  When I looked at that shot, I realized that there could be some fun in this.
Fox on some rolled paper.

The following week, John dropped over to my place where I put together a studio space for this project.  We started going through the shots needed and I asked John if it was OK to use non-paper objects in the shots.  I think he was a little hesitant at first, but I ran around the house picking various rocks and driftwood pieces that we (ok, Lisa) have collected over the years.  I figured organic things would work well in conjunction with the pieces for display.  Once we started posing the pieces on the rocks and wood, it was obvious this was going to work.  From then on, John was focusing on the objects to make sure they were folded properly and that I was capturing angles that showed them off properly – and I was positioning them and lighting them.

For instance, the walrus on the top of this blog felt more alive on the rock then simply sitting on the paper.  The driftwood provided a myriad of options for posing various animals.  Below is an example setup using the driftwood for a butterfly shot.  I was using my cobbled together light-pipe modified flash on some of the takes to light small sections of the background.

Driftwood as a backdrop for some butterflies.  Grid on right for highlights and fiber optics in rear for background.
Butterflies on Driftwood

The butterflies were some of the most difficult to photograph for me.  I was never happy with the angles and the different color and coating on the papers made consistent lighting a real challenge.

I just saw some of the first proofs for the book – hopefully it will be out later this year.  The models that John designs are truly amazing.  Not only has he invented these creations, he can then churn them out by memory.  Not being a paper folder myself – I am fascinated by the complexity of the instructions to build these as well as the beauty of the final creations.

The project took a lot more time than I expected – but it was well worth the time and effort.  It was definitely a different experience working with objects rather than people – though there was still the needs and desires of the artist that had to be met.  From a lighting and process standpoint, I enjoyed working in miniature – using the same multi-lighting techniques in a much more manageable arena.  Experimentation was also much easier with the paper models – I could change out backgrounds or setups or lights without worrying about losing model interest.

I am working on a new personal project now – and I have to say that the process of lighting the origami inspired me to move in this direction.