Clive Bowen is one the U.K’s most renowned and respected potters. He makes earthenware pots made from Devon red clay dug from the banks of the river Taw, thrown and slip decorated before firing them in huge woodfired bottle kilns. Following centuries old techniques these ceramics are wonderfully utilitarian yet each unique in character, glaze and design. Today Clive is making mainly tea-pots. These are tricky little blighters. They line up on a wooden board, each perfectly thrown, the tiny spout crafted and cut so that it pours correctly and the handle shaped and attached securely, the lid correctly sized and alined.. It takes a lifetime of skill and trust in the material to get these right. Every stage of studio pottery is crucial: preparing the raw material, throwing the clay, decorating, glazing, stacking the kiln and firing. Each stge frought with hazards and serendipity. But for now I am not going to talk about Clive or pottery; his story is for another day . .. any one who wants to know more can let me know. Instead this post is about photographing ceramics.
Studio Pottery is born of Earth and made from fire. It requires space to breath and to come alive. The colours glow and glimmer. Of course I could take these shots in a studio environment with back lights and strobes, umbrellas and stands and get sharp crisp images but for me the life of the pot, of the craft and skill that goes into it’s making, the energy of the piece would be lost.
As you photographers know taking images of shiny things or surfaces is a nightmare. Every light source is reflected off the surface. So I never use flash or soft box but stick with natural light, North Facing if possible. I have tried back lighting but this just makes the image look naf and dumbs down frame centre where you actually want to show case the pot or cluster. On my Fuji XF 35mm lens I use a polarising filter, which sometimes helps to avoid blown out light hot-spots. I am not necessarily interested in the finest detail as these shots are not going to pixel peeped or printed to huge size. What I do need though for product photos, is consistency. Therein lies a difficulty when every pot is different, depth of glaze, colour from dark to light, shininess, form and shape. To overcome this I shoot in jpeg mode not raw, this is because the Fuji film simulation modes are so reliable I know my colours will be matched whenever I am shooting. I use velvia for a standard look. Classic chrome is my favourite, but not for ceramics. Similarly I find it easier to use auto. white balance rather than use a grey card. I keep an eye on iso when shooting but don’t mind if it creeps up. Fuji jpeg noise at high iso can give a grain like look which again does not necessarily detract from my final image.
Today I am photographing new work by Clive for a flyer to advertise an exhibition in Japan. His pots are being shown alongside ceramics by Bernard Leach and other well known potters. It’s early morning, for a few moments the sun is out. I have set up a super large jar with a couple of jugs alongside for scale. Stopped down to f5.6 so as to get some depth of field. [Wide open on the XF35 1.4 means half the pot will be out of focus] I take a couple of shots, Blimey! the lens is hunting like crazy for focus, light is reflecting off every surface. Grr! who wants sun? I always take back-up images of every pot or cluster with a second camera. Today I use the original X100. The filmic quality of it’s sensor is still brilliant, sometimes it is the only camera I ever need. Sure. the trusty little beast nails focus immediately, captures the shot where the 35mm couldn’t. I move everything into the kiln area, where it is almost dark, light source.. one open door. Even here I underexpose by one stop, givening me better depth of colour and detail in darker areas on processing. On blown areas I huff on the pot, slide back about six feet and dash off the shot. Breath on pot again.. repeat. Some folk I understand rub soap or some other gunge on the ceramic to dull it down. That doesn’t work for me because the final image comes out flat and lifeless. My quick blast of warm breath takes the shine off for just long enough.
I have to take a couple of shots of Clive in the workshop. There is strip, natural and tungsten lighting from all over the place. I turn everything off and just use light from the window which is covered by a lovely film of red clay dust. No room in this dynamic, creative area for a tripod so everything is handheld. For those who are interested my settings are as follows: sharpness plus 1, colour neutral zero, shadows and highlights neutral, auto ISO with shutter speed set at 80 slowest, dynamic range 200. I use single focus mode with the focus point set centrally to about middle size. The smallest setting is just too small for reliable focus on a glossy ceramic surface. Photometry is set to area mode. The XF 35mm wide open fairs much better in this environment. The XF 60mm just about manages but ISO is sky high and noise is unacceptable. I use the X100 and the 23mm slightly wider angle works very well for shots which include both Clive and his work area. Nice light on his face hands and the dark clay. I am done and out of here.
Processing is done in Lightroom 6. I know these Earth colours by heart, green and gold, brown and ochre, and with the Fuji jpegs I only need to tidy up with some levels and a little crop here and there. I rarely add clarity, or luminence but sometimes lighten shadows and darken highlights. I complete the edit with a little darken vignette.