Challenge 6 – Paper bag with one light

Challenge 6 – Paper bag with one light

My results for the photo club challenge this go-around is not going to be for everyone.  I am not sure if what I have produced is as obtainable as my other pictures from previous challenges, and I’m ok with that.  Just like in previous challenges I have been struggling with choosing which image to show.  As is my fashion, I chop down the field to a handful, get some comments from a couple people and then pair it down to the final 2.  The difficult part at this stage is making that choice between option A or optionB, not an easy task.   Today this task is even more difficult because the final two images are so very much different from each other, from the lighting, to the composition, to the subject itself – an ocean of differences separates the two.

Before we get into the final selection, let’s talk about the rules and then the process I went through in carrying out this challenge.

The challenge from the piece of paper – Photograph a paper bag with one light – make it cool

and the rules:

  • Subject is a paper bag, so whatever else is in the image, the bag must be the main subject in the image not a supporting or tossed in the shot use
  • Only one light source.  This light source could be a studio flash, a hot light, desk lamp, on/in camera flash unit, the sun.  Doesn’t matter what the light source, it can only be one light though.
  • Make it an interesting picture.
  • Bring one picture to the table

So this time around there are a couple limitations and neither are difficult on their own, for the most part, but when they are combined things that seem simple can start to get tricky.


initial thoughts were to cut a hole in the bottom of the bag, place it over the camera lens and then start to toss things in the bag (popcorn, severed body parts, you know, things one has around the house).  Because of the position of the camera the viewer will get a unique perspective.  The more I thought about this the more I talked myself out of the image.  I like the thought, and might do a series sometime in the future building off this idea, but I wanted to push myself a little more and not go for what, to me, seemed the obvious approach – my apologies to anyone in the group who ends up showing an image like that).  So I was sitting around trying to think of other ways to liven up a generic, non-exciting photo of a paper bag and not getting a whole lot of different things.  I could cut up a bag and strategically lay the pieces on a nude body, that would certainly make things a lot more interesting.  I could put a bag on a doorstep, light it on fire and then start snapping away which would make things a little interesting and cover the ‘one light’ part of the challenge.  That is when it hit me that I should shift my focus to the second part of the challenge to try and find some inspiration, the light source.

The sun is the easiest and most abundant light source we have in our photography arsenal, but I wanted more control over how the light was to be used so I ended up staying inside in my little home studio to solve this problem.  I gathered a couple of different lights that were nearby; a desk lamp, a make-up mirror, a cyberflash panel (I don’t think these are made anymore but they are kind of cool) and then hunted down a couple of paper bags.  Because of the size of my light sources I knew I had to keep the bag relatively small.  Looking around I found a small brown standard paper bag and a black gift bag which housed a gift that was given to me a couple weeks ago, these were a out the right size for this set-up so I took to the table and camera and started to arrange away.

Challenge 6 - One light bag 20

I thought it would be fun to use the desk lamp as my light source but shine its light into the makeup mirror which will then illuminate the bag and I can play with the reflection and light that way.  Toying with that configuration I found that I could get enough light on the bag where I wanted it but only with the ‘normal’ side of the mirror and not the magnification side of the mirror.  I was really hoping to get some cool macro style images  within the mirror so that there were a few different types of views of the bag all within the same image.  I don’t know if it was the way I was shooting or just not having things positioned properly but I just couldn’t get the result I wanted.  However, I did like the regular reflection within the mirror when I turned off the desk lamp and actually used the light that is attached to the mirror.  A little voyeur approach to the bag, like looking over the shoulder of someone putting on their makeup.  I spent some time shooting variations of this image working with different places I was shooting from, different angles the mirror was to show off the bag, a little of everything to capture while still avoiding getting my reflection in the shot.  There are some decent images that came out of this experimentation.  While I don’t think they are terrible images, I don’t feel there is anything that will stop the viewer and make them want to know more about what is going on.  And while each time I se this image I like it more and more, I don’t feel there is enough going on to make this image interesting enough to bring to the table.  The members of this group pushes each other to go further and push the limits. This is a nice shot but not challenging enough, so I continued on.


Challenge 6 - One light bag 5

Sitting back taking stock I thought why not go for some silhouetted images of the bag.  I could tap a little into the 2001 mode and monolith the hell out of this lonely bag – the bag of knowledge (on safe today only $9.95).  As you can see in this image I started working on that but noticed one major flaw, and no it isn’t the cord in the shot.  Can you spot what the problem is?

I’ll give you another moment. …

Yup, you guessed it, how does anyone know this is a bag and not oh I don’t know a black slab full of stars (ok, enough with the 2001 references).  Just looking at this test shot I realized that I can clean up and position things to make a good silhouette shot but if there is no element that lets you know it is a bag then I am not sticking within the confines of the challenge.  So I had to scrap that idea.


Challenge 6 - One light bag 3Ah, a nice closeup, detail shot of the handles.  The ribbon fabric has a nice texture that gives the viewer something to gaze at and it helps create some separation between the smoothness of the black bag and the blackness of the ribbon.  I do like this shot.  But just as there are a couple shots that I like more and more each time I look at them, this shot I like less and less the more I look at it.  What I don’t like about this shot boils down to just one element, the light reflection on the bottom of the image.  I like the fold in the upper right that helps break up the balanced black ribbon on the white inside of the bag.   I like the ribbon laying flat giving the eye a starting point and guiding it to the rest of the image, especially with the other ribbon handle laying flat against the bag giving it a blending of the two materials.  With a little editing I think this is the beginnings of a great image, but that damned reflection at the bottom just keeps getting to me.  I don’t know, maybe of the reflection was a tad smaller, or the pattern was a little different then I wouldn’t mind so much, maybe.  I do think there should be something at the bottom just to show a separation between the bag and the background to give the bag some extra shape, but it doesn’t work for me in this image.


So, that brings my to the final two images that I have been bouncing back and forth on.  Which do I choose?  One image can be very difficult for people to grasp and the other might be too simplistic for people.  Both images can cause a person to scratch their head and think “I don’t get it.”  If someone doesn’t get it that is not always saying the artist failed at their creation, and it certainly doesn’t mean the viewer isn’t creative enough or artistic enough to understand.  Sometimes images need to have further descriptions some information presented alongside to help guide them, and there is nothing wrong with that at all.  Art should sometimes be challenging not just for the artist but for the viewer as well.  Yes, we humans like to look at things that are easy and pleasant and recognizable.  Look at what is most popular in society when it comes to art: people, nature, buildings, landscapes.  The niche ‘genres’ within the different medias still get a dedicated following but their numbers are fewer because it isn’t always as accessible to everyone – it can be like beer was to me, an acquired taste.

One of my images I think would be seen as expected, to a point – dark, B&W, abstract – while the other image is different than what I have presented to the group before.  So do I go with the abstract, granted a lot more abstract than what even they would be expecting, or do I surprise them with something completely unexpected?  Do I stick with what is close to my style and what I strive for on a regular basis or do I step away from that for a session to subvert expectations?  I do like being subversive thats for sure.


Ok, so first the B&W image:

Challenge 6 - One light bag 1 (1)

I really love this image.  It has some great characteristics of unsavory noir.  The voyeuristic positioning of the eyes of the view (camera placement), the deep black framing all along the bottom with just giving a relief with light at the top, the obstruction of the complete reflection in the mirror all while staying out of sight in the reflection.  The grittiness, the mysteriousness can be a little unsettling in this image.  It takes a while to actually see what it going on with this image.  Can you tell it is a bag (in sticking within the confines of the challenge)? Yes, the reflection is just sharp enough to detail the handle and the top of the gift bag.  We don’t know what is in it, if anything, nor do we know if its intended recipient will ever se the bag.  Then again, could what is in the bag be a bad surprise for the recipient?  How many movies have we seen where the gun is hidden innocently in a wrapped package, a newspaper, instrument case?  There could be anything in there or there could be nothing.  I like this image because it is reminiscent of some old backstage photos where you see the performer, tired from the lights and performance, taking off their makeup revealing that the persona the audience just witnesses was all a facade, that the happy energetic character is a skin put on by the tired injured performer.  The voyeur aspect of this is like peeking through the keyhole and discovering the true reality.  I also feel the image boils down to who is watching where they shouldn’t be watching and do they have ill intentions.

Because of the darkness of this image and the distinct lack of completeness or quick understanding I don’t think this image would fall in line with the type of image that people walking by would stop quickly and think ‘oh that is a nice one too.’  That is not to say that art has to be immediately accessible or else it is ignored.  But an image such as this could come across as muddled, introduce a little claustrophobia to the viewer that might not make them want to stop and really look and investigate.  Hanging on a wall this has the potential of just turning that space into a black hole, but I’m ok with that.  My criteria when I approach these challenges is ‘would I print this out right now and hang it on my wall?’  If I say ‘yes’ then that becomes a final selection.  Because of my tastes and my likes, I could easily see this hanging on my wall at home or at work, so, it works very well for me.

The second image:

Challenge 6 - One light bag 15


This is not a paper bag.  This is a straight up, full color, slightly off center photo of a paper bag folded up and with a paper clip to keep it closed.  This image I figured would shock the group because they are used to and expect to see grainy B&W photos from me.  I had to shake things up a bit and I think this is just the photo to do that.  So the funny part about this is that the elements within this photo is very much in line with some of my preferences and style.  I say that because I do like a minimalist approach to images, especially when photographing people.  Minimalism in photography deals more in stripping away the elements of a photo and focusing more on a simplistic, clean subject and taking advantage of geometric lines.  Let’s look at the lines in this image.  Forget for the moment that this is just a paper bag folded, look instead of the lines within the image.  You have the basic four-sided shape that makes up the main focus of the subject, but the bottom left corner and the right corner have these elements that sneak out from within the boarders of the quadrilateral.  These bits help add to the slight chaos within the image because they are going against the defined edges of the shape.  Shifting focus to the paperclip not only helps to break up the line of that edge but also juts into the body of the subject as well.  With the different texture, different angle and completely different shape, the paperclip throws a curveball to a general view of the folded bag.  These two elements aren’t typically paired together in this starkness.  There isn’t much for the viewer to try and discover, on the surface, with this image.  There is not much of a mystery to this image.  Yet with its simplicity and minimalism I love this image.  It is simple and actually makes me stop and look at all the bits of the bag.

This reminds me of a conversation a film professor related in class years ago when he was talking to his mother about Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup painting.  She was saying it wasn’t art because it was just a copy of a coup can and there was no imagination to it, anyone could do it.  My professor responded to her by saying that Warhol painted it bigger than the actual can and that by hanging it on the wall it gives the viewer a different perspective and approach to the can.  ‘He made you look at it in a different way, and in that he was successful in creating art.’

So does this have artistic merit?  I think so.  I think by looking at this image many will look at this ordinary brown paper bag in a different way.  I presented a photo of an object that many would pass by and not think artistically about it.  Am I genius for seeing something in this simple object that no one else saw?  Not at all.  Had I not had this assignment I probably wouldn’t have given this bag a second look.  I wouldn’t have gone through the trouble to line up the bag with the light and background, to take several shots to get just the right angle and exposure, to download the images and edit ending up with this result.  I would have walked past this bag.  There was a challenge before me and so I was looking outside the normal and so my mind and eyes were open looking for the uniqueness in the ordinary.  And for that I chose this image to share with the group.  Funny thing, they ended up liking the B&W a little more because of the mystery, I didn’t expect that.

But that last bit about the bag does get one thinking.  How much do we pass up every day because we are so focused on the specifics of everyday life?  We aren’t opening our minds and eyes for the unique in the everyday.  We aren’t looking for the opportunities to transform something that would be considered ‘plain’ into something more substantial because we get in to our routines.  Some of this comes down to perspectives.  We get all caught up in our own perspectives day in and day out that we think the way we see things is the way other people see things, it just makes sense right because why would we be wrong?  But this paper bag is a prime example of shifting perspectives.  My perspective going in to this challenge was that I had to fond some wild, new, special way to capture a bag in order to make this plain object become a cool or interesting photo.  Really what needed to happen was I had to shift my perspective on what I thought of a paper bag. I figured I needed to transform it into something unique when instead the photo I decided to bring to the table was of the bag with no camera trickery, no noir, no modified grain, just let the bag speak for itself.  The paperclip on the bag, I didn’t even put it there.  I took the bag for what it was and felt that the interesting or cool transformation of the bag was not needed.  I took it for what it was and didn’t just pass it by.  It was already unique because I gave it more than a quick glance, I looked at it with a different perspective.  Maybe that is something we all need to do a little more, I know that is my plan.