The Making of "Gindungo Cahombo"
How the winning photo of the January contest was made
By kthornsberry in Photo Contests on Mar 6, 2020
It is such an honor to have the winning photograph this month, especially given the collection of images that were included in this month’s gallery. I really appreciate all the nominations and votes. I want to congratulate the 2 other top scorers, “Miniature Bread Farmers” by VillainofOz and “What Do You Mean, ‘Your Peanut’” by stanwl3. I couldn’t help but linger over each one. They both have a sense of whimsy. I don’t know about anyone else but I personally would love to read a little bit about how “Miniature Bread Farmers” was made. I sincerely hope VillianofOz will add some notes to the submission.
The Black Table Project
Gindungo Cahombo began as a decision to get over my insecurity about using flash. I’ll do my best to describe the technical aspects of my efforts later, but what I really want to accomplish with this article is to inspire you to experiment with spicing up your photography.
Over the years I’ve owned a few Pentax strobe units. At the moment I have an AF–540FGZ, an AF–360FGZ and an AF–280T in the cabinet. And yet I never really made much practical use of them. I would try one of the flashes on-camera, get disappointing results and eventually lose interest in favor of approaches that were easier. Increasing ISO capabilities all but eliminated the necessity to use flash to make casual indoor exposures and I never really made a consistent effort to successfully master fill flash. My efforts at plus/minus compensation for fill flash rarely gave the impact I expected in TTL mode and so I would say, “I prefer natural light,” or “I don’t really like flash.” Deep down inside I knew this was a cop-out, so early last year I decided to overcome the intimidation of flash. I wanted to learn how to do studio portraits so I did some research and invested in
- a couple of Manfrotto 5001B Nano Black Light Stands
- two Godox S-Type Speedlite Brackets
- two Phottix 40" Reflect Softbox Studio Umbrellas
- a Studio Essentials Pop-Up Reversible Background
- three used Cactus V6 units.
In retrospect, I could have managed very well with a single off-camera light kit but otherwise I feel like I spent my money pretty carefully, especially with using an existing speed-light. Even though most of these items are on the cheaper end of their respective range, they all seemed of sufficient quality to support a lot of amateur photographic exploration.
My dining table is covered with black laminate. I set up my black backdrop behind the table in hopes of getting something resembling a seamless background between the black table and the black background. My ultimate goal was to learn to make portraits so I scoured my home for things that would patiently stand in for a human head during my lengthy experimentation. The very first object I tried was a, pilau, a hand made mortar and pestle I scrounged from the kitchen.
The seamless background effect, at least in the beginning, was a total fail, but serendipity dealt me something better–a cool reflection in the black table-top. I had a great time photographing different objects on the black table-top. I experimented with camera angles and lighting positions to get a feel for the different effects I could generate. I shot the pilau, a globe, miscellaneous knick-knacks from around the house and baskets of local fruits and vegetables.
At this point I should share that while I am from the United States, I have lived the last four years in the Republic of Angola. This is where I picked up the pilau, which coincidentally is used to prepare the gindungo cahombo as a condiment. As the “black table” project continued, I decided to make a series of prints of fruits and vegetables commonly available here in Angola with the intent of them in my kitchen and perhaps selling some note cards to expats as a fund raiser for a local charity. Many potential subjects came to mind but there was never any question that gindungo cahombo would have to be included.
Although the food of Angola is not generally spicy, the option to kick it up a notch (or, more correctly, lots of notches) is always on the table in the form of a paste a made from the fiery gindungo cahombo peppers. This condiment is made by crushing the peppers with the pilau and cooking the mash in oil, garlic and bay leaf. Gindungo is popularly considered to have powers as an aphrodisiac. According to [A origem da palavra Gindungo](http://triplov.com/a-origem-da-palavra-gindungo/) these peppers originated in the Caribbean and were brought to Angola by the Portuguese. They are extremely hot and in appearance resemble the habanero peppers popular in Mexican cuisine, although the gindungo cahombo is a bit smaller and hotter. The term gindungo comes from combining ndungo, which in a northern Angolan dialect signifies “a pleasant thing”, with Gin, the alcoholic drink which is used as a preservative in the recipe and is believed to enhance the flavor of the peppers. Anyway, all this is to say that to make prints of Angolan fruits and vegetables without gindungo cahombo in the collection would have been to fail the effort before even getting started.
Setting up the Shot
The shot was made from a low angle with a tripod mounted smc Pentax-FA* 80–200 F2.8 ED[IF] to which was attached my Mark II upgraded Pentax K–1. The lens is a perfect example of one reason that Pentax shooters tend to be a loyal bunch. I bought this lens thoroughly used in 1997 or 1998 to photograph wildlife in the swamps of Southern Louisiana shortly before my first daughter was born. The wear on the outside at that time betrayed a previous life lived to the full. I wish this lens could tell it’s stories. I can’t remember now whether I was still shooting with a Pentax P3n (my least favorite Pentax body ever) or with the ZX–5n which reminded me of my old K–1000. That daughter is now entering graduate school and the lens is still accompanying me on adventures on 3 continents and taking me new places photographically. It is one of my best purchases, although sometimes I wish for the newer version which is a bit lighter.
The shot was lit with the AF–540FGZ bounced off the inside of one of the Phottix Softboxes. The softbox sat in front of the subjects just out of frame and to the right and about 30 degrees above the subject. The softboxes were angled inward to ensure no direct light fell on the black backdrop. I attempted some shots directing the flash from the left but a nearby white wall and window blind on the right created enough bounce back that I could not always get as much shadow as I wanted opposite the flash. Some of the shots also involved placing the AF–360FGZ opposite the AF–540FGZ in a second softbox to control fill, however, based on the highlights in Gindungo Cahombo I believe this particular composition was a single strobe shot. The strobes were triggered remotely using a hot-shoe mounted Cactus V6 in TX mode with additional V6 units on the strobes in manual Rx mode.
I really enjoyed the using Cactus V6’s and they were affordable since I purchased used. They arrived with various firmware versions so step one was to get all of them updated. The ability to manually control the flash output from the camera was especially helpful. The V6’s also have TTL capabilities which gave pleasant results but I preferred the control and simplicity of dialing everything in manually. There are numerous effective tutorials on the internet for using flash remotely so it is unnecessary for me to review all of that here, but in general I started with all flashes turned off to set an exposure which rendered an essentially dark image and then layered in each flash using the LCD on the back of my camera to judge the resulting images and histograms. This way neither calculations nor metering were necessary. When I got close to my desired exposure and fill contrast, I would download my SD card to my laptop and make a final check in Adobe Lightroom. Although the likelihood of motion blur was essentially nil with the flash bursts, once I settled on a camera angle and crop I liked, I tripod mounted the lens and camera so I could dial in my focus and then concentrate on other aspects of the images.
I spent quite a bit of time arranging the peppers to create a composition that looked balanced to me, and yet, I hoped, deceptively random. I gave a lot consideration to the orientation of the stems and their impact on the reflections in the black table. Obviously, the reflection is a big part of the composition, but the table was also a source of tremendous frustration. My initial testing revealed that every speck of dust lit up under the light of the flash. I polished and polished and polished but never got a surface free of dust. Also, this table sees a lot of use other than just meals and photography. It serves as a desk, a game table and, on occasion, a work bench. Consequently, it has a number of nicks, scratches and other marks which made post processing a lot more work.
Because of the all the previous experimentation with various subjects, the Gindungo photos moved fairly quickly. Here is a contact sheet of my experimentation less any significant under/over exposures or grossly out of focus frames.
Overall, the post processing of Gindungo Cahombo is on the bland side.
The original file confirms that I am incapable of taking a horizontal picture, even when shooting from a tripod and utilizing the in-camera leveling tools. It’s not too obvious here, but if I bring up the exposure so that I can see the back edge of the table, it becomes obvious. I leveled the photo and I also cropped in a bit to satisfy my eye. By far the greatest amount of time in post processing was in spot removal. With no detail in the table to hide spots, every one had to be cloned out. Thank goodness for the spot removal tool in Lightroom. Although it requires clicking on each spot individually, it takes care of the rest from there in most cases. I’m providing a screen captures with spot visualization turned on and the spot removal dots turned on in hopes of attracting a little sympathy for my efforts.
Beyond spot removal, post processing is a lot like the gindungo paste in that a little goes a long way and I generally try to just season-to-taste. I probably did more to this photo than I needed to. I wanted the backdrop and the table top to disappear with little to no texture and I wanted the peppers to show their full vibrance.
Sharpening is an art unto itself and I don’t presume to really know what I’m doing. Again, I just season-to-taste.
To wrap this up, I’ll just reemphasize that in the big picture, the goal here was to learn to use off-camera flash to shoot portraits. The globe, the pilau and the fruits and vegetables, specifically the Gindungo Cahombo, were part of that learning journey as subjects with the admirable quality of exhiiting unlimited patience with my experimentation. Consequently, utilizing all that I learned from The Black Table Project, the last subject I’ll share, having somewhat less patience than fruits and vegetables, but nonetheless willing to sit for my experiments was, well, me.