Photography Tips for Beakerhead’s Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge

Abbey Road in Tin, 2013 winning entry from St. Monica School in Calgary

Beakerhead’s Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge encourages students to get creative with a big roll of aluminum foil. When students mix ideas, imagination, energy, enthusiasm, engineering, construction, problem-solving and teamwork skills with a large spool of the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, the possible outcomes are limitless!

With so many schools participating (approximately 40 schools took part in the 2014 Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge), the judges aren’t able to visit each school while Beakerhead is taking place. So schools vying for an Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge award submit one photograph for judging purposes.

Aluminum foil has several properties that make it ideal for the Beakerhead Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge: it can be crunched, crumpled, ripped, cut, molded, used to wrap, folded, sculpted and even worn. But it also has one property that can make it tricky to photograph: it’s reflective!

Light Juggler, 2014 winning entry from Ted Harrison School in Calgary

Beakerhead HQ asked me to assemble some tips to help participating schools make the best possible photographs of their creations. I did some reading and then some experimentation. Based on my research and observations, I’ve compiled a short list of things to consider during the planning and photography phases of the Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge:

1. Planning Phase

  • Shiny or Matte – You already know that a sheet of something has two sides. What’s unique about aluminum foil is that the two sides look different. One side is quite shiny and the other is more matte. The shiny side is highly reflective, the matte side less so. If the reflective property of aluminum foil is an important aspect of the creation you’re planning, then go ahead and use the shiny side. Otherwise, consider using the matte side so that the photography is a little less challenging.NOTE: In all the Little Robot photos below, the left one is wrapped with the shiny side out and the right one is wrapped with the matte side out. All the Little Robot photographs in this post were made with a camera phone.
  • Smooth or Textured – If the reflective property of aluminum foil is integral to your creation, keep in mind that right out of the box, a sheet of aluminum foil is quite smooth. Light reflected off a smooth sheet of aluminum foil is fairly organized (the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection) which means the reflected light can be quite harsh and may create unwanted bright spots in your photograph. Light reflected off crumpled aluminum foil is much more diffuse but can still create bright spots in your photograph.
  • One or Many – Another thing to think about at this early stage is whether students will collaborate on one project or whether students will work individually or in groups to create multiple projects. In fact, teachers and school leadership may want to consider this aspect before the challenge is shared with students. After looking through Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge photos submitted in 2013 and 2014, my view is that it’s harder to make a good photograph of multiple projects, so my first instinct is to suggest that participating schools submit a photograph of one project only, whether that’s the result of a large group collaboration or the result of some internal selection process at the school. That being said, the Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge meant to get students involved in thinking creatively about all topics in the curriculum (not making a good photograph of their creation), so if you end up with multiple creations and want to include them all in one photograph, the tips below will help you make the best possible photograph of all of the students’ creations.
  • Allow Time – Finally, be sure to save a bit of time at the end to make your photograph. I encourage you to set aside at least one period (or even all of your project time on the last day or two) to make a good photograph to showcase your hard work and creativity.

2. Photography Phase

  • Consider Your Background – As your project comes together, you should be thinking about what kind of background will best showcase your creation. If your creation is relatively flat and rectangular (like St. Monica School’s project from 2013, shown above), you probably don’t need a background. Make your photograph and crop the edges to align with the edges of your creation. But if you’ve made an irregularly-shaped creation, try to think about the background as the project deadline approaches. Simply setting your creation on a classroom desk and pressing the shutter button on your camera probably won’t result in the best possible presentation of your hard work. Odds are you’ll end up with distracting elements in the background and some light reflections, just like I did when I perched a couple of Little Robots all dressed up for the Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge on the window ledge of my home office.
    Even though this background is fairly plain, there’s enough going on that it’s hard to focus on the Little Robots. I’ve circled just a few of the distracting reflections caused by other objects in the room.

    Instead, consider a plain, light-coloured background. Depending on the size of your creation, this could be a homemade whitebox, some carefully arranged blank science fair trifolds or a plain bedsheet taped to the classroom wall and draped over a desk. Other options include a plain dark-coloured background, an original painted backdrop or some other creative option.

  • Consider Lighting – After dreaming up and building your Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge creation and then positioning it in front of your chosen background, it’s time to think about lighting. If you use whatever lighting happens to be in the space, you’ll most likely end up with shadows and highlights – like what you see in the left panel, below. That photograph was made using the natural light coming into my home office.The middle version is a little better because I turned on the overhead lights (LED potlights), which got ride of most of the shadows.But it was only after I moved the Little Robots and their tin pie plate bird friends into my homemade whitebox (right panel below) that the light became fairly even and eliminated most of the distracting reflections.
    It’s much easier to judge the merits of Atomic 13 creations when they’re positioned against a plain background and evenly lit.

    Consider whether indirect or direct lighting is best for your project. My view is that the Little Robots are better served by indirect lighting (through the top and sides of my homemade whitebox) rather that direct lighting (with a small flashlight) which creates a strong highlight. But you may find that a highlight in just the right spot is the perfect final touch in a photograph of your Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge project.

    Plain background with even, indirect lighting.
    Plain background with direct (or flash) lighting.

    If your creation is mainly aluminum foil, you could also consider using coloured lights to add colour to your photograph. For example, here’s a simple coloured light set-up, created using a homemade whitebox, a few battery-powered glow sticks purchased at a Canadian Tire store, and scraps from making tin pie plate birds:

    Simple set up with coloured lights.

    And here’s what the Little Robots look like with a little coloured light added to the mix:

    By adjusting the angle of inflection from the coloured light, you can tweak the coloured reflections to your satisfaction.

    And if you use coloured lights in a dark room (like Ted Harrison School did for their 2014 winning submission, shown above), the results are even more striking. Be careful any coloured lights don’t hide important details (like the blue light hides the left blue eye on the left Little Robot) and aim the coloured lights carefully to avoid accidental colour bleeding like the green on the leg of the Little Robot on the right). You can also see how crumpled foil reflects multiple colours in an area while smooth foil does not.

    Coloured lights in a dark space turn the Little Robots from silver to every colour of the rainbow.
  • Consider the Photographer’s Position – The natural tendency when making a photograph is to stand centered in front of whatever you’re photographing, hold your camera at eye level and press the shutter. Try to take a minute or two to consider whether you’ll make a cleaner, more striking photograph if you kneel down to floor level, stand on a chair or ladder or move to one side. Consider, for example, this colourful, complex and creative entry from 2013. The projects are carefully arranged in front of a plain background. Three small changes would make for a better photo submission: 1) add another blank trifold to block out the background clutter on the sides; 2) replace the foil on the table top with something non-reflective (for better contrast); and 3) lower the camera a bit so that the trifold blocks out the background clutter at the top.
    Drum, 2013 entry from Our Lady of Assumption School in Calgary

    Or consider this large scale creation from 2013. It was carefully staged with a custom background. Two small changes would make for a better photo submission: 1) lower the camera to shoot maybe even a little upwards, which will reduce the clutter at the bottom; and then 2) crop the photo at the top and bottom so that only the creation and custom background are in the frame.

    Computer Science, 2013 entry from St. Joseph Elementary Junior High School in Calgary
  • Do a Little Processing – Last, but not least, don’t be afraid to do a little processing. That doesn’t mean spending hours on Photoshop. There are some great phone apps for processing (one of my favourites is VSCO CAM) or there are probably a couple of photo processing programs on at least one of the school’s computers. Spending a few minutes bringing up shadows, toning down highlights, adjusting contrast or saturation or even just cropping out distracting stuff around the edges can make a big difference in the quality of your photo submission.

Please leave a comment if you have other suggestions that will help Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge participants make better photographs of their creations. Also leave a comment if you have questions or want more details and I’ll get back to you.

Further reading:
Arqspin’s Guide to Photographing Reflective Objects
Digital Photo Magazine – Learning to Light Light Shiny Objects
pixelz – Photographing Highly-Reflective Products: How to Control Reflections

2 thoughts on “Photography Tips for Beakerhead’s Atomic 13 Ingenuity Challenge

  1. Pingback: Tips for Photographing Atomic 13 Aluminum Creations

Leave a Reply