What are the first questions you ask yourself when you see photography that pushes the boundaries of abstraction? Do you, like us, wonder how much came about by chance and how much was meticulously planned? Are you curious how closely a final project resembles the original idea?
In this project, Jessica Soler challenged the boundaries of her creativity. She shares her process as she experiments with distorting light and becomes familiar with new tools. Her primary subjects are Star Wars action figures, so when better to share them than on the premiere of, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”?

My photography background is in documenting scientific research, landscape, and picture-perfect product photography, so the idea of putting glass on my camera that would purposefully distort my images seemed insane to me. I just didn’t get it… Forgive me and my elitist ignorance. I’ve changed. I promise.

A recent back injury forced me to downsize my everyday carry from a huge-n-heavy Canon 5D DSLR to a mirrorless system. In addition to the smaller size, I wanted something (relatively) inexpensive to convert to infrared and the Sony A6000 was just perfect for this so I set out to be as experiential with my camera as I was with my research.

I wanted to build a visual vocabulary centered around distortion and false color. I wanted to explore how far a subject could be out of focus and still be recognizable, or at least aesthetically interesting. What if I placed objects between the lens and subject? Would the resulting distortion be interesting or just plain ugly? Can I shape lens flare as easily as bokeh? Would shaping the flare and bokeh enhance an image or would this be just an academic exercise? How shallow can depth of field be and still be interesting?

My quest to answer these and numerous other questions started with a handful of Star Wars action figures, some pieces of hardware and the Velvet 85. It’s a beautiful portrait lens with a perfect working distance. It’s a tack sharp macro when stopped down and produces lovely bokeh wide open. I couldn’t wait to manipulate the bokeh and I knew that in infrared, the lens would produce a lot of lens flare to shape and play with. This would be a great place for me to start.

Easing into my new camera and lens, I reached for a small X-Wing figure and an aperture cutout to shape the bokeh. This first attempt at making shaped bokeh interesting was a huge failure. Sure, I got the shapes I wanted, however, this in no way enhanced the image that was already not great thanks to my terrible composition (or lack thereof). However, I stuck with the idea and made way too many aperture shapes that took up permanent residence in my camera bag waiting for the right moment.

That moment came late one day while walking on the beach. A woman stood, backlit on the pier, blowing huge soap bubbles in the wind. Knowing that the Velvet 85 produced amazing soft-glowing images wide open, I decided to see how out of focus I could go and keep her recognizable. I noticed the sunlight bouncing off the bubbles and scrambled for a butterfly aperture cutout and took the image in and out of focus until I liked the results. The highlights translated to sharp butterflies while the female figure took on an otherworldly form. Much better results than the initial, boring X-Wing.

This slight success with blur left me eager to move onto the next item on the list: shooting through different objects. I picked up Yoda, two small lights and a small diameter piece of copper pipe. I placed one light behind the lightsaber and one off to the right to light Yoda with an added reflector to fill in a bit, I pre-focused and placed the small pipe in front of the lens tilting the pipe until it produced an interesting halo. For me, this happened between f/8 and f/11 depending on how pronounced I wanted the effect. For this image, however, I wanted the lightsaber to be out of focus and to look more like a lightsaber than a boring piece of plastic, so I shot the image at f/4 knowing that the halo would be reduced.

After the copper pipe, I moved on to steel eyebolts, wire mesh, bicycle reflectors, plastic snowflakes, magnifying glasses, plastic bottles, Christmas ornaments, scrap plastic and dirty windshields, with results varying from awesome to bleh!

I may be the only person on the planet who is as obsessed with or addicted to lens flare as J.J. Abrams so, of course, I had to see what I could do with it here. I grabbed my trusty droids, waited for the sun to be low on the horizon, tossed a cut-out in front of the Velvet 85 and got the shot I wanted.

While I enjoyed experimenting with different objects between the lens and subject, my favorite way to shoot with the Velvet 85 was simply between f/2 and 1.8 (usually with a polarizer). I love the way the background disappears completely on the macro side, leaving just a sliver of detail. Shooting landscapes with the lens wide open gives the images a surreal, dreamlike characteristic. This glowy, delicate quality inspired me to try shooting surf or wave shots wide open with a slow shutter, and I could not be more happy with the results.

Walking into this little project, I was apprehensive. A new tiny camera, a new lens and a whole new paradigm on image making left me wondering why I putting myself through this. Then I actually picked up the gear, made some images and absolutely loved the process, the equipment and the interactions with strangers walking up to me asking what I was doing. I found a new go-to lens for toy photography and a new way to shoot surfers and waves.

So, what do you think? Have you tried these techniques? Do you shoot through random objects? Are out of focus images interesting? Is this something you want to work try? What have you tried that I should experiment with?

To see more of Jessica’s work, find her on Instagram

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