Friday, December 11, 2015

How I Shot It: Roll Dem Bones!

This photo got a 1st Place in November’s Enchanted Lens Camera Club competition Group A Assigned Print category, which was Motion Blur/Out of Focus, judged by Dana Foy.

Roll Dem Bones!

For those of you in ELCC (and other interested people), you may be wondering how it was made. Or if you are the type that likes to read through long blog posts, then this one is for you.

I’ll start with the gear.

Camera Info
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II 
Lens: Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8 Series L, zoom set to 51mm. 
Exposure mode: Manual
Exposure: ISO 200, f 9.0, 1 second, RAW Image Capture
Exposure delay: 2 seconds
White balance: Flash

Canon 430EX II Speedlight, on-camera, Custom Setting of 2nd Curtain Flash
Streamlight Microstream LED flashlight, mounted in a lightstand 
Dining room chandelier

Other Gear
24” x 36” sheet of black foam-core
1 sheet of white Letter size paper
Rubber band
5 dice

That’s it for the gear and camera stuff.


The assignment was to show motion blur or out-of-focus without using the Motion Blur and similar filters in Photoshop. If you were at the October ELCC meeting, Dana took the mic and specifically said that he didn’t want to see computer effects simulating blur. Which meant it all had to be done in-camera.

Basically, after I did After the Rain, I had no ideas that weren’t grotesquely cliche (like taillight shots) and time was running out. My lovely wife Rozanne went on Flickr for ideas. She thought that photographing rolling dice was kind of cool and showed them to me. I saw them and thought I’d try it.

So I ran down to the corner drug store and bought 5 dice for $2.50. I didn’t like that they all had a big red Bicycle logo on the one pip side.


My studio (A.K.A. my dining room table) set-up was very simple. A 24x36” sheet of black foam-core was used as the surface for the dice, placed on top of the table. Since I had the camera pointing downward, the far end of the foam-core also became the backdrop.

The camera was placed with the lens very close to the edge of foam-core, pointing down at about a 40 degree angle. I put a couple dice down where I planned to throw them on the foam-core. I used back-button focus to auto-focus on the dice, and then didn’t touch the focus button any more. If you don’t use back-button focus on your DSLR (you should, it's pretty useful), you can instead turn off autofocusing on your lens or camera, depending on what you use. This way the camera won’t hunt for focus on an indistinct dark background. This also forced me to be accurate when I threw the dice in front of the camera. Focus distance to the subject was set to about 12 inches or so, if I remember correctly.

Even at f9.0 and focusing at a close distance, the depth of field was still rather shallow. For this assignment, that’s okay, even desirable. Remember that the assignment has “out of focus” in the name.

There’s a chandelier above my table, controlled with a dimmer switch. I set the light level very low. Since I was using a 1 second exposure, I was going to get some ambient light in addition to the flash. I also had to see what I was doing. The rest of the room was very dark.

The Speedlight was mounted on-camera, and the was head pointed up, using the ceiling as a great big diffuse reflector. After a few test exposures, the light was too soft, and the dice didn’t “pop” enough for my taste. I tried upping the flash compensation, but that just brightened the foam-core too much. I returned the flash compensation back down to zero, which gave me the look I wanted on the background.

I had a sheet of Letter size printer paper nearby. I curled it and wrapped it  around the Speedlight, holding it on with a rubber band, creating a reflector. Most of the paper was sticking out above flash. A couple more tests, and it was better, but the dice were overexposed a bit. I folded the paper in half and put it back on with the rubber band. The next tests looked really nice, making the white of the dice separate from the dark background. The reflection of the flash on paper put the specular highlights in the pips on the dice.

I mentioned 2nd-curtain flash up in the Gear section. On its default setting, my Speedlight will fire as soon as the shutter opens. Normally, this is okay when you are using a flash, because you are usually in a situation where you want a somewhat fast shutter speed. 

On the 1 second exposure I was using, with the Speedlight set at the default of 1st curtain, the shutter would open (the 1st shutter curtain revealed the camera sensor), the flash would fire right away, the sensor continues to gather light for almost a full second, and then shutter would close (the 2nd shutter curtain would cover the sensor). 

Left this way, the result would be that the dice would be exposed nicely early in their trajectory, and then have trails of movement away from them. I wanted the opposite: I wanted the dice to be illuminated at the end of their trajectory. With 2nd Curtain activated on the Speedlight, the shutter would open, almost a full second would elapse, the flash fires, and the shutter closes.

Got all that? No, that was a poor explanation. Here’s a better one about 2nd Curtain Flash.  Or you can Google “2nd curtain flash” for lots of other explanations and examples.

At this point, I’ve got the camera settings where I want them, ambient light from the chandelier to give a little fill light, and the flash set to fire at the end of the exposure. After more tests, the dice trails were too dim. The ambient light from the chandelier wasn’t enough to show strong trails as the dice skittered around in front of the camera. I didn’t want to increase the chandelier brightness because that would also brighten the background too much. What to do?

Let’s bring in another light! I needed a light that was constantly on for the whole exposure, and very directional so that it wouldn’t brighten the foam-core too much. Turns out that a small flashlight was a good solution.

I had a little Streamlight Microstream LED flashlight that I use when out shooting at night. It also has the bonus feature that it is small enough to clamp in the umbrella hole of a lightstand. You don’t need to go out and buy this one, probably any flashlight would do. It was handy, so I used it.

I clamped the flashlight in the stand, turned it on, and positioned in a couple places and did some tests. In my situation, I got the best results by placing the flashlight just down and to the right of the lens hood, with it aimed to skim across the surface of the foam-core and highlight where the dice would go tumbling around. I made sure that the lens hood shielded the front element from the flashlight.

A couple more tests, and now I think I’ve got the lighting nailed! What I didn’t realize is that this was going to take a lot longer than I originally thought.

I set the camera to have a 2 second delay after pressing the shutter button before the exposure actually starts. I did this because after I pressed the shutter button, the delay would allow the camera to stop vibrating after I touched it, and give me time to position myself to throw the dice. I had to do about 20 exposures to get my timing down so the dice were in the frame when the flash went off. One help was that my camera will beep when it is counting down the 2 seconds, which helped a lot while learning exactly when to throw the dice.

I did many exposures over two evenings. The first session, I made about 150 exposures. I got a few keepers, but I wanted to get better ones, so I kept on. The next night, I did 150 more. Most of the shots were trash, as the dice were well out of frame and on the dining room floor by the time the flash fired. It turned out that the one I submitted to the competition was around the 50th shot on the first night.


While shooting, I dumped my camera card into Lightroom every 50 shots or so to get a better look at what was going on, adjust exposure for the next go-round, and to assess my dice-throwing technique. I deleted the vast majority, basing my decisions primarily on composition. Many shots had the dice out of frame, so those were easy to eliminate. So were shots where the dice had come to rest when the flash fired and the dice were sitting flat on the table, which I thought made for a boring shot. I wanted the picture to look dynamic and energetic.

The three different lighting types of tungsten (orange), LED (bluish-white), and flash (white) made the image kind of odd-looking. I tried various things, but settled on moving the whole thing to black and white. It also simplified the image visually and made it stronger, in my opinion. Color would probably detract from the image rather than add to it in this case.

Straight out of the camera

After brightening and contrast in Lightroom
In Lightroom, I cropped to a better composition, flopped the image so the “motion” of the image would move left-to-right, and desaturated quite a bit, but not to a complete monochrome. If you look closely, you can still see a bit of red in the right-most die’s Bicycle logo. I also applied Lens Correction and CA Reduction. I took the image into Photoshop and did a Content-aware Fill to fix the leftover unwanted bright areas after the crop.

Other settings:

Contrast +100
Highlights -4
Whites +71
Blacks -5
Sharpening 80/Masking 36

I use vignettes in a lot of my work, because I think it leads the viewer’s eye to what I want to show them. I applied a Radial Adjustment to darken Exposure at the edges, and Erase Brushed the Radial away around the dice. I guess you could call this technique a “shaped vignette”. 

Shaped vignette


I printed this at 12 x 18” on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth 305 gsm, using an Epson SureColor P800.


I like this particular image because it really satisfies both requirements of the competition. It shows motion blur, and not all the dice are sharply focused, though the original expectation I had was to just show the motion. A happy accident, which is a good thing.

Of all the ones I shot, it is one of the few that show all six sides of a die. The one that is not so obvious is the three side, which was caught by the LED flashlight in the central streak. I forgot about the fact that LEDs “pulse” when emitting light until I saw the image in Lightroom. In essence, the flashlight was behaving like a high-speed strobe light. 

All the dice are in mid-air. This really made it appear that there was a lot energy was captured in the photo.

Looking back, I think I was a bit heavy-handed in the vignette darkening, but it’s not too bad.

The title “Roll Dem Bones” comes from some hazy memories throughout my life. I had heard the term a few times over the years, and knew it had something to do with dice-throwing. I looked it up, and it was used as part of a song, which tells the story of a gambler playing craps with Death. Another reference I found was this one that also contains the phrase “My baby needs a new pair of shoes!”


I have a tendency to literally throw dice when playing dice games like Yahtzee or Monopoly. Meaning, stand back, because it’s Todd’s turn to roll. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I think I’ll get a “better roll.” It’s illogical, I know, and it is the completely wrong thing to do when photographing rolling dice. 

I found that I got the best results by just letting the dice fall off my hand. I also dropped them from a low height, so low that I got my hand in the frame on many shots. Although my photo makes it appear that the dice are moving very fast, they really weren’t. Remember that the exposure time was a full second. Dice can travel several feet in one second if tossed with too much energy. I learned that the correct technique was to simply drop them, but give them a little direction towards the lens. Dropping the dice almost vertically also made them bounce up off the foam-core more, which usually produced more dynamic images.

If you try this, I would suggest using other surfaces for a backdrop. A cheap sheet of glass or plexi from a hardware store would give great reflections, maybe. Or some green felt to make it look like it was in a casino.

If you have comments or questions, I would love to hear them!


  1. A clear and concise explanation to a beautifully done image!

  2. Great explanation, working on something similar and just about what I was thinking....I tried white dice, with about the same results.... but, ordered some red ones since I was hoping the translucent would add some flair and will re-shoot as soon as they arrive.