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On Assignment: Archeologists

While driving back from an assignment in Western Maryland I noticed some archeologists digging near a zoning sign for a new intersection.

One of my favorite things about being a photojournalist is the "license to be curious" that comes with the job. So I stopped, got out, and ended up with a fairly interesting story.

The light was typical mid-day light for autumn, and it was coming from back right, which was the wrong direction. So I set up a strobe (pointed back at the sun) on the left, set it to full power and zeroed out my exposure at my camera's fastest synch speed (1/250, or 1/500, can't remember what body I was using.)

Then it was just a matter of moving the strobe forward or backward until I got a good balance with the sunlight, which acted as an opposing light in a cross light setup with the strobe.

I often do this rather than meter or dial down the strobe. Setting the camera to its high synch speed lets me use the least amount of strobe possible. Setting the strobe to full power (and moving it back until it balances) then gives me the greatest possible working distance.

One light, working against the sun, can give good shape and shadow detail to a whole scene if you shoot from the 45-degree angles from either the sun or the strobe.

Next: Cicada


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Blogger MagikTrik said...

Just out of curiosity what do you tell people like this before you start shooting? I know "act natural" or "just act like I'm not even here" is what most people would say but in my few experiences that usually ends up being the worst thing to say because then people try to act like their acting natural (did i say that right) & it looks akward but this shot looks so natural, like they really didnt even notice you.
Also do you ever give instruction, for instance telling the person in the back of the shot to dig instead of just stand there?

July 15, 2006 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, I've been really enjoying your site. Being a novice with strobe, I'm finding it hard, sometimes, to imagine the actual set up that you are describing in some of the situations. Yes, I'm asking for more, or might I say that I'm a "begger" and a "chooser" that needs his cake and eats too!

Never the less, I will continue to read AND hopefully learn from you very nice site...


August 14, 2006 7:26 PM  
Blogger davesvista said...

This picture is really messing with my mind... The guy in the foreground looks too big(?), regardless of the perspective and it looks like the break in the gound (and up) where the shovels are, following the left edge of the foreground guy is one pic. The forground guy and the dirt below and to the right looks like a separate pic, the dirt to his right looks really outa place. the horizon to the right of the foregound guy is much higher than the left... Is this is a photoshop job, David?

Great site! I am a noob, learning fast and this site helps a lot.

May 14, 2007 4:01 PM  
Blogger Jazzology said...

@Davesvista... I agree that it looks like a "composite" image... This is what happens a lot when "Chroma Key" backgrounds have shadows that are in different directions or non existant... Personally the over-use of opposing light sources and under exposed backgrounds look unnatural to me... for some it's a "style" and that's ok... jus not my cup o tea...

I probably would have used a reflector to bounce the flash (or sun) into the scene for a softer more even fill...

July 04, 2007 11:06 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

I actually like the cross lighting effect usually. If all everyone did was just flash fill it'd be a pretty bland world of photography :)

July 07, 2007 4:11 PM  
Anonymous Jon Senior said...

@davesvista: The flash providing light from the opposite direction to the sun is confusing, but also creates the drama in the image. The reason for the break is simple. The guy in the foreground is at ground level, the guy in the background is in the ditch. Add to the that the increased light level in the foreground and you get an "unnatural" image.


August 31, 2007 4:15 PM  
Blogger David said...

@Davesvista: I honestly didn't look too much at the background until you brought that up. From their, my next thought was a knee-jerk reaction that shooting with a wide angle lens close to a subject can cause distortions in depth and geometry. But, looking at the background behind the guy on the right makes me wonder. The grass looks a lot different and the horizon might not line up either. So, come to your own conclusion but keep in mind if it really matters in a lighting blog.

December 29, 2007 10:21 PM  
Anonymous Mark W said...

"license to be curious"

That really brought a smile to my face. I've always said that the best thing about my job that it "gives me an excuse to be nosey" but yours is far more elegant and I might just take out a licence...

If someone asked what the most important piece of kit I had was, it might just be curiosity, although exercising is becoming harder in the increasingly paranoi and corporate UK.

I've always hated studio work and vastly prefer being "out there" with the challenges that brings, incluing lighting under pressure.

A great site thats added a few more tricks to my toolbox.

March 14, 2008 3:31 AM  
Blogger Seinberg said...

Funny, when I first saw the picture I thought, "what is that archaeologist smoking?" until I clicked for the large version and saw it was just part of a tree.

Just stumbled on your site a week or so ago and have officially finished the Lighting 101 guide and am working through the On Assignment ads. Now when I drive past The Sun on my way to and from work, I think of your site!

March 29, 2008 1:45 AM  
Anonymous Ben said...

@David: Any amount of digital manipulation matters in an instructional photography blog (book, etc.) if the manipulation is not called out. This image does look like a poor stitching of two images together because of the size differences between the men and the "Mona Lisa effect" of the background of the guy on the right.

Such a glaring oddity should be addressed by the author IMHO.

Also, it would help those of us who want to examine the image if we had a decent sized image to look at. The one in the blog links to an image of the same size, not a larger one. It's like that throughout this blog. What's up with that?

May 21, 2008 3:25 PM  
Blogger David said...


Dude. It is not stitched. It is lit. Cross lighting makes things pop like that. Try it, and you'll see. That was shot for a newspaper -- no Photoshop trickery allowed.

Keep reading some of the other posts - you'll get it. But the accusatory tone is not really cool...


May 21, 2008 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Ben said...

No accusatory tone here. You suggested possible manip and encouraged people to "come to your own conclusion." I merely pointed out that if it had been a manip, the blog would have been ethically obliged to point it out.

The visual effect with the perspective and the odd background differences are pretty funky, you must admit. Since the photographer/blogger is the only one with access to a copy of this image large enough to scrutinize those details, I would like to hear an explanation of what causes this phenomenon.

I shoot with ultra wide angle quite often and have never had this kind of effect. I'm here to learn, dude, not to flame. :D

May 22, 2008 9:23 AM  
Blogger David said...


Nope. That comment was from another person named David, talking to yet another person named David.

The photo is totally straight -- just light.

David Hobby

May 22, 2008 9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David. I'm just reading and trying out the 101 series. Nice concept and thank you for all the information here !

Now let's go back to business. I've though that I understood the principles here but the phrase:
"..on the left, set it to full power and zeroed out my exposure at my camera's fastest synch speed..." pushed me again back to the table. Isn't the theory based on aprox. -2 stops of background ?

Please help me clarify ! Thanks again, Marko

June 06, 2008 7:36 AM  
Blogger garrett said...

I notice most of the comments here are pretty old, but I think I have an observation that can help the folks who were querying whether this shot is a composite/trick.

Look at the space under the arm of the guy with the clipboard (the guy in front). There is some bare earth that gains elevation starting behind that guy's knee. That bare eath continues to gain elevation up to somewhere behind the middle of that guy's body, then it flattens out.

So the "horizon" on the right side of the guy closest to the camera is itself much closer to the camera than the "horizon" on the left side of the photo.

Mystery solved!

May 31, 2009 2:28 PM  
Blogger dbrown said...

As a previous skeptic, I have come to see the light (no pun intended). In addition to garrett's good observations, the difference in size can also be explained. If you look closely at the bottom left, you can see that there's actually a drop off, so there's actually a good deal of distance between the large and small guy.

Sorry to have doubted you, Mr. Hobby!

May 31, 2009 11:07 PM  
Blogger Eduard said...

Beautiful technique, just beautiful. All is straight and very well explained. The only question not covered - how WB was set? We have flash on the left, and sun on the right, but colorwise picture looks very well balanced. Am I missing something?

Big thanks in advanced to all who explain that.

November 23, 2009 5:51 PM  
Blogger David said...

To Macchan-

Location was in western MD, about 50 yds from this traffic circle, which did not exist at the time. The dig was to see whether the artifacts merited moving the proposed circle. The dig was at the bottom of a hill which was used for gathering stones for spear points. It was like a prehistoric base camp.

April 02, 2010 8:58 PM  
Blogger Davidikus said...

That's one of my favourite post, because the comments are very enlightening (pardon the pun). The picture is indeed extremely difficult to read (so much so that some confuse it with a stitched up pic) because the photographer's great knowledge of light made him play with light too much.

Conclusion: don't light your pictures to an inch of their death.

September 09, 2010 7:29 AM  

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