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On Assignment: Abstract Concrete

As an editorial photographer in Baltimore, I get to see some amazing things. But this particular day was not starting out as very promising.

Roughly, the assignment said:

Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are borrowing time on a NASA supercomputer to find out how to better mix the ingredients in concrete to make it stronger.

We need a lede-quality photo for the science section.

I was going in with my sights set pretty low. I mean, concrete? That's 18-percent grey powder, right? Fortunately, I would have 45 minutes total with the guys to make a centerpiece photo and an inside secondary. Not a luxurious amount of time, but sometimes you do much worse.

When I arrived, I quickly realized two things:

(a) There was a cool photo to be had, and
(b) There were also significant technical problems to solve.

The scientists are able to visualize 3-D, computer-drawn renditions of the concrete at a microscopic level by using a three-screen projection system and synchronized goggles. The system totally rocks.

I put on the goggles and immediately wanted to play XBox on this system. (Maybe I would be better at it...)

But as it was, my task was to shoot an image to try to convey the idea of being immersed in the supercomputer's rendition.

First off, I knew the (rear-projection) screens would collect my strobe light like a magnet. Which would raise the base density (I wanted that at black) of the screen and ruin the photo.

So I knew I would be using my little homemade Frosted Flakes cardboard snoots.

But first I had to work out the ambient exposure for the screen. I knew to shoot at 1/30th or below to get a full-screen scan. So I tried shooting just the screen at a 30th at f/2.8 to see what happened. It was too bright. Yay. That's good.

1/30th at f/4 was very close, so then I went to work on lighting my guy in front of the screen. He was wearing all black and looked like the biology teacher from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Cool.

The screen(s) were "L" shaped, with room to play on the sides. That was another good thing. There was a hallway going back on the right of the background screen on the right. This just kept getting better.

So, I walked back into the hall with my snooted Nikon SB-28 on a stand and aimed it to where it would hit a space in the ground in front of the screen, but not hit the side screen.

Then I basically did the same thing on the other side.

I now had a "cross-light" zone out in front of the screen where the scientist was lit but the screen was not. You could not have done this without some kind of snoot or grid. Spend a buck and make several. Really.

Then it was just a matter of sticking the scientist in the zone and adjusting the strobe output to cross light him tp the right level. Both strobes were between 1/8th and 1/16th power. Room lights (other than the screen) were off.

This was one of those times where the room geometry actually worked for me (knock wood) by giving me the space around/behind the screens.
I still had to get a secondary quickly, but I shook the camera for a few exposures first to see if I could get lucky with the flashblur effect. I was trying to recreate the 3-D motion.

Nope. Not really. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.
With about 3 minutes to go, I shot the the other scientist in the (thankfully) dark room with an SB-28 stuck behind the more traditional monitor. I do this a lot when I need a quick, stylized shot at a computer. Computer shots can be terminally boring. Gotta do what you can.

Exposure for the small computer shot was 1/30th at f/2.8, with the strobe set to 1/32nd power behind the monitor.

Quick and dirty? Yup.

OK for a secondary inside on short time? Yup.

Next: Archeologists


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