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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Anonymous Anonymous said...


As a student photographer, your blog has taught me many useful things about lighting that I never knew before. It's very beginner friendly and I appreciate that. I do have a question, though, about ethics. I shoot for my school newspaper and see that you are also a photojournalist - for the Baltimore Sun. The "On Assignment" section features much of your newspaper work. My question is: when is it ethical to stage news photos with these off camera lighting setups? I understand that portraits are fine, but some of these photos don't look like portraits. I picked "Abstract Concrete" to post under because I thought the photos represented good examples of non-portrait looking, but set-up, photos of people doing things. I read online that the caption makes the difference - saying that someone "demonstrates" something (a portrait) versus someone "doing" something (a news photo).

I appreciate your feedback. Thanks,


June 28, 2006 3:47 PM  
Blogger David said...


Abstract Concrete is a good example of what we would refer to as a "stylized portrait." In this case, it is a portrait of a scientist in an environment that is specific to what he does. Hey, the guy studies concrete. I was thrilled to find out that he did it in a visual way.

Getting go understand your (and your publication's) sense of ethics is one of the more complicated aspects of becoming a photojournalist.

Most students and new pro's (myself included, at the time) have a very black and white view of the ethics of both straight photojournalism and more complex visual reportage.

You will come to understand that your mere observed presence in a scene alters it. If you required total honesty, you'll have to shoot Tri-X from out in space with a Leica and a 50, as the saying goes.

It's not really something I can teach you in a few paragraphs. You have to learn it yourself over time and hundreds (if not thousands) of situations.

The limitations of the ability of newsprint to reproduce the range of color as it exists require that we frequently add light. That alters a scene, immediately.

You have to get comfortable with that. And then understand that if you are going to spend a career adding light, you may as well learn to do it right.

At this point in your journey, my answer may sound like a cop out to you. But it is not. It's just something you have to learn and grow into.

June 28, 2006 4:53 PM  
Anonymous Luke said...

I came to your page to learn how to better light some food shot and got engrossed. I actually work at NIST, and I think I have seen that photo around! It is a small world out there. Putting together a flash setup is on my list of things to do next...

July 12, 2006 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your tutorials are excellent -clear, concise, and very practical. Hard to see how they could be improved.

Thanks very much,

Dan S.Tong

August 26, 2006 4:07 PM  
Blogger spike said...

Wow. Making concrete science look fab. I'm impressed.

March 18, 2007 9:36 PM  
Blogger giant-steps said...

I don't really see any problem with ethics that Jonathan mentioned.

It seems there are two types of photography that require ethics in their execution.

The first does require the photographer to be an observer -such as with an important event, a riot or war in which the sequence of events (and sequence of images) tell a story. To alter the order of images, alters what had actually taken place. This would be unethical.

The second, I feel, would be something in which a likeness of what is being photographed is important (even a legal requirement). Advertising photography (products), real estate, food etc. are all required to look as close to reality, without being deceptive.

If someone selling a car, for example, were to post a picture of it online, and manipulate the colours and generally give a false impression that the automobile was in a better condition, then this would be ethically erroneous. The picture may illustrate the car being sold, but not be an accurate representation.

However, the type of photography in David's report is based on merely illustrates an occupation, concept or theme. The key word is illustrate. When watching the news, sometimes we see a graphic or chart to give visual representation (or illustration) of the data in a news item, to communicate it's idea and make it more interesting. I believe this type of photojournalism/reportage allows this and even requires it.

David (Brooks!)

October 11, 2007 1:10 PM  
Blogger Parikshit said...

Thanks a lot for your visuals along with the theory, the concept was excellent along with the implementation to get the right image, it`s great to see how one can imagine concrete in molecular form and transform it visually.

October 05, 2009 12:28 PM  
Blogger Parikshit said...

Thanks a lot for your visuals along with the theory, the concept was excellent along with the implementation to get the great image, it`s amazing to see how one can imagine concrete in molecular form and transform it visually, i would appreciate if you could put more visuals to explain how the lighting was set up for all your imgaes

October 05, 2009 12:33 PM  

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