On Assignment: Add Light to Reveal Detail

Yeah, I know it's just a rock.

This is a quick little On Assignment example that I am going to throw in because it illustrates a good reason to throw that little light stand over your shoulder whenever you grab your gear out of your trunk.

One of our enterprising reporters at The Sun was doing a little research and found out that, due to a surveying error about 250 years ago, the county line between Baltimore County and neighbor Carroll County (in Maryland) was not where it should be. It was off by about 100 yards.

As a result, some people who thought they lived in Baltimore County really lived in Carroll County.

Big deal? Well, yeah, if you are the tax collector. Or if your kid is gonna get yanked out of school to be transferred to another county.

So, I go out with the modern surveyors (who know exactly where they are, to the inch, using fancy GPS interpolating surveying equipment) to shoot the evidence: a 250-year-old misplaced rock.

Well, much like with David Lee Roth, the ravages of time have not been kind to said rock, and the colonial surveyor's marks were weathered and very difficult to see. Especially in the overcast light of the deep woods.

The photo at left is shot using ambient light, which would not reveal any rock detail that would possibly survive The Sun's photo torture reproduction process. (The carving is on the other side of the rock, but it was very difficult to see in soft light.)

So to visually prove the point of the story I quickly set a Nikon SB-28 on a stand at a very hard angle to the rock. I moved it around until my TFT screen showed me that the detail if the early surveyor's mark (an "N 6") was very pronounced. (See photo at top.)

This is something you simply cannot do with any type of on-camera flash. Much like the paper detail shots we did in Lighting 101, the hard angle light is what brings out detail and hidden texture.

As a bonus, the strobe really made the colors pop and brought out the texture of the surrounding plants.

The rock close-up photo ran as the lead. Which either said they liked the result, or they thought the rest of my shoot was crap. (I didn't ask...)

If you have been visiting Strobist awhile, you can probably guess my metering technique, which can charitably be described as "Kentucky Windage and Elevation."

Once I got the flash (which was nuking the rock on about 1/4 power from three feet away) at the right angle, the rest was simple.

I adjusted the aperture until the flash-lit highlights looked good, which gave me a working aperture of about f/16. (I cannot remember exactly.) Then, I simply started opening up the shutter speed until the shadows were where I wanted them.

The idea was to get them dark enough to keep the detail in the rock carving, but light enough to have a little detail in the surrounding leaf shadows.

You already have your flash with you when on an outdoor assignment. Just having Pocket Wizards (or a synch cord) in the waistpack and a light stand slung over your shoulder gives you the ability to up the quality level on a simple photo like this.

Next: Guy on a Boat


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Anonymous Mike S. said...

My bad on the price of the Bogen Stacker 7'. It's more like $75. Oops. About the same weight as yours....

April 20, 2006 9:41 AM  
Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

Very cool, I like your adjust aperture to put the highlights where you want them, adjust shutter speed to get the shadows technique.

Now, I gotta ask -- how come you never know your settings? The camera's recording for you isn't it?

April 21, 2006 9:18 PM  
Blogger David said...


Yeah, you're right. By the time I get around to putting this stuff up, my raw files have been, well, filed.

My caption plug-in apparently strips the EXIF exposure info from the files while in Photoshop. So unless I go get the raw files from the filing cabinets, I am relying on memory (or now, increasingly, notes) for that info.

Put another way: Pure laziness.

April 21, 2006 10:35 PM  
Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

Oh, that makes total sense. I figured you had the files at your finger tips.

May 18, 2006 11:25 PM  
OpenID grunyen said...

Hi David,

I made the patented "block o' wood" bracket and shook my fist at $2000 #2 prize winner. =)

I've been mitculously going through all the Strobist entries. I keep having moments where I don't get it but I press on, then later I have an "aha!" moment.

What I wanted to say was this: you've mentioned photo torture and printing on (Charmin) newsprint before several times...

I've worked at a student newspaper only printer, as tech support, print job troubleshooter, designer, marketer, and lecturer (at student conventions). Also at another small printer I've seen the work that "professional" ad people send in that they think is "print ready".

I notice you mentioned before knowing more about the page designers job. I highly encourage you to write an (or more appropriately a series) article about page design, pre=press, print production, and why it matters.

When teaching 300 kids at a national convention I always started backwards. You have to understand how the final product gets printed, it matters. Then you have to understand what a RIP is and how pre-press works. Then you have to understand how to put your paper together, then finally writing, editing, photography, and news gathering.

Your readers final output could vary from web to magazine to newspaper, also Kinko's flyers, B&W 8x10 glossies, maybe even giant billboards- who knows.

Knowing more about your output gives you an enormous edge. I know the small print shop employees that worked with me could now show the "professional" designers in this town a thing or two.

January 06, 2008 2:38 PM  
OpenID grunyen said...

OK. I am PO'd at your comment script.

I wrote a novel and it got lost. Shame on me I guess.

What I wanted to say was that I've tought student journalists at national conventions and I always emphasise knowing your output first and working backwards.

I started with understanding how printing works, then pre-press, then building your paper, then finally writing, photography, and news gathering.

The concerns of pre-press and print production make a huge difference. Someone who understands what happens once they "turn in" their work has a significant advantage.

This is especially true if you do your own post processing, or complete DIY DT publishing. I worked with many student staffs who said "our pictures always suck in print". Then I would show them how to analyze their image and prep it for print in Photoshop, improving the results 200%.

Your readers' output could be newspaper, magazine, web only, Kinko's flyers, billboards, backlit mall displays, home inkjet printing... It matters.

I propose an article (it deserves a whole series) on understanding pre-press and production and why all those elements matter.

January 06, 2008 2:45 PM  
Blogger craig said...

David, interesting trivial blurb here...that rock appears to be surrounded by poison ivy. Your blog is a time vampire and I thank you.

All the best


July 28, 2009 2:32 AM  
Blogger craig said...

David, interesting trivial blurb here...that rock appears to be surrounded by poison ivy. Your blog is a time vampire and I thank you.

All the best


July 28, 2009 2:33 AM  
Blogger Justin said...

Sounds like tedious work that could have been done in less than 5min in photoshop.

PP > all your fancy lighting techniques.

just saying.

however, I like your rock.

May 03, 2010 1:46 PM  
Blogger David said...

At Justin-

First, Photoshop works in an already two-dimensional environment. Not really the same thing.

Second, it doesn't take me 5 mins to set up a speedlight in a situation like this.

Third, I guess it all depends on whether you are primarily a photoGRAPHer or a photoSHOPper.


May 03, 2010 2:09 PM  

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