On Assignment: A Guy on a Boat

Every now and then at The Sun, someone from features will come up to a photog and say, "We're looking for something... conceptual."

Translation: We have thought and thought about this story, and we cannot come up with a single idea we can box you into.

What I hear: Try anything you want. We're washing our hands of it.

Which, of course, I like.

On the one hand, you are getting very little direction, which can be iffy. But on the other hand, whatever you do they can't really complain. As long as it is conceptual.

The story is on recently divorced (or separated) guys who have chosen to live on their boats in Baltimore. So I call three of them and schedule to shoot a portrait of each one.

A heads-up from the writer tells me which one will be in the story's lede, so he's the guy that will need to carry the visual weight.

I am gonna take you through the thought process a little on this one. As I said earlier in the "Taming Harsh Sunlight" entry, I like to stack the deck in my favor whenever I can. So I schedule my lede guy to be shot 30 minutes before sunset. If the light is good, I can use the golden light on him. If it is bad, I can use my small strobes easily because the ambient light level will be low.

(Either way, I can strobe him after sunset for a different look.)

Taking a little poetic license on this (hey, they wanted conceptual) I am going to do it in dark, cool tones. These guys have all been through (or are going through) the period of depression that normally follows the breakup of a marriage, so it fits.

The photo at top is done with one Nikon SB-28 strobe, on a stand, with a cardboard snoot to control the beam of the light. The cool blue color is generated by setting the camera's white balance on tungsten, and putting a CTO gel on my flash to balance the light that hits the guy.

Click on the photo up top to see it much bigger, and you will see how crisp the light is when you (a) hard-light from the side, and, (b) have built-in color contrast between your strobe and your ambient.

EDIT: Looking at the big version, it is very splotchy on the continuous tones. This is because I jpegged the heck out of it to save blog storage space on a big version. They do set a limit, and I try to keep the pix as thrifty as possible to allow more stuff to be posted. Sorry 'bout that, and I hope you get the idea anyway.

Here is basically the same photo, without the tungsten/gel scheme:

The exposure (and process to get to it without a flash meter) is my normal deal. Start with a reasonable guess on the power of the flash. (I chose manual, 1/4 power.)

Forget about the ambient exposure for a sec. Using the TFT screen as a guide, I dialed my aperture down until he looked good. This happened to be at f/6.3, which is one of those weird, "between-stops" settings. Whatever.

Now that I have a working aperture, I move the shutter speed around until I get a nice, saturated blue that is fairly close to what I think the newspaper can hold in the reproduction process. The shutter wound up being 1/200th of a second.

We had a storm coming in, so we had to work quickly. This process all happened in about ten minutes.

Squeezing a few more minutes in before the storm, I took advantage of his going in to answer the phone. I told him to stay inside, and took my light stand in there with him. I removed the snoot (but left the CTO gel on) and put a tupperware bowl on the flash head, throwing light in all directions like a bare light bulb.

Same process on the exposure. I forget where it ended up, but you know the drill. This gave the designer a second choice if she didn't like my concept for the lede.

The second guy was shot in boring daylight, all available light. Oh, well. We already had a lede. The third guy was in the same marina as the first, and I didn't really have anything that would give a sense of place, so I was going to shoot him wide.

Turns out, he did not really want to be shot. So I had to scramble for the sense-of-place shot. But it is OK, 'cause we are being conceptual...

I drug out a trick I had been saving up that has nothing to do with light, but I wanted to pass it along anyway.

My wife has what I would call a Ph.D (push here, dummy) digital camera, but it came with some really cool panorama software. It can stitch together several frames to make an ultrawide photo. Turns out, it works on my big D2h files, too.

This is a fine ethical line, IMO. You can do stuff like this (in a features environment at least) but you have an obligation to explain exactly what you did to the readers. Which is what we did.

Here is the panorama-camera-on-the-cheap scene-setter. Click to enlarge it. I like the ability, and will drag it out in the future for other assignments. Always with precise explanation, tho.

Next: Dealing with TV's and CRTs


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Blogger Michael said...

Excellent example of how portable strobes can provide sophisticated lighting effects with minimum fuss. Great work David.


April 22, 2006 9:24 PM  
Anonymous phil said...

"This is a fine ethical line, IMO. You can do stuff like this (in a features environment at least) but you have an obligation to explain exactly what you did to the readers. Which is what we did."

So, you don't feel an ethical need to explain to the newspaper reader that you used "poetic license" along with artificial lighting to create this "blue mood" to emphasize depression that you thought fit the story but the photo subjects didn't necessarily exhibit -- but you do need to explain that you used a little digital stitching to create a shot of exactly what you'd see with your naked eye if you stood there and turned your head a little. Hmmm....

June 06, 2006 1:35 PM  
Blogger David said...

I'll grant you that the two are a little ironic on the surface. IMO, the guy on the boat is a stylized portrait, which people see countless times a day in a variety of sources.

We assume a certain level of visual literacy and sophistication within our readership. After all, these same readers watch MTV, see slick magazines, etc.

The panorama is a composition of three photos, and our style guidelines say that is something you disclose. Simple as that.

These kids of decisions are made at the organizational level, and above my pay grade. And where a particular technique falls on the disclosure scale is a matter of both choice and practicality.

Do you disclose photoshopping Elvis into a picture of a fake alien? Sure. Unless you're the Weekly World News, where such creativity is routine.

Do you explicitly explain what you did every time you used fill flash to lighten shadows in a noon outdoor photo? Probably not.

And the ethical gradient in between the two is open for discussion and differences of opinion.

June 06, 2006 4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is good that your guidelines say disclose and you do disclose.

Would I disclose I had used a very wide angle lens and corrected for distortion in photoshop? Or taht I stitched a panorama becuse I didn't have my 10-22mm with me?

I think not; but as you say is a matter of discussion and degree.

June 20, 2006 2:38 AM  
Blogger Bob Hughes said...

I'm interested in when an artificial extra light looks realistic and when it doesn't.

It helps when the subject is looking into it, I guess, as if into the sun. But often hard light coming from who-knows-where doesn't seem natural. Perhaps its the shape of the light pool too.

When it's illuminating inside the cabin it makes sense. But in the open unless it's really well balanced it looks, well, artificial.

Thanks David for a wonderful information site!

August 07, 2006 2:45 AM  
Anonymous timmy boy said...

I'd like to know more about shooting the speedlite into the tupperware bowl to improvise an open flash head and spread the light

January 04, 2008 5:35 PM  
OpenID grunyen said...

I'm surprised, given the open ended assignment, and the guy "who didn't really want to be shot" that you didn't do something with him looking out at the harbor or sea, in hard profile so that everything is well lit except him. It would have been a great anonymous shot with exactly the right mood.

As I was reading, that's totally what I thought you were going to do.

January 06, 2008 2:57 PM  
Blogger Dom said...

I love the technical wisdom used but so much more than that I love the thought that went into it. When you see that last portrait the first thing you think is, "That guy is living on that boat". So ingenious. A brilliant solution to a difficult visual topic. (*&^^()^% GORGEOUS MAN. Damn.

I disagree with Phil's ethical concern. To me, the difference is the stitched photo was obviously doctored; if it was not explained, readers would not be sure how real or fake it was. Also, the wideness of the shot is a major part of the photo's message. In the case of the boat portraits, the technique had less impact on the message of the photo, which was "guy living on boat". If the story was about watching the evening sky from their boats then the technique would have been misleading and unethical.

I like grunyen's idea but I assumed that "didn't want to be shot" included "guy was a jerk". I should not be assuming negative things about people though.

February 16, 2008 11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't see the pictures! Is it posible for you to re-post them?

All your tutorials are so helpful and this one sounds really interesting, but difficult to follow without the images!

Thank you!

August 06, 2008 11:38 AM  
Blogger Kale Friesen said...

Thought this was a great piece and another great shot from David. I recently came across a similar story of an individual that has lived on his boat since the early 80's. After being kicked out of port for being a "live-aboard". As a result he was forced to drop anchor in the open water when his boat washed ashore in a huge storm. I shot these photos with one speedlight off camera on my 5D mark ii. Pretty happy how it turned out. Here is the link to the photo series. http://kalejfphotography.blogspot.com/2010/04/randy-van-eyk-and-tuesday-sunrise.html

April 19, 2010 3:06 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I have just recently learned of this photographer's blog and am completely impressed with his skill and willingness to share technique. However I can't get over his inability to spell the word " lead".
Your "lede" guy should be your "lead" guy.
Yes, it's spelled the same as the metal, lead.

Keep up the great photography.

August 30, 2010 5:44 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hey, Mike-

I have another great site to turn you on to. It's called "Wikipedia," and you can learn all kinds of stuff from it. Including a little bit on the "lead / lede" thing when it comes to journalism.



August 30, 2010 5:55 PM  
Blogger Robert said...


LOVE your site, insights, skill, and...the richly deserved snarky comments back to readers who test your (and mine) patience! ;-)

I haven't used small flashes for about 20 years....until recently picking up a SB-25. I'm having a blast experimenting...and NOT doing the studio stuff w/ AC packs, etc.

January 13, 2011 11:18 PM  
Blogger Reza Gorji said...

Awesome piece.
Thank you.

May 14, 2011 8:41 PM  

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