On Assignment: Light the Little Stuff

The other morning I had an assignment to photograph 8-year-old Peter Schultz, who won the "best handwriting" contest (second grade division) for the state of Maryland.

The kid is a living font. And he is left-handed, no less. Which doesn't make things any easier, I'm told.

The story, slated to run in one of the zoned editions of The Sun, is a good example of the kind of assignment we all get most every day. Nothing earth shattering. Just go shoot a photo of someone who did something special.

This is a no-glamour, no-adrenaline, no-pressure type of assignment. And it is exactly the type of assignment you should be lighting.

Hey, they can't all be assignments to shoot mothers tossing babies out of burning buildings into the arms of firefighters, right? Those kinds of assignments shoot themselves. They will always produce good photos. They'd better, anyway.

But the daily stuff - boring stuff, some would say - is where you show your professionalism. It is not about how hot of a photo you can occasionally get. It is about where your daily minimum quality level is.

This is the kind of assignment you want to light - for a number of reasons.

First, you'll up the quality level. Good lighting does that.

Second, there's absolutely no pressure at all. That is a good place to practice without fear of failure.

Third, no one is pressing you on time. Heck, Peter the Human Typewriter is getting out of math class for this. He'd be happy if you soaked up an hour or two of his morning.

So I am sticking this up as an example in a couple of areas. We already mentioned the low-pressure assignment as a good practice time. But I also wanted you to see the versatility that sticking one little flash in an umbrella can give you.

So, the light is exactly as you see it in the first photo, at top. After setting it up, I did not move it at all during the assignment.

Lotta work, huh? Maybe a minute. For those keeping score, the flash was on 1/4 power manual. The camera was at 1/250 @ f/5.6 at ASA 400. Florescent balance, with a green gel on the flash.

So, the kid starts writing what he had to write in the contest just to show me his stuff. To say this kid is deliberate would not do him justice. He is not gonna win any races. He is all about quality. And if a letter bothers him - at all - he will erase it and do it over.

This sentence is clearly going to take 15 minutes. So I have time to do whatever I want.

I start out with a close up shot of him writing, shown here. My preference is to kind of keep a running conversation with someone as I am shooting. (Yeah, I'm a gabber. Sue me.) So I point out how he reminds me of Michael Jordan with the tongue-sticking-out-thing.

He thinks that is cool.

While I am talking, I zoom out a little and include the windows. All same shooting and light position, same exposure.

The light is at about a 90-degree angle to the kid, so it is defining him well against the darkened back wall. Next, I walk around to the far side of him and get a detail shot.

The light gives me enough aperture to keep his hand and his excruciatingly perfect letters in focus. It looks much more crisp than without the light, I would think.

After he finishes up his sentence, I turn him to where the light is now hitting him on a 45-degree angle and shoot him with his handiwork.

Then, on a whim, I shoot a couple of frames with his face mostly obscured by the paper. In the end, I liked this shot best. And again, the light gave me the depth of field to hold focus on both planes.

No, it's not a killer story or assignment. But the page designer has five crisp photos that will reproduce well and hold at any size. This gives them the option to run it small, large, or even to do a two- or three-picture package.

Sure, he is most likely page three fodder. But if they need him out on the zone front, he'll hold because of the technical quality of the photos, if nothing else.

Look, they can't all be Pulitzer winners. But you can use these assignments to raise the bar on you minimum quality levels while you practice your lighting for the more important assignments that are yet to come.

And doing well on the daily grind is how you get the better assignments anyway.

Next: Thinking Outside of The Box


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Anonymous Chad Worthman said...

Again, great article. It let's us see how to make ordinary, everyday events look better.

Welcome to my everyday browsing itinerary.

April 16, 2006 8:40 AM  
Anonymous Brady said...

Awesome post with beautiful light quality. Umbrellas and shoe mount flashes allow for so much flexibility when shooting, I'm glad you took the time to show your setup.

Have a great day!

April 18, 2006 9:45 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Why ASA 400?

April 19, 2006 8:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am a just out of college photojournalist and i must say this site is the best thing i have come across in terms of giving me inspiration (when it comes to lighting) so far. i have a question though. When i use my umbrella the light is never even, there is always a really hot spot and it trails off from there. the umbrella i use is a cheapy that came with the umbrella stand. it does not have black on the back of the umbrella like the one you suggest (i am ordering it now) and i was wondering if that made a difference? also the strobe head is not in the middle of the umbrella, can that cause the uneven light? the umbrella is about 32 inches in diameter and has a silvery -metallic survace. thanks again for this site it is a great resource.

June 26, 2006 10:25 AM  
Blogger David said...

Back your strobe down the shaft (in other words, don't "choke up" when you mount the umbrella on the adapter) and set the zoom function on the flash to 24mm, if you can. That'll help a lot.

You can pop the flash at low power and eyeball the umbrella coverage pretty easily by looking into the umbrella itself.


June 26, 2006 11:13 AM  
Anonymous Neil said...

I Love this site! Why is the window light not off-color, because of the fluorescent balacing efforts explained?

November 21, 2006 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Neil said...

I am confused. Why is the window light not off-color, because of the room light and strobes balanced for fluorescent color temp?

November 21, 2006 11:41 PM  
Blogger David said...

The windows were blown out to the point where they went white as a subject. But as a light source, they were still not bright enough to contaminate the room.


November 22, 2006 7:45 AM  
Blogger David said...

What is the ratio between ambient and flash light?

February 28, 2007 4:41 PM  
Anonymous Dominic said...

Amen. A great article and great photos as usual. So often we have the chance to make the difference between someone reading something important and skimming right past it. You are so right bout that daily minimum quality level. I appreciate this site so much.

February 13, 2008 8:58 PM  
OpenID Two Jack Studio Blog said...

Brilliant! Your article is an inspiration. Most photographers think that the subject needs to be mind-blowing for the photograph to be great... not true. Thanks!

February 03, 2010 9:46 AM  
Blogger william said...

"the light gave me the depth of field to hold focus on both planes."

How does the lighting affect depth of field? It allows you to use a smaller aperture?

October 08, 2010 9:37 AM  
Blogger Dave T said...

"And doing well on the daily grind is how you get the better assignments anyway." Quote Dave Hobby

Gee whiz! how true this statement is..

February 12, 2011 7:02 AM  
Blogger dlyner said...

What a fantastic post! LOVE the light in these pictures. The spirit in which this entire website is done is nothing short of outstanding. Your descriptions of how you accomplish your shots (as well as the set-ups you take the time to present) are helpful beyond words. Add to that your personal thoughts and experiences sprinkled throughout and you've got the recipe for perfection in my book.

January 20, 2013 6:39 AM  

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