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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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