Lacrosse Head Shot: v2.0

A couple of weeks ago, I built the macro strip lights to solve a problem with a small product shot. But I was also thinking that they might come in handy in other situations.

This week's cover shoot featured a lacrosse player in a helmet, and the strip lights were just the ticket to get some light up in there in a controllable way.

Additionally, this assignment is a good example of being flexible while shooting a pre-conceived shot. So I want to go through the shot process in a fair amount of detail.

Each feature assignment offers a full-page cover and a large inside photo that runs with the story. So we know just what kind of play we are going to get, and can plan the shots accordingly.

That tends to lead to a decent amount of preconception on my part, as I usually do not have a lot of time and want to be able to pull off both shots without spending too much time with on-site planning.

So, with several ideas floating around in my head, I arrived at the high school to shoot the cover. The pre-conceived ideas all involved using lights in an action shot on the field. Alas, I arrived just in time for the afternoon showers. Which nixed all of the on-field light ideas right away.

A hastily arranged "plan B" was to shoot him in a small portico that was very dark, except for an orange-ish sodium vapor security light up and to camera right. The background was a shade-lit brick wall in the distance.

I threw an 80-200/2.8, which is my bread-and-butter portrait lens, on a D2h and set up in the portico.

For the first attempt, I positioned two Nikon SB-26's on manual (in the strip lights) oriented vertically. I quickly saw that including the lacrosse stick ruined the symmetry of the picture. So we lost the stick right away.

The lights got up under the helmet, but looked better when lowered and shot at an upward angle into his face. I exposed the ambient for the brick wall (in back) at 1/250th, to get my easiest aperture for the flash to balance. He was heavily shaded by the portico, so the flashes were lighting a relatively darkened subject, which made the two different planes very easy to control.

Next, the flashes were balanced with the ambient background, which put me at 1/4 power (on manual.)

Everything fit, exposure-wise. But I did not like the bricks being so literal in the background.

The easy solution was to crop in some. I am a big advocate of getting anything out of your photo that does not help it.

This worked, but I didn't like losing the context and lines of the full helmet. And the background was in the same color family as the guy's school colors, so it seemed a shame to waste it.

The portico was dark enough to allow me to open the shutter on the background with little foreground effect, so I opened up to 1/30th to abstract the bricks a little.

I could see that I was getting closer, but still no cigar. I liked the colors, but I did not like the idea of an easily identifiable brick wall background in an iconic head shot.

So I started jerking the camera left to right as I shot. This brought the expected odd looks from the subject. But after I explained that I was doing it for effect (and not having a seizure) he understood.

Closer, but not there yet.

The next change was to try to zoom the lens during the exposure instead of jerking it.

That worked, and produced the photo you saw up top. It connoted motion, and made the bricks an abstract design that kept the school color scheme.

Here is the lighting set-up, shot static at 1/250th.

And here is the same tell-all shot with the shutter opened up, and with a "zoom pull" during the exposure. Note that I went from wide-to-tele while zooming. Also, you'll want to start a little too wide, and be in the process of zooming while you press the shutter.

Total time to set up lights was about 5 mins. Total time to complete the shoot after that was another 4 mins.

When you are working with small, light equipment that needs no A/C power, you really can do something cool in next to no time.

I am happy with this shot for a few reasons.

First, I liked the idea of pulling together a "plan B" when the rain came.

Second, I like the progression of keeping what was good and changing what was bad about the photo on a quick, real-time basis.

Third, I love the dual strip reflection on the face mask. Takes a problem with lit helmet shots and turns it into an asset. Look almost gladatorial, if that's a word.

Room for improvement? Yup. Always is.

On a do-over, I would have worked his expression a little, to go with the dynamic lighting theme.

I might have warmed the flashes up a little with a 1/2 CTO, too. Just personal preference. I warmed his face up a tad in Photoshop for the final. But this is one of those shots where you could have gone a little over-the-top with the gels.

So, that's it. All over but the commenting. Questions? Answers? Rants?

Fire at will.

Next: Free Custom Backdrops: Using Flash into a Sunset


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Anonymous Captoe said...

Very nice results.

Good catchlights inside a helmet!

Newbie question; Is this what is called "rear-curtain" flash?

May 24, 2006 1:58 PM  
Anonymous Aaron J Scott said...

David - how doe these "Varsity" covers run? Full bleed? Special section masthead? Tab style? Designed akin to a magazine? As in text bites on top of the photo? Or is it a dominant photo with text in an outside column on the side? The designer half of me is trying to get an idea on how it will run in the paper. Beeeeautiful shot.

May 24, 2006 2:53 PM  
Blogger David said...


Nope. Garden variety flash. The trick is having the flash-lit part in relative shadow, compared to the ambient-lit part of the photo. He was practically sillohuetted.


Thanks. And they run full-page on a tab, magazine-styled insert. The title is up top, and the photo sometimes obscurs some of the letters. Much like Time magazine, or SI.

The designers plays with the blurb on the front in various ways, depending on the tonality of the photo. But there is some brief, subhead-style copy there.

May 24, 2006 3:13 PM  
Anonymous Pete Millson said...

David, great image. I'm not sure I understand the benifits/purpose of the strip lights as opposed to regular or even snooted lights - not just in this image, I mean in general. I think I've missed something.


May 24, 2006 4:21 PM  
Blogger EssPea Photography said...

You are a good teacher (check the flickr comments on this picture to see what I mean).

May 24, 2006 5:28 PM  
Anonymous Jim Mucklin said...

David, dead on!An old effect gets new light. I'm stacking up on my ceral boxes. I shot MX and can never get the light right under the visors on the helmuts, thanks one question,what are you using for white balance? I have a D70s and have been experimenting with pre-white and even the wb bracketing, and was wondering what you shot this at and did you gel as in 101.

May 24, 2006 5:41 PM  
Blogger David said...


Well, I should THINK you'd get it. Once you start reverse engineering light, there are no more secrets.


Lights are hard or soft, based on the apparent size from the viewpoint of the subject. I say that because a HUGE light can be hard if it is far enouhg away to *look* small. The sun is an excellent example.

Most large lights are large in both dimensions, so they are "soft" both vertically and horizontally. A strip light is large in one deminsion, and soft in the other. So, if the strip is oriented vertically, the light will fall off gradually in the vertical direction, and more abruptly in the horizontal direction. Said differently, the light would "wraparound" better from top to bottom than from side to side.

Mount the strip horizontally, and the effect would be reversed. Think of it as a soft light that is soft in one dimension, but not the other. And you get to control which is which.


I like a warm flash, so I keep Rosco 08 (slight warming filters) around for most of my flashed people work. I typically balance for daylight (as flash is right there to a little warmer, in my case) and let the ambient fall where it may, color wise. Unless of course, the ambient is florescent, or tungsten or some way-off color. Then I would gel the flashes as discussed in 101.

May 24, 2006 9:29 PM  
Anonymous Henry T said...

You said that you were originally going to shoot lacrosse action shots with flash. I have been doing so in ambient without flash of my son's games and the shadows under the helmut are often annoying. If I use Aperture highlight/shadow control, it helps, but really isn't what I want. Will you be shooting any action lacrosse shots in the future and is the flash a distractor to the players?


May 28, 2006 10:04 AM  
Blogger David said...


I am was not talking about shooting game action. I was thinking about shooting a more dynamic portrait, where I might have a light set up on a stand, close in, just out of the frame and have Kyle throwing and catching the ball as I shot.

Sorry for any confusion...


May 28, 2006 12:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh, your "long Zoom" link doesn't work, and I am dying to know what your "bread and butter" portrait lens is.

Apart from that, thanks for a really insperational series of articles, I really look forward to reading them.

May 30, 2006 5:27 PM  
Blogger David said...

The link is fixed, and the mystery revealed.

And thanks for the thanks.


May 30, 2006 6:13 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

David, I think, in this instance, leaving the brick wall apparent makes a lot of sense subject-wise. This kid's a top-notch defender, right? "Brick wall" is a great way to describe good defense.

Though, that may be hitting the point a little too hard.

Is there a layout related reason the zoom effect works better? Would the prominence of the bricks obscure or obfuscate the text? Or is it just style? "Analogies are nice, but this is the better photo"?


August 19, 2008 4:03 PM  

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