On Assignment: Use a Second Light to Create Tension

Back in the 1980's, I did a lot of freelance for a really visual, cutting-edge publication called "American Banker - Bond Buyer."

Now, if you were to detect a note of sarcasm on the visual quality of AB-BB in my voice, you just might be right. But the assignments were quick and dirty, they paid pretty well and those folks sure knew how to turn a photography invoice around fast. Which made them triple aces in my book.

Suffice to say that the assignments were mostly of the "white guys in ties" ilk. So variety wasn't exactly the strong suit there.

Being a young photographer, I would lug the White Lightnings to every job and usually blast it all to f/16, thinking that is where the quality is.

As is frequently the case when in the youth of our careers, my approach was all about power. But that was at the expense of subtlety, control and ceative use of tension.

A really nice lady whose name escapes me used to call in my assignments ("shoot this guy in this boring, florescent-lit office," etc.) and send me on my way. So I would drag the Big Lights out and softbox the guy to death, thinking I had done a fine job.

After a while, she started suggesting that I "stick a second light in there - in the back somewhere."

She knew what I didn't: That a second light, coming from a radically different plane, could help the photos to "pop" on a typical, high-dot-gain newspaper page.

What I see now is that I had plenty of light (too much, actually) but it tended to come from the same direction. When I used a second light, I would use it as "fill" for the main light. (Can't have interesting shadows, can we? No, no, no.)

So the light was there, but there was very little internal contrast (for lack of a better term) in the photo.

These days when I pop the second strobe into a photo, it is likely to be aimed right back at the camera. (Either my subject or something else in my photo is blocking the light from the camera's point of view.)

Sometimes I will use the second flash to light the background from an oblique angle. But either way I am creating a second plane of light that can be controlled independently to adjust the tension and internal contrast in the photo. This is especially important when your work is going to be reproduced in a newspaper.

You show me a photo with enough internal contrast, and I will show you a picture that will repro darn near anywhere.

In the top photo above, I used a standard SB-light-on-a-stand up high and at camera right. (Remember - check the nose shadows to see where the main light comes from.) This would have been okay, but adding the second light in the back really makes the wire spools kick. This company, by the way, runs Cat-5 wire and the like to install network for corporate clients.

When you are just starting out with this backlight stuff, the question arises as to how "hot" to make the light in the back. Fortunately, the answer is that it really doesn't matter. There is such a wide range of brightness (relative to your main light) that you can use. And almost anything you do is gonna look good. Honest.

Let's use this photo as an example. If you just wanted three-dimensional-looking wrap-around detail in your wire spools, you might start out with the background flash putting out the same light as the foreground.

But you could up the background flash by a stop if you wanted. Or two. Or three. And none of them would look bad. They would just look different. It's the closest thing you will ever get to a "horse shoes and hand grenades" fudge factor in lighting. Don't believe me? Try it and see for yourself.

And here's another trick. You know that CTO gel you keep religiously near your flash? You can warm up that back light to create some color contrast, too. (Don't try it with the green gel. It looks, well, rather pukish.)

Here's the process. This is a pretty dark room, so lets assume the ambient will not really come into play in the light, as long as we have a pretty fast synch speed.

I set my first flash up at 1/8 power (direct) and did a couple of test pops to nail down the working aperture. Then I stuck my other flash in the back, laying on a cable spool behind the guys. I set it to 1/8 power with a CTO gel on it and tested it by sticking my hand in front of the lens to block the background flash - just like my subjects would.

I do this nearly every time while checking the effect of a backlight. It saves wear and tear on your subjects as you can set up the light without them.

The light was fine as it was, but it looked even better when I cranked it up another stop. So I shot with the background light set to 1/4 power.

The seond photo is sort of a reverse of the first. I started with a light high and to the left (with a snoot) to pop the guy's face. I based the working aperture on him. Then I lit the computer equipment with a second light, testing popping and chimping until I got a good ratio.

Note: "Chimping" is a slang term in the US for digital photographers that shoot a picture and then hunch over their camera looking at the image on the TFT. They are frequently observed making sounds like, "Ooh-ooh-ooh," (not unlike a chimpanzee) if they like the photo.

Super accurate? Nope. But pretty darn close.

Quick? You betcha. These two were from the same assignment and they were both made in a span of about 10 minues.

It's funny, but now that I think of it I rarely use more than one strobe when I light. It's mostly because of speed issues, but also remember that I co-opt the sun or whatever other ambient is around to be my second light source by balancing as explained in Lighting 101.

This gets me through about 80% of my assignments, with another 15% being lit with two strobes and 5% being done with three or more. That is one reason I recommend adding a cheap, single-light bag very early in your equipment purchases.

You can do a lot with just one light. Just don't hesitate to stick the second light back there when it will do you some good.

Next: Womens Lacrosse Cover


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Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

Could you elaborate on the "hand in front of strobe" technique to save wear and tear on your subjects? I couldn't quite visualize where you were as you held you hand out and where the camera was. Guess I was thinking that your hand would be near the strobe and the camera would be floating in air about where you'd stand for the final image. Couldn't figure how you'd do that . . . :-)

May 07, 2006 9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Douglas,

David posted a photo of his hand on the following entry:


here's what i think: basically you first setup your flash on the light stand. then you walk over where your subject will be and snap a quick photo of your hand. the framing will be all wrong, but you will be able to see what your flash will do at the current settings. then you can fine tune your flash settings or your aperture/shutter speed.

- rench

May 08, 2006 12:46 PM  
Blogger David said...

Actually, the hand is there to block the backlight during a light test. The backlight is strong, and will look good "wrapping around" stuff. But if you can see it directly - as in when there is no subject in the frame to block it yet - it'll just nuke right into the lens.

My hand stands in for a subject in two ways. First, it will be struck by my front light, and I am testing my hand to check that exposure. Second, my hand is going to block the direct path of the backlight into my camera (just as the subject will.) So I will be able to correctly test the effects of the backlight when it is being blocked (just as my subjects will be doing in the actual shot.)

The "taming harsh sunlight" example is the same, except I am only testing my front (and only) flash, in combination with the sun.

May 08, 2006 4:33 PM  
Blogger David said...

One more thing. Since my lights are not moving (i.e., not "on camera") I can walk right up to where my subject is going to be, stick my hand out a foot or two in front of the camera, and do a test pop.

I should just write "Minolta Meter IVf" on my hand in Sharpie Marker and be done with it...

May 08, 2006 4:36 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Hello David,
My apologies for a completely off-topic comment, but it is the second time i see you refer to "horse shoes and hand grenades". Could you please shed some light :cough: on the subject? Seeing that in a previous post you said something along the lines of "romanians need explaining of american jokes", a precedent has been established :) And the customary "good job" skit follows: your blog is an inspiration for the budget-conscious/plain stingy fellow, occasional scrounger/diy type or photography student (like me, all of them), and probably the seasoned veteran looking for alternative approaches. Congratulations on your great work and openness to share the knowledge...

May 28, 2006 7:03 PM  
Blogger David said...


Thanks for the thanks. And as far as horse shoes and hand grenades, that is simply a reference for something being okay if it is close to what you are aiming for. (Horse shoes score for just being close enough to the stake. And hand grenades work if they are "just close" as well.)


May 28, 2006 8:28 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Ah....yes...Forehead slapping time for me. In retrospect it was, like, "Doh!"...My thanks for the reply, and keep up the great work!

May 29, 2006 12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know what you mean by "internal contrast" but I like the term, "separation", which is borrowed from black and white photography technique.

June 16, 2006 1:37 AM  
Anonymous IllOgical42 said...

First time I ever heard about chimping it was as an acronym for Check Image Preview... at that time the ooh's and aah's where mainly about (not) having a digital camera.

BTW I just found this site recently. So much to learn... so little time. Thanks for putting up those articles.

October 24, 2006 1:45 AM  
Anonymous Doug L said...

Great Site.

BTW: For ball parking your initial aperture, you can work that out from the Guide Number of your Key Light (main) Flash head. e.g. an SB-28 has a guide number of 164 at the 85mm telephoto end (Full Power at ISO 100).

So, at 1/8 power, it would be 164/8 = 20 for the effective guide number. At 5 feet, that would be 20/5 = f/4. (Guide Number = Distance to Subject * f-stop at ISO 100). I think David's Nikon camera only goes to ISO 200, so that would be minus one stop = f/5.6. At ISO 400 that would be minus two stops = f/8.

Once you follow the math, it's pretty easy to do in your head, particularly if you shoot at ISO 100. You won't have to pop as many test shots and after a while, you'll just look at a setup and say: "f/4".

Working the math also helps you understand fall off of the flash.

Hope that helps. Keep up the great site.

January 20, 2007 3:51 PM  
OpenID grunyen said...

Another simple "duh" idea you can throw in here- combining two concepts I've heard you mention a couple of times.

1. You talk about test blocking the light with your hands several times...

2. You talk about testing out the setup before you call in your subjects. Maybe they're big shots with valuable time, or maybe you arrive before they do and want to seem like a genius with everything set up when they arrive, or you are pressed for time, and prefer to set up without interuption- whatever...

Use a cheapie RF shutter remote, or a long cable shutter button, or the 10 second timer. *BE* your own pretend stand-in subject. Then walk over and look at the screen.
This will allow you to more easily illustrate EXACTLY what you're going to get. You can even see if you like the poses ahead of time. In general, offers much more information and options, and takes 15 seconds tops.

January 06, 2008 10:48 PM  
Anonymous Finn74 said...

This is one of the most useful sites I have found from the internet. I have so much to learn from this subject (Still waiting my 2x Vivitar 285HV:s, umbrellas, stands etc.) I will go through the pages, even though I am 2 years behind the posts :)

February 05, 2008 5:20 PM  
Anonymous Mark Bohrer said...

I use Spike as my subject stand-in to test light. He's a stuffed dog (Sheltie, actually) whose tan and white body shows me what I can expect for color too.

Mark Bohrer
Active Light Photography

March 06, 2009 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

The "Hand in front of lens," sounds interesting. I will have to try this. I generally use myself as a test subject.

April 25, 2009 9:23 PM  

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