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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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