On Assignment: Pool Portrait

A few days ago, I had an assignment to shoot a professional triathlete at a local pool. It was a quick, bottom-of-the-page sports assignment. But the photos were a good illustration of how to use location to control bad sunlight, and then build the good light back up with flash. So here it is.

We were doing a story on her because she will be competing against men in her next event. She's not superhuman - there was just a scheduling mix-up on a race for which she had properly entered and trained before they cancelled the women's event. So it's gonna be her against the guys.

The assignment was in for 2:00 in the afternoon, which is just in time for bad-quality sunlight. Naturally, I grabbed a flash with a light stand and set out to tame it. I am trying something a little different here and just walking you through the process step-by-step, thinking out loud as I go.

I get there traveling very light, as usual. I am carrying one camera with a wide-angle zoom, a flash with an external battery (overkill in this case) and a portable light stand kit.

I meet her at the front door. She's very personable, and I figure it'll be easy to make a nice portrait of her. As always, one of my first conversation points is to find out how much time she has for me. That's always very important when planning what I'll do. And it also shows that I respect her time constraints, which is important to her.

She tells me that a group of athletes are concurrently being shot by another photographer, Nicole Martyn, a young Patuxent Publishing photographer with a very good eye. So I make it a point to keep an eye on how Nicole is photographing the other athletes. You can always learn something.

The fact that the subject is already occupied with another photographer might have irked me 20 years ago, but now I use it as time and space to figure out how I want to shoot her while I wait. I tell her that I'll need 5 mins to find a spot and set up light, and that works out well for the her, too.

So, where to shoot and how to shoot it?

As I said before, the sun is coming in high and hard. So I am looking to (a) get away from it, and/or (b) make it better. (As it turns out, I ended up both - one each in two separate shots.)

I find an alcove by a door to the locker rooms that is in the shade. The pool is in the background, as seen in the top photo. The shady area is about 4 stops below the sunlit pool area, which gives me a good platform from which to add light.

Within about 30 seconds there is an SB-800 up on a stand to camera left, set on 105mm beam spread and 1/4 power manual. This gives me f/16 @ ASA 200 a few feet away at the wall on the right, as measured by my "Flashmeter LH" (left hand.) As always, I fine-tune my flash exposure by shooting my hand in the subject's light and eyeballing the back of the camera.
It's fast and free. The water drops on the front filter (thanks to the wet kid that just ran by me) even show up at f/16. And at f/16 at ASA 200, I have plenty of shutter-speed choice to set the sunlit pool area just as bright or dark as I want via the shutter speed.

I'm about 3 minutes into the assignment at this point, and catch the eye of the triathlete. She pops over for a minute (not even a minute, actually) and the first shot is done.
Here's the set-up. As you can see, I am using a cardboard snoot on the flash to control the light spill. This gives me a little edge to the light, and a photo with nice, sealed edges.

It could hardly be simpler or quicker. The coiled cord thingie hanging down is my SC-17 off-camera TTL cord, which never ever gets used for TTL. Today, it is doubling as a lightstand-hotshoe adapter, as it has a 1/4x20 thread on the bottom. (When I do use it as an O-C cord, it is in the manual mode.)

I ask here if she can meet me on the other side of the pool in 5 mins. Fine. She goes back to re-join the others, who are being shot individually by Nicole.

Five minutes may not seem like much time to plan a shot. But if you are already familiar with your ambient and have your light already set up, it is more than enough time.

A minute later, I am set up by a ladder on the other side of the pool, facing into the high-angle sunlight. It's coming from overhead background camera left.

I decide to shoot her on the pool ladder to get a clean (water) background that the sun can light for me. I can nuke her from the front, and she will not leave a shadow on the background, either. What I now have are two planes. One is flash lit, and one is ambient. And I can control both independently. Lighting with flash against the ambient this way always give you the most control.

I stick the flash at camera right and set it to 1/2 power on manual. I want the ability to really dial down the water while shooting, without having to alter the flash. I can easily do it with shutter speed at this flash level. The snoot is still on the flash, which will keep the chrome rails from throwing an unmanageable highlight back at me.

Three minutes later, she is back and on the ladder.

I sight down the snoot and aim it right toward her face.

"Can you see the flash at the other end of the tube?"


Good. I know that her face will be lit by the snoot's beam. Who needs modeling lights, anyway?

Now, we all have our different ethical compass points - as do our publications. Mine is such that I feel comfy positioning her for a portrait. This photo does not purport to be a hands-off, documentary action shot of her practicing. It's a portrait. I have already altered the scene by merely showing up and talking with her. Ditto for using flash. And that's true whether it was crappy, direct, on-camera flash or something a little higher on the lighting food chain.

So, if you feel differently, then by all means act on it. But just be aware that an extreme aversion to injecting yourself into a scene for something like a portrait can sometimes be a fear of lighting, masked with the indignance of an ultra-hands-off, documentary artiste.

My position is that you have to convey your subjects with integrity, and balance the fly-on-the-wall times with the times that require you to elevate the technical quality of a photo. On a portrait (if they know you are shooting it) you are already a little bit pregnant with respect to controlling the photo. Learn to work along the ethical continuum in a way that is both honest and allows you publication to have strong images.

Sermon's over. Back to the photo.

Here's a trick I use to improve the quality of light from a snoot when shooting someone. Have them turn their body toward the light and look at it with their face, then have them look back at you with their eyes. It'll help the quality of a hard light. And it is a natural task for the subject to perform. Much easier and less cumbersome than trying to nail everything down and then shoot them while they are stiff as a board.

Just do not get the light too far off of the shooting axis, or it starts to get weird.

So, there's snooted, half-power flash firing into the shadow side of the subject, in line with her face. Looks fine, but the exposure is out of whack for both her face and the background.

This is why I have the flash powered up to give myself some leeway. With the camera set at 1/250th, I pop a test photo. Using the TFT screen on the back as a guide, I adjust the aperture until her face looks properly exposed.

With that nailed down, I repeat the process for the background, except I alter that by adjusting the shutter speed. Takes about 15 seconds.
A minute later, we are done. That makes 10 minutes for the whole assignment, with only two or three minutes of the subject's time actually taken up. Why so fast? After all, I could have shot 300 frames and kept her there for 30 minutes.

My reasoning was two-fold. First, I didn't want to monopolize her time and shortchange the other shooter. And second, it is very good practice for those times when you are shooting someone very important (or consumed by their own ego) and they have very little time.

And, as I am both so very important and utterly consumed by my own ego, that's it for me.


Next: Strobe on a Rope


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Blogger MagikTrik said...

Wow, so this is what you meant by longer, more complete out posts? This is cool with me, one of these a month will keep me well-informed as I have an extremely short attention span so it took me about 15 minutes to read the whole thing.
Thanks for taking so much time & really "thinking out loud". It's good to really see what you go thourgh on a daily basis.

July 22, 2006 7:21 PM  
Blogger James Pratt said...

These are very helpful. I really like the thought process of how you came up with the photos. You are #1 in my book!

July 22, 2006 8:21 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...


Is that a Rolex Submariner I see?

July 22, 2006 11:41 PM  
Blogger David said...

Oh, yeah, sure. I wish.

Actually, it is an Invicta Men's Automatic Pro Diver 8926 Coin Bezel, which I absolutely love.

It has Rolex Sub styling, and a 17-jewel Miyota automatic movement. Stainless steel, awesome band, 200m water resistance, accurate - for US $150. Which is less than the 5% tax on a Rolex Sub. (One day, one day...)

I wanted a real automatic, and researched the heck out of modestly-priced autowind mechanical watches before buying this one.

I love it, and it is cheap enough to where I am not scared to wear it!

(Any other watch nuts out there?)

July 23, 2006 12:29 AM  
Blogger ericrudd said...

Hi David, et. al.,

I have a question...that's been bugging me. You mention your use of your left hand to get an f-stop setting of f/16. How did you arrive at that figure?

That's one element of this stroby thing I don't quite have a grasp of.



July 23, 2006 11:57 AM  
Blogger Clive Evans said...

I'll second the first comment!

One of these a week or month, will just do me fine!

The technique part is great, but the thought process really helps.

[all very useful to me as my top sync speed is 1/125]


Clive Evans
Antibes, France

July 23, 2006 4:34 PM  
Blogger David said...


Whaddrya, a Noob or something? You guys have to read through the Lighting 101 section and the earlier On Assignments.

(Check out "Taming Harsh Sunlight," (I think that's the title) in OA.


1/125 can be very limiting for flash. I'd feel bad for you, but you have a camera with a slow synch speed... in Antibes, France.

So no sympathy from me.

July 24, 2006 4:49 PM  
Blogger ericrudd said...

>David said...
>Whaddrya, a Noob or something?

Or something. I had read the On Assignment on harsh light. But a reread in combination with this pool session helped me understand this better. Thanks for the redirect.


July 24, 2006 5:14 PM  
Anonymous Captoe said...

For someone who's looking to cut things back a bit you sure know how to cram four posts worth of info into one.


July 25, 2006 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

love the post and the site. I try to visit every day to learn something new.

I have a question about this post. You mentioned that you dialed in her face with aperture then you dialed in the background with the shutter speed. Did you take two photos and merge them together or did you arrive at your shutter/apeture using this technique? Seems one would effect the other and would always be messing one or the other up by adjusting???


July 25, 2006 2:33 PM  
Blogger David said...


I am trying...


Read "balancing strobe and ambient," in Lighting 101, for more clarity.

July 25, 2006 2:45 PM  
Anonymous Jon Clark said...

Again, I love to read your posts and I always find them very complete and informative. Your work has made me rethink the way I shoot. You do all of us a great service...Thanks!

July 25, 2006 9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be totally honest, the picture doesn't work for me at all. At first I thought it's two completely separate pictures stitched together -- there's no continuity between the main subject and the pool. Personally, I'd just meter by the shadow and let the pool part to be blown out -- that would provide continuity and focus on the subject. Or at least dial down flash a bit. Just my 2c.

July 26, 2006 12:39 PM  
Anonymous val_photo_gal said...

How would letting the pool go to blown out allow you to focus more on the person in the foreground? Your eye goes to areas of high contrast and areas of light in an image, so by anonymous' approach, I'd be pulled into staring at the blown-out background and not even notice the person in the foreground.

Yes, the first image has a look of two different light sources going on - ambient on the pool and flash on the subject. I don't see anything wrong with that, and in no way does it look like two photos are stitched together. The continuity of the image is that there's a pool in the background, and the subject is a swimmer, dressed in a swimsuit. The pool gives you the context of who the subject is and what she does.

It works for me, and is a well-executed, very functional editorial portrait.

July 26, 2006 2:13 PM  
Blogger Al Espinoza said...

Your posts are filled with invaluable information. I am so grateful for the work you do and for sharing it with all of us. I always look forward to reading your latest posts. Thanks again!!

July 27, 2006 12:53 PM  
Anonymous conrad erb said...

David - good post. to the people who think that David's technique mixing the sun + flash, just go try it! there's no teacher like experience.

David, a quick question. have you considered putting an anonymous emailer to your website? ie. info@strobist.com? I bet that some people would like to contact you with suggestions for articles on strobist or the like without having everyone read their comments.

July 29, 2006 9:17 AM  
Blogger jairy said...

I disagree that the subject has no connection to the pool in the first shot--the kid with the interloping stare is classic!

It kind of says, "I know there must be something important going on--not sure what, but I'd better watch...."

July 30, 2006 10:06 PM  
Blogger Merv said...

One of the clearest. The shots showing the setup for the first show makes it so much clearer. A picture is worth a thousand words....


May 01, 2007 3:21 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

"I have plenty of shutter-speed choice to set the sunlit pool area just as bright or dark as I want via the shutter speed."

I assume you mean that you keep the ASA at 200, keep the aperture at f/16, pick a shutterspeed based on how dark or bright you want the background to look AND put the required flash level afterwards (turn it up or down to make sure the foreground is well lit) ?

Am I correct or or did I miss something from your information and Lighting 101 course? (I had to re-read your post and information a couple of times, so I'm still in doubt)

May 14, 2007 9:51 AM  
Blogger sk said...

Wow. Excellent write up. I enjoyed it and everything made sense along the way :)

June 04, 2007 11:16 AM  
Blogger Alex Gilliard said...

Hey David,

Would you happen to remember what white balance you used?

January 11, 2008 9:39 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

What about a second fill strobe to get rid of that nasty shadow behind her? Wouldn't that also add more separation?

May 21, 2008 9:52 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

This OT but what is her name? Can we look forward to seeing her in the Olympics in Beijing?

June 29, 2008 11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What metering did you use? Matrix,spot or centre weighted. If a polariser had been used to cut the reflection, what difference would it have made? Except for a slightly longer exposure?

December 05, 2008 4:19 PM  
Blogger userfocus said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 15, 2012 4:16 AM  

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