Fourth and Long? Drop Back and Punt with a Plant.

A couple of weeks ago I was shooting a restaurant review of a joint that specializes in cuisine from the Dominican Republic. It has, well, homey decor. Which suits the cuisine just fine, of course.

But I just could not make the room translate into a photo with enough impact to carry a food review. I was trying to say "tropical," but all I kept getting was "cafeteria."

The lighting was mixed. And not in a photographically cool way, either. Tungstens and fluorescents were everywhere. Throw in some daylight for good measure.

The back walls were dark. And the the one wall that could have carried a clean shooting angle was completely covered by a mural that was too loosely composed to work well as a background.

Welcome to my world.
Normally, I would have defaulted to shooting the building front and a (well-lit) food close-up. But they needed a couple of photos and the facade had me shooting right into telephone wires (and the sun) with no time to re-sked.

First thing I did was to use the fluorescent-neutralizing switch, which left me with a more useable combo of tungsten and daylight.

(What, your camera doesn't have a switch for that? Of course it doesn't. The fluorescent neutralizing switch is on the wall...)

Then I reached into my trusty bag of tricks.

Every photographer should have a bag of tricks. The point is to use each trick very infrequently, so they are fresh and ready to pull out when you need them. So, you'll want a big bag of tricks.

Otherwise it is more of a cliche. Or a crutch.

(Hey, I know this cool lighting website...)

One of my favorite tricks is using a plant as a "cookie" to add a layer of interest to a photo.

Cookie, in this case, is short for "kookaloris," which is genuine photo jargon. It is generally a piece of black cardboard with a pattern of holes in it that you shoot a light through to get a cool pattern on a background.

The problems with hole-patterned cardboard are (a) it looks a little hokey to me, and (b) I usually do not have one one me.

And I could generally live with "A," if "B" were not a problem.

But there's almost always a plant. And plants make great cookies.

In this case, the plant was a palm, which would work great to cast a shadow that could subtly add an appropriately tropical feel to a photo.

And I needed tropical.

I decided to strip the lead image to the bare essentials - table, chairs, a vase of flowers and the pattern created by the light through the plant.

And for you PJ types, I did not arrange the furniture for the shoot. It is found, with added light.

And speaking of the ethics of adding light: If the plant idea worries you, you are already a little bit ethically pregnant when you light something. It is a restaurant/food shoot. I can live with a cool shadow just as well as cool light.

The result is what you see at top. When I am aiming for elegance, simplicity with a twist is usually the easiest route for me.
Here is the wide, tell-all shot. See how ridiculously easy this is?

Yes, you do.

From this photo, you should also see where my fill is coming from - the ceiling. I could have reduced (or eliminated) the fill be snooting or gridding the flash.

Here are some tips for the next time you are in a visual bind and you need to bake a cookie to get you out of it.

1) Find a plant. (Duh.) Or you can use a window. Bonus for finding one with blinds. But plants rock for this.

2) Use a small light source. I am talking about the size of the actual flash head here, not the power of the light. You want to project with some sharpness. Speedlights are ideal.

3) Snoot your flash (or at least zoom it out) for light beam-width control.

4) Wanna know where the highlights will be? Eyeball your projection surface from the point of the flash. With apologies to Stephen Hawking, light usually travels in a straight line. If you can see it, it'll get direct light. You don't need no stinking modeling lights.

5) You gonna shoot a person in this light? Why, yes, that is a very good idea... Make sure they can see the flash. Then the highlights will be hitting their eyes.

6) Also, for a person, you might wanna use a Sto-Fen (or small tupperware equivalent) to bounce some of the light off of the ceiling at the same time with the one source. That'll be your fill. Of course, you can do it with a powered-down second light, too.

And who's to say that this is your main light? Get enough space to light on two different planes. Think soft main light very close to the subject, who is far away from the background. This can be the back end of a killer, two-light setup.

So, next time you are in trouble, stick a plant between your light and a boring picture.

It'll make a true be-leaf-er out of you.

(Editor's note: I can make an atrocious pun like that because I am running out the door to safety en route to a four-day weekend in the mountains of Western Maryland. By the time I get back next week, you'll have forgotten all about it.)

Next: Shade is Your Friend


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Anonymous omar casasola said...

nice trick. I wouldn't have thought of it.

October 19, 2006 8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is what being a good photographer is about. Pure alchemy.

October 19, 2006 10:23 PM  
Anonymous Mark Sirota said...

Omar, you would have thought of it if you had been reading the blog since May, or had read the On Assignment section:

On Assignment: Dealing With Difficult People

October 19, 2006 10:56 PM  
Blogger Rob Meyer said...

Sorry mister, even four days will not erase the horror of that pun from my memory.


October 19, 2006 11:47 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Pun? What pun? I prefer sarcasm, myself. :)

Truly brilliant. I come from the video side of things and I've made some commercials that could have benefitted from some Strobist-found knowledge had I been aware of the site at the time.

Some of these tricks work well with continuous lighting is my point and now that I've plunged into serious photography, it's tricks like these that are helping my photo biz on every shoot.

You're awesome, David. Puns and all.

October 20, 2006 12:52 AM  
Anonymous Dominique said...

Aha... the old stick-a-plant-in-front-of-the-light trick! I remember pulling one of these off in a portrait class several years ago.

Please allow me to indulge you with the story.

The class was divided into groups of three or four and then rotated into three different portrait assignments during the duration of the class. We went into each situation cold and were briefed as we entered each room. I think we were given around 20-40 mins to shoot at each station during the class.

The first room my group walked into was a board room with a model dressed in business attire. Armed with our cameras, one pack and one head, we had to do the hasty boardroom business mag power portrait.

There was a really awful looking plastic accordion wall (with fake wood grain) at the business end of the table. It looked very cheesy and out of date. I took a quick look around and found a plant and an overhead projector in one corner of the room... perfect. Put the overhead at 45 degrees to the background to get speculars off one side of each accordion fold, and slapped the plant right in front of it to create an interesting pattern. Put the model on the table to create some separation between subject and backgound, pop, drag, voilà: contemporary power portrait.

After we were done, I made sure to put the plant and projector back in the corner before we left the room.

At the print feedback session it quickly became obvious that our group's shot was by far the most interesting. The other groups focussed on what the pack could accomplish whereas we used litterally what was lying around to our advantage.

October 20, 2006 2:19 AM  
Blogger Kingsley said...

I am in awe... what an incredible image and transformation - very masterful. oh and just loved the fluro light control device!

October 20, 2006 4:41 AM  
Blogger photoimagery said...

Nice use of depth of focus as well.
Very classy, it makes the restaurant look much better than it really is. That's what it's all about.

October 20, 2006 6:00 AM  
Anonymous Jon said...

...Ethically pregnant...


October 20, 2006 8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this stuff! A perfect example of when creativity and technique come together in what lesser men and women call the "lucky" shot. Nothing lucky here, just pure brillance!

October 20, 2006 10:42 AM  
Blogger Rich Snyder said...

I really like the resulting photo.

But playing Devil's advocate, it doesn't show the restuarant. Based on the picture, I'd probably dress up a little before I went there and would be expecting an entirely different dining experience.

October 23, 2006 5:07 PM  
Anonymous cindy said...

What a great tip!

October 27, 2006 3:44 PM  
Anonymous EJ said...

Brilliant. I would've seen the shot but bounced off the ceiling with my hat brim protruding from the flash bottom to stop the light from hitting the front chairs. (and you thought we PJ types wore hats for style) There'd be no nice shadows in my shot and I'd pray that somebody would be walking by to make the shot at least somewhat interesting.

Your technique is so much better. The shadow on the white baseboard tells me it was not manipulated too. Great stuff and this grasshopper will use the technique wisely oh great light master.

June 07, 2007 10:52 AM  
Blogger Mingo said...

Is it cookaloris or kookaloris? You spelled it here with a K and in a previous post of yours with a C. I know i can just google it but I'd rather waste your time.;)


December 18, 2007 7:23 PM  
Anonymous Merengue King said...

I loved the shot...
I am all for barebone simplicity. You ROCK!

I was born in the DR, I do think our FOOD ROCKS and our music, MERENGUE KICK AXX!

If you don't mind, what is the name of the restaurant and where is that restaurant located, would love to make it a mission to eat there one day...

December 23, 2007 9:20 PM  
Blogger calanan said...

Thanks so much for this tip, I'm just learning how to use my speedlights and found this tip while going through the archives. My very patient wife modelled for me as I tried out different techniques including this one. I ended up using an SB-800 with a homemade snoot for the key and fired an SB-600 through a houseplant, which was placed directly behind the chair in which she sat. You can see the results here.


- mike

January 09, 2008 4:58 PM  
Anonymous Dom said...

Great transformation and explanation. Nice point about it not becoming a crutch. Thanks for a unique perspective and a real example. In the news field I was faced with this sort of problem all the time. I wish I had been this clever more. Like you said you need a big bag. Excellent execution of a great concept.

February 12, 2008 1:59 AM  
Blogger Russell said...

I used to photograph for newspapers, then got a film degree and thought it'd be oh so much more glamorous. Now I light film sets as well as photograph. I was so wrong.

Grips often have a playful name for a placed tree shadow: branch-a-loris. Often, a grip is sent away with his leatherman (complete with a saw blade) to cut a fresh one without getting caught by the neighborhood watch patrol, then it is mounted to a stand. I've watched many a branch-a-loris fussed over for precious minutes to get that shadow perfect.

Thanks for the great blogging! I'm eating it up and remembering the creative brain power it took to pull a diamond from an assignment like this.

March 04, 2008 6:22 AM  
Blogger Carlos Porto said...

Thank You for sharing

March 30, 2008 10:32 PM  
Anonymous David W L said...

Regarding using a cookie. You said zoom the flash out. Do you mean a wider beam from the flash is what you want or did you mean zoom in for a tighter beam of light?
Dave in Milwaukee

October 31, 2008 11:13 AM  
Blogger Ricardipus said...

That was not only a very cool idea, but a really well-written article as well. Thanks. I'm going to have to try this... currently a totally rank amateur at all things flashy.

September 12, 2009 10:48 PM  
Blogger Aaron Campbell said...

Stephen Hawking successfully bent that pun around the Sun and it returned to Earth in 2014- its still kinda funny- Nice

May 13, 2014 6:54 AM  

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