Sometimes it's Not the Photo, it's the Process

On some photos, you take satisfaction not so much from the photo itself but from the process that got you to it. Such was the case a couple of weeks ago, when I was assigned to shoot an up-and-coming rap artist in Baltimore.

I arrive at his house a couple of minutes early for the assignment as he is finishing up the interview with the reporter. He tells me he is very tight for time, and offers to e-mail the paper a handout photo in lieu of the assigned photo.

Well, my editors are not exactly gonna like that, I think. So my first thought is to come up with an idea that I can pull off quickly.

To make matters worse, after talking for a few minutes with the guy I get the feeling he is just not really into being photographed on this particular day.

Alrighty, then. Time for Plan B.

At this point, you have to recognize a decaying situation for what it is and circle the wagons a little. You have to remind your subject how, with just a little time, you can work together to make something that looks cool and unique. I tell him I brought lights - I always have lights - and have a good idea for a photo in his home studio.

This much is true. I always try to preconceive a photo if for no other reason than to have a foundation on which to improvise.

Turns out he is not interested in having a shot done in the home studio. So I backpedal a little more and find out what he might be interested in doing.

Mind you, all of this is happening in real-time, over the span of about 30 seconds. I don't want to lose this guy. But I do not want to come back with a lame photo, either.

Parked outside the rapper's house is a conversion van on which he has painted with his logo and the logo of Virgin Records, who has recently signed him to a recording contract.

The van is not my first choice for a photo. Or my second or third, for that matter. But it is clear that it is somewhat of a point of pride for the guy. So I do not resist when he repeatedly steers the conversation to it as a possible backdrop.

(Hey, at least we are talking about actually shooting a photo at this point.)

So I tell him to go ahead and get ready to leave, and to meet me outside at his van in five minutes for about a two-minute shoot.

Now all I have to do is to come up with an idea (and a way to light it, and to set up the lights) in 5 minutes.

No prob.

First step is to put your lights, stands and syncs together in one fell swoop. While you are doing this, you assess the scene and try to visualize a finished photo.

The van is black, so I decide to go with a dark key for the photo. Luckily, it's cloudy, which gives me more light ratio options on the small flashes. Thank goodness for that, at least.

I quickly decide on something overly-lit and a little theatrical. I am going to shoot him leaning against the van and light him from two directions.

The strongest light - and the one that will determine the look of the photo - will be a direct backlight. I decide to use direct flash, (a Nikon SB-800) on full power, with a CTO gel for color separation.

So, I set that light up and pop a test shot at 1/250th (max sync speed) to see where me ambient ends up with the very small aperture (f/16, I think) that the full-power flash gave me.

Remember, the flash is aiming back at me, so I shield the light with my hand for the test shot. The ambient goes to darn-near black while the light rims my hand and lights the van at the same time. Great. I have all of the lighting control that I need.

Now to light the front of him.

With my working aperture at f/16, I bring another manual flash (a Nikon SB-24) in from upper camera right. This one is set to 1/4 power, which is what it took to light my hand to the correct exposure using the already established exposure of f/16 @ 1/250th. Again, a couple of test pop verified it. After a while, you get pretty close on the first try, then you fine-tune it with a shot or two.

I set the flash zoom setting on 105mm, to control the beam spread of the light. Now, by aiming the flash a little high, I can get a nice falloff on the bottom of the guy and seal off the photo a little with the darkened bottom.

Here's the setup:

And here he comes, right on cue, walkin' fast and lookin' late.

But I have him all ready to go. One quick test confirms that my exposure is on target. (If it wasn't, a quick adjust and another test shot, and I'd be in business.)

I then shoot about 20 frames, so I am covered if the guy really has to bolt. But I want to get a little more time out of him to try two or three variation.

Here's one of my favorite tricks for squeezing a little more time out of a subject.

Up until now, my demeanor has been one of efficient professionalism: Shoot quick. "Look this way." Got it, thank you. "Chin up a little." Thank you. Etc.

To try for the extra time, I stop and make a point of taking a look at the back of the camera.

Now, all of the sudden, I am "surprised" by how well this is turning out. (Not really - I knew exactly what I was gonna get. But he didn't.)

"Cool! Check this out - this looks great!" I tell him.

Of course, he'll wanna look. It's a photo of him. Yeah, it does look good, he agrees.

(I mean, how could it not, with such fine raw material to work with, right?)

And, in an instant, here's the deal as it now exists:

If he loves it, he'll almost certainly find a few more minutes to keep shooting. Why short-change the viewing public, after all?

If he hates it, he'll show you with his expression. Even if he lies and says it's okay. Just ask him what is bothering him, and introduce a variation to fix it with a few more minutes' shooting time.

He's not editing you - you already have what you were gonna get in the can. But you are bringing him into the portrait process in exchange for what is almost certainly going to yield more shooting time.

I have had five-minute corporate CEO shoots turn into 30-minute sessions this way.

They all want to look good.

In this case, I got a few extra minutes to play with different shutter speeds and try some flash-drag-camera-jerk stuff.

I preferred the original setup, and we went with that.

But the important point is that I went from "sorry, no photos today please," to multiple shooting setups, lit for effect and quickly produced - with variations on the visual theme as a bonus.

It's not enough to know how to light. You need to have a selection of techniques that you already know, and can go to quickly. And that includes setup time.

But beyond that, you need to cultivate the interpersonal skills to bring someone along (while you quietly panic on the inside) and work to make something out of nothing.

Always remember that for most people, the thought of being photographed - especially for publication - is a bit of a head rush. Sometimes you have to use that, and appeal to the person's ego, to overcome the natural shyness and self-consciousness that we all have to some degree.

And if you can do it quickly and smoothly, that's just bonus points for you.

Next: Zebra Fish and Zygotes


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, excellent Article, thank you. I meet alot of 'late'people and I do find it hard to get a decent pic before they leg it. I'll try the techniques you have outlined here, they sound great!

November 14, 2006 6:23 PM  
Blogger David Tejada said...

Wonderful explanation on your approach to this assignment. You go David.

November 14, 2006 6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article is a prime example of why I check the Strobist blog everyday.

David, you rock and thank you very much.


November 14, 2006 6:39 PM  
Anonymous Lee said...

David Excellent !!! Nice job and I the detail description of how the shoot evolved was extremely helpful.

Lighting info is always good but hearing how you engage with a subject to get the most out of the session is a bonus.

By the way image came out great.

November 14, 2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

I’ve had these encounters before.

The first time, I folded. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I just blasted a couple simple shots. Everyone in the office was dissatisfied with my performance. They questioned if I was ill.

Now, the second time I encountered this, I started the shoot, and they were “pressed for time,” they just had to leave. But, luckily with digital chimp-cheat-screen, a quick comment, like,” wow, this looks great, do you have any suggestions,” and as you said, the shoot turns into 30-minutes. OK, I feel like I am telling your story all over… it happens! haha

This is a great post, because any PJ will encounter this problem, I would just like to know how often as a professional you get these type of people.

-bangs hand on desk- Why do I always forget to take a picture of my set-up, too.

November 14, 2006 7:36 PM  
Anonymous MJM said...

Thanks for the story. Great work on the shot -- good theatre drama for a performer. I can't believe you did that in daylight. I thought it must have been in his garage!

November 14, 2006 7:45 PM  
Blogger KatieMac said...

Thank you for the pic of your setup. You can write about it all day, but the photo did it for me. Those of us who are visual learners, are grateful.

November 14, 2006 10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People like this guy should just get off their high horse and stop being such a pain in the ass.

He should realize that you're there to do a job, and in this case that job is to promote him!

November 14, 2006 10:47 PM  
Blogger Marshall said...

Anonymous - It isn't that simple, unfortunately. Even people who aren't being rude sometimes are just busy or uncomfortable with being photographed. The personal skills David mentions still matter...

November 14, 2006 10:56 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

A very good case study in the practical aspects of being a photojournalist, David. Well done!

p.s. I wouldn't want your job for anything that a newspaper could offer...even ownership of the paper itself. Fuggettaboutit.

November 15, 2006 12:11 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Smith said...

David, thanks for the story and the lighting set-up. I liked the picture when I first saw it but I was even more impressed when I saw the location shot.

That's a good tip on bringing the subject into the portrait process. I often show my subjects the shots I'm getting on the camera screen, and now that I think about it this does seem to boost their desire to co-operate. It's not something I've ever done deliberately but I'll keep it in mind!

Regarding the guy's attitude, I commend you on keeping a level head. I've only ever had one rushed job and I blew it. I was covering the night-time unveiling of a monument and right at the last second as I started getting everyone into position, one of the organisers came over to me and said something like: "Make it quick can you?" That was enough to throw my concentration and I came away with a few horrible pictures.

Ever since then I've contacted subjects before the shoot to tell them that I'll need at least 10 minutes, and to make sure they budget the time. Once when an event organiser had requested a publicity shot which would involve setting up a group of 20+ people, she was expecting it to be done quickly "somewhere in the corner" of a charity dinner. With my editor's backing I told her that she'd need to set aside some time in a separate room, otherwise we weren't interested in doing the photo. She agreed and everything went smoothly on the largest group shot I'd done at that time.

November 15, 2006 12:25 AM  
Blogger PhotoGsy said...

Dude, you are a lighting God!
Great article, again; I'm sooo glad I found Strobist!

November 15, 2006 5:05 AM  
Blogger Woody said...

I am confused about setting your flash sync speed to its highest setting. If you do that the only way you can adjust the shutter speed is slower letting in more ambient light. That isn't what you wanted in this case. How does setting the shutter speed to 1/125 or 1/500 help.

Sorry for such a basic question.


November 15, 2006 7:37 AM  
Blogger David said...


No prob. Trying to remember to do that more. I'm old and forgetful, tho.

@ Anonymous (at 10:47) - Nah. People are gonna do wehat they are gonna do. In a given population, some people are always gonna be late - or worse, "difficult." just acknowledge that it will happen, and have a strategy to deal with it. Why stress over it?

@ Woody- Read Lighting 101.

@ Ken- Au contraire. I have the best job in the world.

November 15, 2006 8:40 AM  
Anonymous Jeff Haller said...

David, it's great to see your blog on strobe techniques. I don't know if you'll remember me right off, but I was at Patuxent many years ago, and I've taken your lessons into the real world since then. You were a very good teacher and I'm glad to see that you're able to share your lessons with the world. I've been telling everybody I can about strobist so they can all benefit from its lessons.

Glad to see your images and to read your lessons. Keep up the good work.

November 15, 2006 9:13 AM  
Anonymous Doug said...

Excellent article on how to deal with the difficult subject. Luckily, the only difficult subject I have had so far has been my two year old daughter, but I am preparing to shoot more toddlers in the future. The advice you give, both technical and other aspects is superb!

November 15, 2006 11:29 AM  
Blogger //ed pingol said...


this is why i like this blog SO much. it has so many different levels on what we need to know.

great job~


November 15, 2006 4:54 PM  
Blogger Roland Simmons said...

Not only do we get great lighting tips but we also learn how to get that extra 5 minutes when subjects are in a rush. Great article.

November 16, 2006 12:30 AM  
Anonymous sitbonzo said...

I read your piece after a similar day with about 3 of the pain in the butt customers like you describe! ;-) My personal favorites are the ones who keep you waiting 20mins then say right, I really need to be out of here in 2 mins.then don't co-operate!! haha.

I quite often tell our work experience kids ( who rareley know how to talk propperly ) that I think 90o/o of my job is actually communication skills.

November 16, 2006 3:05 AM  
Anonymous Jon said...

Awesome work, thanks for sharing this with us.

//ed pingol is right, there's something in here for everyone, no matter what your level.

November 16, 2006 12:40 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Fantastic stuff indeed - love the shot and the story... Thanks!

February 16, 2007 10:50 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

In your assignments you use different SB flashes: 800, 28, 26, 24. Can you explain the differences and why you choose one over another? Is it just the power of the flash or something more?

Thanks for all you do - I so enjoy reading your posts!

December 12, 2007 2:40 PM  
Anonymous Viktor Enns said...


I am struck with amazement at how similar our (you, me and I am sure our fellow photogs as well wether they know it or not) instincts and our techniques are. the process of convincing somebody to do a second or a third frame is the same with me - although I must admit I have never thought about it properly until I have read this post.

When I am shooting live events in a club I go by the rule of feeling the subject (as there is not much verbal communication i need to stick to gestures and body language 101 most of the time). Most people are camera shy yet at the same time are incredibly curios - I use this curiosity and as you rightly said appeal to their egos.

it is incredible to see the engagement most people offer when you show excitement about their pictures as they are absolutely insecure of how they look in the picture (at least until they see it on the clubs website the next day) - so they need the proper feedback from me as their eye. and I give them that and am rewarded with better pictures than I would get by simply pointing my lens at them execution style. nobody likes a picture that will come out then - not even pro-models.

sorry for dragging this post out so long - this is the punch line:
thank you for sharing David. I have learned a tremendous amount in a very short time just by reading your blog and applying myself to get the best lighting I can. and so far that was my main reason to read the blog but now I see there is even more valuable information here.
I hope I can find a way to repay you for all the wisdom you have brought me over the past 6 months...

thank you,

April 24, 2008 5:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting David! One quick question -- in your first test shot and in the actual shoot, where do you put the camera?

August 25, 2008 3:34 PM  
Blogger s.e. miller said...

Anon said: "People like this guy should just get off their high horse and stop being such a pain in the ass.

He should realize that you're there to do a job, and in this case that job is to promote him!"

Anon, I gotta tell ya, as a working PJ who shoots for two weekly papers and I do a lot of these 'promotional' kind of shoots/articles... a LOT of people just don't get the good that you're doing for them and they make life difficult an awful lot. This is where the people skills come into play in a major way - if you come at your subject with an attitude about what you are doing from them, it's gonna come right back at ya. Truly the most significant advice in this article for people who are up and coming in the PJ world is David's way of dealing with people, not the lighting... which as he says should be second nature to you so you don't have to muck around too much with the technical side when dealing with less than easy people :)


August 25, 2008 3:46 PM  
Anonymous mattblack said...

Excuse my ignorance, but can someone explain what CTO stands for? Colour temperature orange? Can't Think Of (better name)? Clung Tuck Ork?

Someone fill me in!

August 25, 2008 6:07 PM  

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