On Assignment: Book Club

Okay, the polls are closed and the votes are in. It was fun to watch you guys try to reverse engineer a photo which was lit in a very not-very-obvious way.

Several of you got it pretty close. And if you didn't, no worries. First, this was not an easy photo to reverse. And second, the final look was a little nebulous and could probably have been achieved through any one of several different techniques.

This photo was very much a figure-it-out-as-you-go kind of process. We played with the setup until we got a look that we liked.

I say "we" because this photo was very much a collaborative effort between the designer and myself. She was the one who came up with the concept of shooting origami chairs on a book, and it was my job to light and execute her idea.

This is the best of all worlds, IMO, as she brought a good concept to the table with enough flexibility still left in the process to further improve the result.

So, here's what we did. Click on any photo to see it bigger and/or comment.

I decided my goal for the lighting was to connote a winter's night with a semicircle of readers near a fireplace. So, the first step was to position the pieces and set up the backlight, which would provide the mood.

In the photo above, the only light for the scene is an SB-26 into an umbrella behind the book. This gives a soft, three-dimensional feel to the scene.

Next, I gelled the light with a moderately blue gel (1/2 CTB) for mood. This was less blue than I needed, so I also set the camera's white balance to tungsten to enhance the blue color.

Normally, I prefer more subtlety. But newspapers are not known for their prowess in reproducing a saturated blue. So sometimes you have to hit that color over the head with a hammer.

Next, the Zip-lock baggie. We placed that over the lens, as a couple of you guessed. Easy diffusion.

We actually doubled it up for more softness, but the combination of the soft (umbrella'd) light and the baggie made it too diffuse for my liking.

To solve this, I swapped the backlight to a bare flash to make it harder.

I felt that this would give me a better looking diffusion edge when I shot it through the baggie.

Playing with the location of the hard backlight (so as not to cover the crest in shadow) and various levels of baggie diffusion gave me this result, which I liked.

Now, it was time to create the frontal light.

I did this by light painting over a 30-second exposure. My continuous light was an SB-800 flash, using the modeling light button to create daylight-balanced continuous light in 1-second bursts.

You could easily use a flashlight for this, too. In fact, I think a flashlight might have worked better.

Since I was shooting at tungsten balance, the light would be blue. To make it neutral, I gelled it with a CTO. To warm it up past neutral, I stuck on a second CTO. You can stack them this way for more effect.

The snoot on the front was quickly made with Rosco Cinefoil, which is basically black aluminum foil. This gave me a light beam about two inches wide at a distance of two feet.

Here's the setup. The shot was done in almost total darkness. You can see the background flash in the back at upper left. The big black gobo is to block as much of remaining shaded window light as possible.

The card in the front of the camera is to gobo the background flash to control flare.

To complete the shot the following sequence was used:

1. Lights out.

2. Place baggie in front of lens. (It helped having a second set of hands here.)

3. Fire the blue flash with the start of the 30-sec exposure.

4. Immediately remove the baggie.

5. "Light paint" (using the double-CTO'd, snooted SB-800 flash on modeling light function) on the sides of the chairs facing the camera and the top front edges of the book.

6. Repeat over and over until you get one that you like.

Here is an alternate choice to the original pick. I actually liked this one better in RGB form, but the more saturated photo looked similar to this in tone by the time our presses got done with it.

Also, we nixed this shot because the shadow fell on the crest, which was distracting.

You can see why this photo is so hard to reverse engineer. The back light is hard, yet diffused - and blue. The front light is sharp, very warm and coming from multiple areas at once. I like this overall effect because it has three simultaneous forms of lighting tension: Front/back, hard/soft and cool/warm.

If you are not thinking "light painting" the front light is almost impossible to solve. It is low-angled, yet the front chair does not shadow the back chair. It seemingly has to come from the left and and right, because that is what it does at various times in the painting process.

Look around the chairs closely in a big version of the final choice and you can see some neat things happening in there along the edges where the soft and hard light overlap.

Also, I love that the designer folded the chairs in a way as to be able to read snippets of titles on the vertical sections and neat little sentence fragments on the leading edges of some of the chairs. Those details make the photo.

I really enjoy shooting this type of a concept photo, as the success is always going to hinge on execution. I hope to do a lot more of this kind of work at The Sun.

Next: Lighting a Large Interior


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Blogger dan'ism! said...

Sweet! I love breakdown and progression of the thought process!

January 24, 2007 9:23 AM  
Blogger Chris Parker said...

Dude, you're whacked! A baggie over the lens?!? What will you do next, shoot through some old underwear and then bounce some light off a pie pan???
Chris Parker

January 24, 2007 11:49 AM  
Blogger BillRead said...

Great setup!

Hey, I'm still waiting nervously for the write-up on cleaning your camera.... must have gone ok, yeah?

January 24, 2007 12:46 PM  
Anonymous dominique said...

Aaaaaaahhhhhhhh... light painting... of course. That explains how both front edges of the book got that glow.

Thanks for the challenge. More of this reverse engineering in the future would be fun.

January 24, 2007 2:07 PM  
Anonymous Andreas - Denmark said...

Great tutorial - thanks - keep up the good work on this great site.

January 24, 2007 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love this site.
im your stalker.
you should have a forum for discussions and such.

January 24, 2007 5:37 PM  
Blogger tangcla said...

billread: don't mock the used underwear! ;-)

This was indeed an awesome read. My guess was pretty far off... :-D

and as anonymous said: a forum would be great! Something more advanced than the Flickr boards, like vBulletin.

January 24, 2007 6:48 PM  
Blogger tangcla said...

billread: don't mock the used underwear! ;-)

This was indeed an awesome read. My guess was pretty far off... :-D

and as anonymous said: a forum would be great! Something more advanced than the Flickr boards, like vBulletin.

January 24, 2007 6:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly, explanation aside (which I suppose is somewhat helpful), I think this photograph is simply lousy. I don't get it. You've shown so many really wonderful efforts that I have really appreciated but this one, to me, is a total dud.

Much ado about nothing comes to mind.

I'm posting this as anonymous because blogger is, yet again, not recognizing me....

January 24, 2007 7:36 PM  
Blogger PRB said...

WOW. This pushes the limits. I love it.

I want to thank you, Dave, for creating this amazing site. I am new -- have been a 'natural lighting' photographer until recently. I must say that I am completely intrigued by the technique and expertise you share! I am totally hooked and am desperately trying to soak it all in and catch up with all that I have been missing!

Thanks! Paula

January 24, 2007 10:21 PM  
Blogger Andrew Smith said...

As I read through this post I was getting that warm fuzzy feeling about all the exciting possibilities for creativity that we have with photography.

By the end I was feeling depressed, knowing that if I ever came up with a picture as creative and illustrative as this one, I'd get an e-mail back from the editor telling me that they're running the safe shot of a bunch of people holding books and smiling.

Of course I'm not saying that they shouldn't. In fact for a regional paper I think the safe people shots are the way to go. It's just depressing that I'm trying to learn and grow and develop my creativity, but ultimately there's no editorial outlet for it.

The one time they did use a creative picture, which was only slightly creative in so far as it used coloured back-lighting, they ran it in black and white! :-(

Still, mustn't grumble...

Andrew Smith

January 24, 2007 11:18 PM  
Blogger Xpressive Studio said...

How'd you come up with photo concept in the first place? Not to mention the technicals.
I think it is very well done. Got to get my creative juice going...

January 25, 2007 1:15 AM  
Blogger David said...

@Chris- Old underwear.... hmmm... have to get back to you on that.

@Bill - It went okay. That Copper Hill Images thing is pretty darn cool.

@Dominique - Yes, yes. Nothing but pure gimmicks and trickery...

@Anonymous- Stalker rule #1: Never declare yourself as such...

@Tancla- The bandwidth, assuming lots of posted photos, would be a bear. Better to let Flickr eat the expense and do the upkeep! (Always better to have a friend with a pool, than a pool...)

@Anonymous- Message received on the lousy photo thing. All opinions valid. To that, I would say this: If you shoot every photo aimed to please everyone, you are doomed to mediocrity. There is only one person who has to be pleased with your photo to make it a success...

(Sorry about Blogger not recognizing you. And hopefully you'll like the next one better.)

@Paula- We are open 24/7 for your convenience.

@Andrew- Wrong, wrong, wrong. DO NOT shoot with your publication as your validation point. Shoot for you and force them to come up to your standards. Shoot CYA versions if you wish, but do not let that interfere with the good stuff. You do not get better at tennis by playing people worse than yourself. Get good enough, and later they will tell people "they know you when..."

@Xpress - All credit goes to the designers. She brought a really neat concept to the table (literally) and it was my job to execute it. It was very much a team effort.

Two important things to remember:

1. Do not fall into the trap of being a button-pusher on these type of projects. Bring good light and execution to the table and improve on their concepts.

2. That said, do not underestimate the value of a good concept when it is handed to you. Good ideas are the hard part in this business.

January 25, 2007 5:52 PM  
Blogger ckayser said...

Thanks for sharing your lighting situations and explaining them is such detail!!! I've been reading lighting 101 as I'm giong to be trying off camera lighting. I'm going to make the investment!!

Cheers, David!
Be Blessed!

January 25, 2007 10:24 PM  
Blogger Andrew Smith said...


> Shoot for you and force them
> to come up to your standards

You're right of course but you underestimate this paper's determination to walk the middle-ground!

Best example would be a portrait I did of an artist to illustrate a piece on his upcoming exhibition. From this shoot I gave the editor four pictures to choose from, including this one which I specifically asked them to use as it was (and still is) one of my better portraits.

Predictably they ran this one because a piece about an artist simply MUST have a painting in it to show what he does! Nevermind that you've got a few hundred words below the picture telling the reader who the guy is.

January 25, 2007 10:35 PM  
Blogger David said...

It could be argued that this one is on you, Andrew. Here's what I would have done:

1. Shoot your picture the way you want it.

2. Turn in a few variations of your favorite to give them the illusion of choice.

3. Shoot 2 or 3 copy pix of the guy's paintings for the designer to throw in however they want - secondary, details, insets, whatever. (This obeys the letter of the law if not the spirit.)

4. Shoot the dorky photo of the guy at the easel for insurance, but do not turn it in and do not even keep it stored with the good stuff. If they totally call you on it, you have it.

And this is not theoretical, either. I do it all of the time, and have specifically done this on artist profiles. Never had a complaint yet. Why not? Because it (a) looks better (b) gives the designer more flexibility and (c) obeys the doofus-head rules...

January 25, 2007 10:52 PM  
Blogger Andrew Smith said...

Yep, I totally agree David. It's just cowardice on my part. My reasoning is that it's too early in my career for me to start trying to steer editorial decisions in a certain direction.

I suspect we all have the same fear when we're starting out: What if the editor assumes I didn't bother doing the safe shots and I lose out on future commissions? What if they simply don't like the shots that I like and they don't ask for alternatives?

It's really tough to fight that fear but I have to do it, I know. And I will.

By the way David I'd be really interested to see some of your 'routine' shots, ie: cheque presentations, group shots, handshakes, etc. Pictures without creative lighting, the ones where it all comes down to set-up and composition.

January 25, 2007 11:41 PM  
Blogger barak said...

Please tell me those are photocopies of pages from books and not simply pages from books.

September 11, 2007 6:26 PM  
Anonymous mens microfiber underwear said...

i love the way you swapped the back light to a bare flash to make it harder it looks a whole lot better.


September 08, 2008 7:44 PM  
Blogger Anton Ymer (pseudo) said...

Amazing, as ever. I had to try this one out myself, but I forgot the part with the plastic bag. And then I happened to reverse the colors.

Well, can't be a pro on the first try.

Thanx a million for running this site. I learn something new every second.

February 17, 2009 6:18 PM  

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