NOTE: For those following The Traveling Photographer, the New York City episode has just posted.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On Assignment: Lighting a Large Interior

One of the knocks on using speedlights is that they are not very powerful. In twenty years as a photojournalist, I have found that they are more than powerful enough for the vast majority of my assignments. You simply approach your lighting technique in a way that compliments your strobe's abilities.

A good case in point was yesterday. I was assigned to do a biz profile on a place called Earth Treks, which is climbing gym in Columbia, MD. It's a cool environment in which to shoot, but it is huge. The walls are over four stories high.

To complicate matters, it was one of those assignments that was due "immediately."

Don't get me started on that last one. (What, the building wasn't there the day before?) This is the kind of stuff that is counterproductive to the overall quality level of the paper.

My first defense against this kind of artificial scheduling constraint is to arrive early. The assignment was for 12:15pm, which is more specific-sounding than 12:00pm, and led me to believe they might be tight on time just like me.

So I get there at about 12:05pm and scope the place, throw a couple flashes onto stands, find out who I am going to be shooting, etc. I also grabbed some quick, available light photos as the climbers were suiting up with safety gear for use as a jump shot, if needed. This photo would also make a good secondary photo out front.

Here is the available light wide shot I made as soon as I got there. Nothing wrong with this - in fact, I think it is kinda cool. Problem is, I have seen this look in almost every shot made at Earth Treks - including my previous assignment there. So I wanted something with a new feel.

(As always, click on the pic for a bigger view.)

My first step was to stick a couple of SB-26's into the back of the room. I hid one on a stand behind each of the two back/side outcroppings (at ground level, pointing up.) They are both on manual, triggered by Pocket Wizards, set on 1/2 power and zoomed to a 35mm beam spread.

The sodium vapes lighting the room were reasonably close to fluorescent, so I greened the flashes and set the camera's light balance to fluorescent.

These two splashes of light gives me the ability to draw the viewer's eye to where the climber will be, while balancing out the composition to get the full effect of the cavernous room.

More importantly, it also gives me total control of the contrast range of the room.

The above photo is shot at a 250th of a sec, (all are at f/2.8) and gives a strong contrast to the lit and unlit portions of the scene.

Let me back up a little: I always start at max synch speed, as it gives me a better idea of what the added light is doing.

If the ambient part of the room was still too bright at my max sync speed, I would have upped the flashes to full power to let me close the aperture and darken the unlit portions of the room a bit. As it happened, half power on the flashes was plenty. (For reference, the room's ambient exposure would have been about 1/30th at f/2.8 at ASA 500.)

This photo, shot at 1/60th (with no other changes) shows how I have control over the contrast range of the scene simply by varying the shutter to let in more (or less) ambient light.

In the end, I went with higher contrast, using the faster shutter speed.

The climber was using a spotter (uh, "belay slave" - thanks, Jason) for safety, and I wanted to highlight that, too. So I put in a third SB-26 directly behind her at 1/4 power and on an 85mm beam spread. Since she is hiding the light, it rims her completely and creates a leading-line shadow that draws your eye into her.

The final photo, seen at the top of this post, was shot about 30 minutes after arriving. (Click here to see it at 1024 resolution.)

This photo is not necessarily a show-stopper. But as a quickly lit shot working on a tight time constraint, it works fine for me. Assuming you are reasonably fast at the lighting stuff (practice, practice) the time spent setting up and tearing down lights is almost always returned by lessened toning time at the computer later.

And the results are much better than you can get trying to save a bad image in Photoshop.

From there, I shot the other climber on the wall with a straight-on view. The lighting was very simple - I grabbed one of the SB-26's and set it on a second-floor balcony. I aimed it from a hard, camera-right angle with a snoot to seal the bottom of the frame.

Tearing down is always faster than setting up, and I was out of there in about 30 minutes total. An hour later (over a mouth-watering birthday lunch at Chipotle) the photos were transmitted to the paper.

Could I have gone faster on the back end? Sure. Five minutes door to door, if need be.

But I am not going to pull out all of the stops - or worse, compromise quality - to save a poorly planned "rush" biz profile assignment that should not have been a rush assignment. There's such a thing as enabling.

Lord knows, we have to do enough (legitimate) ultra-fast turns as it is. That's part of the job. But as the saying goes, a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.

Besides, that delicious burrito carnitas was calling my name with more urgency than page design was.

Next: Found Backdrops, Pt. 1


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Blogger K Keller said...

I really like these on-location posts from you. I'm glad I'm not the person "upstream" who failed to plan in advance!

January 31, 2007 7:00 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

The term for the person on the ground is "belay slave" - not "spotter". If the climber had been bouldering (no rope), then the proper term would be "spotter" (or crash pad).

Nice pics BTW - looks like a place you should take your son...

January 31, 2007 7:07 PM  
Anonymous Alex G. said...

Product placement? ; )

January 31, 2007 7:58 PM  
Blogger David said...

@ Jason-

Thanks for the correction. I am not a climber. Mine is not a physique designed for climbing. Mine is more a physique designed for (or hard-won from) eating burritos...

@ Alex-

Dude, oh I so totally wish. They can pay me in burritos any day they want and I would pimp them all day and night. But I am nobody, and they are the King of Burritos. So it will never happen.

January 31, 2007 9:17 PM  
Blogger David Tejada said...

Bravo David. It's posts like this that keep me reading nightly. Your doing a fantastic job...

January 31, 2007 9:25 PM  
Blogger Ella Rose said...

Inspirational y educativo!!

February 01, 2007 12:43 AM  
Anonymous sosb said...

Carnitas? Man, Chipotle is all about the barbacoa! Qdoba stil has better salsa and quesasdillas, so I have to split my time between them.

February 01, 2007 3:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with tejada, this is the sort of real world stuff that not only keeps me checking the main site daily but motivates to boot.

Great stuff - cheers DH

February 01, 2007 7:41 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

David - how about an assignement to work on "Max Sync Speeds" for us Strobist nuts? Of course you'd have to explain it a little better to the mentally challenged like me! ; )

February 01, 2007 7:58 AM  
Blogger said...


I really love the stories behind the shot and the process involved. I'm sure that people at The Sun read your blog, what do they say about it when you're in the office? Does it make them realize how tough your job is, or do they bitch at you for being honest and occasionally complaining?

keep up the great work!

February 01, 2007 8:23 AM  
Blogger David said...


Actually, for people who read the site consistently, it should come as no surprise that I love working at The Sun. We have an incredibly diverse, intelligent and interesting group of colleagues. It is such a shame the news-on-dead-trees thing has turned into such a tough business, because it's a great way to spend your life.

Generally, the only grouses I have concern those practices that are counterproductive to the overall quality level of the publication.

But on the whole, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd probably still be shooting there in 12 months. And that's about the best thing you could ever say about any job.

February 01, 2007 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your articles, but recently it seems that all of the small images illustrating the articles are linked to Flickr. Almost all of Flickr is blocked from where I work, so I cannot see any of the images, and I miss out on a key element. Any chance of getting these images inserted back into the articles?

February 01, 2007 9:15 AM  
Blogger David said...


With the volume of both posts and images that I throw up on Strobist, my Blogger account would eventually fill up at 300 MB. Then there would be no more Strobist. So I use Flickr as both an image bucket and a base for the community.

I am afraid you may have to browse from someplace that does not block Flickr.



February 01, 2007 10:04 AM  
Blogger Xpressive Studio said...

Love that last shot. Glad you took the time to explain the whole process in getting the image.


February 01, 2007 10:23 AM  
Anonymous Adam said...

I'll start off by saying great photos. I really liked the last one with the giant shadow, and how you framed it. Nothing beats Chipotle! got a laugh at the fact that you actually gave them a link too :) Nice work!

February 01, 2007 2:48 PM  
Blogger Michael Keller said...

I just love those "this needs to be done yesterday" jobs! I don't work for a newspaper, but I'm an Air Force photographer and we get that all the time. Thanks for all the work you put into this blog I have learned so much!

February 01, 2007 3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


But if you are experiencing Flickr blockage somewhere check out FlickrMud. How Flickr mud works is that you simply change the url to access Flickr. Instead of accessing thomashawk's flickrstream like this: You access it with this url instead: By adding the before the .com oftentimes you can access the site because this way of accessing Flickr is much less known and less likely to be blocked. Mum's the word on this one of course ;)

February 01, 2007 3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


But if you are experiencing Flickr blockage somewhere check out FlickrMud. How Flickr mud works is that you simply change the url to access Flickr. Instead of accessing thomashawk's flickrstream like this: You access it with this url instead: By adding the before the .com oftentimes you can access the site because this way of accessing Flickr is much less known and less likely to be blocked. Mum's the word on this one of course ;)

February 01, 2007 3:41 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

You know, David, you could always get a real website. Blogger is okay, but there are so many limitations that you don't have with a real site.

I get my site through Lunarpages. ( When I got the account a few years ago it was $8 a month for 1 gig of storage and 3 gigs per month transfer. Later they bumped me to 3 gigs and 5 without increasing the fees. They've bumped me several times since and now I get 250 gigs storage and 2,500 gigs transfer every month!

And I'm still only paying $8 a month. (Actually the package is $7 a month but I have a couple extra features that cost me all of $1 a month more.) Incredible customer service, incredible features. (My only gripe is that they don't offer shell access for security reasons, but people who do their sites on Blogger won't care anyway.) My recommendation would be to install Drupal ( on a Lunarpages account and enjoy a virtually limitless site. There are even fantastic modules for Drupal that link to your Flickr account for better integration.

I know you don't want to be a professional coder but I'm not and my site is fantastic. Just out-of-the-box Drupal on a Lunarpages account.

Anyway, I love all of your tips and everything you're doing, but I personally don't care for Flickr. I would love to see what you could do with a site that provides better navigation and fewer restrictions.

Give it some thought. If you have any questions about how to do it just contact me through my site.

February 01, 2007 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Ferguson said...

"A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

I have never heard this before, but I am definitely going to be using at work when incompetents drop a 'rush' job into my QA queue.

February 02, 2007 2:24 AM  
Blogger bmillios said...

David ... Awesome site, really. I've been lurking, sucking up the info. Already blew this month's budget on various and sundry stuff to get the doodads I need to get off-camera flash.

I especially like it when you talk about the process you go through for a job, including the settings on your camera. This is HUGE.

Now, about Chipotle. I used to rank them at the top of the list - until I went to Salt Lake City, and my brother-in-law turned me onto Cafe Rio. The pork burrito, done enchilada style (extra sauce and cheese on top, then briefly baked) is enough to cause the Pavlov effect to kick in.

But here in the DC Metro area, you're right - Chipotle rules.

February 02, 2007 1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on guys! you're welcome to come to Tijuana anytime to taste the real deal with burritos, tortas, enchiladas and all that stuff... I mean mexican food in the US is good (real good actually), but oh so different than the food here in Mexico.

February 03, 2007 8:21 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

bmillios - I considered mentioning Cafe Rio but declined for some reason. Fantastic food. There are now a number of knockoffs that I think are just as good and a couple bucks per meal cheaper.

But my favorite here in Salt Lake is actually older than Cafe Rio: Barbacoa. Football size burritos any way you want them. SO incredibly good. Unfortunately they seem to favor the east bench so those of us who work on the west side have to "settle" for Cafe Rio.

I suppose it could be worse.

Next time I'm in DC I'll have to try Chipotle. I was just there. Why didn't anyone tell me before I went?

- Jon

February 04, 2007 11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great shots of my baby takes a great photographer to get her to agree to participate in a photo session! She looks fantastic!

February 21, 2007 12:33 AM  
Blogger LG said...

Delighted I found this post David, I'm about do a social portraiture shoot for a college assignment at a climbing centre.

You've inspired me greatly, cheers.

December 21, 2008 12:12 PM  
Anonymous Lee said...

Does your backlight really rim people?

January 20, 2009 4:36 PM  
Blogger Go Share Your Faith said...

I have a question:
You said:

Tearing down is always faster than setting up, and I was out of there in about 30 minutes total. An hour later (over a mouth-watering birthday lunch at Chipotle) the photos were transmitted to the paper.

I'm surprised that you send your photos to their destination without reviewin them on a screen larger than the camera's that what you are doing?

If so....Why?

January 11, 2012 2:43 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Tim Tebowy Guy-

Nope, I would not do that. But I can eat a burrito in one hand and edit on a laptop in the other.


January 11, 2012 3:54 PM  

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