On Assignment: Found Backdrops, Pt. 1

NOTE: Just a heads-up that I will be altering things a bit. Starting this weekend, I am moving the POTW to the weekend to better fit with my Baltimore Sun schedule. Henceforth, it'll pop on on either Saturday or Sunday, depending on my assignment load. -DH

At The Sun, we include zoned prep sports coverage in our sports section. In addition to game action, we do "Varsity Features," which are profiles of standout athletes.

That means that each week we do an athlete portrait which will run large and needs to have a little impact. That's all well and good, but frequently time constraints (either from our end or because of the team's practice schedule) mean that you have to bang one of these off pretty quickly.

Like, say, five minutes, door-to-door.

One of my favorite techniques in a situation like that is to make use of any nearby vertical surface that is sporting the team colors. These can be found in just about any gym or practice room, and make an easy color key on which to base your photo.

This is a run-and-gun, quickie technique. The two photos in this post were shot last week, and are typical of what we do.

I start off by setting my background light first, and power the flash down until it gives me a nice-looking backdrop at f/4 or f/5.6

At my max synch speed of 1/250th, this means my subject (who is not yet lit) will be in silhouette. From there, it is an easy matter to bring the subject up to the proper exposure with a second light to match the background exposure.

In this photo, I used what is probably my most common two-light setup - umbrella on the subject and a hard light on the background.

In this case, they were folded up bleachers. But there will almost always be something - painted walls, pads that protect the players from crashing into the wall, etc.

These backgrounds are neat because (a) they give a strong visual theme to the photo - ready made - and (b) the color is an appropriate school color.

I usually make sure the player knows to wear at least a game (or practice) jersey, and that way I know I can tie the color scheme together easily. As a bonus this monochromatic environment really makes a person pop, IMO.

In the top photo of the wrestler, I did a little something different, deciding to go with hard lights all around. There's a snooted flash (camera left) on the background, a snooted flash from camera front right on the guy and a snooted flash with a 1/2 CTB gel (CTB is the reverse of CTO - a cooling gel) acting as a kicker from back camera left to define the shadow area of his arms.

(If any of the above is Greek to you - and you are not Greek - hit Lighting 101.)

If you are used to working with a bag of small lights, even a three-light shot can be conceived and set up in five minutes. I plan on having five minutes to actually shoot - people usually do not have the nerve to schedule less than five minutes for a newspaper photo. If I get more, fine.

Teardown is even quicker than setup, because there is no thinking involved.

Next in this "found background" two-fer, we will look at how to expand a small area of color-keyed background to fill the frame of a photo for a more dramatic look.

Next: Macaroni and Cheese


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Blogger Ella Rose said...

Nice, par usual.

February 07, 2007 10:48 PM  
Blogger Joshwa said...

nice rembrandt light on the 2nd portrait there...

February 07, 2007 11:25 PM  
Blogger Chris Parker said...

David, how far in advance do you get yur assignments, the day before or the day of? And do you contact your subject to give him a heads up about his uniform, or does a sports-guy do that when he makes the assignment?

February 07, 2007 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So in the Basketball shot, what is your setup for the strobe with umbrella?

Awesome shots and hope to even remotely come close to this someday.

February 08, 2007 12:02 AM  
Anonymous Edo said...

on the top green photo, you chose hard lights, and on the bottom image you went with a soft light. Any reason why one should get soft and one should get hard light?

Los Angeles CA

February 08, 2007 12:07 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Smith said...

Speed is something that I definitely need to improve in my own work, and that has become blatantly obvious this week.

Yesterday I had a project cancelled because the coordinator hadn't budgeted any time for photos, yet she wanted the paper to run seven publicity photos of young children learning to play bowls. (One photo from each school in the area.)

To pull off a project like that you need to deploy your entire arsenal of variety! Different set-ups, different angles and different lighting. But of course that takes time and we're talking about 8-10 year olds so it can take a few attempts to get them to do what you want. I really needed to have the lighting ready in a minute or less to allow me time to coach the kids.

The project was canned after two schools. If I could have got the shots down from 10 mins to less than 5 then maybe we'd have been okay, but unfortunately I haven't learned to work that fast yet. When I need 10 mins and someone has budgeted 0 mins, the only realistic solution (because whining about it doesn't help) is for me to get my working time down.

David, I'm impressed that you could pull off that wrestler shot in 5 mins. I could just about manage the basketball shot in that time, but a set-up with three flashes, and each of them snooted so presumably angled quite precisely, would take me a fair bit longer than that.

Of course we have years of experience separating us :-)

February 08, 2007 3:46 AM  
Blogger Damon Allen Davison said...

Totally OT, but I thought it might amuse you to know that in German, the "Greek" in "it's Greek to me" is "Spanish". In the Romance languages, it's either "Arabic", "Hebrew", or "Chinese".

I'm guessing you're using the CTB gel because you're going with the idea that shadow areas should feel cool, right?

February 08, 2007 5:30 AM  
Anonymous gewitterkind said...

wow, that first shot is _soooo_ cool!

February 08, 2007 6:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you cover any varsity hockey or figure skating? Usually the only bacgrounds are reflective, like safety glass or ice. WWDHD?

February 08, 2007 8:10 AM  
Anonymous dennis said...

I just wanted to join the multitudes in thanking you for putting all this information up - it's helped me get over my "natural light or nothing" ways!

February 08, 2007 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks for posting more details on these things. I've been following along since last spring (any plans for the anniversary?) and still struggle with some of the technical stuff that is probably Exposure 101, much less lighting 101. Explaining how you dialed in exposure on this and the rock climbing wall is extremely helpful.

February 08, 2007 12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and.. (i forgot), can you tell something aboutthe background lightning in these two pictures?

Dit you use something extra on the flash (snoot?)
Do you also play with the focal lenght in adjustments of the flash (differnt than used on camera), and how do yo decide?

June 15, 2007 5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thi site is great!

I wondered if you never have problems with separating the light on the model with the light on the background. Doesn't the umbrella spill a lot of light? Or do you always work with a certain distance between model and background / hight umbrella?

I realy like the beautiful light of a (hoey comb) gridded softbox. Not too wide, but still very soft. Is threre an alternative for this with a strobe?

June 16, 2007 5:37 AM  
Blogger --AJ said...

David, was there ever a follow up to this article? The title indicates it is part one. Can you point me in the direction of part two?


September 12, 2009 10:11 PM  

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