On Assignment: Hero Fan

Basically, my job is to travel all around the Baltimore/Washington area at my leisure, with people just waiting in beautiful environments for me to show up and spend hours trying out new lighting schemes.


My days are tight, just like yours likely are if you are a shooter. And I get handed some primo environments, if you are into mixed light and backlit, cluttered backgrounds. As for time, well, suffice to say that these days I am happy if the assignment doesn't have an "XMIT ASAP" notice, so they can throw it out on the web before the 1's and 0's are dry.

So today, I am gonna walk you through a quickie portrait for the features section. It was in the middle of a four-assignment, 150-mile day.

The assignment said:


What I am now thinking:

Well then, my busy day is looking up. I wonder if he is an "A-list" blogger? Wonder if I can learn something from him? Wonder what platform he uses?

Well, turns out he is not really a blogger (he has a MySpace page) but he does at least use a computer to learn about the show. There's a new experience. A photo of guy at his computer.

Environment: Computer on a cluttered desk, right in front of a window. Guy's back is to window when he sits at the desk.

Lighting: Something for everyone. By that I mean window light, tungsten and fluorescent, all mixed together. (What, no sodium vapors?) Thank you so much Mr. or Ms. Lighting Designer. No, really.

First things first: I kill the fluorescents. Next, I close the window blinds. This gets me from three light colors down to one in 15 seconds. I can nuke the tungsten with flash. If it bleeds through, no problem. (With the green, it'd look like sh a weird, greenish tint.)

So I stick a flash on a stand in front of the guy's desk and set it to 1/4 power.

At this point, I grab a test shot with a 24mm lens to start to zero in on the exposure. Not in focus, not even bringing the camera up to my eye. Just working quickly to grab my working f-stop. It's already close. I have done this a couple of times before.

I start to shoot the Guy At His Computer shot.

(Sigh.) Even with added light, this is what it has come to. A guy sitting at desk with "Heroes" web page up on his screen, talking to me. I shoot it, capturing the moment for all eternity.

(Has a reader has actually ever been bored to death by a photo? Would the paper be liable? Would I be personally held responsable?)

My standards as to what will make an acceptable photo from this assignment start to dip noticeably. We'll do better next time.

(I wonder what I should get to eat for lun - OMG! He's pointing at the screen! - click - We're saved! He pointed at the screen and I got it! )

See what I mean about the standards thing? Don't lie to me, either. I know you play those games with yourself, too. We all do.

Then a horrible thought pops into my head:

This is for features. What if they need it as a lead photo?

And another:

What if they need a separate photo for the jump?

Crap. Welcome to my life.

During this time, no fewer than two of the guy's managers wander by. They are not giving him the "This is exciting! Take all the time you want!' look, either. I make eye contact with the subject and the exchange is basically a nonverbal, "Uh, let's hurry this thing up, okay?"

So I move the flash over to my left - same setting, same exposure - and shoot it, bare, up into the ceiling. Same as in the first shot. I pull the monitor up to the counter to shoot a portrait of him next to it. (Hey, it was easier than getting him to lay up the desk, okay.)

Alright, this is a little better. Or maybe a little less bad. I dunno.

As long as I am doing this, I figure I should grab an ambient-only shot to choose the shutter speed for the monitor to burn it in correctly. Even though my soft strobe-off-the-ceiling light will glare on it pretty badly.

Bingo. Now, we're talking.

This photo never occurred to me. I was just grabbing frames to check various exposures - flash and ambient - just like I always do. I find this method to be quicker (and more serendipitous) than using a flash meter, and this image is a good example of how you can benefit from this technique.

We now have a photo that is lit by only the two ambient sources - the monitor's glow and the tungsten flood falling on the wall. The guy is in total shadow.

If I can get light on his face without it contaminating the wall or the monitor, then I'll have a pretty neat photo.

(PAUSE BUTTON: How can we do this? Think about it a sec before going on.)

If you said "snoot," you were close. Right idea, but still too much light spill. A gridspot, however, will do the trick just fine, thank you.

I slip a grid on the flash and aim it at the guy's face.

One quick shot, taken from the light's position, confirms my aim and gets me in the ballpark on exposure. I am hurrying now, so as not to get the guy in too much trouble with the bosses. Close is good enough. I can fine tune the exposure in Photoshop.

And here is the shot from next to the monitor. I should have probably cranked up the flash power to buy myself some more aperture to bring the monitor more into focus. (I would have had to lengthen the shutter speed to balance the available light, remember.)

But I was already stretching the guy out, and I did not want to cause trouble.

Here is the setup from behind the flash. I was just to the right of the monitor when I shot the actual photo.

The point is not that this is a great picture, because it ain't. The point is the difference between where I started and where I ended up - with bad ambient, a cluttered environment and short working time.

That, and to clue you into some of the weird crap the pops into my mind during the daily grind.

Oh, and after this small, hurried, relative, moral victory, the shot ran about three inches across inside the section, in black and white. Next time, maybe I just pop the guy with an available light shot.


NEXT: Spring Desserts


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Blogger Patrick Smith said...

I love how you post during my... most photogs prime internet time.

Anyways, I was literally laughing out loud at this post. Funny stuff.

I’ve been in this situation too. Boring static subject, but the quick change of position or something catches your eye makes a boring photo bearable.

April 25, 2007 11:44 PM  
Anonymous snorri said...

thanks for sharing your day, fun to see the progress.

April 26, 2007 12:06 AM  
Anonymous Johan Kaving said...

Great article.
Shows the importance of trying different ideas, not just making do with the first thing that pops into your mind.

April 26, 2007 12:27 AM  
Blogger ntt said...

Minor correction: you can actually watch full episodes of Heroes on the website after they've aired. It is the second link on their navigation.

April 26, 2007 1:06 AM  
Anonymous AJ said...

interesting and entertaining post - very useful to see how you develop from a basic starting position and make something out of poor situation --- how often do I see shots like "he's pointing at the screen" in my local paper?! A bit more thought and a bit more effort go a long way ... well, most of the time

April 26, 2007 2:35 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Apart from a great photographer... A pretty darned good writer as well!

I did actually feel sorry for you in the beginning of the article :P

Enjoyed this article very much!

April 26, 2007 3:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anybody know which colour balance was selected? (auto, tungsten, etc...?)

April 26, 2007 4:02 AM  
Anonymous Jon Read said...

What an excellent post - very educational! More like this, please :-)

April 26, 2007 6:46 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Nice, fun post.

And Heroes is a great show, and as ntt said, you can watch the full episodes like the day after.

link here for those interested (say, X-files or X-men fans)

April 26, 2007 8:02 AM  
Blogger chadw said...

Excellent David! I've missed the on assignments.

April 26, 2007 8:27 AM  
Blogger Iden Ford said...

Lighting is becoming a way of thinking for me. I used to just think about aperture and shutter speed, point and shoot. But in this article you confirm the transition that needs to take place to create art from the ordinary. Thanks so much for sharing and I love the final shot.

April 26, 2007 8:43 AM  
Anonymous Jameel Morrison said...

Dave, I've been lurking for a minute and this is my first comment.. I really enjoy your work and information on this site; I think what you provide is priceless (I have the PW's, light stands, and sb24 to prove it -- and I shoot Canon)... but my question: Do you ever use a light meter at this point? Or do you just pop shots as necessary to arrive at desired exposure?

April 26, 2007 9:07 AM  
Blogger chris said...

Fun, informative post, as usual. What cracks me up is that you found the time to grab a shot of your setup even rushing to keep the subject out of 'trouble.' Hilarious. Thanks!

April 26, 2007 9:11 AM  
Blogger efrudd said...


I find this rags to riches article the most educational in that it illustrates your thinking. Granted, you won't always have the time to go into this much detail about what didn't work.

The art of journalistic photography does seem to be about what not to include in the frame as it is what your subject will be.

I really enjoyed this one.


April 26, 2007 10:53 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

@anonymous, if it's not flash or daylight, then I'm a Dutchman. Look at the colour of the tungsten flood that David mentioned: deep orange. Gotta be a clue, hasn't it?

April 26, 2007 12:17 PM  
Anonymous Arthur said...

Excellent piece: one of the most interesting I've read here (and I've read them all...)


April 26, 2007 2:18 PM  
Anonymous Tony Martin said...

Oh my God you just described my day, especially the 3 inch B&W part. Makes you cry sometimes. Perhaps you could all gather around the trophy and smile big...

April 26, 2007 4:07 PM  
Blogger Mr. Eeve said...

Wow! Great article to dive right into your mind. I've been reading articles here and there on strobist. It was fascinating to read how your mind opens the possibilities throughout the shoot.

Thank you!

April 26, 2007 5:59 PM  
Blogger glasshalffull said...

Thanks for the ride and the laughs, David.

Newspaper feature editors should be routinely bound and beaten with bamboo poles. (I think I can say that because I used to be one.)

April 26, 2007 7:14 PM  
Anonymous D2 said...

Don't you LOVE those 150 mile days, then the editor chimes in with "What, no feature pics?"

April 27, 2007 5:42 AM  
Blogger Wiedebas said...

David, I assume you noticed that this is typically your style of picture...?
So if this is your style, why did you have to think about it? ;-)
Very nice shot and very nice story.

April 27, 2007 6:19 AM  
Blogger neumero4te said...

I think the article was great and the final shot turned out pretty well considering... but whose idea was it to write an article about a guy who likes TV and surfs the internet? Might have to wait on the Pulitzer.

April 27, 2007 10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Entertaining post! I love the on assignments, they're often a good laugh with killer photos. This time, it was a REAL good laugh with erm... photos.

Definately the most out of very little there. I'm sure the subject felt special though :D

April 27, 2007 6:14 PM  
Blogger Don said...

How does a PJ edit/fine tune in Photoshop? Aren't there a code of ethics involved?

That being said, you've done a fine job polishing a turd.

Very enjoyable reading as always.

April 29, 2007 4:46 PM  
Blogger bmccaff said...

I guess this goes back to your philosophy of batting for average--getting the base hits.

Thanks for posting your thought process, I'll definitely try to use this line of thinking in my work.

April 30, 2007 12:03 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Was this a coroplast gridspot or a cardboard grid?

Tungston WB?

Thanks as always,


Tampa Bay Photographer

May 01, 2007 3:03 PM  
Anonymous Justin said...

OMG Dave,
I am reading this during my all too boring stats class at university and I get to the line:

(I wonder what I should get to eat for lun - OMG! He's pointing at the screen! - click - We're saved! He pointed at the screen and I got it! )

I actually burst out laughing!

Slightly embarassing, but I thought you should know that you are doing your God-sent duty to corrupt the minds of well-meaning university students with your blasphemous lighting techniques - or at least saving us from Stats class!


March 26, 2008 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Simon Lusty said...

I'm just a year or so late commenting on this but I would like to say what a really great post. I think what makes it work so well is the way you have showed your process not just the final set up and outcome. I find the learning from seeing the start point and how you thought through to the end is what is missing from so much photography education. More please.

November 10, 2008 4:59 AM  

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