Reader Question: Karate Kids

Reader Joseph S. will be photographing kids sparring against each other in this room at a karate studio. He posted a question on the Flickr threads looking for advice from other readers on how to design the lighting.

I want to think through this one out loud and walk through what I would do and why. But first, take a moment to think how you might approach this shot.

Hint: The first problem you'll need to solve has absolutely nothing to do with light. Solutions (mine, at least) after the jump.

First, The Bad News

Problem number one: How to keep the little guys from accidentally destroying your lighting gear.

Problem number two: How to light the room to where they can move around and still be in good, consistent light.

Problem number three: How to get the light over the heads of the other spectators, and have your stands out of their way, too.

Now, The Good News

The first thing that jumps out at me in this room is that red wall. Sweet. That's a ready-made backdrop, as far as I am concerned.

I will definitely want to use that if I possibly can. In fact, I will choose my shooting height and direction based on keeping that wall as a full backdrop if possible. That means compromising best I can between wideangle (for full body shots up close) and long lens (to keep the wall filling the frame as much as practical) as I shoot.

I'll be shooting along the room divider area opposite the red wall. I will likely be moving left and right as I shoot, staying low, so I am always shooting on a line perpendicular to the red wall. That will keep my red backdrop as large as possible. (Shooting on the angle makes it shrink with distance because of angular perspective.)

The main thing I want to do up top is not to let the ceiling line creep into the photo. So I shoot from an angle as low as possible, and zoom in until the two people just fill the frame. So my first choice would be a wide-to-short-tele zoom for this session.

Also, as far as the background is concerned, is anyone else seeing the possibilities for some cool, specular background portrait shots? Even action portraits. Nice.

Other good news: We have a white, low ceiling. That is going to solve our height issues very easily.

So let's look at three lighting possibilities, each related and each very easy to change to one of the other two options at a moment's notice.

Joseph said he will be using Vivitary 283's and Pocket Wizards. All three of my choices use two speedlights (more powerful lights if you can get your hands on them, or ganged speedlights if you have four flashes) aimed up into the ceilings near room corners.

The ambient exposure in the room is reported to be 1/80 at ASA 400. That means at ASA 400, shooting at 1/250th at f/2.8 is going to underexpose the ambient-lit portion of the shot by 1.7 stops. Perfect. We will shoot at 1/250th at f/2.8 at ASA 400 and try to light the sparring area to f/2.8 at ASA 400.

If you are going to use the ambient as a component of the exposure, you'll have to green your flashes. Then you set your camera to fluorescent white balance and everything reverts to white. Or close to it, at least.

So, here is my thinking, in order from safest to edgy.

Option Number One: Safe Light

The easiest lighting technique of the three is to put a strobe in each corner, behind me (but mostly to the side of me as the room is long and thin) to the left and right. This will give even light that is somewhere between frontal 45's and side-light.

You cannot hide from this light, and everything will look good. The light will be very even across a large area in the center of the room. As they move away from center, one light becomes main and the other becomes fill. Lots of room for error in this setup. As they get very close to the ends of the room, it'll brighten up a little. Test this out beforehand, and know at roughly what point on each side you need to move to f/4.

If that sounds hard, it's not. Try it.

As for power, I would put the greened flashes on 1/2 power and point them up at the ceiling at either a 50mm or 35mm beam spread. Do not point them straight up, or the colored walls will catch some light and color your light in a bad way. Aim them a little out into the room. But not so much that the kids catch any raw light.

(I am assuming he has VP-1 modules on the 283's, which allow a Vivitar 283 to go manual power, since he typically lights with these flashes. If not, choose the yellow auto setting. It is the closest to what you need, aperture-wise, and it should be consistent as the flashes are seeing the same scene all of the time.)

Set up your lights and shoot your hand in front of your face as you walk around the room to test various areas, like this.

I start with 1/2 power as it gives me a better recycle time than full power. If you can get f/2.8 at half power, you're fine. If it is brighter than that, power down your flashes until you get an f/2.8 reading in the center of the room. This will buy you some shorter recycle time.

If the lights are not bright enough, I would bump up to ASA 800. Don't worry - ASA 800, lit, looks way better than you'd expect. If you still cannot get ASA 800 at 1/2 power, go to full power and wait out your recycle. Good (NiMH) rechargeables will help you out there, giving you a 3.5-to-4-second recycle time on full power.

If you cannot get ASA 800-f/2.8 at full power, walk your flashes in some along the wall behind you. Or get more light.

Oh, here's the other thing I do ASAP. Commandeer the mattress in the room and use it to protect whatever corner flash is most likely in the line of fire for the kids. Do not even ask. That's right, all your mattresses are belong to us.

If anyone asks, which is doubtful, tell them that it is for the safety of the kids. This, they cannot argue with. No need to mention that you are simply trying to make sure the little dealers of death do not screw up your speedlights.

Option Number Two: More Interesting

Moving up the food chain a little, I would keep one light in place and move the other to the opposite back corner. This will put your little guys in a nice, soft, ambient-balanced crossfire. This could look really nice, and still be relatively safe.

But it is even more important to move laterally to keep that background perpendicular as you shoot. Now you have a flash/stand and/or ceiling hot spot to watch out for. But the light will look better.

Option Number Three: Edgy

Lastly, I would move both lights to the back. This could look really cool. Yeah, I know what you are thinking: "All rim light? No, thanks..."

But remember, the light is mostly side light. And it is soft and coming from above. Most important, the ambient light is less than two stops below the flash-lit stuff. So the shadow areas will be muted but very visible.

But the caveats from the last lighting scheme are doubled, as you have potential lighting stands and ceiling hot spots creeping in from both sides. You may want to tighten up your zoom a little and shoot in close. But these shots could turn out to be far more interesting than the option other two options.

So, what would you do differently? Hit Joseph with your ideas in the original Flickr thread.

And if you have environments that you are trying to decide how to light, throw up a question of your own. And pix of the area are always a bonus.


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Anonymous Andrew Smith said...

What would I do? Probably get them into a little group and take a photo with one on-camera flash bounced off the ceiling. But that's why you're on hiatus from a staff position and I'm still dreaming of finding one.

Seriously, I give myself one point for eyeing the red wall as a backdrop, and another point for thinking to use the two flashes in the corners furthest from the red wall. The other set-ups didn't occur to me.

The only other idea I had was to light only the red wall and shoot silhouettes. Whenever I'm photographing kids (which is the majority of my newspaper stuff) I try to find at least one shot that doesn't include faces, just in case it turns out that someone's parents haven't given permission.

As it happens, in this case, even if it were adults I'd probably have still done some silhouettes just because red and black make for such a strong image, especially with the 'aggressive' nature of the sport.

August 26, 2007 11:23 PM  
Blogger Dan Fletcher said...

Hey -

This was really helpful to me. I'm a photographer on my college newspaper, and it's great to hear about the different ways you think of to approach a situation. I would have just set the strobes up in the back corners away from the wall and went with it, not thinking about the other ways that some different placements could alter the light.

A couple of us on staff have been reading Strobist all summer and we're really excited to try this stuff out in the fall. I think it'll make a big difference in our photos.


August 27, 2007 1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somewhat new to this, and am a little confused by some of the jargon..

in particular The ambient exposure in the room is reported to be 1/80 at ASA 400. That means at ASA 400, shooting at 1/250th at f/2.8 is going to underexpose the ambient-lit portion of the shot by 1.7 stops. Perfect. We will shoot at 1/250th at f/2.8 at ASA 400 and try to light the sparring area to f/2.8 at ASA 400.

I can follow the text, but really stumble if I was trying to work it out myself..

Can someone post a link or something on how this type of math works ? Thanks muchly

August 27, 2007 1:12 AM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

Yeah I was sorta confused with the f-stop math myself since I didn't know what f-stop he started with to get f/2.8 at 1/250 underexposed by 1.7 f-stops. I know a little to know the difference between f-stops such as 2.8 to 4.0 is a full stop and so on. I'm not a quick thinker when it comes to math which is why I'm learning first to use a light meter. I know David doesn't use one, but at some point in time he did. My light meter (Sekonic L558r) is sorta like a calculator for me because whatever it reads I'll just change the f-stop and it gives me the shutter speed to correspond. I'm sure once I get better at this I'll eventually not need one either. Though I do like the fact it has PW transceiver in to fire my flashes. As far as the setup I would have also put the flashes in the corner. But then I also have a third flash I would have kept on camera to bounce behind me. (I know bad for on camera flash).

August 27, 2007 1:57 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan Ng said...

Anonymous: The exposure settings can be explained thusly:

1. ASA 400 throughout so we leave that out of the equation.

2. f/2.8 is constant as well though I think he missed out the fact that the original reading was also at f/2.8... I am assuming this.

3. So you look at the shutter speed: ambient is 1/80. One stop LESS light (or half as much light that 1/80 would give you) means a shutter speed of (1/80/2) = 1/160. Two stops LESS light is 1/80/2/2 = 1/320. Shooting at 1/250 (probably because that is the highest flash sync speed for his camera) means that he will be exposing the ambient scene at somewhere between 1 and 2 stops below the reading of 1/80. Exactly how much? 250/320 = ~.78 stop. Therefore 1/250 is ~1.7 stops below ambient.

4. The last part to this is that he will try to "bring up" the parts he wants to light "correctly" to 1/250 f/2.8 ASA 400 with his flashes.

Hope that helps.

Big fan of this blog BTW David - keep up the great work.

August 27, 2007 2:13 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I think I saw something at Filmless Photography about using a 'plant hanger' designed for suspended ceilings. I think I saw that the karate room has a suspended ceiling. Maybe you can set up lights hanging from the ceiling away from the kids flying feet and above the crowd.

It would produce fun light you could use almost like spots or big floods. I guess with CLS system you could change the exposure but I think getting the right setting before shooting will help dramatically.

I hope this makes any kind of sense.

August 27, 2007 2:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

question: how high would you typically place the flash relative to the ground/ceiling? halfway between floor/ ceiling? a few feet from the ceiling?

thanks. -mark

August 27, 2007 2:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Question from DH's solution, what's the height would you place your flash between the floor and ceiling? halfway? a few feet from the ceiling? thanks.

August 27, 2007 3:09 AM  
Blogger jesgon said...

Your web is fantastic. I like all Games.

August 27, 2007 5:35 AM  
Anonymous kc kong said...

Let me think out loud here about the non-lighting related issues :)

I've had a look at the 2 pics of the room on the thread & my first thought is that it's very tight quarters in there. The dimensions are said to be 30x20x8 but I think it's much longer than 30 on the long side & maybe only 16 on the short side (4 ceiling boards normally 4' on the long side)

That means that a direct shot with the red wall as a bg will be slightly difficult ... a use of a wide angle lens & a bit of an oblique angle would help.

Then again shooting into the mirror for the same red wall bg might help keep the shooter out of the way.

How about the other walls? I think they're not too nice as bg ... the flawed baby blue & the columned yellow ends. The mirrored wall might lend present some creative opportunities though ... if the shooter finds an angle that avoids his own reflection

The blue floor? You;ll need a ladder in there & 8 feet isn't much for an aerial shot.

Touching a little on lighting I see that the red wall is a bit glossy ... presenting a challenge / opportunity for specular reflections hahaha :)

That's it. Have I made a fool of myself? hahaha let's see the rest of the post ...

August 27, 2007 6:44 AM  
Anonymous kc kong said...

Hi David, hahaha I've now read your post. Silly me, I thought the open dividing wall was a mirror! Well many martial arts studios do have mirror :) but not this one ... so there goes my idea of shooting reflections.

One comment on the specular reflection opportunity though... you mentioned maintaining a perpendicular-to-red-wall shooting angle. hehehe as we discovered in the last assignment, you won't get the halo if your lights are coming way off-axis from the corners!

If I may offer a blasphemous suggestion ...don't banish me please ... use an on camera flash pointed up at the ceiling, zoomed in to get a smaller spot of light reflected off the ceiling board onward to the red wall bg ... shooting angle may need to be upwards but still perpendicular to the red wall.... probably a longer lens to exclude the ceiling.

Then again, how to trigger the strobes? hahaha for the Nikon folks, there's CLS ... with PW's I don't know ... maybe optical triggers? Just thinking out loud here :)

Appreciate your feedback.


August 27, 2007 7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One bad equation, not to do with F Stops, how high the strobes are or where to put them, are Where are the parents in all this? Not to mention their cameras? The room looks very skinny and I've dealt with stuff like this before. Everyone brings a camera and everyone wants real estate. Good luck there. I would think where ever you ended up shooting, you'd pretty much be stationary. GET THERE EARLY!!!

August 27, 2007 8:42 AM  
Blogger David said...

As for the height of the flashes, I tend to run them at about 5 feet high in a typical 8-foot ceiling environment. The factors are

(a) How big you want your hotspot: You want it a decent size, and that can be somewhat controlled by the beam setting of the flash. So in that sense, you want the flashes lower.

(b) You want them higher in that you do not want the bare flash head visible to the subject if you are trying to bounce.

August 27, 2007 8:48 AM  
Blogger Brian said...


I just wanted you to know that I, at least, got a big laugh out of the "your bases are belong to us" reference. Love the site. Just discovered it a few weeks ago and already bought my kits and started doing sub-par flash photography rapidly progressing to par.

I immediately focused in on that lovely red wall, as well, especially after the recent posts on Vanity Fair and Ms. Annie Leibovitz's amazing set of portraits.

One other though about the lights in the corners like that (Option 1 Safe) is getting my little sparring pals out away from the background as far as possible while still getting just the background and no floor/ceiling to see if we couldn't get even more background/ambient fall-off after cranking that shutter up a bit (a bit more warrior drama lighting).

August 27, 2007 9:43 AM  
Blogger GeoWulf said...

I had a similar problem, with a twist. The walls were mirrored!

That was an interesting problem to solve.

Any suggestions for the future?

August 27, 2007 11:22 AM  
Anonymous Mark Sirota said...

For suspending lights from a drop ceiling, use the Avenger C1000 scissor clamp (I don't see them at Midwest Photo Exchange). You mount a standard umbrella bracket to them, or a stand extension or articulating arm if you need your bracket further from the ceiling.

They don't fit all drop ceilings, unfortunately, but they seem to fit most, and they're incredibly useful for shooting kids so you can eliminate the lightstand.

August 27, 2007 11:42 AM  
Blogger Randy Janoski said...

I haven't been to this site for a while but I have lit your dilemma many times.

You might not have the equipment to do it, or the time, or the assignments budget but...

What I normally do in this situation is remove four to six of the ceiling panels (equally spaced), suspend down from those openings the bare bulb of a flash head( I use Elinchrom RX 1200's or Comet pack heads). During shooting just keep the ceiling out of frame (i.e. shoot from a bit higher angle, shoot tight) also you can attach a small gobo out over the top of your lens/lens shade to prevent any glare from the bare bulbs.

August 27, 2007 4:22 PM  
Blogger Chad said...

I prefer the cross-lit choice, but I think the diagram with both strobes located on the back wall is interesting. I generally use the cross-lit set up. Check this voleyball shot that I made last Thursday night. I particularly like the highlight that allowing a little light spill gives on the arms.

August 27, 2007 4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the kids in question are yours, ask them to perform the routines (kata) they will be doing in the day beforehand, so you know which moves to expect and can plan for them. I shot some of my colleagues in a open tournament once, and it was much easier to get good pictures from them than from people from other styles which I wasn't familiar with.

Also, most routines have a cadence, if you pay attention to that, it becomes easier to time you shot to coincide with the "landing" of the movement, so you don't get photos with awkward body positions.

For sparring, just go with the flow. I would also try some ambient light exposures at ISO 1600 with continuous drive. Not everything must be lit by flash.

And don't disregard posing the kids at the end of the exhibition/test/tournament, you will definitely get better pictures than the "spontaneous" ones.

August 27, 2007 5:02 PM  
Anonymous b1gw1ght said...

So my immediate thoughts also turned to that awesome red wall. Couldn't help but remember one of David's favs using a ring flash if the portraits get goin' on.

I had good success using a home made ringflash also from a earlier Strobist post. link to DIY plans in first comment...

August 27, 2007 9:26 PM  

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