On Assignment: Steve at Google

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to spend several days on the Google campus. For a guy like me, that borders on being a religious experience.

I have never been more intimidated than I was while setting up to spend all day teaching to a room full of fifty Google employees. On the one hand, I was absolutely certain that I was the dumbest guy in the room. But on the other hand, the whole campus just oozes with camaraderie and collaboration. Which adds a whole new (and very cool) layer to the enlarged frontal lobe thing.

But when it was all said and done, I could not remember ever having hung out with a more broadly intelligent and fun bunch of folks. Add to that the amazing environment that Google has created for their people, and you have a remarkable place to spend a career.

I won't get all of the perks and bennies of being a Googler, because there's a lot. But I will take a moment to give a shout out to the food -- all free -- and prepared by 5-star chefs. These guys know how to get their grub on.

Just imagine being on a cruise ship, every day, three times a day, but with better food. (Lobster tacos, anyone?) It is said that some Googlers do not even keep a fridge in their house. And yes, the campus coolers were stocked with ice-cold DMD's.

That food is from all over the world, and top notch. But they still know how to bring it down to street level: All hail Chef Dave's Special Bacon Fried Rice.

Okay, now I am getting all distracted. Back to shooting Steve, after the jump...

The Need for Speed

Google prides themselves not only on being the best search engine on the planet, but also on being breathtakingly fast. That's a good skill to have when lighting a portrait, too. In this case, for instance, the sun was quickly disappearing behind the top of a nearby building on campus. (The building just past a full-sized T-rex skeleton sculpture devouring the remains of a Christmas tree, to be exact.)

So this was gonna have to happen within just a few minutes, or it wasn't going to look very good. Just for fun, I am going to run this one real time. Times are pulled from EXIF data. But please remember to allow for the fact that we are explaining the process as we go, which slows us down a bit...

(Fortunately, with these guys, you rarely have to explain something twice. They pretty much get it the first time.)

Time = 00:00

My lights are on stands, and I am walking to the shoot with them, just as if we were doing a few looks, shoot-and-scoot style.

First off, choose an angle. Grab a natural light shot to assess the ambient portion of the photo and check the sight lines. No problems here. Exposure, 1/400, f/4.5, ISO 400. That's an easy place to hit, and to move around, with flash.

Note all of those not-very-bright guys hanging out in the back.

Time = 00:10

We are now ten seconds into the shoot. Having placed a bare flash (1/2 power, if memory serves) I grab a test shot, blocking the light with my hand, to see what my backlight will do to the surroundings when blocked by Steve.

Everything looks fine. In fact, I am always amazed at what one hidden backlight can do. Here, it is working in spades, reflecting off of the glass and white aluminum and doing all sorts of cool things. More often than not when designing light, I start in the back and move forward.

Later, when editing at a less insane pace, I would realize that the people who were just hanging around in this test looked pretty darn good. Especially Aaron, back center right, leaning against the post with the "come hither" stare. (He is nowhere near that attractive in real life.)

I could use this technique (combined with a front light) to shoot a kickin' 10-person group shot, if needed. So I file that away somewhere, for later.

(EDIT: Second thought, I think there is some un-aimed, unadjusted front light kicking in here on my hand. See my head shadow. But it is not reaching back to the back guys -- it is too far and the gridded beam way to narrow to get them all like that. That's all bouncing backlight, I'd bet.)

Time = 00:56

Just for comparison: Note how useless a backlight test is if you do not block it with something when testing it.

That's an important thing to remember. I always travel with one hand, and a spare, just for this reason.

Time = 00:59

Less than a minute after first visualizing the scene, I am testing the second light -- from the position of the second light. This is critical when working fast, as it allows you to test both exposure and aim while seeing what your light will see. This light had a gridspot, so aim counts.

Then I waste twenty secs of precious sunlight talking about the fact that the front light is too dark. Adjust light to be more powerful. Shut up and get back to work. Note that I am not even bothering to focus these shots yet. No need. Why waste the time?

Time = 01:22

There, that's better. If memory serves, I am at 1/2 power on the back light, and 1/8 power on the front light, which is coming from just a little bit camers right in the final shooting position, and a little higher than Steve's face.

The power settings are not important. The thought process is important.

I see here that I would like a little more exposure in the sky. Open the shutter from 1/400th to 1/200th of a sec. Problem solved for first real shot, which is at:

Time = 01:44

We are off and running. Starting at 01:44, I am making photos I can use. For the next two and a half minutes, I concentrate on making good frames. Vary the angle. Get different expressions. Watch for changing ambient light and adjust the shutter if needed. Remind the fifty people standing behind me to leave a path in the tunnel, because people are actually needing to use it as we shoot.

In four minutes and change, we go from visualizing a two-light photo to having thirty usable frames to choose from. Not that we're stealing a car or anything. But I want my frames before the light goes away, simple as that. That's a good way to be able to work, and very doable when you have been lighting long enough for it to get intuitive.

Here's the frame I chose. For one thing, Steve wasn't blinking or picking his nose in this one, and the expression and lines both look good.

Someone asked about the reflection of the backlight in the glass. It is either too close to me (in the side glass) to see, or is hidden by a post. You can see it popping up in the first "real shot" frame, at time = 01:44.

I was working to fast to know or care why it was not a problem later. But if it had been a problem, I would have moved forward or back to hide the reflection in a white post and zoom the lens to recompose. Easy-peasy.

NOTE: You can see an available light / setup / compromise exposure shot, here. (Thanks, Jennn!)

And why, you may ask, is this man smiling? Because he, my friend, works for Google. And that's enough to make anyone happy:

Thanks to all of the Googlers for showing me such a great time on campus. I cannot remember a tenth of the stuff I learned, but it'll come back to me a little at a time, I am sure.

And to all of the new friends I met in Mountain View, if you ever get over to the new Washington, DC Google office and want to hang out, shoot me an email. I am only 20 mins from there.

NEXT: Michael in Paris


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Anonymous Kevin said...

Did you get to run around in Building 40? Thats got the best cafeteria. Did you put something funny on your guest badge?

I got to go there as a guest and it was amazing! All the tech stuff everywhere you turn. And great food! Is that hallway your shooting in leading to the upper lvl of bld 40? there should be an arcade game at the end? I put the new monitor in that. Did you get any time to try the espresso bars every 150 ft?

Did you get to walk around and see all the great photographs? Lots from burning man, and tons more that are just as great!

January 28, 2008 12:55 AM  
Blogger David said...


1. Yeah, we were in #40, which is where we ate. And drank.

2. Does Bob Lee's name count?

3. Yes, that is the Habitrail to #40.

4. Think I remember one being there. Did not have a lot of time to play during this shot...

5. Nope. All DMD's and Strawberry Mojito smoothies for me...

6. Yes, I walked around with Waldemar, the man who shot them.


January 28, 2008 1:04 AM  
Blogger ogalthorpe said...

For me the most salient point taken from this post is the phrase "designing light". It implies the premeditation I talked about during the seminar way back when. I think a hallmark of one's skill is the ability to plan out the placement and orientation of the light. And knowing how it will fall on the subject.

Although I can, to some degree, work like this I have too many happy accidents still. But I make sure I pay attention, roll with the accident to see where it takes me, and hopefully file it away for future use.

But I'm not going to let my lighting skills get in the way of my creativity.

January 28, 2008 1:23 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Great. Now you've got Jayita asking me:

"You have a 'come hither' look?? And you turn it on at work??"

Thanks man.

January 28, 2008 2:15 AM  
Blogger lindes said...

Here's my shot of this shot being taken. :-)

Thanks again, David!

January 28, 2008 2:21 AM  
Blogger lindes said...

P.S. Reading the above comments: Yes, there's an arcade game at the end of the habitrail. I forget the name of the game, but it was asteroids-like, but with two linked ships... urgh, failing to remember.

January 28, 2008 2:25 AM  
Blogger Jay McLaughlin said...

Cool setup shots!

I take it there weren't many random people trying to get through while you were taking the shot?

What do you look for when you're scouting for a location? What makes you say "yeah, this is the one!"?

I did a similar step by step post on my blog last week... http://www.jmphotographer.com/blog/2008/01/crane-manufacturer-md-shoot.html

January 28, 2008 3:16 AM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

Question: Were you shooting at 1/400th with PWs? If so I didn't know they could sync that fast or even your flashes... maybe I'm missing something.

January 28, 2008 5:18 AM  
Anonymous tarjei99 said...

DMV. Isn't that the stuff that causes cancer in rats?

Hope you survive.


January 28, 2008 5:46 AM  
Anonymous iamzaks said...

I have to ask, why did you choose to raise camera level? from under the subject looks empowered in 01:44, what about the camera tilt you had in 00:59? what made you change the composition at the end?

I want to know what makes the pros make this kinds of decisions. Did the subject request a more "conventional" shot? or was there another factor?

January 28, 2008 9:39 AM  
Blogger David said...


"Happy Accidents" is a good, interim place to be. I spent a long time working my way up to "Happy Accidents."


I needed to clean up the ceiling. Lotsa junk bundled up there. I was working quickly, and that was a quick way to do it.


Nikon D70s. :)


I could barely concentrate on my shoot, what with all of that animal magnetism and stuff.


Who among us will, ultimately?


January 28, 2008 9:46 AM  
Blogger Trident Photography said...

To iamzachs, I would suppose that it has a lot to do with the leading lines. From the lower angle, the lines are not as nice as from the higher angle where they all converge on the subject. Additionally, the AC unit or whatever that big thing on the ceiling is needed to be clipped out of frame.


January 28, 2008 10:01 AM  
Anonymous lukas said...

lol, we used pretty much the exact same setup on saturday at the toronto strobist meet. it ended up being a similar scene as well, with lines all converging on the subject. here's a couple from the shoot:


January 28, 2008 10:35 AM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

Oh!!! I think your in big trouble using Star trek as your lead photo.

Those big head people will be dripping lobster taco sauce into the fileserver with your website in it!
Looks like a fun day and gettin paid for it. Hmmmm? What MTV song comes to mind from the past?

Thats the way to do it....


January 28, 2008 12:23 PM  
Blogger mruthven said...

A basic question about the bare flash backlight. Do you mean the flash unit with no attachments, in which case it directs the light in the direction it's pointed? The reason I ask is that when I read "bare flash" I automatically think "bare bulb" that throws light in every direction and is quite useful.

January 28, 2008 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Yeah, That asteroids game but with two ships. I had the same problem, cant remember the name. There is actually a cocktail asteroids at the very east end if you turn right at the first game where you were shooting and walk all the way down the hall up above the bld 40 cafeteria.

I don't know Bob lee, but i may have met him wandering around. I was given a tour by the owner of the games. Also works at Google.

You got to walk around with Waldemar? Thats awesome! And he showed you all that cool stuff. Lucky. I don't know him, but I loved all those pictures.

Did you see the vending machines that are priced higher depending how un-healthy the snacks are? Google is so awesome. Cant wait to go back.

January 28, 2008 3:53 PM  
OpenID Shaun said...

PJs definitely know the value of being able to pull off a fast shoot.

That back light is magic. I'm going to start adding that to my light stick repertoire: http://shaunkrisher.wordpress.com/2007/12/08/more-on-monopods/

January 28, 2008 4:42 PM  
Blogger Trident Photography said...

That video game is called Space Wars I think. one ship looks like the the Enterprise, and one like the Asteroids triangle ship. I used to play that game like crazy back in '77. My friend Dean and I used to go as fast as we could around and around the screen and pump out the bullets trying to kill each other.
Ahhh. good times...


January 28, 2008 10:48 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

DIY suggestion... Expodisc Alternative: Coffee Filter

I dunno if you've seen this already...


January 29, 2008 12:32 AM  
Anonymous kevin said...

Oh, yeah. since you said space wars, I remembered its called space duel. The two ships are sorta hinged together, very cool game. And I had to look it up since my memory is terrible.

Thank you KLOV

January 29, 2008 12:42 AM  
Blogger Christopher T. Assaf said...

Being a "former" peer with you at The Sun, I will try not to take too much offense with your comment "I could not remember ever having hung out with a more broadly intelligent and fun bunch of folks"

Us Sun folks are fun, aren't we? And we may not be Super Geniuses, but I think we're bright... Right? Right?

Love the Star Trek reference.

Live Long and Prosper.

February 02, 2008 5:39 PM  

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