On Assignment: Peter Yang Shoots Admiral William Fallon

Imagine this:

You have all of 25 minutes to shoot Admiral William J. "Fox" Fallon for an Esquire Magazine feature story. They need a portrait that conveys intensity, but you will be shooting in a typical office setting.

And on the day you show up, your subject (who also just happens to be the U.S. CENTCOM Commander) is busy focusing on the fallout from the just-announced assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

What do you do?

If you are A-list shooter Peter Yang, you're too busy thinking about your light to be distracted by all that other stuff.

His photo, and how he made it, after the jump.

Photo ©Peter Yang

Pictured above is Peter Yang's photo, as it appeared in a double-truck from the U.S. April 2008 edition of Esquire Magazine. Please excuse the artifacts -- it is a copy shot. I wanted to show it in the context in which it appeared in print.

Before you read any further, take a moment to try to reverse engineer the photo. The light is simple -- only one source -- but will still require some decent decoding skills. Click it to see it bigger, as it was presented by Esquire .

I caught up with Yang by telephone recently, shortly after being stopped by his photo of Fallon in the magazine.

Yang says he was a little surprised to get this particular assignment, given the subject matter and styles in his portfolio. But he had a lighting style in mind he had used on a previous multi-country shoot on atheists, so he at least had an idea of how to visually convey the Admiral's tough reputation.

"I was told by his people that I would have about 20-25 minutes to shoot," Yang remembers. "Which usually means about 8-10 minutes before you get, 'Okay, you can leave now.' "

He had three different setups ready to go in Fallon's office: One on white, one on black and a third with a more standard lighting scheme. But he quickly realized that he was going to have to use light effectively to connote a visual feel that would match the story.

Writers will frequently try to help/guide/steer into their vision of the piece, and this time was no exception. A good shooter will pay attention to these things -- visual and word continuity are important -- without selling out his or her own vision.

Yang recalls him as being a nice guy. "But there was no sense of urgency in a standard portrait," he added. "How can I make you look intense?" Yang remembers thinking.

His answer was to use the appropriate style of light.

Yang shot Fallon with a Hasselblad H2, an 80mm lens and a Leaf Aptus 75s digital back. His single light source was a Profoto 7A with the head in a gridded reflector up high and in very close.

With the light source very close to the subject (it's just out of the frame) you get some apparent size even though you are just using a reflector. But with a harder, more directional beam.

Before you go nerding out (or crying poor house) on all of the gear, understand that in essence we are talking about a single, smallish, directional light source and a normal lens. Granted, the gear Yang used is probably out of your economic zip code. But at its core, it is very simple stuff.

Actually, most really good light is pretty simple, when it comes down to it.

But, unlike a big flash in a reflector, a speedlight will not come close to this look unless you increase its apparent size somewhat. When I need to make a close-in speedlight look like a standard big-flash reflector, I like to use a little LumiQuest Softbox II, which actually is not even supposed to be used on a speedlight. It is designed for a bare-tube head (Lumedyne, Sunpak 120, etc.) but I really like what it does off-camera, in close, on a speedlight.

The "Softbox II" spreads the light out in over a ~6"x8" area, but it hot in the center. They have softboxes that have more diffusion in the center, and designed for speedlights. But I like the straight one better.

At ultra close range, you are not gonna need a ton of watt-seconds to get some serious aperture. (And you'll need it, to hold focus on the ears.) It takes a little imagination, but you can usually translate different types of light down to speedlights.

And speaking of gear, Yang backed up the shoot on a Canon DSLR (Mk II) and actually prefers the display screen on the back of the Canon to that of the Leaf for chimping purposes. He said he uses the Canon as both a Polaroid and as a backup.

The nose shadow tells us that Yang came in straight, high and close, as we have seen above. He has it aimed a little down and in front of Fallon. The grid causes the light to quickly fall off up top, creating an "out-of-the-shadows" look. Pretty straightforward, really, when you create the shadow with the light source.

If you do not have a grid, you have to figure out another way to cut the close/high light from the top of the head. But rather than spoon-feed that info, it would be a good exercise for you to think about it and experiment a little. We'll be doing an exercise on this later.

Yang dropped some black fabric in back. Nothing fancy here, though. He got it at a local fabric store and taped it to the wall. He notes that almost anything -- even a white wall -- in the background is gonna go black with this lighting scheme. The black material was just there for good measure. Remember, this all comes down to lighting distance.

The end effect was one of intensity and drama, kinda like the way you'd shoot that guy from the X-Files who was always showing up with the critical, top-secret information.

BTW, Yang had previously tried the light out on his assistant's face. The takeaway: Always test first.

Within the short time window, he also produced photos from the two other setups. Yang notes that it had great light and made for very good portraits, but they were not as well-suited to the intensity level of the story.

As for color-vs-B&W thing, Yang could not remember who first suggested black and white for the portrait. He characterized it as a mutual decision between himself and the folks at Esquire. It was captured in color, of course, but the plan was to go B&W for this one all along.

Back to the shoot itself, as is frequently the case, the handlers proved to be running a little tighter than the actual subject. They wanted to move things along to get back to reacting to the developing geopolitical news.

You can always tell by listening for those subtle little signs that tell you your time is up. Like when they are saying repeatedly, "You gotta go, you gotta go, you gotta go..."

But Yang already had what he needed -- a dramatic portrait done in a typical office setting.

He quickly pulled all of the gear -- still set up -- out of Fallon's office. But Fallon came in a few minutes later to pass out some souvenirs and talk about photography.

"He was a nice guy," Yang said. "He has a natural curiosity."

Shortly after the Esquire article was published, Fallon's now very public views on the middle east -- particularly on the prospect of a potential war with Iran -- were deemed to be at odds with those of the Bush Administration. Admiral William J. Fallon announced his resignation on March 11th, effective as of March 31st.


A Little Background

Yang is 30 years old. He was raised in Austin, Texas, where he was for a while a shooter for the Austin American Statesman. In fact, he still includes some work from the Statesman in his portfolio. That's both a nod to how fast he has risen, and how he did not let the fact that he was shooting for a newspaper constrict his style. All you newspaper shooters take note.

In fact, just ten years ago, you would have found him soaking up information wherever he could find it. I note that not to dis Yang (who a very nice guy and a heckuva shooter) but for two very important reasons:

One, to show the speed at which he has risen in the profession. And two, to point out that if you are currently hanging out in in the minor leagues on photo message boards asking gear questions, it is entirely possible that you could be work your way up to The Show in ten years.

To see more of Yang's work, take a look through his website.


Related links:

:: Peter Yang's Website ::
:: Esquire's Article on Fallon ::
:: Other 'On Assignment' Features ::


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Blogger Edo said...

Another banging post. Thanks for taking the time to scan and research the information. This is so much fun!

April 09, 2008 12:39 AM  
Blogger GeoDesigner said...

Excellent pic and solution. I especially loved the final insight of the post, about people like most of us Strobist readers joining the big leagues. Very refreshing to see something like that.

As usual Mr. David, excellent input!

April 09, 2008 12:46 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

Might I say this was one of the more recent posts I found absolutely interesting and wonderful. It makes me more excited for the other changes to come.

Great post. Really enjoyed it.


p.s. Didn't see a comment of mine earlier, just wanted to make sure you knew I'll give you a million dollars if you can get www.olafhauschulz.com to share his lighting.

April 09, 2008 1:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there a picture of this "grid"?
For me it's kind of hard to imagine it without knowing what it is or looks like. :D

April 09, 2008 3:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"that guy from the X-files...."

David are you too shy to say Deep Throat? ;-)


April 09, 2008 4:38 AM  
Anonymous photographe-mariages said...


Thanks for a very interesting post.

I wonder what a reflector grid looks like - pictures anybody? I know about a snoot grid - not a reflector one.

So David recommends the Softbox to create a larger light, but how then are we supposed to attach a grid to the thing? So I believe that rather than using a grid we could fix a gobo so that the light does not hit the top of the head. How we're going to fix a gobo to the softbox is a mystery to me, given the angle of the sides of the softbox...

April 09, 2008 4:45 AM  
Anonymous cdburgerjr said...

I enjoyed this post as well.

I'm curious why the Admiral's left side is lighter than the right side, judging by the ears. Was there a wall or reflector on that side?

I'd almost decided the light was camera-right until I noticed the nose shadow.

April 09, 2008 7:39 AM  
Anonymous Mission67 said...

As usual Mr. Hobby, another excellent post. The plan to reverse engineer shots we see in top publications by working pros is great. I do miss seeing lots of your work however, it too was very inspiring.

Also, just to let you know, you have a loyal following up here in Montreal. We would love to have you up for a seminar some time.

April 09, 2008 9:11 AM  
Blogger Scott Piner said...

If one did not have a grid, would something like a 28" x 28" softbox high & tight also cause the light to fall off that quickly?

Also, about this comment, "But, unlike a big flash in a reflector, a speedlight will not come close to this look unless you increase its apparent size somewhat." Is this because of too many f/stops for the speedlights to produce? Or is there another reason? Thanks!

April 09, 2008 9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a little tiny catchlight in the bottom of both of the Admiral's eyes, and the shadows in the area under his chin appear to be lightened.

Was there a reflector card of some kind below his face? I didn't see a reference to one....?

April 09, 2008 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HOW do you attached the Lumiquest Softbox II to your speedlight?????

thank you

April 09, 2008 11:08 AM  
Blogger Harmeno said...

Great stuff on both parties

April 09, 2008 11:25 AM  
Blogger sgazzetti said...

This post really struck me, because I subscribe to Esquire and found myself absently-mindedly reverse engineering this very picture when I read the article. Since taking your advice to really look at magazine photography's lighting, it takes me about twice as long to get through an issue of Wired, too. Thanks for changing the way I read.

April 09, 2008 11:40 AM  
Blogger BMC Photo Blog said...

I think this site is great. His lighting is pretty simple, easy to reverse engineer (and the occasional peaks at the setup helps) and is very effective. Being an aspiring portraitist, I found this site very informative and inspirational. David is always teaching...

April 09, 2008 12:23 PM  
Blogger Max said...

For those asking, a reflector (in this case looks like this:

Grids look like this:

I'm preparing a blog post to show you how to make an adapter to attach these to your speedlights using a scrap piece of abs plastic and a handful of hardware.

I originally made this to use some used grids I picked up with my SB 600, but lately I've been exploring the looks you can get with just the reflector (sometimes adding a stofen).

The technique shown here also works well... I just tested it on myself, and—if I can bring myself to post self-portraits—I'll post them too.

April 09, 2008 12:37 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Another great post David! I'm not on a newspaper staff but do fall into that ever learning, asking, hopefully improving mode. Something that amazes me is that when I look at my own shots, I really like what I see. This seems very wierd to me cause in about every other part of my life i'm very critical of myself.
Sometimes I wonder if we're all not a bunch of ghetto kids thinking we're all gonna play in the NBA and be famous. And have about the same chances...it would be nice to do an extended interview with some of the ones that have "made it" to the "big show" and maybe try to capture the strategic moves they made that accelerated them to the next level. Was it connections, that one fantastic shot, pure chance, moving to NYC, buying a pro camera or other equipment, luck, - what was it that propelled them to that next level?


April 09, 2008 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this, the post does a great job of taking a VERY well known shot, and bringing it down to a level where I can learn something from it.

I'll never shoot anyone like William Fallon, and wouldn't want to, I'd not be able to stop my hands shaking. But I might have wondered how to get that effect.

The bio piece on William Yang is a great intertwining of subject and photographer as well. Thanks.

April 09, 2008 1:21 PM  
Blogger Uncle Frank said...

I'm very happy that you're rejuvenating the "on assignment" series. It's fascinating to glimpse the creative process skilled strobists use to set up a shot.

I notice you're changed the Strobist motto from "Less Gear • More Brain • Better Light" to "Learn How to Light". I hope you'll continue to relate everything to small flashes. That's been your hook, and it has captured the imagination of a huge number of photographers like me, who are not in the market for big rigs. Jmho.

April 09, 2008 1:33 PM  
Blogger ogalthorpe said...

Enjoyed this here post. And Peter's personal website, too.

A few things:

1. I guessed the light. I'm usually not so good with this but I guessed hard, gridded and close.

2. A cheap way to get a broad source with a speedy light is to modify one of those styrofoam thingys you put over your (outside)water facet to keep it from freezing over. It's somewhat horn shaped to begin with. So you take the small end and cut a hole for your speedy light. On the big end you glue some ripstop or other diffusion material. Now you have a semi-soft source that is still directional but now about 3 times the area of the speedy light.


April 09, 2008 1:44 PM  
Blogger Mark Scheuern said...


I think the reason a Speelight without a lighting modifier wouldn't work well is that, because it's smaller than a studio strobe with a reflector, it acts more like a point source unless you're really close; the light is harsher and more directional. That's why the softbox would be used to increase the relative size of the source. Power shouldn't be a problem given the close distance.

April 09, 2008 1:58 PM  
Anonymous Richard Cave LBPPA said...

David, I have posted a article about the life of a photgrapher when he is not working. Just proving that the job has its down side but it is just as crucial. You may if you want too use it.

Many regards Rich.


Bit cheeky I know, the art of blagging is my next article.

April 09, 2008 3:57 PM  
Anonymous Tim Porter said...

Loved this shot when I first saw it. Thanks for inspiring me to try to recreate it. My effort is here.

April 09, 2008 5:05 PM  
Blogger Blaise said...


What's the difference between using a grid and a snoot? Both seem to make light very directional...

April 09, 2008 6:03 PM  
Blogger Andy M said...

Now this was a fantastic post, I'm realizing how much your OA posts are invaluable (even more than the Lighting 1/2x series).

I see some people are posting some solutions to something I've been thinking for a while now: how to turn the speedlight's rectangular base light beam to a circular (ala strobe head) beam and take advantage of strobe-head modifiers like grids.

Obviously a cone-shaped modifier cut at the lower base would be ideal but the downside is the loss of light power, still haven't figured out how to convert the rectangular light base to a circle light base.

April 09, 2008 6:27 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I dunno, his site is full of shots with lens flare. Is that his "style"?

April 09, 2008 11:15 PM  
Blogger Canon Blogger said...

Dont know how detailed a reverse engineering effect is expected, but I scrolled quickly past the comments to offer my own guess - light from underneath right side as it appears to start out strong and fade toward the top. The catchlights in his eyes also suggest this - was I close?

April 09, 2008 11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not so sure you really quieted our nerves on the equipment issue in terms of having what it takes, but I appreciate your efforts. Also, glad to see pnet in the news/blogosphere as it doesn't get the credit it deserves.

Can some businessman over at flickr just acquire that s$&t and get us an all in one?

Ph, wait, that is what I like about pnet vs. flickr platitudes. Great Shot!

April 10, 2008 1:49 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Here's my blog post about adapting a strobe reflector to your speedlights, including my (fairly creepy) knockoff self-portrait:

I hope some of you find this helpful...

April 10, 2008 2:05 AM  
Blogger M said...

Another great, thought provoking post. It's great to be reminded that even the big shot shooters are still solving the same problem we all are, how to modify the light and get a look that creates meaning in the image. I like the solution Yang used here.

April 10, 2008 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Jade Renee said...

"kinda like the way you'd shoot that guy from the X-Files who was always showing up with the critical, top-secret information."

haha. I love that. I've been watching the X-Files a ton and cannot wait for the new movie, so I laughed when I read that statement.

I'm going to have to try this style out, it's definitely good for conveying emotion. Hopefully I can find someone that will fit this kind of shot...

April 10, 2008 12:00 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

The Cigarette-Smoking Man -- as he is known in X-Files canon -- is a local Vancouver actor here named William B. Davis. He runs an acting school here.

Here is my contribution to the exercise:


April 10, 2008 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK my take:

If you're trying to get some fall off from a soft but otherwise splodgy light: I'd try dropping some strategic flags (black so as not to bounce light elsewhere in the room) between the softened light and the face, arranged orthogonally. For the light source use DH's lumiquest II: or how about a shoot through umbrella if feeling brave re spill; choked down via the speelite being zoomed right in; hence it being not an unduly massive light source. By strategic flags; again the bounce in the rest of the room can be controlled, and of course the inverse square law means you can proabbly arrange the rest of the indirect refelcted spill to go to black if it has far enough to travel.
By keeping the flags just outside the picture; and varying the ratio of light source to flag : flag : face; the rate of fall off of the edge of the illuminated area can be controlled (do I sound convincing yet... ?) i.e. is it a sharp black to white transition; or soft edge... Indeed you could control that further still possibly by using a another layer of diffusion in front of the flagged; soft light source as you do when controlling the edges of reflections in reflective subjects like billiard balls. (I think I'm getting carried away now).

The flags could simply be a rectangular gobo chopped from the bottom of a cardboard box i.e. rectangular hole in a large sheet material...

time to stop rambling and go to bed.

Cheers !

Jonathan Histed

April 10, 2008 7:39 PM  
Blogger Danie said...

Great post. Having shot a number of South African statesmen myself, I know the drill. In and out.

I shot Archbishop Desmond Tutu last year and had the some total of 3 minutes to shoot a cover for a politics mag, and about 5 to set up... in a silly boardroom. It's part of the fun.

With Nelson Mandela's current wife (Graca Machel) it was like trying to get into the White House... I had enough time to set up, but only about 5 minutes to shoot.

I dig what this guy has done. I know the score!

April 11, 2008 3:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I'm going to be the only one to say this...

I don't like this image.

Given the high quality of the photographer's other work, this one seems kind of out-of-character. It's just nothing special to me.

Why is everyone gushing about this shot?

April 11, 2008 10:42 AM  
Blogger Weimar said...

I was lucky enough to be the second assistant on this shoot. Not only is Peter an amazing shooter, he has a great rapport with his subjects. Everything David mentioned in the article is spot on (from what I remember from a very early morning a couple months back).

One thing that wasn't mentioned is the amount of tweaking and fine tuning that was done to accomplish this shot (and the other two) If I remember correctly, about 15-20 minutes to get it exactly correct. That attention to detail, plus a good rapport, is what separates the big dogs from a guy with a camera (and a light source).

April 11, 2008 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Zara said...

For some reason, this shot really grabbed me. Here's my attempt of it, using some fine bent-cardboard lighting instruments. ;-)

This is the first Strobist assignment I've tried, and I'm digging it.

April 24, 2008 2:17 AM  

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