Talkin' Trash: Free Light Mods

(Updates at bottom)

News photographers always keep a trash bag or two in the trunk of their car. They have lots of uses -- waterproofing in the rain, keeping your cold gear from fogging up when you walk outside on a hot day, cleaning out the trash in your trunk (nah)...

Enter my friend Aaron, who works at Google. FYI, he's the guy who manually types in the phrase, "Did you mean, 'vacuum?'" when you misspell the word in a search. Aaron just added a new use for white trash bags: Light diffuser.

He just wadded the bag up, stuck it (and a CTO gel) on his main light, shot on tungsten WB and left his rim light ungelled for this cool self portrait. Typical Googler, he is ahead of the curve on Lighting 102, where we'll be doing this same gel technique very shortly.

(You can see his photo bigger here.)

Pretty neat, IMO. So, to the list of free stuff offered to employees at Google (gourmet food, bikes, massages, etc.,) you can now add, "light diffuser." Just find the nearest trash can and have at it.

As for the look, Aaron was inspired by photos of the SF Jazz Collective. As jazz is all about improvisation, you have to think they'd approve of his idea.

UPDATE: Just got a text msg from Aaron, who is on a work trip to NYC, has just stepped into the B&H retail store for the very first time. Be afraid, Jayita. Be very, very afraid...

UPDATE #2: Good news: Google sends you to NYC to lecture on the company dime. Bad news: Your trip coincides with a visit by Joe McNally (and free lecture) at the Mountain View HQ. (D'Oh!!!)



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Anonymous Anonymous said...

First Comment. lol

May 16, 2008 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Using trash bags was discussed in the Flickr Strobist discussions several months ago:

May 16, 2008 1:32 PM  
Blogger Cerys said...

Hmm. We've just got the order to only use the white ones at my worksplace (Jessops)

I forsee mass-rubbish-bag stealage...

May 16, 2008 1:42 PM  
Blogger Barry said...

Only thing you gotta watch out for is putting plastic stuff like this right against the face of a strobe, it can melt with just one or two triggers. Gels are made to withstand the heat, but garbage bags and crinkly colored plastic giftwrap (what I used) are not so hardy.

May 16, 2008 2:27 PM  
Blogger rafamvc said...

Neat portrait. Well done.
It is nice how he a google guy and still uses flickr. It isn't wrong, because he has his fredom to choose, but I wouldn't expect.

May 16, 2008 2:51 PM  
Blogger Patrick Snook said...

Very nice . . . and great coincidence . . . I just posted a picture today in the group that used my own variation on the theme of free light modifier . . . a grid improvised from penne pasta. I love the tight fall of light in this picture, and the 3-D effect created by the ring light. Well done!

May 16, 2008 4:01 PM  
Blogger LiteningKid said...

What is the setup for this. These are the type of portraits I want to do but can't seem to get the background black with out a (duh) black background. Here it doesn't look like a black background somebody help. Also I can't restrict the light to only that portion of the face.

May 16, 2008 5:07 PM  
OpenID kblawson said...

Like this shot very much

Ken from KY

May 16, 2008 5:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LighteningKid: basically, you underexpose the whole picture, and use the strobes to 'overexpose' the subject. The result is the subject is properly exposed, but the (underexposed) background goes dark. You'll have to experiment with how much underexposure of the picture vs. how much flash to crank up to get it to look right. Try this: with the flash off and the camera in manual, underexpose enough so the whole frame is dark. Then turn the flash on at, say, 1/8 power, and shoot at that same exposure (f-stop and shutter speed) as when you got the dark frame. Keep turning up the flash until you get it right.

To 'tighten' the direction of the light, either move the strobe very close to the subject, or use a grid or a snoot to control the spread of the flash, or both. In the picture, I visualize the flash as being just outside the frame of the picture, overhead and a little bit in front of Aaron.

May 16, 2008 6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have used trash bags for the walls of my cardboard soft box.

May 16, 2008 6:54 PM  
Anonymous wedding photographer france said...

Fantastic! I am also interested in how Aaron managed this nice black background.

May 16, 2008 7:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wedding photographer france asks: "Fantastic! I am also interested in how Aaron managed this nice black background."

WP, it's easy. Underexpose the ambient light by a few stops. Then use a controlled light on the subject.

The image below I shot in ambient room light with an off camera SB600 with a simple printer paper snoot. I then did a B&W conversion and dimmed out my face in PP because, well, I much prefer to be behind the camera than in front of it! (~me goes back into hiding behind my viewfinder now~)

May 16, 2008 8:13 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Thanks all. A couple of people asked about the black background:

Keep in mind that the main light is about 6 inches from my forehead. A good rule of thumb is: As you double the distance from the light, it drops 2 stops. So by the time it reaches my shoulders, its 2 stops under "correct" exposure (hence the rapid falloff).

The wall behind me is about 4 feet away, which works out to 2x2x2 times that 6 inches. Each of those "2x" factors drops the intensity by 2 stops putting the background about 6 stops below "correct" exposure; pretty-much black.

May 16, 2008 9:18 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Re. "Update #2":

Rub it in, and you might find security feeding you to the dinosaur the next time you visit campus. ;)

May 16, 2008 10:20 PM  
Blogger LiteningKid said...

Thanks for the responses. I'll give it a try tomorrow and post post the outcome. As usual you guys are great.

P.S. BTW does it matter what lens you use? If so what lens did you use Aaron.

May 16, 2008 11:53 PM  
Blogger OiD said...

I've used this technique a few times. I use a computer fan to blow it up with air with the flash inside, but I find it quite uncomfortable.

May 18, 2008 10:07 AM  
Anonymous wedding photographer france said...


Thanks for the clear explanation of how to get a black background! It makes a lot of sense and I'll certainly try.

Anonymous with the SB600 - interesting selfportrait indeed. I'm not too hot on the dimming but just my personal taste. Nice use of black anyway.

May 18, 2008 4:07 PM  
Anonymous Londoner said...

Reading this must've caused a few synapses to light up, because it just occurred to me these white rubbish bags (two or three together) might make a good instant light tent when draped over a suitable makeshift frame. So, off to amuse myself for an hour or so...

Nice portrait BTW.

May 18, 2008 7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should also be able to inflate the bag and fire the flash from behind for a makeshift softbox, assuming the light loss isn't too great.

May 21, 2008 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Picture of a similar setup. The bag was part of a corn flakes package. It is much sturdier than your average garbage bag. :-)

July 07, 2008 11:12 AM  

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