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Lighting 102: 7.1 - Flash Zoom and Stone Soup

Remembering back to our last post in Lighting 102, we talked about panning, rotating and selective diffusion as a means of altering your photo after the flash has popped but before the shutter has closed.

The fourth time-based manipulation I frequently use is zooming through the exposure. And last month we pulled that technique out of our as.. bag of tricks during the "stone soup" shoot in NYC.

Having thrown down the gauntlet for a local shooter to come up with a subject and venue, I was at first a little underwhelmed with the response. I mean, this was NYC, fer Pete's sake. There had to be something interesting going on.

Then Tim Herzog popped up, with not one but four separate ideas. His strategy: Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.

What stuck was an invite up onto the roof of one of those amazing apartment buildings on the Upper West Side overlooking central park. Not a bad location, you know, if you have to slum it... Here's the view, looking northeast, right after sunset. It is a five-shot stitch shot on a D300 and assembled in CS3. (Thanks for the easy pano tip, Ben!)

If you are not the jealous type, click on the pic to see it bigger. Michael (who granted us access to his rooftop) just stood there enjoying the view with us, with the serenity of a man who has chosen a kickass place to live.

Timothy, ever the gracious host, had also brought along puppeteer Patrick Zung as our subject. And Patrick is not one of those "sock puppet" makers, either. He builds these cool puppets used for stop-motion animation. The joints were made out if pool balls -- genius. It was cool and creepy, all at the same time. Like something out of the movie, "A.I.," if you ask me.

The view was amazing. But logistically, I knew the photo was gonna be tough. The park pretty much went to black after the sun went down. And the Midtown buildings, along with the rooftop's layout forced us to shoot in a way that was tough to get the good lights in the frame unless we crammed up against the edge.

Also, we had no way to light him from the far side. Unless you had a 300-foot light stand. Or Spiderman.

So, as our light started waning, I lit Patrick and friend with an umbrella'd SB-800, ( front camera right) secretly wishing I had invited Peter Parker along to assist. We really needed that light out on the far side for separation.

As our ambient started to drop further, I added a couple of accent lights to add some shape to our subjects.

As you can see, one came from back camera right and another from underneath the puppet. These gave a more 3-D look to our guys. Also, I gelled those flashes with a 1/2 CTO and a fluorescent green combo, which gets you a neat, sodium vapor feel without going all of the way there. Sort of the way sodium vapor looks to the eye, rather than to the camera. It is more logical. Straight white light would look weird and contrived in this environment.

Shooting handheld with a 70-200/2.8, our ambient light was dropping fast. Patrick's black top was not going to separate without some light from the left, and things were getting darker by the minute.

As my shutter speed inched toward the Hail Mary range (~1/4 sec) I started pulling the zoom as I shot. This gave me another look to the lights -- and a more abstract look to the photo. Suddenly the environment was not necessarily a New York rooftop. It was a weird, swooshy thing that really started to fit well with the creepy futuristic puppet vibe.

So we decided to let the black top go dark and just hint at the separation with the swooshed city lights. (I could vary the background light by opening up the shutter.) I really liked the effect that zooming gave the background. And the up-light on the puppet (and Patrick) added some nice form. FWIW, the form on the shirt comes from the back/right light.

It is important that the ambient light level on Patrick was lower than that in the background. Otherwise he would ghost badly during the burn-in time. We had scads of sodium vapor up there, so we knocked it down some with a piece of black foam core that is always with me in my bag. We simply "A-clamped" it to the light fixture.

I would have used Tim as a gobo, but he was already working as my voice-activated back-right light stand. There is still some ghosting on Patrick, but I think that little bit works okay within the abstract feel of the photo.

Another thing on the zoom -- start the zooming (wide-to-tele in this case) before you hit the shutter. This makes for a smoother effect without the jerky looks you'll get otherwise.

We finished it out at about the one-second at f/2.8 (ISO 400) light level. When it gets that dark, it is time to call it a night. Plus, there was to be food involved at this point.

In NYC, you are never more than a few minutes walk from some good food -- and Tim delivered there, too.

NEXT: L102 7.2 - Time in a Bottle


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