Today's Special: Gourmet Speedlights Al Fresco

UPDATE: Nick was kind enough to drop by and answer some of your questions in comments. (Thanks, Nick!)

I love letting the new submissions to the Strobist Flickr Pool build up for a few days, so I can spend a few hours looking through the thousand or so photos that have dropped in since the last edit.

That's a lot of images to look at in one sitting. But every now and then a photo really jumps out and grabs you. Such was the case with UK-based photographer Nick Turpin's series of portraits of thriller writers, shot for Arena Magazine.

They are sophisticated, stylish and bathed in pools restricted light. And they were done entirely with a few SB-800s and voice-activated light stands.

More, including Nick's video and links, after the jump.

I hope you enjoy this movie as much as I did -- I probably watched it half a dozen times. Take a look, and then keep reading for some of the thought process behind street shooting with multiple SB's as light sources.

Nick says that began as a pure street photographer, and then started evolving his look to include small flashes. The street has since become his impromptu studio, and he is free to choose his settings on a moment's notice. He is now shooting magazine work and advertising campaigns, using gear that would be right at home at a Strobist meetup.

My guess is that he often is able to work without location permits because he is not setting up stands or tripods. And from the look of this video, this series was shot over the course of a single day.

When shooting outdoors in the daytime and using small flashes, there are three things to consider: Ambient level, balance and lighting direction(s).

It is helpful, though not mandatory, to work in shade. This keeps the ambient light at a manageable level. Still you'll want to start out at you highest normal sync speed speed, to give yourself a reasonable aperture.

Take a "properly exposed" photo and look at your frame. It will probably look okay. But likely a little boring, too.

Next, keep your shutter speed where it is, and start to underexpose your ambient light by dialing down your aperture and chimping the back of the camera. This will set the mood and contrast range of your photo. What you are doing is basically setting an ambient "floor" on your overall exposure via your chosen aperture.

How far down should you go? One stop? Two stops? Five stops? That is entirely up to you and depends on the look you are trying to achieve.

Now, bring in your lights. You will have to dial them up to a power level sufficient to properly expose your subject at the aperture you have chosen in the last step. Nick is using multiple SB-800's, snooted and aimed (via the VAL's) to create multi-directional pools of light on his subjects.

This is where it gets more difficult. Nick's eye for narrative (and humor, if you look at some of his other work) is what defines where he places his subjects and his lights. Sometimes he motivates the light with objects on the set (i.e., the lamp post) and sometimes he goes for pure, seemingly random whimsy. Your photos probably will not look like Nick's because you will bring an entirely different eye to your settings, body attitude and light placement.

But however you do it, cool things start to happen when you balance multiple hard lights against soft fill. It is as if your subject wandered into an area of interesting, mixed light. Texture happens. Depth happens. Interestingness happens. Sure, the light from the strobes is hard, but the shadows are only as deep as you set them with your baseline ambient exposure. So it is all under control.

What are your thoughts? Were you as surprised as I was to find the photos were done with speedlights and VALs? I found myself thinking back to Gregory Crewdson, mostly because of the sense of place defined by those pools of light.

Pretty amazing, when you think of the comparative amounts of gear being brought to bear on the shoots.

I love that VAL street lamp boom. To be honest, I love all of the photos in this series. It's amazing how he can be at once both sophisticated and mobile.

You can the whole series of portraits of thriller writers at Turpin's website. (More projects, and another video, here.)


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Anonymous Robert D Frazier said...

Having a mobile lighting set like that would be great. Much easier than carrying around a lighting kit.

September 08, 2008 12:15 AM  
Blogger fartonmyear said...

what trigger is that?

September 08, 2008 12:20 AM  
Blogger David said...

It's a microsync:

September 08, 2008 12:22 AM  
Anonymous steve Thompson said...

Silly noob question. What is a VAL?

September 08, 2008 1:56 AM  
Blogger Tommy said...

I notice he shoots with Canon cameras but shoots with Nikon flashes. Is there an advantage to using Nikon flashes as opposed to Canon's?



September 08, 2008 2:18 AM  
Blogger Michelle Jones said...

It's great to see a UK photographer being featured. I love what he is doing with the lights (obviously) and it was really interesting to see the set ups and the use of VALs.
Thank you for the heads up David!

September 08, 2008 3:54 AM  
Blogger Matthias Glastra said...

I was completely blown away by the results. I makes me thing of some new things I might do with my flash when going in ambient light on the street.

But first I need to by a new flash. My SB-600 died after about 4 years of use.

September 08, 2008 3:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I use the Nikon D40/D50/D70 which will let me sync at unlimited speeds with a non-TTL flash. I know this has been discussed here before. But it amazes me every time I see rated sync speeds of cameras that cost so much more. I can sync at 1/16 power at 1/4000 with an SB-24 or SB-800. Maybe at 1/8 power. It's sooo useful! You must shoot wired, though. Or, I think the built in optical slave of the SB-800 works, too. Radio transmitters are too slow.

I've been thinking about getting a new camera, but I have no doubt that I will still use the D50 because of the sync speed.

September 08, 2008 5:02 AM  
Blogger dr frank said...

As always, an excellent post with a great commentary on technique. Thanks for posting this information!

September 08, 2008 7:31 AM  
Blogger Andrew Alexander said...

@steve thompson - VAL = voice-actuated lightstand (a human holding the flash for you).

September 08, 2008 8:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant. I'd seen his work in 125 magazine and enjoyed it. This was a great little video and his website is pretty cool too.

September 08, 2008 8:57 AM  
Blogger LiteningKid said...

Sweet Lighting Techniques. Lots of new info for me. I do have a few questions though. What does chimping mean? Also how do VAL's work. Lastly @ anonymous "I use the Nikon D40/D50/D70 which will let me sync at unlimited speeds with a non-TTL flash." Is this possible with the D80 and could you post a tutorial on how to do it. Sync speed is my bigest hurdle with the nikon D80. Thanks.

September 08, 2008 9:24 AM  
Blogger Biography said...

David i'm a little confused... SB 800's with Canon? Is that possible?

Great post though, Love Nick Turpins work!

September 08, 2008 9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is that long curly cord on the pole? Is that to a power pack?

September 08, 2008 10:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you think that long hand held boom was? Bogen?

September 08, 2008 10:01 AM  
Anonymous three_am said...

The advantage of shooting Nikon over Canon flashes is that Nikon flashes were a bit cheaper. Given that power levels are similar and you are using them in non-TTL, manual mode.

There is nothing like getting a "free" extra flash for every five you buy. :)

September 08, 2008 10:32 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

That VAL boom was completely over the top. Considering the final image used only a few feet up the lightstandard did the light have to get all the way up to the lamp? No, you could use something to modify the light and get it close. easy to say after the fact, perhaps he started wanting the entire lamp in frame.

While I kinda dig the results I found some of the spots a little hot, the ones on the guys feet for example

September 08, 2008 11:21 AM  
Blogger Karthik Sudhir said...

I absolutely love the lamp post shots,like the others too but love that one, prolly should have gotten in the head of the lamp post too, kinda looks incomplete

so WHAT is the difference between nikon and canon flashes????

September 08, 2008 11:24 AM  
Blogger Stuart said...

@biography: "SB 800's with Canon? Is that possible?"

It is if you're using a pocket wizard or some other trigger, instead of relying on the proprietary wireless trigger mechanisms.

September 08, 2008 11:28 AM  
Anonymous Nikhil said...

Excellent and very informative post. Love the fact he used VALs to make these shots.


September 08, 2008 11:53 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I appreciate your clear, simplified explanation walking us through the actual mental steps, decision making process and overall thought process for a real world shot and not get sidetracked with too much technical data.
While the technical data is important, approaching a shot in a logical, speedy (when dealing w/people and changing environment), methodical order is more important.
Having the right answers is easy -- knowing what questions to ask is hard. ;-)

September 08, 2008 12:03 PM  
Blogger Matt Rowell said...

Some of the locations and ideas are great, but I'm not really a big fan of the random light. Why put a spot on the subject's feet and face? However, the overhead shot was very dramatic, I'm going to have to make a big boom pole like that.

September 08, 2008 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Nick Turpin said...

Thanks for posting the video David, I thought I would answer some of the questions above. I use Canon cameras but Nikon flashes because I find them so controllable in manual, they are very consistent in their light output and come with nice little stands that allow easy attachment to a ball and socket head on my poles. I sync them with Microsync transmitters and receivers because they are very small and actually reasonably priced. The Pole is carbon fiber and 9m long, it is so long because I want to shoot wide scenes with plenty of street whilst highlighting my subject with the strobe. The curly cable coming down the pole is going to a quantum power pack on my assistants hip.
I try to make the lights replicate pools of sunlight, the kind of light you see on the streets of NYC, that is why I sometimes light feet or the wall. In the shot of the guy in the doorway the light on his feet actually highlights a pile of cigarette butts to imply he has been waiting there watching the street for sometime like a private detective from a thriller novel.

I would like to thank everyone for their interest and comments.

September 08, 2008 12:48 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Nice stuff. The first shot under the "Works" category on his site (two women on bench, pigeons flying) reminds me SO much of Garry Winogrand (RIP). His street photography is excellent.

September 08, 2008 12:53 PM  
Blogger Paolo said...

Thanks David for posting this! I liked the way he focuses the lights on specific spots, and I liked even more his street photos.
The lamppost shot reminded me of a shot I did too couple of month ago.
What do you think of those remotes?

September 08, 2008 2:07 PM  
Blogger Christopher Arata said...

So I watched his other video, when he is on stage shooting in the mock plane. I don't think the row of Arri 2500 HMI is very strobist, haha, with those lights pushing through the windows I don't think he really needed those SB.

September 08, 2008 2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This will probably get lost in the other comments, but I think David said it backwards.

If you 'dial down' the f stop that makes the surrounding image darker. David, you said step 3 is make the flash the same as the new (smaller) aperture. I think you make the flash for step 1 not step 3. What am I missing?


September 08, 2008 2:59 PM  
Anonymous mizz maze said...

Great post. I found it really inspiring, especially after some recent shoots that have left me wanting to do more and more in terms of sculpting light.

I love love loooove the shot of the man in the doorway. That assignment is just the type I'd like to be getting from magazines.

See you in LA, DH!

September 08, 2008 3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had to go back and look for the pile of cigarette butts at the author's feet. A brilliant touch, Nick! Thanks so much for sharing the video - love your style of shooting and lighting.

September 08, 2008 3:54 PM  
Anonymous Steve Thompson said...

Thanks @Andrew Alexander I figured it was something like that, but couldn't put the acronym together.

September 08, 2008 5:16 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

i had dinner with nick a couple months ago when he was here in nyc. he is as charming as he is talented.

September 08, 2008 7:56 PM  
Anonymous reid said...

David, thanks for the thought process about using ambient to set a "floor" and then adding hard light for interest. That made a lot of sense to me and really tied somethings together.

Also, I want to point out that there was NO TECHNO in this video. At all. This may be a first. THANK YOU!

September 08, 2008 8:40 PM  
Blogger Hansen said...

am I the only one wondering why the model buttoned all of his jacket's buttons?

September 08, 2008 9:03 PM  
Blogger dd-b said...

But how did he get that many authors to put on a coat and tie in one day? Inconceivable!

September 08, 2008 10:13 PM  
Blogger malnitz said...

Why does he maintain the shutter speed and step down the aperture to get underexposed images. Does it not change the DOF?

Why don't he maintain the aperture and dial the shutter shutter speed to maintain the same DOF?

September 09, 2008 3:40 AM  
Anonymous stk said...

Humm... Nick, is that "start site" all that can be seen, or is your website "optimized" for, say, Internet Explorer, leaving Firefox users out in the rain?

It's kind of tragic how many exceptionally good photographers still think they may resize browser windows and use layout constructs that just don't work everywhere :-/

September 09, 2008 4:51 AM  
Blogger David said...


The link is to his thriller pix. Mail site is here.


1/250th would be the upper limit on the shutter speed, so you have to crank the aperture to kill exposure.


September 09, 2008 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Hoover said...

I liked the Speedlight on a pole set up.Was not able to locate a 9 meter Carbon fiber pole on the web, but I did find this....

Search for Fred Marvin Fiberglass poles. They come in 6 & 8 foot sections that you can put together.



September 09, 2008 9:53 AM  
Anonymous Craig Murphy said...

Anyone know what 'The Pole' is? Where you would get one?

September 09, 2008 1:29 PM  
Anonymous Nathanael Gassett said...

Nick, if your still reading, I'm curious how you managed to do some of the setups (the ones involving ladders and/or boom poles) in the middle of the street. They streets don't look very busy at all, but still. Do you shoot and move locations pretty fast, or are the people just really lax about it all?

September 09, 2008 2:11 PM  
Anonymous Sexy pinay said...

hi there! I like the wit and thoughts of your blog.. anyway, i just stubled upon here from google.. what can I say? I must subscribe to your feed =)

September 09, 2008 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Nick Turpin said...

The 9M pole is a modified carbon fishing pole used by the French when fishing their big canals, I cut off the last two sections because they are two flexible and fit a manfrotto ball and socket joint to take the strobe (You need to use tape when drilling the carbon to prevent the drill slipping).
I use quantum pack extension cables to power the flash and they are fired with microsync transmitters. I have small cords specially made by paramount cords in the US

I use assistants to carry my flashes to avoid using stands and so avoid needing permits to shoot...occassionally I use a ladder but that is quite rare...if I'm doing a shoot like the Arena one I will often choose a quiet location.
My other main projects this year 'Youth' and 'The Bridge' are lit simply by hand held flashes, no ladders or poles....they are on my site also.
The portraits for Channel 4 on my news page were done using the 9m pole.

Hope that's useful.

September 10, 2008 5:51 AM  
Blogger Urs said...

Hi David,
I started reading (loosing sleep over) your blog about two weeks ago. Today, after what seems like endless waiting, I got my first SB 26 in the mail, so I guess I am officially a Strobist now.

Thanks so much for all your work here!

September 10, 2008 9:02 AM  
Anonymous abatarphoto said...

I just love this style!!!
regards/Sweden - Europe

September 10, 2008 1:54 PM  
Blogger Diego Indraccolo said...

I was already familiar with Nick's work, but having him on this forum explaining his photography like this is priceless!

The magic of Strobist!

September 10, 2008 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Wow, I know see what NOT being afraid of shadows can get me. Very interesting images and I am in awe of how he turns seemingly random locations into killer locations.

September 10, 2008 8:14 PM  
Anonymous Nathanael Gassett said...

Thanks, Nick, that answers my question.
Took a look at The Bridge and Youth albums, very nice work, I enjoyed it! I especially liked the idea behind the Bridge.


September 11, 2008 1:36 PM  
Blogger Mark J. Rebilas said...

Hey David,
Big fan of your site and the information it provides. Since the site is about strobes and the lighting they provide maybe you should feature natures strobes...lightning. I am a sports photog but lately have been toying around shooting storms here in Phoenix.

I can add more set up shots showing how it was done if that would make it better to feature. Thanks alot and keep up the stellar work with this site

Mark J Rebilas

September 11, 2008 3:09 PM  
Anonymous Dave T said...

Great post.
Any idea what the snoots are that are used on the strobes? They look as though they are purpose made rather than home produced.

Also, how would I attach the microsync system to a strobe without a PC sync fitting - e.g. a Canon 580EX?

September 12, 2008 1:38 AM  
Blogger Sorin Florea said...

10x for the post. Great and usefull as usual.

September 13, 2008 7:04 AM  
Blogger PleasantDreams said...

I find it nice to carry around my Mono-Pod (MX 450) which can be adjusted to 6 feet in length. I attach my flash to the end and trigger it with the use of my Cactus (Poverty Wizard). I would love to have a couple VAL's with me...ever try to hold a 6 foot long pole with a strobe on the end in one and shoot with the other. Not Fun. Thanks for posting this Great Photogapher and Awesome Photos. I learned a great deal.

September 13, 2008 9:56 AM  
OpenID realitytourist said...

stuff. Since the flashes weren't obvious in many of the video frames, it was impressive to see the results in the stills. Also nice to see someone making use of "hard" flash and not dumping 10 SBs into an umbrella. :P

What I really want to know is where to find such attractive light stands? :)


September 13, 2008 9:57 PM  
OpenID tctcdk said...

Wonderful photos - Made me think of Wells The Third Man.

September 20, 2008 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The light on the pants of the top subject and the shoes of the second in the stills is too hot.

When shooting true portraiture, the eye should go to the face first when viewing the finished image.

A good way to check is to squint at the shot on the chimp. If anything is lighter than the face, including clothes, hair highlights etc, adjust your lights (and exposure if nec) until the face is lighter.


December 27, 2008 7:02 PM  
Blogger David said...

Dave T, the snoots look like they are made out of cinefoil, a cheap, thick version of aluminium foil. It's really useful stuff.

May 22, 2009 9:05 PM  
Blogger TomC said...

> The manpris just look gay as hell. I
> wonder if he has a manpurse too?

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for that very insightful comment.

May 22, 2009 11:49 PM  
Blogger David said...


Thanks for calling that idiot's comment to my attention. Don't know how I missed rejecting it before.

Gotta love "anonymous".

May 23, 2009 12:49 AM  
Anonymous Phil Knight said...

@anonymous - "The light on the pants of the top subject and the shoes of the second in the stills is too hot. "

The bright spots add to the mystery of the shots. Take the second still, for example. If your eyes indeed hit his feet first as mine do, the brightly lit rim on his face becomes the second focal point, followed by his ambient lit face. Its almost like turning a corner, surprised to find someone there, and looking up to see who it is. I love this layering.

May 27, 2009 3:16 PM  
Blogger Dean said...

Love this work - brilliant and very inspirational. I was wondering if Nick could talk a bit about the setup on the bridge series on his website. Those are also remarkable shots.

August 02, 2009 11:42 AM  
Blogger Said the Spider to the Fly said...

I've just watched this video back again. The first time around it inspired me to give the technique a go and I tried it out with a friend of mine.

I've just noticed I picked the same location as Nick, an alley opposite Spitalfields Market. He use a toplight from the lamp post on a boom and I used the same lamp post to attach my flash to. here's the image

You can just see the shop sign, a hairdresser's.

May 20, 2010 5:03 PM  
Blogger Sharna said...

Terrific lighting techniques. Love Love Love the light on the face and feet. That light pole image was SUPERB! Excellent use of VAL's (voice activated lights) aka people holding the lights and you telling them where to point them for all those that didn't know. Thanks again David Hobby for teaching us this amazing stuff. YOU ROCK!!!!!


September 08, 2011 12:09 AM  
Blogger spottheblogger said...

@Ian said...

"That VAL boom was completely over the top. Considering the final image used only a few feet up the lightstandard did the light have to get all the way up to the lamp? No, you could use something to modify the light and get it close."

Ian, you are forgetting the inverse square law. The VAL boom light is apx 6 feet above the subject, apx 12 feet above the ground. With the light adjusted to correctly expose the subject's face, it falls off down his body, and spills gently on the ground, providing 1/4 the light on the ground (2x from the light as the subject) as on the face, and producing the lamp pole shadow in that pool of light.

But if we move the boom'd light 3 feet closer to the subject's head, the light becomes 4x stronger on the subject. We have to dial down the light 2 stops (1/4 the light) to avoid over exposing the subject. Now the ground is 3x from the light as from the subject, so you get 1/16 of the light on the ground as on your subject, and that lovely pool of light with the light pole shadow in the middle just disappears.

October 12, 2011 2:11 AM  
Blogger Tinderbox said...

Like tctcdk, I also thought of "The Third Man". That's what I thought Nick was going for particularly in the shot with the man's feet sticking out of the doorway. I thought that was a great homage(perhaps unintended?) of Orson Welles' introduction in the film.

November 06, 2011 9:30 AM  

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