On Assignment: Reluctant Poet

I spent the morning recently with poet Linda Joy Burke, doing photos which were to be used for publicity and marketing. We chose as our location Ellicott City, MD, a neat little historic town that was convenient for both of us.

Linda Joy is a free spirit and a very creative person. So I knew I would be able to play a little with the lighting. But, like many people, she loathes having her photo taken. And that always adds another wrinkle to the shoot.

Keep reading to see how we approached the issues, both lighting and psychological.

"I Hate Having My Picture Taken."

That was the first bit of instruction I got from Linda Joy. And if I had a dollar for every time I had heard that from a subject, I could probably retire. In fact, if someone came up to me and said, "I really love having my picture taken," my first thought might be that they were a tad off-center, if you know what I mean.

So, from square one I know that the lighting, setting and compositional considerations will all take a back seat to Linda Joy's primary concern. And my most important job is to make sure she can relax and to let her know that my primary goal is to make a nice photo of her.

Someone who does not like to be photographed tends to see the camera as a bit of an enemy, and that can easily transfer to the photographer. It's something you should be aware of, and you can work proactively to let the subject know that you are on the same side.

My approach is, as much as possible, to have gear pre-set when they arrive so you can just walk and talk them through the settings before they really have a chance to worry too much. At the same time, I want to pay close attention to whatever happens to be working well during the shoot and to make a point to reinforce those aspects in conversation.

Get There Early

Having chosen a location, my first job is to scout it for good angles. Our light is pretty diffuse here (open shade on a sunny day) so in this case it is about background and environment.

What backgrounds and graphic elements can I use to frame a portrait? That is what I am asking as I walk around and make notes.

There are lots of choices here, and I tend to make notes with the camera as seen at left. I like looking at the location in "picture notes" as they look much closer to how they will look in the final product.

I also will play with my ambient exposures at this point to see what the environment will look like if I walk the ambient down a bit.

In this case, here is the ambient exposed dead-on in the top frame and the dropped nearly two stops in the bottom photo. (If that is confusing, see this post.)

We have talked before in the On Assignment section about the fact that shade is your friend. And as you can see here, it is -- for more than one reason.

First, obviously, the exposure is easier to tame so we can bring the subject back up with flash. Figure three stops -- a big difference -- from the nearby full sun. It is dim enough so that you do not necessarily have to shoot at a 250th, too. Which gives you a little more control over the levers.

I keep a personal catalog of nearby settings and backdrops in my location notes folder, and each backdrop has a cardinal direction attached to it, too.

I live in the northern hemisphere, so the north side of a building will always be in shade. These are my prime backdrops -- they are good 24/7, in terms of controlling the sun.

In this case, my backdrop was on the west side of the building. So that meant a morning shoot. FWIW, this is why west-wall locations are lowest in my personal pecking order. Not a morning guy.

Second, I like the shade because it is cool. Literally, in the summer, but here I mean color temperature. And that coolness is enhanced even more when you drop the exposure a stop or two.

Working Together

When Linda Joy arrives, I am ready to shoot quickly if need be, or to keep going if things work well. For the first setup, I used an older White Lightning Ultra 600 in a Photoflex soft box. The WL's flash tube is UV balanced, and old. This makes it warm enough to forego the usual Rosco 1/4 CTO or Rosco "08" warming filter I normally use on my key light.

You can see the setup here. I have dropped the ambient by about a stop and a half. Where the flash lights, everything is warm. Where the ambient is the primary part of the exposure, things cool down. I always like that as a starting point for people. I'll break that rule on occasion, but usually only for effect.

I brought the WL because I did not know how big of an area I would want to light. In this open shade, I could have done the same thing with an SB-800 (or two, at max) in a shoot-through umbrella.

If you look up the stairs, you'll see a second flash (an SB-800) backlighting them. In my setup I went with this light, but in the end I chose to leave the stairs dark. They were very near the edge of the frame and provided an easy exit point for the view. (Hello -- lit stairs, heading out of my frame. Talk about an engraved invitation to leave the photo...)

So, I sat Linda Joy on the steps to the next building, after placing a soft case from a flex fill under her so her hand-made, vintage dress would not get dirty. Time to make photos.

I kept Linda Joy talking, finding out as much as possible about who she was and what she did, creatively, as we shot. This kept her thinking about things other than the photographer with the digital Uzi pointed at her.

I also used one of my favorite tricks -- coming out from behind the camera. Even though I normally do not shoot with a tripod unless I am bringing up a really dark ambient, I can usually frame a photo and then move my face out from behind the camera as I shoot. Your aim will shift a little bit, but if you zoom out a tad you can fix this easily in post.

The eye contact usually relaxes people a bit, and helps to create a stronger interpersonal exchange. Sounds silly, but it helps.

Before we moved onto the next setup, I walked around to camera left in the previous frame and did some tight headshots. I tried them with the soft box, but now I needed shallow depth of field. So I turned off the strobe and shot natural light at a wide aperture. I love her hair, and wanted to do something close that highlighted its texture. If only all of my subjects had layered frames like Linda Joy's hair.

The open sunlight to the camera right side of the frame made a nice light source and I could grab a series of head shots in just a couple minutes.

Don't ignore what the ambient is offering you just because you trucked in the flashes. Being able to light is an additive skill, not a death sentence to available light shooting.

Next, over to the tree, where I wanted to do another setup.

Remembering the exposure test seen above, I dropped my ambient about two stops and then set up an SB-800 in a Lumiquest SB-III as a key light.

Here is the setup. As you can see, I am almost exposing for full sun (at left) even though I am in deep shade for the shot.Then, I'll build back the light on the subject with flash.

My key (the LumiQuest SB-III) is a pretty hard light source at that distance. But that's okay because I am going to fill with ring to be able to see into the shadows while still keeping that background ambient muted and blue.

Against the blue, I gelled my SB-800 key light with a 1/4 CTO. One of my SB-800's has a 1/4 CTO pretty much permanently attached. I just use it as my key all the time, which saves me any gel swapping.

What can I say? I am lazy.

So, the ambient sets the exposure -- dropped for color and tonal contrast. To that I add in my key, until the tree looks right. (Linda Joy approximates the tree on a tonal basis, so that will be an easy adjustment if needed when she steps in.)

To that, I add some ring fill (hey, I been practicin'...) which will bring up her shadow side exactly as much as I want. Controlling the drop-off amount to shadow allows me to use a smaller key light source and get away with it. If the shadow does not drop off too far, it can be harder with no ill effects.

When I bring Linda Joy in, we are still deep in conversation. It's just that now, she is standing in front of the tree while we are yakking.

Sure, she knows she is getting her photo taken. But by now the edge has worn off a little. Also, I have showed her some of the results of the shoot up until now, and the thought has occurred to her that I just might not be out to make her look terrible. Imagine that.

About five minutes later we were done. And we still had our entire day ahead of us, as we would normally both have been just rolling out of bed about now.

NEXT: On Assignment: WiMAX


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Blogger Nikhil said...

Excellent post again David... very good shots as usual...

October 31, 2008 12:57 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Am I the only person that really isn't digging/getting the whole 'ring-flash fill' thing? I get that it fills in the shadows, but isn't that something that we are trying to avoid by getting the flash off camera? I've read and re-read the older posts on this, but it tends to look flat to me.

October 31, 2008 1:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

... and too often the people who complain the loudest that they do not like to be photographed... are absolutely beautiful!

October 31, 2008 1:12 AM  
Blogger Cesar S said...

When you say drop off amount of shadow, you are talking about the contrast?

And, when, is hard light acceptable, and when is it not, on a portrait? Does it depend on how much shadow detail you are getting with the fill?

October 31, 2008 3:07 AM  
Blogger Danie said...

Ahoi, like the post. Reminds me of some poets I've had to shoot - literary bunch always a challenge.
I like how you warm up your main - it reminds me of film days where I used a 80A on Kodak E100VC to get that warm solid skin tones.

By adding a brush light (left ungelled) to her hair-line, I think you could really make her stand out even more, Tim Tadder-style! But again, that's taste.

Really digged this post.

@TIM: I'm with you on that one, mate. The whole ring-flash on axis fill thing rarely adds to a pic for me, but as all things, opinions are like noses, and I just proved I had one. Rather go all-out - see Nicolas Guerin's portrait of Daniel Craig - then on axis comes to its own.

October 31, 2008 3:46 AM  
Anonymous Colby McLemore said...

I love the nuts and bolts view that you presented. Giving an inside your head blow by blow story helps me wrap my head around it. Thanks for everything.

October 31, 2008 3:47 AM  
Blogger Danie said...

Also - I love the interaction - human stuff. Keep that going in your posts. That's where us photographers really need to know our stuff. I think often times my biggest skill is the soft ones!

October 31, 2008 3:47 AM  
Blogger Matt Sanderson said...

Tim: I think it's just seen as another technique, like CTO'ing your flash to warm up a portrait, or GOBO'ing to add dimension. Some dig it, some don't. It's always useful to know though, and be effective in being able to pull a ring-flash out of the bag without worrying how to use it - if the time came to use it.

Personally, I don't see much point unless it's used as the main-light, with other lights used to add dimension to your subject. And usually, I like it to be used in close-crop portraits as the catch-lights look awesome and the skin tones really look nice and even when using it.

October 31, 2008 3:59 AM  
Anonymous ThanAnn said...

Excuse me Mr Hobby but that final picture of Linda Joy Burke looks to me more like an image of a defensive ebay store owner than an image of a reluctant poet or free spirit and creative person.
Sorry but that's MHO.

October 31, 2008 5:51 AM  
Blogger Markus said...

Well Tim, it's a question of what you are aiming for.

By taking the key light off-camera, what we are essentially doing is revealing the form of the subject, which we sadly can't do with on-camera flash. Form is revealed by highlights (specular and diffuse) and shadows.

Using an on-axis fill is like we've seen in previous posts kind of like a control knob for the shadow intensity. We do have another control for this as well: the ambient level. However, the ambient level controls everything. By using an on-axis fill, we can control the fill close to the camera as a separate tonal control.

Like David said, the tree approximates the tonal level of Linda's face. Take a look at the original ambient exposure photos up there. Without the ring-light as a fill, she shadowed side of her face would have the same tone as the very dark half of the tree in the two stops down ambient-only exposure image. That would be excessively dark and dramatic - not that there's anything wrong with that.

Now of course there are other ways to open up the shadows without bringing the ambient up. You don't have to use on-axis fill. You can use a reflector of some kind, or even add another light to the other side. It's a question of what kind of a look you want to achieve.

If you have two lights, spend some time working with on-axis fill and see if you can get it to work for you. At the very least, you'll gain another tool you can use when you want. At the very least, you should avoid being dogmatically opposed to on-axis light just because. Don't limit yourself.

October 31, 2008 6:16 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

Tim, It's my understanding that using the ringflash allows us to dial up or down the shadows. It's never meant to be used to eradicate them, simply to lighten or darken them to whatever extent is needed.
I would imagine if you're shooting for newspaper print this could be a handy little tool so that you can still have fairly dramatic directional lighting, yet still have the printers be able to reproduce the shadows by bringing them up to a pre-determined 'darkest' exposure that they are able to print greys and blacks.

October 31, 2008 6:17 AM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

Thanks for this, David. Lots of good stuff here. I really needed this today after having a couple shoots where I couldn't seem to get the client comfortable. Will take this to heart next time I'm out with a customer.

October 31, 2008 7:04 AM  
Blogger MK said...


I "get" the ring fill flash thing, but I'm not really "digging" it. ;^}

Of course it's all subjective, as David would surely acknowledge. I like that he's experimenting with it. Some shots work... others, not so much. For instance, having to clone out the catchlight from the ring fill says a lot to me about whether I'd bother using this technique.

But, of course, one has to appreciate David's willingness to so openly experiment and share the experience! I know I do.


October 31, 2008 7:52 AM  
Anonymous Neil said...

Having the on-axis fill is something I got converted to on a shoot last night! Not all photos have dramatic falling into black shadows, often that just says "hey look at my flash light". There is something to be said for combining lights to put your emphasis where you want it but without being obvious about it.

Plus the on-axis fill setup is great for grabbing snapshots around the shoot but away from the main lights.

October 31, 2008 7:56 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

I'm with you in that I don't really like the aesthetics of a lot of shots made with ring flash as a fill.

In terms of filling in the shadows, though, it's not eliminating them entirely, but softening them to make sure there's some texture and detail where there would just be darkness. You can still see the directional light on Linda Joy's face, but you can also see the texture on the camera right side of her hair, which isn't getting any light from the little softbox.

October 31, 2008 8:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can not help but agree with thanann, when i saw this photos "recently" ( read 2 months ago ), i had not read 'Strobist' I didn't get why underexposing a background was 'cool'. Honestly I didn't know how good Mr Hobby truly is, so I should not criticize in my worthless opinion the lighting technique is not supporting the image, nor is the environment. Maybe if she were poet laureate for wall street, or exxon ?

October 31, 2008 8:42 AM  
Anonymous Wedding Photographer Nice said...

Excellent posts - I particularly like the setup shots. Thanks!


October 31, 2008 9:11 AM  
Blogger fabian.vn said...

David, where did you leave the ring-style catchlight in her eyes? Did you PS these out, in order not to make here eyes look creepy?

October 31, 2008 9:30 AM  
Anonymous DanB said...

David, I think this is one of your best posts for a while. In particular because you stressed the attention and time you gave to making your subject feel comfortable. In the 'real world' this often the hardest part. Trying to think about lighting balances etc is made so much more difficult when you have to help the victim, er subject, relax.

Of course this site is primarily about lighting, but I find the general working methods and techniques dealing with 'real life'just as interesting.

… Also, it's funny how you've come full circle back to on-camera fill - I've never had a problem with it, but some of your more ardent followers are obviously a little bemused!

Thanks for the ongoing advice and lessons

October 31, 2008 9:42 AM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

"digital Uzi"

I about spit up my coffee. hahaha

October 31, 2008 10:07 AM  
OpenID shootantio said...

Very nice.. Thumb up..

October 31, 2008 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Bay said...

Hey David, Do you need an assistant? I'd be happy to help out anytime :)

October 31, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger JW Stovall said...

I agree with Patrick...'digital Uzi'. But so true. It is essential to interact before and throughout the shoot...if you want anything worthwhile to come of it. Thanks Dave, for all the behind the scenes shots and info.

October 31, 2008 12:53 PM  
Blogger AJ said...

Fantastic! This is one of those articles that says to me "Strobist still has it".

I found this to be one of the most helpful write ups you've done in a while. I loved that you talked about more of the human level stuff than just technical; tricks like eye contact, conversation, etc.

Also floored that you were using something other than SB-800/900. A studio strobe?! Hell froze over :)

October 31, 2008 3:05 PM  
Blogger Photographer Dad said...

David, I think the background info to the shoot is brilliant and really useful for me. However I cannot help thinking that after looking at all the pictures it is the colour of her makeup and the clothes that were chosen that have really made this images work for me.
Yes the lighting is good but for me it is not poet enough. Did you have a make up person on site too?
All the best

October 31, 2008 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Gordon Brebner said...


Been a follower for 18 months now. I've learnt so much. I'm just looking for a little clarification on how you are triggering the key light flash. I see that you are using your trusty PW's but doesn't the rayflash sit in your hot shoe? Is your triggering PW attached to the rayflash flash or your camera by a sync cable and generally just flopping around your person? I'm missing this last piece of the jigsaw somewhat.


October 31, 2008 6:02 PM  
Blogger David said...


No MUA, I tend to shoot people straight, as they are.


The PW visible on the key in the last shot is not triggering anything -- just still connected from the last setup. I slaved the SB-800, using the ring fill as the master.


October 31, 2008 8:22 PM  
Anonymous lewis w said...

David: One of your best blogs so far. You gave the tech and the thought process smoothly. I think the new door you have walked through will lead to unimaginable opportunities. Thanks for your effort.

November 01, 2008 3:03 PM  
Blogger Kurt Shoens said...

A couple of interesting things for me about the lead-off picture.

First, and I only mention this because it happens to me always, is that the picture is underexposed by a fair amount. I see the flash highlight on her forehead as the brightest significant point and it comes out about 3/4 the luminosity I'd want. The light ratio vs. ambient looks reasonable but more on the subject would work, too.

Second, the subject's beautiful hair doesn't register well on the shadow side. Maybe that's a given for this setup (difficult to backlight with her near the tree) and you addressed it in another shot.

Third, I know you like the 1/4 CTO against the relatively cool ambient but there's a lot of subject matter that is (probably) white -- the picket fence and window and door frame on the right. They read a pretty reliable sky blue that unsettles me a bit. That may be due to my colorblindness which makes me see blue casts more than normally sighted people.

Anyway, fun stuff! Thanks for sharing so many details of the assignment.

November 01, 2008 3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant personal tips, and what a beautiful woman. Great work.

November 02, 2008 7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All this technical blubbing and mediocre picture in effect...
It's not exactly Peter Lindbergh or Demarchelier quality...
It's not about f-stop bs.. it's about ability to think in a visual way... sorry.
Tahnk you very much, Marcin Kaliski

November 05, 2008 11:21 AM  
Anonymous Kevin Sprague said...

I'm a studio strobe shooter but I'm digging into the possibilities of the Nikon strobe system and I was wondering about two things. First, what's the best way to trigger the remote strobe? Using a SB-800 or 900 as the commander or the little nikon SU-800? There's a lot of times I just don't want on camera flash at all. I have an SU-4 but trying to set up to trigger the flash using that little eye is a pain. Just wondering what you use on a shoot like this one. Also, I'm plagued with the nikon flashes mis-reading the situation via TTL and blasting out at full power and reporting that they underxeposed. I can't seem to nail why that happens. I'm sure the answer is out there. Thanks for your time.

November 09, 2008 7:03 PM  

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