Colin Firth: CYA PDQ

UK Photographer Greg Funnell shot actor Colin Firth for Time Out London, and knew he would only get a few minutes. Thus the "PDQ."

He wanted a lighting scheme that was safe over a range of subject orientation. Thus, the "CYA."

Hit the jump for a video, links and an alternate way to think about the light that can allow you to have your CYA-PDQ cake and eat it, too.

Greg was working in a hotel basement (ahh, the glamorous life of a photographer) and lighting with a pair of Elinchrom D-Light 2s in soft boxes. His solution was to run the boxes at 45-degree angles from each side of the subject. The idea was to get light that wraps and worked for either direction Firth might have been looking.

At this point, I should note that I am typing very quietly because the mere mention of Colin Firth in my household sends my wife into a dizzying tailspin of knee-buckling ecstasy. Something about a "pond scene" from Pride and Prejudice.

Me, I just don't see it. But my strategy during a Colin Firth Movie is always to focus on preserving that momentum, while being very careful not to do or say anything that might actually invite comparison between me and Mr. Wonderful.

I digress.

There is certainly nothing wrong with lighting Mr. Firth on the 45's. But if you are working with two soft boxes you can keep your safety while adding some directionality to the light.

The key is to recognize that the part of the photo that makes it sing is also your danger zone if you are trying to play it safe. That part would be the shadow area, obviously. So the idea is to balance the shadows so that they are there, but also legible if something interesting happens inside them.

You Knew This was Coming...

This is where off-axis key vs. on-axis fill can let you have it both ways. Let's work this one using Greg's exact gear used for the shoot: Two medium soft boxes and monobloc flashes.

Start out with one of your two soft boxes in the vertical orientation. Place it 45 degrees, give or take, to one side, and elevate it a little for good shape and form on the face. This, of course would happen before Mr. Why-Can't-You-Be-More -Like-Him arrives. You would test on the assistant or anyone else who happened to be standing around.

Remember to use whatever means necessary to get your stand-in to the right height, too. This is something you already know because you (a) Googled it, (b) asked an assistant, etc. Also find out of your subject will be wearing glasses, as that dictates lighting style to some degree.

Your fill light will come from directly behind the photographer's head, with the box in the horizontal orientation. This light is not so much going to shape the face as to fill and wrap the light. I would elevate it just a little, because your shoulders are gonna knock some of the bottom out, anyway. Maybe place the bottom horizontal edge of the box even with your shoulders.

Given that the D-Lite 2's have a built-in slave eye in the rear, I would radio (or PC cord) sync the fill unit behind me and slave the key light.

For ratios, start out testing the light with only the fill light firing. Adjust the light and/or aperture until your test subject has a good exposure. Now, back off the fill light (either by cranking the aperture down or dialing down the power of the light) until your subject is underexposed but still holds legible detail. This is the darkest your shadows will get in the final photo. And there will be no shadows you cannot see into, because your fill is coming from on axis.

Now, the balance is between safety and tonal depth. There is no set rule, other than how much of a weenie you happen to be on any given day.

Ten years ago, I would have set the ratio pretty tight. Stop-and-a-half, maybe. Because at that point I was all about the fear of failure. But now, I'd let it drop past two stops -- heading toward three, actually. Chuck Norris might take it down even further.

After you have completed this little exercise in self-examination, bring in your key light and dial it up so the subject looks great at your working aperture. For the shutter speed, you'll want to keep that up at max sync speed to nuke the ambient. Maybe warm up that key a tad with a 1/8 CTO.

Oh, wait, he is British -- better make it a 1/4 CTO.

As for direction of the key, you might want to work your angle so the subject's shadow falls far enough away on the background so you get some light on the background in the area directly behind the shadow side of your subject. You can vary this by either changing the key light location or moving the background further away from the subject.

There are side effects to consider. Changing the key location will alter the quality of light on the subject. Moving the background will alter the tonality of the background. Use the choice that works best for you. A combination of the two moves might work even better.

So now, when Mr. OhmyGodHeIsRightHereInFrontOfMe shows up, you know exactly how your ratios are going to look, no meter needed, and you are ready to roll from Frame One. Plus, you'll get shape and details no matter which way he looks.

And if you need an assistant, Missus Strobist is available -- at absolutely no charge whatsoever.

(Thanks to Greg for making and posting the video of the shoot!)


:: Greg Funnell: Website ::
:: Greg Funnell Blog Post (Includes Time Out Tearsheet) ::
:: Video: That Pride and Prejudice Pond Scene ::


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Blogger Steve said...

" strategy during a Colin Firth Movie is always to focus on preserving that momentum, while being very careful not to do or say anything that might actually invite comparison..."

ROTFLMAO!!! I had to call my wife over to read that with me.

November 24, 2008 12:26 AM  
Blogger Glyn Dewis said...

Great article David and I feel for you; i get the same reaction when Mr Hasn't He Got Lovely Eyes (Daniel Craig) is on the screen :o) ... I mean, what do they see in those millionaire celebrities ?

Cheers, Glyn

November 24, 2008 1:42 AM  
Anonymous wogo said...

You wrote, "Remember to use whatever means necessary to get your stand-in for the right, too. This is something you already know..."

I assume you meant to write, "stand-in for the height..."

November 24, 2008 1:53 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

Hello Ms. Strobist this is Colin Firth, I will be at 18th and Columbia later...

Wink Wink

November 24, 2008 2:27 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

oh drat you put a moderation on it! I was hoping to have a little fun fellow D.C. traveler.

November 24, 2008 2:29 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Perhaps I should invest in a Pelican case solely for elevation-assistance purposes. And I'll even get a bigger one to carry that one around in. :-D

I like the tidbit on mounting the key horizontally - I've 2 Large softboxes, so I wonder how that would affect the outcome... (maybe I'll be able to pull the same effect on a full-length, as opposed to solely a headshot?)

I guess that's where feathering the light would be best applied.


November 24, 2008 4:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh i do love Mr Darcy! THANKYOU for showing this lol..he looks so damn cute.
Ok i should have written something photography related but my mind is now on Mr Wonderful! ;)..sorry

November 24, 2008 4:20 AM  
Anonymous DanB said...

"Oh, wait, he is British -- better make it a 1/4 CTO."

And he doesn't wear shorts 365 days a year either, unlike some people ;-)

November 24, 2008 4:26 AM  
Anonymous kramon said...

another great post:
I will cherish that Chuck Norris link forever!

November 24, 2008 5:10 AM  
Blogger Michelle Jones said...

Interesting, I'm not a head over heels kinda fan with Mr Firth, he's a good actor yada yada yada.
On the vid I noticed that Greg kept chimping alot, ok check the lights working ect... but if you only have a certain amount of time, stop chimping, the minutes you waste chimping, the less time you have with the actor. Set the camera to continuous focus, set one of the af points roughly where his eyes are and shoot!

As for the lighting, that particular style is 'in' over here, we are about a year behind the trend in the usa, the more daring strobist stuff is looked on with scorn at the moment :(

November 24, 2008 5:21 AM  
Anonymous owen-b said...

I'm still highly resistant to the on-axis fill idea, as it goes so very much against what I've been learning about creative off-camera lighting, but this article just confuses me.

The shooter chose to light the way he did so as to bathe his subject in light at any angle. As you say, there's nothing wrong with that, but you also go on to suggest that the on-axis-fill method will also light the sbject at any angle.

I didn't misread that, did I?

I'm just confused as to how that claim works - if the subject was to turn camera-left the key light is going to make his hair look great but the fill light will just leave his face in relative shadow, no?

November 24, 2008 6:28 AM  
Blogger Komplutense said...

Thank you for thinking of this 6% (or was 4%) of female strobists.
Today, it’s really a pleasure reading your blog ;))))

November 24, 2008 7:50 AM  
Blogger Fraclife said...

Great post David, I'll have to play with setting the on axis fill level first before setting the key light, but lets not forget that Chuck Norris would have set both at the same time ...

November 24, 2008 8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, wait, he is British -- better make it a 1/4 CTO

Just checking up on my colour-balancing... Wouldn't this imply that we Limeys are actually blue, rather than the more traditional pale, pasty white??!! :-)

November 24, 2008 8:41 AM  
Blogger cliquephotodesign said...

Hooray "PROM LIGHTING " at its best.
The photos had no depth. Playing it safe is OK , but how about a reflector in the front and pushing the lights to a "minus" 20 degrees from the subject. That's right aim the lights towards the camera and bounce it off the reflector into the subjects face. Pixels are FREE take chances.

November 24, 2008 8:49 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

what about the brad pitt syndrome??? try to live with that everytime he hits the screen. And everytime I make a comment about an actress she goes....she´s got good makeup or she did the director.. stopped watching movies. Any way still with on axis light you are limiting yourself with the subject only being able to face one side ´cause your key is either right or left. Or do I see this wrong?

Cheers Vincent

November 24, 2008 10:00 AM  
Blogger phatphotographer said...

I echo Owen-B in that the set up used seemed to give the most flexibility (especially given how much the woman magnet shifted poses) though it sacrifices the contrast you'd get with other lighting setups like the on-axis fill. I'm sure I'm missing something here.

November 24, 2008 11:30 AM  
Blogger Avlor said...

"I should note that I am typing very quietly..."

Evidently not quitely enough. Some of use Collin Firth fangirls heard you (obnoxious little fangirl screams). All logical and useful info has now left the brain. Mr. Wonderful is there. (Sigh)

I will have to return to the post later after recovering from hunk overload and have my hubby scroll past the images, so I can glean useful info. (I'm sure the male audience has to resort to similar measures after some of the fab pix of lovely ladies are posted.)

November 24, 2008 12:54 PM  
Blogger 4honor said...

Ha ha, this was a pretty funny post... :)

November 24, 2008 12:59 PM  
Blogger David said...


Yes, Greg's light did cover himself for any angle, which was the primary reason he chose it. And I am certainly not dissing his choice, either. It is a logical solution.

My point was that while the 45's work for coverage, it happens at the expense of directionality, which one of the main reasons for using off-camera light in the first place.

Heck, on-camera, direct flash will get me coverage, right?

The point I am trying to make with this piece is that you can have CYA coverage and directionality at the same time. And the camera axis fill allows you to tune the shadows as much as you want.

Funnily enough, I was reading about this technique in the new Annie book just as a saw this last comment drop in. She lights with a big key and tends to fill on axis, too. It helps her strike a balance between directional light and legible shadows.

Another neat tidbit from her lighting section -- she has been dropping the intensity of the key (WRT the ambient) more and more lately. She is actually filling with what would normally be considered directional key light.

That idea sorta made my head explode a little and I am going to have to experiment with it!


November 24, 2008 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to know what they were talking about in the shooting. :)

November 24, 2008 2:51 PM  
Blogger David said...


Forgot one point in answer to your comment.

As long as you set the shadow depth to a level that is still legible, it will still work if Firth turns to camera left.

For some reason, we come up thinking that a subject has to be looking into the light to per properly lit. But when you throw that out the window and start experimenting, you'll see that you do not need to restrict yourself in that way.

If you still want that subject matter to read, just make sure it is filled enough to do so. And the whole idea behind the O-A fill is that it can render the shadows legible without introducing an obvious new lighting direction.

November 24, 2008 2:53 PM  
Blogger Ewen Cafe said...

Great post and excellent reading as usual Dave, thanks again.

Re "stars in their eyes" I feel for you mate. Shortly after meeting my (now) wife, I went around to her house for dinner for the first time and walked in to see a set of 5x7 photos of her with Antonio Banderes beautifully framed and hanging on the wall.. I mean how's a guy to compete with that??

Well this time I got the girl, ( although there was mention of something about Melanie Griffith and jealous rages... ???)

Studying Strobist has been quite theraputic because now I get quite a bit of satisfaction knowing that the guy who took the shots was CLEARLY a novice and the on-camera light was crap!! :)

Well done Dr Dave

November 24, 2008 3:04 PM  
Blogger photophatty67 said...

Greg, I know exactly how your wife feels, and oh yes, that is the scene that sticks in my head as well! Whew!

Colin seems like a really nice guy. It looked like you had an enjoyable time photographing him.

Thanks for sharing this article with us. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if I don't own any studio equipment!

November 24, 2008 3:08 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

I have enjoyed reading Strobist for a few months now. Thanks much for all your good insights. Before I started with Strobist (which I learned about in Scott Kelby's latest book), I read with interest a set of tutorials from Chuck Gardner, a Canon shooter who used to work for Monte Zucker. Chuck's tutorials include substantial information about on-axis fill. They are very informative. You'll find his stuff on fill at His home page is I commend it.

November 24, 2008 3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really get thrilled by reading your posts David, the knowledge accompanied by the sense of humor makes my day :)
Thank you for all the wonderful posts :)
All the best,

November 24, 2008 4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

omg lol!!
"Oh, wait, he is British -- better make it a 1/4 CTO."
too funny!

November 24, 2008 5:50 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

I'm sorry. I read this article this morning and again just now. Am I the only one that doesn't get the CYA PDQ? someone care to enlighten as to what this means?



November 24, 2008 8:31 PM  
Blogger Kevin Blackburn Photography said...

Just have to say I like there is allot here that I already do thanks to my own years of trial and error but I am learning allot too. I like is so much I am linking it to all 3 of my sites and my blog.

Thanks for the info

November 24, 2008 9:15 PM  
Anonymous Ted said...

Am I the only one that doesn't get the CYA PDQ? someone care to enlighten as to what this means?

The photog had only a short time, so he had to shoot PDQ - pretty darn quick. He didn't have time to fiddle around with complex lighting schemes so he used a boring but safe setup which would give him acceptable, if uninspired, shots. Therefore he covered his rear, that is CYA = Cover Your A**.

November 24, 2008 10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ummm...I am sorry I wasn't really paying any attention to the article....

I pretty much tuned everything out after Mr.Darcy..I mean Firth was on the screen......


November 24, 2008 10:26 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

Am I the only one that doesn't get the CYA PDQ? someone care to enlighten as to what this means?

The photog had only a short time, so he had to shoot PDQ - pretty darn quick. He didn't have time to fiddle around with complex lighting schemes so he used a boring but safe setup which would give him acceptable, if uninspired, shots. Therefore he covered his rear, that is CYA = Cover Your A**.

November 24, 2008 10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, so I remember film cameras with no meters in them, and I have missed a few new releases lately, but who the hell is Colin Firth?

November 24, 2008 10:45 PM  
Anonymous hfng said...

PDQ = Pretty Darn Quick
CYA = Cover your Armpits
L8R M8, HAND & YW!

November 25, 2008 2:26 AM  
Blogger Phillipe said...

"I was reading about this technique in the new Annie book just as a saw this last comment drop in."

David could you give the title to the 'Annie book' you referenced?

Thanks, Phillipe

November 25, 2008 7:17 AM  
Blogger Tuffer said...

It may have just been the fast frames, but considering the camera, lighting and background never moved, that seemed like a lot of chimping.

Otherwise, very interesting to see two approaches to the same photos. Thanks Greg and David.

November 25, 2008 7:40 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Its not like shooting an interview, where you want a range of angles, and need it covered!

safe light yes. but why? Colin Firth had obviously agreed to the shoot, and stepped into the "studio".

Surely a little direction whilst chatting during the shoot, would make sure your subject fitted into your ideas for the lighting. no?

i can understand wanting to capture a little spontenaiety, so maybe that was the main purpose of the safe 45's.

November 25, 2008 7:42 AM  
Anonymous owen-b said...

David -

Okay, so I get what you're saying about how you don't have to have the subject looking into the light and you can play with those shadows, etc, because I really like playing with light directions.

But I guess I really need to see a proper series of "Standard strobist lighting" and "Now try on-axis fill!" on the same shot, in a variety of different settings to create different looks in order to really see what you're getting at, especially in relation to the point I still don't get.

I appreciate that you could set your on-axis fill to create shadows that are still legible and viable, but if you've set up a key on camera-right isn't the point of it's existence to be the main light, and hence brighter? And therefore I still think a shot of Mr Oh My God He's Even Cuter In Real Life looking off camera left is going to focus on some beautifully but perhaps overpoweringly lit hair more than it is his dashing profile. No?

I think you should definitely talk about on-axis fill on Sunday in London... ;)

November 25, 2008 10:09 AM  
Blogger David said...


Ya know, that's something you could even do for yourself... ;)

Seriously, those kinds of tests are very important to do for yourself. That is how you learn.

And we will definitely be talking about this kind of stuff in London.


November 25, 2008 10:14 AM  
Blogger Neuroknitter said...

Another female strobist that loves your blog,and this post in particular!

I know that pond's been a desktop image of mine for sometime now!

November 25, 2008 6:00 PM  
Blogger Gamaliel said...

David do you have plans to come to Puerto Rico, here are a LOT of photographer starving for quality master classes like yours.

November 25, 2008 6:37 PM  
Blogger Pat Morrissey said...

Do not publish.
Hi David, just watched recreation of the Titian painting "Diana and Acteon" by UK photographer, Tom Hunter, on BBC's Culture Programme.
It is not safe for work! Big lights, big cast and ...

ps removed my rabbit story from your squirrel pic - my wife said I'd get hate mail.

November 26, 2008 4:08 AM  
Anonymous Suffolk Wedding Photographer said...

Hey David,

You're not suggesting we British are a tad on the pale side are you? :-)

Oh, wait, he is British -- better make it a 1/4 CTO.

Great article BTW and excellent video.

November 26, 2008 5:13 AM  
Blogger Heipel said...

The British pale suggestion reminds me of a Billy Connelly line-- [add thick Glasegian accent here]: You bloody English don't know pale. I'm Scottish, we're BLUE!!

As for the back and forth about which lighting strategy might be better I quote my brother who is always saying to me that light is light and if you got the shot you wanted or like with that light then that's all that matters!

Loving your site David. Teaching me a ton. Got your DVDs; just starting to watch.

November 26, 2008 12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the video! In the finished photo, the background has a green tint to it. It doesn't look so in the video. Did you guys manipulate the background fabric's color?

November 26, 2008 2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! Love the video. Just wondering if this could be achieved with shoot through umbrellas?

November 26, 2008 7:39 PM  
Anonymous hfng said...


I think lighting a brit is like lighting transparent glass .. hahaha .. minus the reflections.

November 27, 2008 4:10 AM  
Anonymous Farce Majeure said...

"Oh, wait, he is British -- better make it a 1/4 CTO."

That might work for an Englishman, but any Scots photographer will tell you the natives up here are a pale blue colour - it takes two weeks in the sun for a Scot to turn white, never mind get a tan ;)

November 27, 2008 10:06 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Chodroff said...

I'm going to have to say that is pretty poor lighting. Cute post...but really? It's flat.

November 28, 2008 1:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Photogs are obviously quite young so well done on blagging a TimeOut assignment. It goes to show that landing the job in the first place is the key to a decent career.

To be honest though, the constant chimping, the amateurs-first-attempt copy set-up lighting and, from what I could tell from the sped-up video, lack of subject interaction and end result it doesn't look very good really.

November 30, 2008 6:54 AM  
Anonymous Hawaii Photographer said...

I have to admit, the mere mention of Colin Firth makes me weak in the knees :) Guess that was part of why I was compelled to read this post, lol.



December 02, 2008 9:41 PM  

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