On Assignment: WiMAX

I am a geek.

For the first 30 years of my life, that was seen as a liability. But lately, it has been a lot more fun.

And as a geek, when I got a recent assignment from USA Today to shoot the first-ever rollout of WiMAX on a city-wide scale, I was stoked.

If you are not familiar with WiMAX, think Wi-Fi, stretching for several miles from each access point. Think 5 megabits downstream and 2 upstream in a car traveling 70 MPH on the interstate in the middle of nowhere -- WiMAX rocks. But as sexy as the tech is, my assignment was to shoot a photo of guys testing out the system.

(I don't care. I am still interested.)

And on top of the potentially boring picture part, the worry was that they might be showing up just for our benefit. That is always a concern on this kind of a newspaper shoot.

"Use your judgement," the editor said. Which is fine up to the point to where you try to figure out what you will turn in if it turns out that the whole scene is a setup.

Needless to say I wanted to light, but I did not want the gear to create a big fuss and influence the scene. So I went with a single SB-800 on a stand. Speedlights give me the ability to light quickly, portably, and without the excess gear that can influence a situation.

Flash on a Stick

The assignment was to shoot technicians testing the WiMAX gear in Ellicott City, MD, then head up to Baltimore's Inner Harbor for a rooftop installation which would afford us a full view of the city the WiMAX was designed to cover. So I knew where my lead photo would be -- on that high-rise rooftop. My plan was to shoot the techs first for the jump page (assuming they were really working) and then move on to the second site for a cool, lit-portrait lead.

"Plan A" bit the dust as soon as I arrived at the installation testing site. Turns out the next site had the antennae enclosed in a shed on top of the building. No view for me. Now the technician/testers were gonna be lead. The good news was that they were actually working, and not just for my benefit. (That was a relief.) So I stuck the SB-800 on a stand while I wondered what the heck I was gonna do for a jump page photo.

Bare speedlight on a stand is usually the first thing I do when I get to an assignment. I am almost certainly gonna use at least one, and it allows me to appear to be doing something while in fact I am wondering what the heck I am going to shoot.

True to form, the tech was working in the strong shadow created by the morning sun. Ten years ago, this would have pissed me off as I resigned to use on-camera fill flash. But today I see this as a blessing -- it gives me nice diffuse light a few stops off of my main ambient exposure in which to build some directional light.

Looking at the photo up top, with sun coming in from back camera right, the obvious key light position is gonna be from front camera left. This crosslights the tech who is wearing a branded XOHM shirt -- as I am sure he does every day even when newspaper photogs are not there shooting him. (Hey, at least he is doing real work. I'm not complaining...)

But that key light is gonna leave me with dark, harsh shadows both on my technician and in the area where he is working. So I stuck another SB on my camera to reach up in there and provide some fill. Now we have a no-fuss, three light setup: Sun back/right; key front/left and fill from on-axis.

In a situation like this, shooting in manual is probably gonna make more sense than TTL. Reason is, that highlight on the panel at left is gonna change as you change your shooting angle. And it could very well influence your TTL response. I used both TTL and manual in this shoot, but ended up in manual just for that reason.

For a trigger, I fired my fill light on-camera and slaved the SB-800. Dear Lord, I love those perfect little flashes.

Last week, we talked about how to do this in TTL mode. It is very easy in manual, too. Crank the ISO down low. Shutter at 250th of a sec. Choose an aperture that gives you a nice, rich exposure. Bring your key light in against the ambient on manual power until it lights your subject well.

Generally, in a situation and working distance like this a 1/4-power manual shot is gonna get you very close. If it is not dead-on, it is in the ballpark for an easy, quick adjustment.

The key-to-subject distance is fixed, so nothing changes as long as your ambient is constant. If the sun goes behind the clouds, open up your shutter to adjust your ambient and then keep shooting. It's so easy, even a photographer could do it.

The one variable you'll need to keep an eye on is the on-axis fill if you are working in manual flash. I dial in the power level until the fill looks good in the screen on the camera back. Then I adjust it, based on whether or not I move in or out from the subject. Remember, this flash exposure is going to change as your camera-to-subject distance changes.

But you can use your movement as a quick flash adjustment, too. If I need a tad more fill light in manual I may just move in a foot or two and zoom out to compensate. Presto, your manual fill flash is brighter. You get the idea.

I knew a wrestling shooter who used to fine tune his focus that way before the days of autofocus. He would just sway to and fro as he shot, looking like he was lost in some sort of religious chant. Worked, too. Or maybe he was praying for sharp photos. I certainly have done that on occasion.

Back to the light, the on-axis fill defines the contrast range of the photo. Ambient sets the environment, key light properly exposes the subject and on-axis fill dials in the shadow contrast. He wasn't doing anything sexy (unless pumping stream after stream of throbbing test data through a network turns you on) but I was able to get quite a few different looks very quickly with this lighting setup.

On to Plan B

So, now that the skyline is a bust and the jump photo has just bubbled up to the lead, I need a new jump photo. A few questions later, we find out that other engineers are testing WiMAX bandwidth with mobile laptops nearby.

That is not the kind of photo that would normally excite me. But compared to not having a jump photo, it is absolutely fantastic. A half hour later we caught up with them, sitting in their car in crappy overhead light.

Once again, what I used to consider as a liability is now an opportunity. My guy is sitting in a car in backish/overhead light, working on a laptop in a car. (Yeah, I know -- they can't all be firefighters tossing babies out of burning buildings.) But, like I said, compared to having no jump photo I'll certainly take it.

Again, bare flash on a stand makes easy work of a guy in a car. I just walk it around to the front of the car and aim it through the front windshield by sighting the angle from the flash. I aimed it to hit his face from a profile-to-slightly-backlight position. I set the flash on 1/4 power (I hang out there a lot) and walked around to check the intensity and direction of the light.

Direction was good, but the light level was a little off. A quick adjustment of the flash's power level and I was in business. Trigger on this setup was a Pocketwizard. (Since I was not using on-axis fill, I had no light to trigger the key via optical slave.)

Are these sexy, glamorous photos? No. They are simple, block-and-tackle, hit-for-average shots that define what you settle for on the low end of the quality scale.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: I consider these photos just as important to light effectively as is the bigger stuff. All the more so, really, when you consider that what you do with these types of jobs define the "floor" on range of what you produce.

CYA With a Detail

One last thing. Like Bob Hamilton, my DOP at The Sun, used to tell me: Always look for a detail photo.

If you get into a practice of grabbing at least one relevant detail on every assignment, you frequently will save a page designer's butt. And occasionally you'll save your own. And if your light-on-a-stick is already set up, adding dimension to the detail shot is a very easy thing to do.

For this close-up shot of the XOHM WiMAX card, I already had back/overhead key from the sun. So sticking my flash down close to the ground in front and uplighting the card was the best way to cross light it to give it a little more pop. Nothing earth-shattering, but it gives a secondary highlight and makes it look better than a one-light-source shot.

Did I mention how much I love those 5-section, compact light stands? This is one reason why: You can crank them down to the height of a tiny background stand for a quick uplight when you need it.

Again, nothing sexy. But being in the habit of lighting the details (and shooting them, for that matter) is a good work ethic and will pay you dividends down the road.

NEXT: On Assignment: Manil Suri


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks David. I like this one. It resembles many assignments I get in my daily paper life — especially the prayer: please be doing something, please be doing something! And, of course, the money shot that never actually happens.

November 17, 2008 1:00 AM  
Anonymous Ryan Brenizer said...

Very nice walkthrough. I've often said that some of the best experience you can possibly have is a job that forces you to shoot exceedingly boring scenes in ways that makes them publication quality. Newspaper jobs are this more than most people realize, but they have nothing on university shooting. Another guy at podium, please?

November 17, 2008 1:27 AM  
Blogger Levi Jyron said...

this could be the wrong place for this, but i'm just getting into the whole speedlight/cls thing with my d300 and single sb-800 and i can't figure a way to be able to adjust power on the sb when it's in remote mode.
For example, i want to fire the sb-800 controlled by the d300's pop-up in commander mode. How do i adjust the power of the big flash?

November 17, 2008 1:44 AM  
Blogger reldred said...

Congratulations, you've managed to make the first guy look like an actual technician, rather than have some random guy stand near the equipment holding a patch lead...

Being a phone systems/network technician myself, I can't stand seeing some of the usual newspaper photos that we get around here. Hell, I've even been in one myself that was horribly... horrible. Thank goodness that particular journos article never got published in that one case.

Quality nice effort, you're my hero.

November 17, 2008 2:23 AM  
Blogger Craig said...

I'll be doing my first strobist working gig next weekend and it involves paintball. I really didn't want to bring any umbrellas, and now I feel justified just using "flash on a stick" (with some on camera fill, of course). Thanks boss!

November 17, 2008 3:26 AM  
Anonymous Matt Kirwan said...


I'm liking the realistic angle on this latest post, initially I thought it was just me that tended to use bare flashes more than I should have (usually due to the wind), your right...if you have time constraints, location constraints and sometimes even subject constraints the least you can do is get that flash off your camera.
Excellent post, its good to let people know that 90% of your job is solid, baseline - get the job done, and do it to the highest standard, in the time you've got.


Matt Kirwan

November 17, 2008 4:02 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

Hi David, great post! funny enough its most of the time those kind of assignments come along instead of the cool really exciting ones in my case :-). So I am very pleased with this post. An average shot/assignment becomes a far above average shot/assigment. Thanks!!!!

Damn, will miss out on your london workshop. Hope to be there on your next euro-trip


November 17, 2008 4:21 AM  
Anonymous Fotografo said...

Useful and nice like ever.

November 17, 2008 4:56 AM  
Blogger Pat Morrissey said...

Hi David - love reading your OA posts. Think you did a great job here too - particularly with the jump shot in the car.

November 17, 2008 5:22 AM  
Anonymous Tom Peterson said...

You say you used a PocketWizard to fire the flash in your through the window shot because you weren't using an on axis fill. ??? You used a SB 800, meaning you're a Nikon shooter. You're using a mid-range camera since it does have an on camera flash. I'm confused. I use a D300 and can control the CLS functions from the camera, including using the on camera flash as a commander while not being used as a flash at all. The commander mode on the camera allows for setting flash compensation on the on camera flash (including zero flash). Was the PocketWizard overkill?

November 17, 2008 5:45 AM  
Blogger Christography said...

Great tips, especially the one about getting a "detail" shot. Thanks!

November 17, 2008 6:47 AM  
Anonymous F said...

Great stuff.


November 17, 2008 7:34 AM  
Anonymous Colby McLemore said...

I love to hear your blow and blow shoot and what is happening in your head. Thanks again. I love your blog.

November 17, 2008 7:57 AM  
Anonymous Luke said...

I remember reading that story in USA Today! I really have to start reading the photo byline. It is great to see the story in what went into making the photo.

November 17, 2008 8:13 AM  
Blogger David Ritchie said...

Hi there,
dunno where to post this but you said in the FAQ's to just post anywhere there is a comment option so here goes. do you have the lighting 102 in pdf format so i can print it out to read offline?
i printed the lighting 101 as soon as i saw it and read it back to front, awesome work man, keep it up.

David Ritchie

November 17, 2008 9:15 AM  
Blogger David said...


Read your camera manual. It is in there! (Menu- Built-in flash.)


I default to PW, for total reliability, and sometimes switch to CLS for control. But I use PW/manual flash far more often.


L102 has not been released as a PDF at this time.

November 17, 2008 9:22 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

totally agree with the idea of elevating these kind of shots. 20 years into the job I can atest this is stock of the trade

November 17, 2008 9:53 AM  
Anonymous Pat said...

Great article David,

with so much talk about modifiers I had assumed you always used a shoot through umbrella, grid or some such on all your shoots, so it's great be reminded you can get great results with a bare flash :-)

I'm usually more of a reader than a contributor but had to write after seeing the term "jump" used several times. Is this referring to a low profile story that you expect readers to literally jump past - unless your picture draws them in?


November 17, 2008 10:15 AM  
Blogger Tyler Brownfield said...

I think "jump" refers to a picture with a little blurb that catches the reader's eye and encourages them to "jump" to the main section with the lead page on it.

So the "jump" image is usually a smaller teaser image, if you will, on the front.

If I'm wrong please correct me, though.

November 17, 2008 1:06 PM  
Anonymous cathar said...


could you please clarify what you mean by on-axis fill? Does that equal close to the lens?

November 17, 2008 1:32 PM  
Blogger Mingo said...


If your flash doesnt have SU-4 option just buy one of those.

November 17, 2008 3:43 PM  
Blogger David said...


We really do not use "SU-4" mode for that capability. Nor is the slave in that module anywhere near as good as the built-in slave in the SB-800.

So that module really is not going to replace the internal slave capability in the SB-800.


November 17, 2008 3:54 PM  
Anonymous Kent Fleming said...


How are you evaluating your lighting while on location? Do you shoot tethered to a laptop or quickly download images. Or are you trusting your LCD on the back of the camera and have you done anything to adjust it or view it better?


November 17, 2008 4:29 PM  
Blogger David said...


I chimp the screen and the histogram. I talk a little about that here:


November 17, 2008 5:51 PM  
Anonymous Howard Solomon said...

Hi David
You may recall I was in the Saturday Orlando class in February (tall skinny guy, glasses and a beard). WiMAX is among the things I write about (and sometimes photograph). Thanks for the ideas. Once again, another great post.

Howard Solomon
Assistant Editor
Network World Canada

November 18, 2008 2:34 PM  
Anonymous Kent Fleming said...


Thank you so much for pointing out this previous article. Very informative to your process. As a primarily Digital Studio Shooter I have traditionally gone by the numbers and reluctantly trusted what I see on any screen, though I have long loved the histogram. However, My personal work is taking me out of the studio and I am diving head first into a new world of understanding and vision. I have great difficulty chimping the LCD especially in bright sun. Have you had any first hand experience with any of the various LCD Loupes, like the Hoodman Hoodloupe?



November 18, 2008 5:29 PM  
Blogger Steven W. Hopkins said...

I finished reading the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I thought about "Strobism" a lot while reading Chapter 26. I recommend you read it. It is all about how to solve problems and how being stuck in a problem is actually a good thing. It talks about traps we fall into that make us say "screw it" and do whatever. I think you'll like it.

November 18, 2008 5:34 PM  
Blogger Deer Old Dad said...

Thanks for the OA. Inspirational as always. The detail shot is gorgeous. I'm even starting to get the inside jokes: the guy in the car with the computer, he's pointing at the screen! That shot is well lit, too, and the composition tells a story.

November 18, 2008 7:29 PM  
Blogger bennettk said...

RE: On-axis fill.

I often set up a manual flash main light, and use TTL on-camera fill. This lets me move the camera around and still maintain the proper flash ratio. (Using the spot-flash-metering button on the subject's face keeps those E-TTL exposures consistent.)

That main flash used to be a Norman 400B, but lately I've found that I can use my 580 EX II as the main flash on Manual, and fire it using wireless TTL from an on-camera 580 EX fill flash. The main (off camera) flash is on Slave mode, Manual output, set to the appropriate power level. The on-camera flash is on Master mode, E-TTL, with the exposure compensation dialed down to the "right" level -- usually -1 2/3 stops or so.

For receptions and parties, I use the on-camera Master flash on a bracket as the main flash, and put the Slave flash on a monopod with a VALS and have her (my poor wife) walk behind the subjects with her flash pointed straight at the ceiling for a combination rim-background light. Using spot-flash-meter on the faces makes short work of correct flash exposure when everyone is wearing black suits.

This also works well at a press conference, or anywhere the main subject is stuck in one place. Set up the manual slave flash pointed right at the speaker's platform, and use E-TTL on-camera fill flash. Roam at will. Dial the fill flash up and down for different effects.

November 19, 2008 7:59 AM  
Blogger tehsteve said...

Did you shoot this in North Carolina?
if I remember correctly thats where it happened

November 21, 2008 8:41 PM  
Blogger Jim and Leslie Russell said...

Thanks David! I really enjoy all of your insight into your photo shoots. By the way, I found the link to the USA Today article with your photo.


March 10, 2010 10:07 AM  

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