On Assignment: Manil Suri

One of the joys of being a photographer is the opportunity to spend your life intersecting with a steady stream of very interesting people. One such recent encounter was with author Manil Suri (The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva), who I photographed for a literary magazine.

I never seem to have enough time these days to indulge in reading much fiction, but my wife is a big fan of Suri. My interest in him was primarily because of his alter ego as a mathematics professor at the nearby University of Maryland Baltimore County.

You don't run across too many people who can explain, in depth, the concept of infinity and crank out bestselling novels between classes.

Abstract Concrete, Redux

After a series of emails, we worked out that I would be able to photograph Suri in or near his office at the UMBC campus, before his midday class.

We would not get a lot of time, but that is part of the game (and, to me, a lot of the fun) when doing a magazine portrait. It is rather like the difference between playing a leisurely game of chess and playing a game under the gun with a timer.

An appropriate analogy in this case, because UMBC is a Big Dawg when it comes to intercollegiate chess. They delight in trapping the kings of players from schools where students pay three times UMBC's tuition.

Scouting within a small radius from Suri's office, I found an area behind his building where a weathered slab of concrete would make for an interesting background. Nearby was an indoor alcove where I could get a completely look, but I'll just be writing about the outdoor stuff to keep this post from turning into War and Peace.

In an earlier post entitled Abstract Concrete, I photographed a scientist who studies concrete at a molecular level. But for Suri, I just wanted to use the concrete wall itself as a starting point for a background.

I liked the patterns, but the tone was both too light and a little too homogenous -- both of which problems are easily solvable with a single speedlight.

Looking at this three-pic composite of the background, you can see the original (auto) exposure on the concrete as it appeared as I found it. It's just a quick grab shot, not even in focus. But it doesn't need to be in focus, as it will be my backdrop and I want to get a look at it a little out of focus anyway. The tone is maybe a stop above medium grey.

In the middle frame, you can see the the adjusted tone after dropping the ambient exposure two stops and change. I liked this one better. It is also in focus, which to my taste makes it less interesting (and more competitive with the subject) as a background.

For the third frame, I took it back out of focus (by focusing to the point in front where I would have Suri standing) and threw a little snooted flash onto it at a hard angle from camera right. The flash was about a foot or two from the wall, raking across, and fitted with a Honl shorty (5") snoot. I put the silver side on the inside to soften the transition from light to dark.

How much strobe you hit it with is purely a matter of personal taste. To me, this dropped-and-flashed background is more interesting than the plain, light grey wall I started out with. That random splash of light adds a little interest, and I can position it for nice shadow-side separation, if needed.

I frequently use this process to build up my backgrounds as a more interesting second layer to a photo. When looking for a backdrop, always realize that you can take your found surface down via the ambient component of the full exposure. Or you can bring it up with a little background flash. Or you can have it both ways, as we did here.

Enter Manil Suri. I used two SB-800s, each with LumiQuest SB-III modifier, for the key and the fill. The key light has a 1/8 CTO on it for a little warmth, and is about 5 feet from the subject at camera left.

At this distance the light is neither hard nor soft, which is a look that I like except you need to watch the shadow depth. And that depth can easily be controlled by altering the ambient exposure component.

But my ambient was being used to control the unlit portion of the background. So I would need to bring Suri's shadows up with a little fill. I chose to fill on-axis with a second SB-800 / Softbox-III, this one with no warming gel.

I could mount this flash on the hot shoe, although the SoftBox-III is a little big for that, and it would rotate with the vertical orientation of the camera. So I simply stuck it on a stand and shot from right under it. This way, you can get the bottom of the light right up against the lens barrel for more of an on-axis look to the fill.

The fill looked best at about 1 1/2 to 2 stops down, which kept the character of the hardish light without losing my shadow detail.

That one came off nice and quick. I liked it as a straight shot, but wanted to add another layer to it if I could do so without spending a lot of time. So I grabbed one of my favorite toys -- a Holga lens that has been mounted to a Nikon body cap.

I love the airy, ethereal, Holga look when it is added to hard, sculpted light. The two balance each other out like lemon and sugar in a glass of lemonade.

(You may need to click the pic for a bigger version to see what the Holga lens is doing to this photo.)

There is almost no extra time required to swap out and get this extra look. And the irony of sticking a $50 piece of plastic on a $5,000 D3 (1:100 lens to body cost) is not wasted on me, either.

CORRECTION: Although for this particular shot the Holga was back on a D300 -- only 36 times the cost of the lens...

This shot (seen at the top of this post and repeated here) was another quick add-on before going inside for the second setup. Just grab the key light and head over to under the exterior stairway to use it as a graphic element.

The process is very quick: Expose for the ambient, drop it 1 1/2 to two stops, bring in the warmed up key light (pretty close in this case) and adjust it's output until Suri has a good exposure.

The stairway and background vignette themselves because of the falloff of the nearby key light. Nothing complicated about it, but the stairs add a graphic element that gave me a second look before heading inside.

To Infinity, and Beyond

Suri really is an interesting guy. Not many people have that right brain / left brain thing going as well as he does.

If you want to see if you are capable of truly understanding infinity, take a look at his lecture on the subject, which was uploaded to YouTube.

If you plan on really trying to understand it, I would recommend two or three anticipatory aspirin, at the very least.

NEXT: On Assignment -- Monteverde Institute


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Anonymous Richard Cave said...

Cheers Dave that holga look is definately worth trying out, where do you get them from?

Also I like the texture on the concrete. It made your subject look like a character from 24. It is a very masculine portrait and I would never have guessed the double life that he leads.

Thank you for sharing this, I have also have a SB 3 which is absolutely brilliant.

Looking forward to more,


January 05, 2009 6:58 PM  
Anonymous lilskibumm said...

Just checked out the video - I studied physics in school and still found this to be informative and interesting on almost every level. It's long, but worth it...

Beware though, very abstract ideas that will twist your head up for a while

January 05, 2009 8:49 PM  
Anonymous Nathanael Gassett said...

Darn it. And all these years I thought it was impossible to be a brilliant writer and a math wiz at once. Now I have no excuse for my inability to do multiplication in my head. Fail.

(I always enjoy a good set up post, helps ingrain in my mind different ways to handle a shoot. Thank you sir!).


January 05, 2009 9:39 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Damn David, I had to photograph him for a story as well. It was a intern story and it never saw the light of newsprint but you kicked my buttox

January 05, 2009 10:00 PM  
Blogger diegonyc said...

hi david,

love the "on assignments"! i never get tired of it.

January 05, 2009 10:57 PM  
Blogger shehstar said...

so... if we take the irrational amount of knowledge david has, and the rational amount of flashes joe mcnally has, we'll all have an infinite amount of things to learn from them. (ok, that was really geeky LOL)

awesome "on assignments" post! the math lecture was a good exercise for the brain too.

January 06, 2009 3:51 AM  
Anonymous Pat said...

Great article David. I like the way you controlled several elements making use of everything in hand including the ambient light.

when you described setting your fill light I was on the edge of my seat - thinking he can't change the ambient without messing up the background. Sigh of relief when you introduced the fill flash :-)

Great portrait using classic short lighting.

January 06, 2009 5:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mh, nice lighting. However I don't like how he's facing the smaller side of the framing...

January 06, 2009 6:24 AM  
Anonymous Wedding Photographer France said...


Great post - very informative as usual.

I am not sure however about the staircase photo - it seems your subject is crushed by the staircased, or trying to hid under it. That with the hands in the pockets makes him look quite shy and introvert. He has in my mind a slightly worried look.



January 06, 2009 9:37 AM  
Blogger Tiger Cosmos Photography said...

I somehow missed that Holga lens in the bag trick. Now searching the web I see everyone seems to have known about it.


Thank you again David! Love your DVDs - thank you for introducing me to the concepts of the strobist!

January 06, 2009 9:40 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

nice, I really like the on assignments.

But, uhm... a Honl shorty? Lumiquest SBIII? What happened to our beloved I-can-do-anything-with-black-cardboard-David? ;)

And about that SBIII; I just did a diy prokit-style variant: http://www.oseven-fotografie.nl/urbex/2008/12/17/diy-prokit-flash-modifiers-mini-softbox-including-template/


January 06, 2009 10:24 AM  
Blogger Ronalds Šulcs said...

great work

January 06, 2009 10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can kick the anon remark but your holga shot was with the D300, not the D3. At least the exif indicates that. And I agree. In the large size I really like what the holga lens does. Neat.

January 06, 2009 1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About the Honl shorty...

How different is it from a snoot ? what is new here, and how does it compare to a grid ?

January 06, 2009 1:31 PM  
Anonymous mizz maze said...

Great post and portrait. Getting to those interesting subjects and situations is what it's all about for me, too.

I love the OAs because reading them is like being a fly on the wall. I like that you mentioned the wall exposure and why the look of the unlit portion then led you to bring in a light for fill. I've been in similar situations once or twice and had an internal freak out trying to retain the vision for my shot and still work within the parameters of the ambient light. Now I have something on file :)

January 06, 2009 3:03 PM  
Blogger fairminded said...

What happened to the Orbis ring flash for fill? Sounds like it would have been useful in this shoot. John

January 06, 2009 3:55 PM  
Blogger christian del rosario said...

Love the Holga lens look Dave!

Question: When you shifted to the Holga lens, did you have to adjust the power of your lighting to take into account the Holga's effective aperture? I believe that lens needs a lot of light?

January 06, 2009 6:20 PM  
Blogger eric.bowles said...

Great shot! The reflections behind the subject can be extremely challenging and you did a wonderful job of not only controlling the reflection, but using it to highlight your subject.

I recently had a similar shot for a magazine interview. It's amazing the amount of reflection you can get off wood paneling.

January 06, 2009 8:59 PM  
Anonymous Guccimamasan said...

Wow... glad that i stumble on to your blog... love the picture. It was an eye opener to see how the background actually compliment Suri. Awesome picture. Will definitely try it one day.

January 08, 2009 5:25 AM  
Blogger Hilton Hamann said...

The Holga shot is stupendous.
Thanks for showing it.

January 27, 2009 4:10 PM  
Anonymous Cooper Strange said...

I know this post has been up for a long time, but I just wanted to say thank you for this one in particular. This is my go-to for inspiration. You just used concrete, and living in Asia, we have plenty of that! I look at this and go out with confidence that I can do a decent portrait out of nothing!

May 18, 2009 10:49 AM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

As always, thanks for the post David! I've been a fan of Manil Suri since I read Death of Vishnu several years ago, so this one was a special treat for me! :)

December 28, 2009 2:32 AM  

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