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On Assignment: Monteverde Institute

One of my reasons for going to Costa Rica was to do some work for the Monteverde Institute. At MVI, visiting college students come to learn about the biodiversity and ecological sustainability for which Costa Rica is famous.

Much of the day was spent shooting students in various environments at the school. But we also went up into the forest behind the school to photograph a couple of the volunteers who come down to Central America to spend some time in an amazing environment and to help to keep things running at MVI.

Volunteer Dan Swift

One of those folks is Dan Swift, who is pictured above. He is from Buffalo NY, where he is almost certainly not missing winter this year. Dan is a Buffalo guy to the core, even having one of the beasts tattooed onto his right forearm. He decided to take some time off of college to come down to help out, and I thought an environmental portrait of Dan might inspire others to follow in his tracks.

We hiked up the hillside on the property behind the school to a large "strangling fig" tree. The fig actually starts growing in the top of the host tree, and keeps sending down vines until it completely takes over. The substrate tree dies, and the fig superstructure remains.

What is left is this cool, gnarly "Ent"-looking thing. Some are actually hollowed out enough so that you can climb up on the inside.

We decided to use the trunk as a backdrop for a portrait of Dan. I wanted to use additional light, but only to solve problems rather than to call attention to itself.

The ambient light was mottled and sunny, so that would be the first problem to solve. It was coming in from a high angle (we are in the tropics) so it would not work as a front light.

That's fixed easily enough -- we go to the shadow side of the tree and turn the high sun into our hair/separation light. This also gives really nice texture to the greenery surrounding the tree.

Only problem is that the tree trunk is now too dark. So our first SB-800 will be used to fix that. I connected the SB to a Justin Clamp, a wonderful little $54 piece of gear that mates a strong, two-way clamp to a small ball head and cold shoe. It's a match made in heaven for a speedlight, and eventually I will have one for each of my umpteen small flashes. You can put a light darn near anywhere with a Justin clamp.

First try was to rake the tree with a side light for texture. Looked like crap, no matter what angle we tried. So next I decided to just uplight the cavity in the tree to add some tone to it.

If you see the effect of the tree light in this photo. Click through for a bigger version to see how the Justin Clamp makes a light stand out of a tree root.

Now, we have sunlight working the top and edges, and an SB lighting up the tree. So all of our light is coming from back to front, which makes an easy environment in which to light Dan. And the detail in the trunk will frame him, too.

When you light on separate planes you have total control of the relative tones between your foreground and background. But that doesn't mean you have to wang them out and make them overly lit. As I said, I wanted to keep the light pretty natural looking, so that meant keeping the ratios between foreground and background pretty tight.

I used my one and only light stand for the key light on Dan, who would have otherwise been a couple of stops underexposed. I saved the stand for the key because that was the light for which the position was most important.

I used an SB-800 with a Lumiquest Soft Box III to soften it just a little, and brought it in just out of the frame at camera left. Not trying to nuke him -- just trying to bring him back from the underexposed backlit shadow area. (Working against the backlit foliage is what gives the photo all of it's shape and texture.)

Even with the lit tree behind him providing separation, Dan's camera-right face went a little dark in the shadow of the key. So I used one more SB-800 from back camera right, past the tree, as a subtle kicker.

We are out of stands, so it's Justin Clamp #2 for this separation light. If these clamps folded flat (or close to it) they would be perfect. But even with their gangly, hard-to-pack shapes I am not complaining.

I clamped onto a small sign near the tree just out of the frame at far camera right. Not a lot of light coming from this one -- just enough to shape Dan's face at camera right.

Shutter Speed Controls the Contrast

Given that your flashes are adjusted (and on manual power) to give you the appropriate amount of light at your chosen aperture, it is easy to work the contrast range of the photo with the shutter speed. This will alter the ambient component of the photo.

By cranking my shutter speed down I can drop the environment and make Dan the star. Remember, no matter how far I drop the ambient, Dan will both be both lit and separated by the flashes. I have him with a front light and kicker, and the part of the trunk right behind him is also lit by flash.

A couple of years ago, I would have cranked the ambient down further to call attention to the light. But I have been trending toward a more subtle balance lately -- using light to shape the environment rather that take over.

In the end, the flash/ambient balance does not call attention to itself and I like that. At face value, this is a portrait. But the real goal is to allow the viewers to imagine themselves in this environment.

And if they are looking for a way to spend a gap year, they could do far worse than to spend it working at MVI in Costa Rica.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is one of a series of "On Assignment" features. You can see the entire list, with 75 more OA articles, here.


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