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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Blogger Chris Peters said...

This is mind boggling speedlink of note:

January 29, 2009 9:52 PM  
Blogger David said...

Yeah, I saw that. But it was already on all of the big blogs while I was away. I try to go a little off the beaten path for speedlinks. (Dave certainly doesn't need me on this one!)


January 29, 2009 10:00 PM  
Blogger Loïc Trégan said...

would be nice to see the intermediary shots, to see strobe after strobe how things improve.

January 29, 2009 11:08 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

What a great tutorial -- love the outcome. If you were going for the "doesn't look lit" look, you certainly nailed it. Very nice.

Although, in terms of composition, a dangerous snake hanging from a branch above the subject's head might have been a tad more dramatic :)

January 29, 2009 11:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


how do you make the flash fill so balance? this picture is so natural, that I have hard time to reverse engineer the light..


January 30, 2009 12:24 AM  
Anonymous Garrett Hamilton said...

Nice job on this one David, this is my first comment on the site as i've been somewhat of a Lurker. I really like the fact thatyou lit the tree trunk behind him (i would have never thought of it) Im glad everything (seemingly) went well in CR and that you're back safe. Keep up the good work.

January 30, 2009 12:25 AM  
Anonymous steve. said...

220 photographs and when the camera focused on president Obama, he blinked! Doh!

January 30, 2009 1:30 AM  
Anonymous Joe said...


I'm starting Lighting 102 but am up to speed with all your new posts. I haven't bought any light modifiers yet, but my question is--should I skip the umbrella and just get the Lumiquest Softbox III? It seems to be a better choice in terms of portability and ease of use.


January 30, 2009 2:43 AM  
Blogger Rafa Barberá said...

Thank you Anne for give to David the inspiration to this don't-abuse-background-subexposure kind of shot ;-).

Seriously, very nice done. The first time I see it in your Flickr stream it seems to me that you didn't use your trusted speedlights. But as I remember the Anne video, I see that you was trying a new (for you) technique.

January 30, 2009 4:38 AM  
Anonymous Pat said...

Great article Dave,

You've achieved a nice edgy result without makeing it look unnatural. The more subtle looks gets my vote :-)

January 30, 2009 5:30 AM  
Anonymous JeK68 said...

Great post,
thank you! I was also tempted to get the Justin clamps for similar situations, but ended up with the Manfrotto (Bogen) 171 and a mini-ball head attached on a short stud. The 171 is more secure and can be more packable imho.

JeK68 (Flickr name)

January 30, 2009 6:48 AM  
Blogger www.robhammerphotography.com said...

you like those justin clamps more then the Bogen Super Clamps?

January 30, 2009 10:51 AM  
Anonymous Dave Kee said...

David: Did you consider using on-axis fill? Thanks!


January 30, 2009 11:51 AM  
Blogger Alfred said...

David, great article and truly enjoyable to read but this is the second time you have confused me by saying "By cranking my shutter speed down I can drop the environment and make Dan the star."
I do know what you want to say, but is it not true that if you crank your shutter speed down you are effectively slowing the time and the exposure for the environment would be raised?
To me turnng speed down means slowing down.

January 30, 2009 11:58 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Great post, I see you are getting away from the umbrellas for the softboxs. Could you expand that a little and I don't see any pocket wizards, are you using CLS?

January 30, 2009 1:21 PM  
OpenID adamstevensphotography said...

Just like Loïc Trégan said, I would love to see this shot with and without the flashes (can you run back down to CR to shoot the difference for us?) Sometimes when I do a full set up it's hard not to think that all the work I put into the lighting was a bit, unnecessary... But perhaps part of the learning thing is getting to where I can see if it will be a benefit before I break out the stands/clamps and SB's.

January 30, 2009 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Portland Advertising Photographer said...

Great photos. I always like shooting on an overcast day in the forest. It makes for very cool portraits.


January 30, 2009 2:02 PM  
Blogger KatieMac said...

My favorite is how you clamped and hung your gear all over the "No Trespassing" sign. I hope that meant for others, not from the Institute!

Beautiful lighting, wonderful that Dan doesn't look to be "artificially" lit. Question: did you gel the flashes to even the color temperature with the ambient light, or correct them in post? and BTW, what color is the daylight in the tropics under the trees?

January 30, 2009 4:13 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

Thanks David for another great example and photo!

Cheers Vincent


January 30, 2009 5:48 PM  
Blogger aries67 said...

I never would have picked three lights were used in this shot!

Thanks for a post on more natural looking lighting - keep them coming!

BTW I was just as fascinated by the Ent tree as the lighting in this post!

January 30, 2009 6:42 PM  
Blogger htphoto said...

Great post
Thenk you

January 30, 2009 8:51 PM  
Blogger J said...

What happened to the Orbis ringflash?

January 31, 2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger Mario said...

Good to see you´re alive and well after the trip ;-)

Any chance we could get one of those setup drawings for this shot? It peaks my interest that I don´t see any wizards on the strobes... it'd be interesting to see where they were and if you found any serious obstacles for the strobe controls, as you often do in these forest settings.

January 31, 2009 9:32 AM  
Anonymous Amanda from Einburgh said...

Justin Clamps, another item for my wish list!

January 31, 2009 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Roger said...

Gracias from spain! Nice job!



February 01, 2009 8:30 PM  
Blogger Timothy said...

i love daniel ridgeway swift. hes my #*&@ing hero.

February 03, 2009 2:20 PM  
Anonymous Beth Swift said...

David - I think your photo is beautiful - I am sure it is mostly due to your innovative lighting technique, but for me the photo is beautiful because it is of my son, Dan Swift.
Thank you.
Beth Swift

February 03, 2009 3:42 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

You have certainly achieved subtlety with this one. Without reading the post, I would have had a hard time reverse engineering this one. The light behind him on the tree would have eluded me for sure. Thanks for another valuable article.

February 09, 2009 3:59 AM  
Blogger Gustavo Santos said...


I was wondering... you shoot with a bunch of SB-800's, and in almost all pictures featured you use pocketwizards... The way you photograph, is there never a case when You say "yeah, Nikon's wireless sync will do here. Let me just pop up the built-in flash as a master..." or "TTL mode must work ok here..."? Do you ever feel the need for (or would save time by) another sync method other then the PWs? Thanks!

February 09, 2009 12:27 PM  
Blogger David said...


Actually, this is a good example of where CLS might not have worked very well. The same way Dan is blocking the back light from me, he would also be blocking a master flash from talking to the back light.

Maybe the key could have seen it okay, maybe not. But it is quicker for me to PW the back/rim light and set off everything else in SU-4 mode than to test the theory out.


February 09, 2009 3:53 PM  
Blogger jharrang said...

Just thought I'd let you know that I really appreciated the article. Your generosity in sharing your wisdom and experience with other photographers is such a blessing. Thank you for all that you do!

-James Harrang

February 12, 2009 4:07 AM  
Blogger Lizzie said...


i used to run the english program at the monteverde institute. funny i stumbled upon your site looking for studio lighting help!

Viva monteverde!


February 16, 2009 5:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David;

I´m from Costa Rica, I´m an amateur phographer also, nice blog and thanks to visit our Country!
I´m traying to make my own blog with as an inspiration! yhanks Buddy!

February 17, 2009 12:53 PM  
Blogger viscara said...

I been there many times. Firs times were not for good times.. Just north over the border. I love costa rica but its difficult to see how the costa ricans treat the El Salvadorians and the Nicaraguans.. Seeing the war first hand in 1985 was hard and returning to see things that have changed and some things that have not.. I see you went to Arenal and the town of Fortuna "Not the original town" as the first town was ruined by a eruption of the very volcano you saw. Sort of a strange thing to see Spaniard Tourist shouting drink orders from the pool bar at the bottom of the lava flow heated water. When I saw so many ugly things within miles of there. Sort of surreal.

January 10, 2011 5:13 AM  

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