Variations on a Two-Light Theme, Pt. 2

Last in this series we looked at Riaz, lit entirely by flash against a darkish wooden wall. At left is Brett, who was lit right where he sat in a classroom chair in an unfinished commercial building with a primed drywall background.

This time around: High-axis key light with just enough strobe on the background to separate it from black. More inside.

Start With the Key

I'll give you one guess as to what I used for a key light. It is really my go-to light mod for close-in speedlight portraiture now. Broken record, I know. But the not-hard / not-soft look, plus total control, in a small package is too much to resist for me.

If we come in high and in front of Brett, we create a shaft of "third-degree" -type light that you might see in an interrogation scene in a movie. The shaft is hard (-ish) and pointed straight down. Actually, it is even pointed a tad away from him and back toward me. Even so -- and even with the control you get with the SB-III -- his hair was still a little hot.

So we gobo'd the edge closest to Brett with two strips of gaffer's tape to make a quickie barn door. This gave the shaft of downlight a more defined edge. Which, in turn, created a more coming-into-a-shaft-of-light look. That's why the light gets darker as a crawls up Brett's head.

It is a crisp, 3-D look, IMO. Not nearly as out-there as what Peter Yang did earlier, but definitely on the same branch of the family tree.

Here is the setup shot, courtesy Syl Arena. The "boom" holding up the SB-800 / SB-III keylight is the flash arm off of a CSB Micro Mini. (I end up using that outfit chopped into separate parts just as often as I use it together.)

You really need some sort of boom on this -- gotta get that light right out front, and you do not want it moving. In that close, inches matter a lot.

So, our key is relatively powerful because it is in very close. Even dialed way down we will get plenty of aperture to hold focus through the face. Another bennie is that we have the ability to take that nearby white wall to black. This is all because of key-to-subject distance.

Now our white wall is totally black, which means we can make it anything with a second strobe. I chose to aim the second flash at the back wall, using a dome diffuser. This takes the flash pattern out of play and makes the tone of the wall a pure distance thing -- with a smooth gradient. If I want a fast-falling gradient, I put the light in close. If I bring the light away from the wall, the gradient gets less dramatic.

I can control the gradient's actual tone with the power setting on the flash, so the two variables can be adjusted independent of each other. I could make a barely separating grey wall by moving Brett and the light closer to the background wall, but I would lose this gradient control.

Variations on a Variation

And besides, I can do a lot with the rest of that key beam if I want. Remember, Brett is on the feathered edge of the beam, which means that we have a lot of lighting power being wasted out in the space in front of him.

I can catch that with a big reflector in low and fill those shadows if I want. Of I can put that reflector in front, just out of the frame and angled toward Brett's face for fill light very similar to that we used on Riaz. I can make the reflected light as bright or dim as I want by including or excluding the full force of the beam from the key light.

If I have Brett on the edge of the key beam, the reflected light could actually end up being brighter than where Brett is in the key. Lots of possibilities -- even maybe that pillow trick, à la John Keatley.

Long story short, the nose and chin shadows depths could be placed at any density you want. But the hard, toplight is also what gives the photo it's look. So you don't wanna rush in there willy-nilly and "fix" everything.

Just understand that you have complete choice in the tonal range of the photo -- even if you are just using two strobes and no ambient.


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Blogger fxmixer said...

Very cool man, I love that "stepping into the light" look. One of my favorite Platon images is of Liam Neeson with a similar feel. Oh, the guy on the right in the setup image looks he's about to pass out from boredom! "C'mon man, you're gettin' to watch the Strobist at work!"

May 25, 2009 1:01 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

What better way to end an evening than coming home from the bars on a Sunday night (thank you day off for Memorial Day) and sitting down to a great new Strobist post. Thank you, sir!

May 25, 2009 1:26 AM  
Blogger Tyler Brownfield said...

As always I appreciate your holistic approach to teaching this stuff.

I'm really catching onto this idea of light shaping and manipulation and the benefit of control with by setting the power manually.

Looking forward to more two-light setups and the bootcamp.

May 25, 2009 2:34 AM  
Anonymous Quoc Huy said...

I never thought of using the micro-mini flash arm for a boom!

Great shot David!

May 25, 2009 8:41 AM  
Blogger Matt Sanderson said...

I have to say, that the Blog has been short of informative how-to and how-I-did-it posts... and I agree with the above comments, it's great using that 'stepping into the light' style. I tried something similar without strobes, with the subjects walking from a subway. Didn't work as well as it would have using strobes because of the variables.

May 25, 2009 9:01 AM  
Anonymous Damon Webster said...

Well Done, David!I love how you use real gear, and also McGyver it up when you have to tweak it just right.
A true light shaper.

May 25, 2009 1:16 PM  
Blogger edward said...

my physics final is tomorrow and im still reading this
love what you do
keep posting

Edward Morris

May 25, 2009 1:18 PM  
Blogger stefanogiovannini said...

I looked at the Peter Yang photo and I feel there is more than lighting to it.
I appreciate this site and I learned some tricks but I feel sometimes composition and other elements are as or more important than lighting [as long as the lighting is not bad but acceptable].
I think Peter Yang used a shorter lens and a slightly lower point of view. that dreaws you in more.
And the frontal view is stronger - the tie, the pocket of the jacket and so on are important part of the photo. In this sample I like the face but the shoulder in the foreground and the light blue are distracting.
am just saying sometimes lighting can make the photo rigid. I like Platon. He uses very simple lighting and short lenses from what I can tell.
If you use a shorter lens you can probably hold the flash with your left hand - you can get closer and you can get more variations.
Met a photographer for NY city hall that just does that- he puts a honeycomb on his sb800 and holds it with the left hand. all in manual - and very clean results in the midday sun.
In the real world sometimes you have to shoot where you can't set up a stand.
Anyway that is my point of view

May 25, 2009 1:30 PM  
Blogger Basswork said...

I tried to replicate this with the exact gear (except the boom). For the life of me, I cannot figure out how you got light into his eyes with the way you have the light pointed. The only way I could get light back into the eyes was bouncing some back with a card.

May 25, 2009 3:58 PM  
Blogger Kevin Housen said...


We'll I'll take a stab at it. Maybe the barn door was just a bit low in your setup? As David has talked about in L102 (I think), its good to look at the subject from the light's point of view. If no part of the SBIII can see the subjects eyes, there won't be any light there. On the other hand, I could be full of #@$%.

David - I'm a noob. A recent convert from the "why would I use flash when there is perfectly good ambient light" camp. Finished 101, 10, your DVDs, McNally's books, etc. Am now mainlining, with a stream of UPS deliveries of strobist equipment arriving nonstop. Thanks much for your blog and your clear manner of explaining lighting. Its really opened my eyes.


May 25, 2009 10:31 PM  
Anonymous Matt Haines said...

the thing that had me initially kind of puzzled was the strong downward nose shadow, but the lack of 'hooded' eyes. if this light had been far away, the eyes would have been in deep shadow (or at least it would have made his eyes look 'baggy'). so at first i thought there might be some gridded fill or something esoteric (to not destroy the nose shadow but bring out the eyes). But then I realized - and correct me if I'm wrong, please! - that the extreme closeness of the source is the cause of this. The angle of the light in relation to the eyes is much more on-axis than it is to the nose. So it lights the eyes almost dead-on, but to the nose the light source seems like it's high overhead. No way to do that with a light that's further away. Cool!

May 26, 2009 2:16 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Hamilton said...

This is an interesting post. :)

Good job David.

May 26, 2009 8:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is awful.
Don't post anything just because it use a flash.

May 27, 2009 6:09 AM  
Blogger Lola said...

David, any suggestions on where we might be able to find a cheap flash boom to attach to a bowen or bogen 6 or 5 for holding the SB III out in front of the face like in your diagram? The micro mini california sunbouncers look great but are really pricey!

May 27, 2009 4:28 PM  
Blogger Figlewicz Photo said...

So I got this off of If they new Nikon's had the wrong signal and they are fixing that problem before the release of that one how come they are not fixing the Canon ones?

"Nikon's Speedlights emit minimal range-reducing RF interference in LPA Design's testing, so this particular problem is restricted to Canon gear. Also note that it's principally the U.S./Canada version of the FlexTT5 that's impacted. The European FlexTT5 operates on a different set of frequencies, most (but not all) of which are outside the frequencies affected by the RF noise coming from the trio of Canon Speedlites. Also, the RF noise emitted by these flashes only interferes with signal reception; the range of a MiniTT1 transmitter is not reduced by placing any one of these Canon flashes in its shoe."

May 27, 2009 5:06 PM  
Anonymous Ku Manahan said...

Hi Dave! I used a similar setup for one of my latest shoots, and my client was thrilled! I used a single light though. I put Dannieboy (my subject) in the shade, and used a single 580exII set on full power with a softbox to kill the ambient (2pm tropical sun), plus a reflector to lighten the shadows under the nose and chin. Great results from such a simple setup!

May 27, 2009 11:43 PM  
Blogger Alex Gowers said...

I love the lighting and have long since been a strobist follower but i'm starting to see that your images are not quite right. I was wondering whether you have calibrated your monitor and looked at all the ins and outs of colour profiles. It would be good to cover the issue yourself as it looks as if your images have very little contrast and a red/pink shift to them. I'm not saying it's wrong but running on my screens that are calibrated it just doesn't look quite right.


May 28, 2009 2:41 PM  
Blogger Raimond said...

To Alex:

Your screens are "Calibrated" to what?

Regarding the photo, and the catch light in the eyes...
Maybe the flash reflected off something, or maybe there is some sort of ambient light that caused that to happen.

May 28, 2009 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Pamela Vasquez said...

I can't seem to order the mini from the link...all in euro it seems. Am I missing something.

Great info. as usual David.

May 30, 2009 11:09 PM  
Blogger Lola said...

Can you please explain how you attached this to the light stand and kept it stable. I realise you used the the flash arm off of the micro mini SB, and as much as I'd like to get the SB MM it's very pricey at £76 just for the flash bracket. Also where is the PW? Can you provide a close up shot of where you attached it to the light stand? would be so helpful, thank you

June 05, 2009 9:36 AM  

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