On Assignment: Playwright

I photographed actor and playwright Cameron McNary as part of my Howard County Arts Council project. Unable to scrounge a decent location, we ended up in the basement -- which meant shooting under 7 1/2-foot ceilings.

That's always a challenge, as it severely limits lighting angles from overhead. But if you can lower the subject -- as in a seated portrait -- it gives you a little more flexibility.

So we did just that, and played around with a little hard light while we were at it.

Working With a Low Ceiling

Cameron was very cool, and patiently waited as I found a lighting design that would both work for him and fit into our impromptu, height-challenged studio.

Getting him to a lower, seated position allowed me to bring in the key light from a high angle. But even with the subject seated, a high key from a low ceiling height is impossible if the light is very far from the subject. It's just a matter of angles. So we brought it in tight and high and added a grid spot to control spill on the backdrop. (The key was an old WL 600.)

Problem is, being so close the light is going to fall off very quickly. So you are basically just sculpting your leading edges with light at that point.

One solution for the deep shadows left by this kind of key is to use on-axis fill to control the shadow depth. In this case, I used an ABR800 ring flash, set about 2 1/2 stops below the key. (Huh?)

The ring fills the shadows without leaving any telltale shadows of its own -- until you get to the background. Then it screams out, "Hey, lookit me -- I'm a ring flash!"

An easy fix is to hit the background with its own light. As seen here, it was just a splash -- via an SU-4'd SB-800 coming from back camera left. This kills the ring signature, and also adds a little bit of a lighting layer to the background.

Cameron is a D&D player from way back, and he happened to have his dice with him. (I didn't ask why...) But they added a nice, relevant detail as he is basically rolling the dice with his characters every time he puts pen to paper.

Long-Throw Reflector Key

For one of the other shots I went back to the 11" sports reflector I had previously used in this test, to work against the edge of the beam.

I like some of the atypical things you can do with this reflector, but sometimes the fact that it is super efficient can be a bit of a pain. These things throw out a lot of light, so at close range I am usually gonna be using the edge of the beam.

It's kinda sorta like a grid, but not really. It falls off differently, and can sometimes look a little strange. Not that strange is a bad thing -- I am always looking for strange, just in case strange turns out to work well.

In this case, most of the energy from the strobe is missing Cameron and hitting the floor in front of him. This gives a little reflected uplight from the carpet to work against the harsh angle of the top key. To further bring up the shadows I pushed a little ring flash in there, too.

The ring flash is dialed down so low that it doesn't even push any tone back to the dark grey backdrop. To add just enough light to separate his shoulder line, I used a domed SB-800 as a background light directly behind Cameron.

You can see the extreme angle of the key, here. This is not typical portrait light, but Cameron's work is pretty cerebral and intense. So I figured we could make his headshot a little atypical, too.

Notice his arms are totally blown out. That's okay, because his arms are not going to be in the photo. But it shows you how little of the beam is hitting his face.

This is a cool little trick in that you can have the light coming from the top, and yet the reflected fill from the bottom could actually be brighter than the key on the subject's face. It's all about the angle. And having a deep-dish reflector with such a strongly defined beam on your key helps, too.


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Blogger Bugi said...

What happened to your orbis DH? Oh right, you gave it to the Bootcamp Assign2 winner. LOL. Would 1 gridded speedlight be enough to replace the WL on the first photo? I was wondering why you brought the big guns for this assignment....


July 21, 2009 12:18 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Byrnes said...

This post has really made me think about how we will be able to utilize our space. We have a ceiling that is about 8.5 ft high. It is high enough by our measurements, but this post really gives us a few ideas or how we can now approach our space. Thank you for the insight!

July 21, 2009 12:58 AM  
Blogger brettmaxwell.blogspot.com said...

a WL and ABR? Where's the Strobist?

July 21, 2009 1:25 AM  
Anonymous Tim Olsen said...

Dig this tutorial David. I'm curious about the second set-up using the sport. You mention that the feathering of the light is critical to exposure and the direction of light falling onto subject's face. Did you have any concerns about the nose shadow? And, if so, are you simply relying on the floor for a bounce-fill? I'm wondering if using his hand underneath, just off frame was ever considered as a more significant and color-balanced bounce for a small fill just for the nose shadow.

July 21, 2009 3:09 AM  
Anonymous Tim Olsen said...

Please add my url to previous comment if possible.

July 21, 2009 3:11 AM  
Anonymous ChikaBebe said...

the picture was taken nicely :D i love the effect

July 21, 2009 5:25 AM  
Anonymous moritz said...

beautiful "old masters" light! what i was wondering about: is that a snoot or a grid on the sb800 for the background? also: given you don't have a ringflash - what would be a suitable replacement as on-axis fill? on camera flash? or rather an umbrellaed light behind camera?

July 21, 2009 5:35 AM  
Anonymous offcameraflash said...

He carries D&D dice around with him all the time and you didn't ask why?? Come on, David!

July 21, 2009 6:57 AM  
Blogger David said...


If you click through to the large version of the setup should you can easily see that it is bare. (105mm zoom, I think.)


>>"Where's the Strobist?"

It's at http://www.strobist.com, just like always. (Or maybe you meant this?)

July 21, 2009 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a possibility that the warm reflection came off of the blown out arms just inches from his face. That is a VAL reflector. Thank you, just drop one arm. Perfect.

July 21, 2009 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Andriy said...

Interesting setup David. I've attempted similar technique before. I was using gridded Alien Bee dish and positioned it overhead so that only feathered light was falling on the subject. You need quite a lot of juice for this to work and AB1600 has plenty. Here is sample with this setup:

July 21, 2009 11:34 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Great post and info. Never know what you're going to run into.

July 21, 2009 5:16 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Great post. Never know what you're going to run into. Great portrait.

July 21, 2009 5:18 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Great post. Almost ALL my portraits are done in low ceiling conditions, because that's all I have...I'm with you----strange is often GOOD.

July 22, 2009 10:31 AM  
Blogger Ad said...

Thanks David for the blog, I've learnt a bucket load over the last few years. What keeps me coming back is the content and the great attitude.


July 22, 2009 8:32 PM  

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