On Assignment: Weed Eaters

I spent Tuesday afternoon shooting a fleet of all-terrain mowers in Herald Harbor, MD.

Using goats instead of herbicides to clear land is growing in popularity, especially where runoff and watersheds are involved. And you have to admit, it is a pretty cool way to clear a monster patch of kudzu that has taken over a cliff.

Brian Knox is the supervising forester for Eco-Goats, a Davidsonville, MD company that specializes in ecologically friendly land clearing. Okay, so the goats do a lot of the work. But Brian takes care of them, moves the temporary fences and is a much more articulate spokesperson for the business than are his charges.

If you have the right kind property to be cleared, it is a smart way to go. Not only does it save herbicides getting into the ecosystem, but it is low-carbon. The goats are just recycling the carbon in the topsoil biomass rather than burning petroleum.

Heck, Google does it, and they are the smartest people I know.

We were out in the afternoon on a clear day, with sun raking over a kudzu-covered cliff that acted as our backdrop. For this wide shot and the picture up top, we used two speedlights -- one on-axis for fill and another on a voice-activated boom. The "VAB" in question was Erik Couse, who also helped out on a shoot for Rivals.com earlier this season.

I exposed for a rich-looking ambient, then keylit with Erik's flash and filled with an SB-800 in a Ray Flash. I used a Ray Flash rather than an Orbis this time, as the Ray Flash is a little more efficient.

They both have their relative strengths, as I have been finding out while shooting with each. I have a two-part, in-depth comparison slated to begin next week.

In this case, Erik's SB-800 was high and camera right, and set on 1/4 power. You can see how it hits Brian's face and also sculpts the goats from high up. It is doing the same thing in the photo up top, only the ratio to the ambient is a little tighter so the light is less dramatic. When shooting closer to the ambient and lighting from a high angle, the look is more of a crisp, 3-D feel than anything else.

Here is Erik in action, showing just how easily he can drop that flash in just about anywhere with little effort. If you have a second person (even just a bystander) you can work really fast like this. No need for a fancy-pants boom, either. You can just use an extended light stand with the legs collapsed.

In the wide shot of Brian and goats above, the boom light works against the hard, streaming backlight coming from the sun. But given our ambient exposure, this would be way too contrasty without the use of the fill. The Ray Flash with the SB-800 was set to 1/2 power. Remember, the Ray Flash is going to eat up some light. So the net effect is a pretty good balance between the two because the fill-to-subject distance is also greater than that of the key.

One quirk about the Ray Flash is that it gives up a little angle of coverage to get its efficiency, which in this case is doubly helpful. I was able to feather it up a little to keep from overexposing the foreground goats.

And as long as Erik keeps his flash to a constant distance from my subject, this setup travels very well using manual mode all around. Light stands would not last five minutes with these guys. Who knows -- those flashes might be tasty…

Using this setup, we were also able to follow the goats as they wandered around in what would have otherwise been extreme patchy ambient backlight. Here we just went with Nikon's built-in CLS/TTL. (See? I can be flexible.) We used an on-camera flash as both the on-axis fill and the master light, combined. Fill was set to -2.0 stops from full TTL, with the boomed key light running at full TTL. Worked pretty well, too.

The important thing is the key light location. You'll be nudging your VAB into the lighting locations you want until they start to get it intuitively -- which Erik did pretty quickly.

We wanted to do something with a different look with Brian, so we turned around and shot him using the river as the backdrop.

He would be in full sun, if he were not being shaded by the trees behind me. And by keeping the key light and ambient light all coming from a similar direction, you can build a nice, logical lighting scheme. (Of course, you can cheat it a little with fill and a kicker, too.)

Use the shade to knock out the sun, then build the key and shaping lights until he looks the way you want. That way, the light in the background has a directional consistency that makes it look kinda natural, but juiced.

We placed the lights in this photo one at a time, starting with the ambient. First we went to a low ISO and set the shutter to a 250th. Then we dialed in the aperture that made the background look nice and saturated. I think we were underexposing it, like, a stop-and-a-half maybe.

This, of course, places Brian in a black hole. So we just build him back up one light at a time. (All in manual mode here. Everything is locked in -- the light is not gonna change.)

There are three lights going on -- all SB's. Try to reverse them before reading further if you want. Spoilers ahead.

Key is kinda obvious, I guess. It is coming from high camera right, about 5 feet away. Power level? No idea. Maybe around a quarter or so. Doesn't matter -- the idea is just to dial it in until he looks good. We set it on a 105mm zoom and feathered it up a little, which gave us a nice falloff down his torso.

Second light is subtle, but important for shape. It is a back/right kicker, also zoomed to 105mm and dialed down until it just skims Brian's head and gives it a nice, 3-d look. Not too much power on this light is the secret. (Look at the photo bigger to see the subtle kicker at work.)

The third light needs to fix the shadow depth from the key, so it is coming in from low camera left. Erik is just holding it. We PW'd the first two lights and slaved (using SU-4 mode) the fill. It is subtle because it is set to a nice, low level. (Again, just add salt to taste.) But if you just look above Brian's camera-left collar you can see how much of a black hole the shadows would be without it.

Controlling the shadow depth from the key light is what makes those hard, sculpting lights look good. This also give us power to burn (at reasonable working distances) with the SB's. You could not do this very well with light-sucking umbrellas.

"Cue the Fill Goat!"

This last one is a straight ambient shot, using the streaming sunlight from back camera right and a very convenient fill goat from from camera left. I was amazed at how much she filled Brian's face from that distance.

But I'll sure take it.

Most of the day was handled with patchy backlit ambient and just two SB's. Nothing real fancy, and we did not use a single light softener the whole time. That was possible because we were mindful of the fill light, which allowed us to lift up the shadows cast by the hard key.

And I am already thinking of using these guys to go after that big patch of poison ivy (goats love it) that will otherwise make the woods in our backyard all but unusable next spring.


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Blogger Pete. said...

California Sunbounce Goats are coming in 2011... complete with potato chip grip.

Awesome work, DH.

October 22, 2009 12:50 AM  
Blogger Spencer said...

A series of Brian-by-the-river with the one-light-at-a-time build-up would be nice to see. I think I can visualize it, but I would love to see if my visualization matches what was reality in your camera...

October 22, 2009 12:59 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

"Here we just went with Nikon's built-in CLS/TTL. (See? I can be flexible.) "

Haha I like that line. It's so rare to see David using CLS and McNally using pocketwizards!

October 22, 2009 1:20 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

David, how much time did you spend on this shoot?

And how many photos will be used for the assignment?

October 22, 2009 1:30 AM  
Blogger Heipel said...

"fill goat" A classic. I think "fill goat" should become the standard industry word for any unconventional bounce surface. Should be a verb too.

October 22, 2009 1:33 AM  
Blogger David Young said...

Loving the on assignment posts David.

October 22, 2009 2:28 AM  
Blogger SS Buchanan said...

Nice post. Has really made me conscious of using the fill to soften the shadows from hard lights. I've been caught a few times with hard shadows, and hadn't twigged on how to easily soften them.


October 22, 2009 3:30 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I thought my 6ft sky panel was enough - now I have to get a white goat too. And I bet I can't get one here in the UK.

October 22, 2009 4:05 AM  
Blogger Ranger Duke said...

Interesting article, but the use of a fill goat was what really made it for me. I think there's a market for those.


October 22, 2009 4:47 AM  
Blogger Martin said...

I don't know if this complies with the guidelines, but I know another good resource when it comes to nature protection: Have you ever been curious about where all our manufactured stuff comes from and goes to after end of life? - Check out Edward Burtynsky's page: http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/. He also made a film named "manufactured landscapes" which I find really impressing.
-- Martin

October 22, 2009 4:56 AM  
Blogger Martin Hobby said...

Genius, I love the Goat fill!

October 22, 2009 5:18 AM  
Blogger paflyfish said...

Wonderful assignment. I liked the portrait of Brian as it came off looking very natural. Thanks for all the details on the three SB setup for the kicker and fill.

October 22, 2009 6:54 AM  
Blogger John said...

Awesome post and what a cool assignment. I wish more folks were coming up with ideas like this (the eco goats).

Couple of quick questions:

1. When you are using the Ray Flash, how are you triggering the other flash (since you are utilizing the hotshoe with an on camera flash); super slave or CLS maybe?

2. Could you get away with just using an on camera pop-up flash or on camera flash as fill, as opposed to those times you used the Ray Flash or an Orbis?


October 22, 2009 9:07 AM  
Blogger photoshopabuser said...

Strobists Who Look at Goats....who'da thunk it!

October 22, 2009 9:58 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Great post! All of the info on the photos was very informative, but don't forget to tell about what cool animals goats are! You have a large audience and I think it is great that you are passing along information about an organic weed control option as well as a humane way to use animals that are typically looked at as less than desirable. Not the point of the post, I know, but a fantastic side benefit!

October 22, 2009 10:01 AM  
Blogger David said...


Do one yourself. Every step is basically adjusted to your taste. I went Sky, then key, then separation light, then fill.

A little dark on the sky, right on with the key, very subtle with the separation light, and to taste with the fill. If you only have two lights, lose the rim light.

October 22, 2009 11:04 AM  
Blogger David said...

@Stephen (@1:30am)-

We went two hours total, but actual shooting time was well under an hour. And we were yakking most of the time, at that.

As far as photos used, depends on the source. In addition to going here, they will be going to Eco-Goats' website, and a Maryland-based green site, which is still pre-launch.

Short answer: Different numbers of pics to different places, for different reasons.

October 22, 2009 11:07 AM  
Blogger David said...

@John (9:07am)-

I hand-held the Ray Flash from underneath, Orbis style. The camera was PW'd, as were the flashes (incl the Ray Flash)

2. Yes, but it will look a little different. Surprisingly good, tho, for on-camera flash. Feather it up a little if you can to seal the bottom of the frame and/or foreground.

October 22, 2009 11:14 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Dave thanks for all you do, this article included. I am learning so MUCH from this site and the forum. like others, LOVE the goat bounce system you used. Keep up the great work, until next blog entry... Peace.

October 22, 2009 2:10 PM  
Blogger Seth Bricel said...

Thanks for the thorough walk through again! I'm loving your on-axis fill results.

October 22, 2009 2:18 PM  
Blogger tangcla said...

David said:
"And we were yakking most of the time, at that."

haha. Nice pun.

October 22, 2009 11:29 PM  
Blogger mjk_photo said...

I'm always amazed each time I check out this BLOG!

October 23, 2009 12:56 AM  
Blogger Matt Wynne said...

I think I spend to much time following the Strobist. I saw goats in the photo and thought to my self "This should be pretty cool"

Thanks for taking us through the steps. Always fun to read.

Boston Photographer | MWynne

October 23, 2009 9:27 AM  
Blogger Roger P said...

Anybody know if there'll be fill goat demos at the Photo Expo this week in NYC?

I hear they already have their own blog ... Strawbist.

October 23, 2009 11:17 PM  
Blogger Agent J said...

The subject of this shoot reminded me of a story from NE Pennsylvania several years ago. A borough there hired an similar outfit to do vegetation control along a creek. They used sheep and were called Sheep-O-Matic.

October 24, 2009 12:37 PM  
Blogger Olga said...

it's hilarious!^))

October 26, 2009 11:56 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

great post Dave! I had a great day with you. So, I guess given the responses, I should start planning to breeding a bunch of "fill goat" kids for next year. Eco-Goats.com

November 04, 2009 8:16 AM  
Blogger belvedere said...

Always a sucker for goats, but your Fill Goat is The Best! Having shot in difficult dappled light I really appreciate your approach to conquer those extreme hot spots/shadows. Amy

November 04, 2009 9:32 PM  
Blogger gijs said...

Great post, David!
I wondered, is there any particular reason that you didn't use the rayflash as fill in the river portrait? The fill from below and camera left leaves some pretty harsh shadows.

November 09, 2009 9:47 AM  
Blogger David said...

Where can I buy gels for goats?

November 13, 2009 6:46 AM  
Blogger Ranger Duke said...

Gelling goats requires wrapping them in specialised goat gels. It can be quite expensive, especially considering that the goats will often eat the gels.
I'm pretty sure there's an article on www.diyphotography.net regarding a cheaper option for gelling goats...

November 13, 2009 7:44 PM  

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