On Assignment: Planes and Arrows

As part of a long-term project I am working on with a local school, I popped into the gym after school recently to shoot archery practice. And it brought to mind a quickie tip for lighting big spaces.

A gym is a big-volume place, full of ugly light. You can't hope to light the whole thing very effectively with a few speedlights. But you can light selective planes and create the illusion that large, 3-D areas are lit -- even if you can only place lights at the periphery, lest your lights get skewered.

Always start with a first look at the ambient. That's what I always do when assessing an area to light. A quick shot on auto exposure and daylight balance lets me know how much ambient there is, and what color it is.

Answer: Not much, and puke green. Perfect.

The auto-ambient is 1/15th of a sec at f/5 at 200 ISO -- pretty dark. And honestly, the darker a big room is (within reason) the better as far as I am concerned. With big areas, I want to give myself a friendly aperture to be able to hit with strobe when I build it back up.

Step two, is to knock out that ambient while leaving myself as much ability to light as possible. So, go to my sync speed (1/250th) and close down the aperture just until the bad things go away. 1/250th at f/6.3 is plenty dark. In fact, I probably still have a stop or so of leeway, in case I need to adjust my strobes' exposure by remote control by just tweaking my aperture setting later.

Just enough, but not too much on your new, ambient-killing exposure. I could easily nuke ambient with f/16 at 1/250th, but then I would have to light it to that level. Not an easy thing to do with speedlights at distance. Make life as easy on yourself as possible.

The trick to working with speedlights in a volume this big is to realize that you do not have to light that whole volume. Just light the planes you are going to shoot -- be they walls, targets, people or whatever.

Case in point: Strobes #1 and #2 are lighting my shooters. Not much -- just enough to give them a little wrap detail and keep them from being a sillo. And you could easily light this whole thing with just two flashes if you were cool with the shooters going black. That's a pick 'em, or an easy out of you did not have enough flashes.

The two lights nearer to the camera (#3 and #4) are lighting the targets. I aimed the left flash at the right target area and vice versa, for even coverage.

Setting my flashes on 1/4 power at a 105mm throw, I can easily light up the targets at a significant distance. Ditto for my archers.

Another consideration here is that my lights are lighting both shooters and targets without being in the line of fire. I thought about placing them between the shooting alleys near the arrows' flight paths. Then I watched some of the shooters warm up. Ummm… No.

(They aren't making SB-800s anymore.)

And not that this light is anything major special, either. But remember the sickly pea soup we were in a few minutes ago -- it is that difference that is important to me.

Once we have lit the two planes, I can use the same setup to grab a detail shot, too. And it looks completely different with a longer lens -- almost as if that (now visually compressed) space is not even there.

If I want to adjust the exposure (liking this one a little more saturated) that's an easy fix by varying the aperture. No need to adjust the actual lights, as the whole thing is built on flash.

Your aperture is now your volume control.

Same Principle, Different Approach

This project is activity-driven as far as subject matter goes. But the important part to me is producing a series of portraits of middle schoolers who are mastering their environment. The project will ultimately be aimed at incoming 6th graders, who are looking at middle school with mixture of garden-variety fear, and total, unadulterated fear.

So after the practice, I grabbed a portrait of the best archer in the group. And just like the above photos, this one is built with lighting on planes -- albeit in a different sense.

Their gear is pretty spartan, with nylon reusable targets and arrows of rather dubious fletching. We used three of the better arrows, and posed our archer against the target. There were only a couple of minutes to shoot, as class was ending and he had to go.

The target is much lighter in tone (especially at the edges) than is the archer, and I wanted to switch that relationship around, to place emphasis on him.

In the same way we can light planes, we can choose to exclude them -- even if they are practically adjacent. The target is lit by an on-axis (or nearly so) umbrella placed behind the camera. By lighting him to two stops down, we provide fill on his face and take the target down to saturate the faded colors while taming the white edges.

Two birds killed with one stone, we light the face next.

As you can see above, even though his face is right next to the target, we can light both planes separately by using a grid on his face and feathering it away from the target.

The important thing to remember is not to aim it at his face, but rather in front of his face. Just skim him to the front, and you can use the edge of the gridded beam to light his face without hitting the target.

(You could also gobo off the light to get this effect, with slightly different results. But I like the way the edge of the beam looks on a face.)

So, we are lighting a face on a completely different plane that is the lighting on the target which is just a few inches away. This means we can gel the face but not the target, which is exactly what is done here. A 1/4 CTO warmed up the flesh tones just a tad, without coloring the background at all.

Plane and Simple

By thinking of your lighting zones as planes, you can bypass large amounts of unneeded dead space. Or you can also be picky about just where your light goes and where it doesn't.

And the efficiency of lighting on planes helps you to easily overcome yucky ambient in large, dark spaces.

Next: Prep Quarterback


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Blogger Van Tucker said...

Photos look clean. Excellent tips for a quick and easy set-up. Now I am ready to shoot arrows.

November 27, 2009 2:50 AM  
Blogger JW Stovall said...

Excellent tutorial David. You explained it very well....Thank you.

November 27, 2009 2:51 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Thanks for this post. Very informative. As a beginning Strobist the first part of the post was very helpfull to me.

November 27, 2009 5:05 AM  
Blogger e.e.nixon said...

Yes, you've talked about light planes before but this post -- at least for this water drinking horse (finally) -- brings them into (selective) focus. Great basic principles to use in all sorts of situations, both large and small. Thanks!

November 27, 2009 8:09 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Great! Thanks for adding the flash setup pics; makes it that mush easier to follow, that was really the only thing missing from your blog as far as I'm concerned!

November 27, 2009 8:25 AM  
Blogger mj said...

Very-very cool tutorial! I especially liked feathered-gridded-sb800 thing.

-Best regards from Moscow,

November 27, 2009 11:16 AM  
Blogger theotherme said...

Far be it from me to critique the Master, but if you moved him about 18" forward, used a longer zoom for compression, and threw in another gridded light behind him to his left shooting across the plane behind his back the arrows could have been lit to bring out some color on the fletchings. Scary. I think I might be starting to get this stuff. haha

November 27, 2009 4:09 PM  
Blogger Subversive said...

Hey, love this blog. I appreciate the setup diagrams a lot. I'm wondering if anyone can point me in the direction of how 'gridding' works? I'm an amateur trying to improve my skills and I don't have all the nomenclature down pat yet.

Related question, would a homemade snoot work to give a similar type result?

November 27, 2009 6:09 PM  
Blogger Sean Rainer said...

Great post! Love the portrait.

November 27, 2009 7:01 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

dumb question, but when using CTO on a subject's face, with un-gelled ambient, what white balance are you usually shooting at?

November 27, 2009 7:51 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...


Typically, David (and many others) will gel a strobe some fraction of CTO to warm a face when the white balance of the camera is set to flash. This makes the light from the CTO-gelled strobe warmer than the ambient light and thus the warming effect on a face. Another way to think about it, if your camera is balanced for something cooler than incandescent, a CTO will warm the flash relative to ambient light.

November 27, 2009 9:16 PM  
Blogger mick said...

Thank you, David for sharing all this wealth in knowledge. I am becoming a better photographer thanks to you.

November 28, 2009 6:01 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Once again David, you've showed us....
You build the photographs just like a wall: one brick at a time.
Thanks for everything you've taught us. All of my photography, not just flashed, has improved since I started following your lead.
All due respect to McNally, for me shooting and lighting in manual as you do is actually easier. Nothing to guess at or hope for. It's either right, or it's not, and if it's not, adjust it til it is....
Thanks again.

November 28, 2009 7:49 AM  
Blogger newday said...

David - thanks. this is great.

A question - did you try lighting the archers from the camera side of them (rather than pointing back at the camera)?
Would that have created undesirable shadows 'down range'?
It seems that a low powered strobe at their back would have lit the subjects and still fallen off without impact on the target wall. No?

November 28, 2009 4:47 PM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

Hey David, if you need to put a strobe in harms way, here's a little trick. Place the strobe behind a protective object (wood, brick, cast iron pot) and put a mirror at a 45 degree angle to reflect the light toward your subject.

Do think about what will happen to the protective object and mirror if you get a bad shot. At the shooting range, you don't want the shot going into the air, or back at the shooter (gun or camera). Sand bags are a big help here.

November 28, 2009 5:36 PM  
Blogger knoe said...

@Subversive take a look at this post and this one. Hope that helps.

Btw: You should definitive work yourself through the Lighting 101. If you do so: I prefer grids instead of snoots, I like the nice circle grids make.

Greetings from Germany!

November 28, 2009 6:12 PM  
Blogger David said...

To the person that left an (unmoderated) comment on the upcoming kits, but included no contact info, could you leave me an email addy? Kinda important.


November 28, 2009 10:38 PM  
Blogger marnix said...


Thanks for all the strobist information you provide. I learned a lot here!

I would like to share a video of an strobist assignment over here in the Netherlands. It invloves 50 people, 50 cars, 1 crane. And I had just 1 hour to shoot it all.

Here it is:

Regards, Marnix
(marnix at fotomx dot nl)

November 29, 2009 3:36 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

+1 on including a position sketch. I'm a visual learner and the sketch helped me grab the information much quicker than without one, as in previous posts. Thanks!

November 29, 2009 10:20 PM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

Love the feathered grid and the theme of lighting the various planes which provides another way to think about lighting.

November 29, 2009 11:22 PM  
Blogger BL said...

@ David Hobby: We'd like to print the shot you took of the IBM TS3500 Tape Library at CERN, 2008 (published at flickr) as cover of a book about IBM Storage History. We would love to mention you or STROBIST in the book. This book will be released by IBM in German language, will be given to IBM clients for free. What must we do? Kind regards and sorry for poor vocabulary....Barbara

December 10, 2009 6:06 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hey, Barbara-

Not sure why you left the comment on a totally different shoot posting, but at least I got it. But I can't get back to you without an email address!

Please leave me another comment, labeled "DO NOT PUBLISH", with your email address, and I will get back with you ASAP.


December 10, 2009 12:50 PM  
Blogger David said...

Nice post David as usual. Hey... how did you create the lighting diagrams? They aren't your usual paper and pencil variety? Neat how you've painted in the light throws.

December 27, 2009 11:07 AM  
Blogger David said...

@ David

Sharpie on white paper. I reversed them in Photoshop and tweaked the tones. Then I "selected" the beams of light, feathered them and adjusted the selections in curves.


December 27, 2009 11:25 AM  

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