On Assignment: Prep Quarterback

I love football.

My first 50 or so assignments as a stringer for the Leesburg Commercial in central Florida in the early '80's were high school football games.

We were shooting in towns like Eustis, Umatilla, Tavares and Groveland, who at that time could claim exactly one McDonald's restaurant between them.

It was small-town (but not small-time) high school football. The fields were hideously dark, the action was great and the Commercial's deadline wasn't until 9:00 the next morning.

That's because the paper was a PM daily, which meant we could print in the darkroom all night long while eating cold pizza and watching bad movies on our safelight -- a 9" b&w TV with a dark red gel over it. I was in heaven.

And as much as I liked shooting college and pro football later, I always loved shooting preps just as much if not more.

Earlier this season I shot Damascus (MD) High School standout QB Connor Frazier for Rivals.com, dragging out my then-new AlienBees to overpower the mid-afternoon sun.

Tear it Down, Build it Back Up

When we got to Damascus High School they were in mid practice. So we had a little time to scout a shooting area while they wrapped up. I was with Erik and Dave, two local readers who had answered my standard tweet looking for any VALs who might be interested in helping out with a shoot.

(If you would like to assist or hang out, follow me on Twitter and keep a lookout. I have a project starting up which will take me to many cities, and a local set of eyes and hands always helps.)

The sun was ugly and to our backs, so we walked across the field to be able to turn back and shoot into it. When the sun is not your friend, shooting into it gives you control.

First step, which should be beaten into your head by now: Go to 1/250th of a second. This buys you the best possible aperture for shooting with flash. Then, we knock the ambient down -- way down -- with a closed-down aperture, chimping as we go. Stop when it looks cool.

Next, we'll build Connor back up with flash. This is something big lights allow you to do -- even if you are softening the light -- with ease. We start with what will be the fill light (an ABR800) as we will definitely need to get inside that helmet. A ring light will let us dial that internal detail up or down without casting its own shadow. That's why I like ring fill better than shadow-side fill.

Once the fill is cranked up to where we want it (leaving our pre-set exposure alone, to preserve our ambient look) we can then move on to the key light. That was courtesy an AB1600, in a beauty dish. Not too hard, not too soft. And again, we dialed up the power on this flash until Connor was lit to the proper exposure against the suppressed ambient background.

For just a smidge of added dimension, we used a VAL'd SB-800 speedlight at back camera left to throw a little edge light on the left side of the ball and the helmet. It's a little thing -- and very subtle on the exposure -- but I think it makes everything look more crisp and 3-D.

One other thing -- we overclocked the sync a little bit (1/320th, maybe?) to get that unsync'd zone across the bottom. Gave us a little more control over the sun and kept that white jersey from walking your eye right out of the bottom of the photo.

Here is a setup shot, which shows just how contrasty and crappy our straight ambient light was at the time:

That pic (courtesy Dave Kile) does not include the VAL'd SB-800 -- it would be coming from just out of the frame at left.

One thing you can see here is that I have detached the ring light from the camera so I can feather it up quite a bit. This allows me to keep the bottom of the frame, which is much closer to the ring light, from getting too hot. Actually I feathered it a lot higher than in this photo. But you can see the disconnect from the lens axis and the light axis, which is what is important.

Portrait and a Headshot

The job called for a single portrait with a little space in it. But I always include a tight headshot, for several reasons.

Number one, headshots get re-used -- a lot. That was something I learned freelancing back in college when every penny counted: Always make a habit of including an extra headshot. Do it often enough and you will be rewarded by little surprise re-use checks for years to come. They are never big, but then, it's found money.

Plus, a headshot, lit well, can also morph into a cover if need be. And those checks are bigger.

The sun was getting a little lower so that gave us some options. We scrounged a shipping container (naturally, on a football field, right?) as a shade/sun background and went to work there.

I say shade/sun because the container was in shade but the area in front of it was getting sun rim light. That's gonna make this headshot easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, as the gecko says.

The whole thing is built on that ambient rim light. We put it over his camera-left shoulder and dropped down the ambient exposure until the color was rich and the rim lit area was just losing detail.

Here's the setup:

In the past, I generally would have the key light and the rim light coming from opposite directions. But lately I prefer to key and rim from the same side if I have detail and separation on the shadow side. Just makes for a cooler looking wrap, I think.

So we brought the beauty dish in from upper camera front left and cranked it up until his face looked good. Notice -- no flash meter. Again, it's just an add-salt-to-taste progression that goes very quickly and leaves you the natural option of doing something other than the "perfect" flash exposure.

I used to obsess about perfect. Metered to a tenth of an f/stop. (Screw The Force, Luke. Trust your Meter.)

Now, I could give a rat's butt about "perfect," preferring to go with what I think, looks best. It's the relationship between the different light levels that matters, anyway. And if you always go for perfect exposure values (as conferred upon you by your Almighty Flash Meter) your photos start to look a lot alike.

That's another reason to embrace a little randomness, IMO. Make mine al dente, please.

Here's the final. It's a quickie headshot that will look fine as an inset mug, but could do more if asked. And who knows? Connor might go on to be a hotshot NFL QB. So a badass-looking high school headshot might be a good thing to have in ten years.

(We did a looser version, too, but I prefer the headshot.)

Is it a "perfect" exposure as defined by a flashmeter? No clue.

But I like it, and I am a Committee of One where exposure is concerned. (It passed, unanimously.)

Football Football Football Football Football

Now that I am no longer spending my fall Saturdays away from the family shooting college football for the paper, I have had the chance to go from being a mere Florida Gator fan (my alma mater) to being a crazy, raging, full-on brainwash-your-kids Florida Gator fan.

But long before I went to the University of Florida, I was an University of Alabama fan. Way back in the days of Major Ogilvie, I wore Crimson and yelled "Roll, Tide!" from first snap to final whistle. And during the years I shot for the paper at UF, road trips to 'Bama were my favorite away games to shoot. Great teams, great fans and great parties afterward.

On Saturday, my two favorite teams, both undefeated and now ranked #1 and #2, will play each other in the SEC championship game. The winner will go on to play for the national championship in January.

I will admit to being a little conflicted. But not much.

On Sunday I will go back to being a fan of both teams. But until then, Go Gators. Beat Alabama.

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Blogger Sym said...

"First step, which should be beaten into your head by now: Go to 1/250th of a second."

Do you you mean "Got to your highest sync speed"? As on my D70S it's 1/500th, so I always start there...

December 03, 2009 2:34 PM  
Blogger DaveMPhoto said...

Great info and BTS pics. I'm actually getting ready to work with a local high school, providing the school with head shots of some of their student athletes.

This post will really help me out and I'll come back and refer to it again, I'm sure.

I've also been thinking about going with Alien Bees, but will have to wait until I really need them. Until then, I'll keep using small flash.

BTW, not a Florida fan, but I'm familiar with those small towns as I lived in Orlando for almost 20 years and I'm a UCF Knight Alum. Go Knights!

Thanks for all you do and helping the rest of us upcoming photogs out.

December 03, 2009 2:40 PM  
Blogger Stuart Key said...

Good stuff Dave. Do I detect a touch of Dave Hill-ness is the first shot? Love the 3D effect on it, not quite mastered it myself yet, still working on it.

December 03, 2009 2:44 PM  
Blogger J Oleham said...


December 03, 2009 2:46 PM  
Blogger ED said...

This blog has been the Bible for my OCF learning but I never commented on any article until now. Thanks for giving us an insight on how you accomplish your assignments. The other things I wanted to say is GO GATOR. I didn't know if I was following the wisdom of someone from the Gator Nation until now. I'm a Gator too on my last year doing Mechanical Eng.

December 03, 2009 2:52 PM  
Blogger Bob Joziasse said...

ROFL @ "Screw the force Luke"! Good post. very interesting to see how you use your new AB's! This kind of exposure probably wouldn't have been possible with your small flashes? Or maybe just when putting those very close?

December 03, 2009 3:04 PM  
Blogger Stephanie Drake said...


December 03, 2009 3:11 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Wow, That's my home town. Spent twenty years there, and shot on that field. Keep up the great posts.

December 03, 2009 3:34 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

I had to do something similar at the start of this year's football season for my paper's special section tab. Thanks to this site, I was able to convince the Sports editor to do away with the crap practice shots and do real portraits of some of the standout players. I had to make do with small strobes and no ringlight, but results came out great as far as I'm concerned. Thanks for all the help you keep offering.


December 03, 2009 3:49 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

I had to do something similar at the start of this year's football season for my paper's special section tab. Thanks to this site, I was able to convince the Sports editor to do away with the crap practice shots and do real portraits of some of the standout players. I had to make do with small strobes and no ringlight, but results came out great as far as I'm concerned. Thanks for all the help you keep offering.


December 03, 2009 3:49 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Thanks for taking us through here.

Great move sealing the frame with the 1/320. I saw that dark strip and immediately wondered at the method.

Opening shot: Beauty dish doesn't sneak up under the helmet to light his eyes. This leaves eyes lit by on axis fill. Eyes, brows and top of nose look pretty flat. Why not drop the dish to light eyes with OCF?

December 03, 2009 5:54 PM  
Blogger Adrian Malloch said...

Nice work Mr Hobby. Could you give us an idea of the final power settings you used on the AB's? I'm in the market for a better location outfit and am sorely tempted by the Elinchrom Quadra/Ranger combo so getting an idea of how much power I need with different lighting modifiers and setups would be a good thing indeed.

December 03, 2009 6:40 PM  
OpenID Bigfootlefty said...

Holy crap man! How long have I been reading your blog from no where other than Leesburg! Small world. If you are around these parts any time in the near future announce it and I'll be the first to buy lunch when you come to town. (got a few more choices than the one McDonalds of your day) - contact is ben@bnrphotography.com

December 03, 2009 6:45 PM  
Blogger DaveRe said...

Hi, David. Similar question to Adrian - just curious how much headroom was left on the B1600 in both shots (primarily cause I have B800s, and if you're at half-power or below, I'm playing in that range without my "I-need-more-gear" disease kicking in... :-O ). Thanks!

December 03, 2009 7:57 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Awesome post. And I hope you massacre Alabama.

ahem..war eagle.

December 03, 2009 8:02 PM  
Blogger davidtg said...

I absolutely love the power of the ABR800 for turning down daylight. Even limited to a 1/180 flash sync, with how close you usually are with a ring and the fact that it's usually unmodified, you're getting ridiculous f/stops at low power. The thing's amazing.

Gorgeous shots.

David Getsfrid

December 03, 2009 8:16 PM  
Blogger David said...

Don't remember the setting on the 1600, but we had power to spare. Big factor is also the efficiency of the dish (or other light mod.)

AB has a new high-efficiency dish ($80?) that puts out far more light/ watt second. An 800 and that would be plenty, I'd think.

December 03, 2009 8:26 PM  
Blogger jjj said...

Hi David,

I have a quick question. Was the blue shade on the right side of the headshot incidental because your camera and strobes were white balanced to neutral/daylight? If I wanted the get a black shadow in that sort of environment, would my only option be to blow away the ambient with more powerful lights? Or would a blue gel do the trick ?


December 03, 2009 9:53 PM  
Blogger littletiger06 said...

As a new comer and follower I just want to say, I love the way you write! Its clear, and easy to understand and also laid back in a cool way. I am hooked. Cheers! BTW awesome photos. Its great to see the setups too.

December 03, 2009 10:46 PM  
Blogger Mail Order Mystic said...

I have seen a couple people suggest moving the dish a bit higher to light the eyes and top of face. Just my opinion, but I think with the helmet, the lighting looks better the way it is. If the face was too lit, I don't think it would look natural. Curious what others think.

December 04, 2009 2:29 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

A really good post that helps put the "choosing big lights" in context. Nice shots too.

I especially enjoyed the setup shots from Dave Kile - I've never seen so many shots of a guy kneeling on the ground chimping <:o).

Holding the ABR1600 with a PW dangling from it seemed a bit awkward, would there be another way to set this up to allow tilting the ring off the lens axis but keep things from flopping around?

December 04, 2009 8:15 AM  
Blogger stuart said...

Wow, I guess Rivals is throwing the big money towards the recruiting pics. I'll have to get Scout to up my check. :)

I'll be shooting at the SEC CG this weekend. You should have grapped a pass for that. Of course, they might frown on the AlienBees all along the sideline.

Roll Tide!


December 04, 2009 11:02 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

David, I enjoyed this post. I didn't know you were a UF grad. Go Gators!! You wouldn't by chance know a photog that used to shoot at UF named Michael Holahan, would you? He was my roommate many years ago and I have been trying to contact him.


December 04, 2009 11:15 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...


I enjoyed your post. I didn't realize you were a UF grad, Go Gators. You wouldn't happen to know a photg named Michael Holahan who used to shoot at UF would you? He was my roommate many moons ago and he got started by borrowing my gear. I have been trying to get in touch with him, but can't find him.


December 04, 2009 11:18 AM  
Blogger Chuck Carter said...

As a UT Vols fan, I want them to both lose - is that possible?
Thanks for the detail on the lighting setup.
For those of us who don't own beauty dishes (cheap amateur), it would be interesting to see if similar results could be obtained with, say, a 2 small flash setup?

December 04, 2009 11:47 AM  
Blogger MTBtrials said...

David, great blog.

I see you had a PW dangling from your AB.

Do you think that you could find it in yourself to test the Cybersyncs against the Pocket Wizards?

I'll even offer to let you use mine (cybersyncs) for the test if you are rolling thru Cleveland. For the price of one pocket wizard I was able to get into one trigger and two receivers... and I have found them to be pretty close to bulletproof.

December 04, 2009 1:24 PM  
Blogger MTBtrials said...

David, great blog.

I see you had a PW dangling from your AB.

Do you think that you could find it in yourself to test the Cybersyncs against the Pocket Wizards?

I'll even offer to let you use mine (cybersyncs) for the test if you are rolling thru Cleveland. For the price of one pocket wizard I was able to get into one trigger and two receivers... and I have found them to be pretty close to bulletproof.

December 04, 2009 1:24 PM  
Blogger Subversive said...

Guys, I'm wondering if someone can point me in the right direction. I purchased an Opus 1 light kit recently, which comes with an OPL-H150 flash. I've looked through the documentation, and I can't seem to find what the highest sync speed for my flash is. Anyone know how I can determine this? Thanks.

December 04, 2009 1:35 PM  
Blogger Barak said...

I am getting unknown error 999 when I click on the 'more' link (or just about any link on your page for that matter).

December 04, 2009 1:43 PM  
Blogger David said...

@ Stuart-

I used a little bit of hi-pass on it, as I do to finish off most of my portraits. Not much, tho. I am still several zip codes away from Mr. Hill and Ms. Greenberg ...

@ Bob -

Very, very close, actually. That working distance is what big lights buys you. It is not a style conducive to speedlights.

@JJJ- Underexposed white jersey, on daylight balance in the shade, gets you blue. In both cases.

@ The people worrying about the dangling PW's. That's my typical MO. No worries -- they are tough. If I was walking lights around a lot, like shooting events, would prolly use a Hildozine bracket.


I knew Michael well. We were friends when I was at The Alligator and he did an internship up at Patuxent when I was a staffer there, too. No idea where he is now. Either Mexico or a federal pen, I'd expect. :)


No Error 999 issues on this end, nor am I getting a slew of comments about it as is normally the case with global problems. Error prolly on your end or in the pipe between us somewhere.

December 04, 2009 2:52 PM  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@ Subversive : Your maximum sync speed is a function of the camera, not the flash. 1/250th is very common, some cheaper bodies limit you to 1/200th or 1/160th, and a few (Like the D70 and D40) will allow as high as 1/500th.

Cycle 61 Photography

December 04, 2009 3:08 PM  
Blogger Merwen said...

Bless Alien Bees ;-)

December 04, 2009 4:26 PM  
Blogger SeattleBrad said...

David, Amazon has that smart battery charger for half price today. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00077AA5Q/ref=ox_ya_os_product

December 04, 2009 5:17 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Thanks for the walk thru! love all the info...

However, I do have to bring some levity to this College Football season...Hook EM Horns a Stampede is in SEC future!

December 04, 2009 6:16 PM  
Blogger David said...

Wow. Alabama was the best team in the country tonight, IMO. Just dominant. Ingram a soph? Scary.

Congrats, Tide, good luck in January!

December 05, 2009 7:38 PM  
Blogger griz said...

A question about the start at 1/250 comment. My 5D gives a black band at 1/250 as does my 40D. Is this a defect or not. I have herd many people (Scott Kelby most recent) say this is normal.

I did not think you could be a Florida and Alabama fan??? Alabama did look awesome today though.

December 05, 2009 9:56 PM  
Blogger Josh Hardy said...

Tough, well-fought game by the Gators tonight, but consider Bama's performance an invitation to come back to the fold, won't you? Roll Tide, my brother.

December 05, 2009 10:10 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

Griz: The 5D only syncs at a max of 1/200. On some trigger/flash arrangements, 1/160th is about all it will do. The black band is the curtain being caught with its proverbial pants down.

December 06, 2009 9:18 AM  
Blogger tundracamper said...

Sounds like a good reason to come to campus and give a free lighting workshop! Just let me know and I'll set it up :-> Roll Tide!

December 07, 2009 10:23 AM  
Blogger David said...

Great post as usual.
I REALLY like the componsition of the headshot. I would tend to centre up his face but you've put him in the left side of the frame which really makes that rim light more dominant and allows that background to play more of an important part to the image.

December 07, 2009 5:33 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Wow! Great shot...the QB atttitude shows through. All he needs is a flat-top to look like the next Johnny U.

Would it seem too critical to suggest that his jersey should be clipped tighter (behind his back, of course) to make him look a little more athletic and less "floppy"?

December 08, 2009 10:43 AM  
Blogger David Manning said...

Woo-Hoo! Daily Commercial!!!!

And the light wasn't any better when i was there 3 years ago. Nothing like racing back to the office after halftime from Eustis trying to avoid 441.

December 09, 2009 8:33 AM  
Blogger Seán Cook said...

Quick question:
I see you used the 1600 to overpower the sun. Does it take the 1600 to do so, or is the 800 reasonably powerful enough to take you where you want to be?

December 16, 2009 4:25 PM  
Blogger David Cooper said...

Quick question regarding power source...did you plug in with miles of extension cord, use a generator, or that Alien Bee battery pack? I'm always curious to find out how people get power on location. It's one thing to buy some lights; it's quite another to make them work in the field. Thanks!

December 18, 2009 6:40 PM  
Blogger David said...

@David Cooper-

Vagabond II. (I have run 6 AB's off of one VBII before. Now, I have two, both as a backup and as a way to halve the recycle times...

December 18, 2009 7:21 PM  

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