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Two-Light Portrait: Climber's Hands

One of the more common questions I get asked is, "How many flashes should I have?"

Obvious answer: As many as possible -- but that's just me.

But the majority of what I shoot is done with two lights, so that is what I usually recommend for people starting out. And I really enjoy finding ways to exploit two light sources (plus ambient) in as many ways as possible.

Keep reading for a quick walk-thru at this shot of a rock climber's hands.

I spent the week before last shooting a multi-location job for a climbing gym company, Earth Treks. We are still working on post production and delivery for that, and I will definitely be writing about some of the lighting challenges in more detail later. Today is just a quickie.

(You may remember Earth Treks from an earlier post in the On Assignment section. I shot them for The Baltimore Sun a few years ago.)

One of our constant problems to work out in the cavernous climbing gyms was the idea of lighting people in the context of a large area. And one of the solutions led to some cool portrait light that I certainly will be using again.

The shot of Derick, (above) who manages the Columbia climbing center, was made with two lights -- one a hard light from far away, the other a soft light in close. This is how we were lighting some "bouldering" photos (more on that in a later post) and I went in close for a portrait-scale shot.

Derick is like most climbers -- ridiculously fit. And his hands are climber's hands, too. I love the way this two-light scheme sculpted his frame. Most of that is courtesy a hard light (an AB-800 in a standard reflector) from about 30-40 feet away to camera left.

This far-away hard light not only creates hard form on Derick, but does the same thing on the background. It is not quite hitting at a 90-degree angle to Derick, but almost. Maybe 8:00 on the directional clock vs. 9:00.

Of course, that is gonna create some harsh, edgy shadows. We filled those to some degree by underexposing the ambient (very warm FL's, up top) by about three stops. And Derick's highlight, to some extent, fill his own shadows by reflecting the strobe's light.

The other light is what I call a "special," which is a theatrical term for a light that is tasked to one thing. When you task a Voice-Activated-Light stand (a VAL) to a special, it give you the ability to have two completely different types of light hitting your subject -- even if your subject is mobile.

Derick's "special" was a VAL'd SB-800, shooting thru a umbrella. It came in from almost directly overhead (more like a voice-activated boom, really) and was courtesy my assistant Erik Couse.

As long as Erik keeps the light-to-subject distance relatively constant, I can move him around by voice. Which is what makes the two-light setup so versatile.

So Erik drops the umbrella in right over the subject, and his chalked hands absolutely pop -- without ruin the hard, textural light we created with the scene/texture light at left.

No reason the far-awy light had to be an AB-800, either. It doesn't need to be a soft light to work, so you can get plenty of aperture at reasonable distance with a speedlight on quarter power.

Shooting people with two lights is a great compromise between versatility and portability. And remember, that second light also acts as a fail-safe backup for your first light source. Which means that if a flash or remote goes down, you are still in business.

Next: Glass Menagerie


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