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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Blogger Chad said...

Would have been nice to see the hands in closeup detail. Callouses and all.

January 26, 2010 6:57 PM  
Blogger Stroboholic said...

Another great post. As for the squarified portion of the pic that my RSS reader grabbed.... Absolutely obscene... Nothing but cleavage and nipples... :D

January 26, 2010 7:38 PM  
Blogger Michael Natkin said...

The lighting is cool, but what I like even better is the composition. Both the idea to cut out his head, and the posture to emphasize his hands is really brilliant. I need to get better at thinking of the creative compositions before I start figuring out how to spray them with photons.

January 26, 2010 7:46 PM  
Blogger Rams said...

Great thing about our guru, DH,
is he uploads his images to flickr large.

Click on the image and the flickr page will show 6 available sizes inc
large (1024x776) and the original weighing in at a whopping 3586x2718 !

You can then look at the hands in detail !

January 26, 2010 9:33 PM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

I love reading your posts, and the info, as always, is highly usable and easily adaptable, great job!

I've got to say, though, that the hard shadow on the left side of his torso (that would be our left, not his left) really distracts me and drags my eye right along that line.

Keep up the great work, David!

January 26, 2010 9:50 PM  
Blogger David said...

I prolly would have felt the same way a few years ago. I am embracing hard shadows more and more lately. The light defines the shadows, the shadows define the light. I am trying to be more willing to leave areas unlit. Hard tho, sometimes.

January 26, 2010 11:12 PM  
Blogger CC said...

Love the shot and as always, a wonderfully instructive post. Just curious as to why you went for the umbrella overhead .

January 27, 2010 12:48 AM  
Blogger Scott Clark Photography said...

As I edited photos from a rock climbing competition I was surprised to see rock climbing coming from the strobist. Do you rock climb or are you just photographing climbers?
I often use just one light as key and ambient as fill. See here

January 27, 2010 1:09 AM  
Blogger DVD Steve said...

David, did you see Syl Arena of Pixsylated's 12 Canon Speedlite setup to freeze his son smashing pumpkins with a baseball bat?

One dozen speedlites bolted to a stick!

January 27, 2010 4:47 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

one of the other common questions: "how many flashes should I use?"
Would you reply with: "as many as needed" or "as little as needed"?


January 27, 2010 5:03 AM  
Blogger Geert Vanden Broeck said...

David, allow me to push one of my climbing competition images:

January 27, 2010 7:43 AM  
Blogger eric said...

Climbed for many years until I got hurt pretty bad.

Loved the sport and wished I could still do it.

At one point my hands were so calloused that I grabbed a hot pan and didn't even notice until I smelled my callouses burning. LOL

Miss that sport :(

January 27, 2010 8:17 AM  
Blogger Kevin Blackburn Photography said...

Very Very cool shot Very cool series as well. not a climber but I like the story...

January 27, 2010 1:15 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Great shot!!

I don't quite understand why the hands are so bright compared the the forearms and torso. If I were to attempt to reverse engineer this, I would have guessed a gridded strobe from above lighting just the hands, not an umbrella!

January 27, 2010 1:16 PM  
Blogger Kevin Townsend said...

"I've got to say, though, that the hard shadow on the left side of his torso (that would be our left, not his left) really distracts me and drags my eye right along that line."

The only thing distracting to me was hoping my wife doesn't see that body and ask me why I don't go to the gym to look that way myself. :-)

January 27, 2010 2:34 PM  
Blogger tclaxton_purch said...

Hi Andrew,

Towards the end of the article it says that the hands were chalked. I'm assuming that's what made the hands so bright compared to the arms/torso. When I first saw the picture I also thought it was probably a gridded light above.

January 27, 2010 6:10 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

I read your posts for a time, but being a hobby photographer and a rookie-strobist, maybe this one was the once of the most useful ones to me.
So, thanks a lot for!

January 28, 2010 2:03 AM  
Blogger Wesley Hort said...

Good shot and I like the hard shadows. It gives the image an edge and depth which I like. I've starting climbing six months ago and I have just started my own project photographing climbers/climbing so it's great to see your slant on it. My images are here if anyone is interested.



January 28, 2010 5:53 AM  
Blogger J V said...

although the lighting/technical aspects are important to any photo, it's hard to get climbing-related photos that will resonate with dedicated climbers...

here was my attempt at climbing hands:

January 28, 2010 2:40 PM  
Blogger Andy M said...

@ tclaxton_purch ;
Good call on the chalked up hands, I was thinking a gridded snoot from above on the hands, and reading David's comments was really surprised how much a hard light from far away can pop the hands.

January 29, 2010 5:16 PM  
Blogger susanica said...

as a climber--great to see earthtreks get some attn. but i can't stop looking at his chest hair... eeek

February 03, 2010 5:38 PM  
Blogger Photography RI said...

Hey David - I shoot sometimes for rock gyms -> this was taken with an original digital rebel and used some Wein peanut slaves and manual flash. Put it up in the strobist pool a few years ago; still holds up (no pun intended). It's isn't all about high ISO and expensive equipment right? Love your blog.

February 20, 2010 1:05 PM  
Blogger Nathan Welton said...

so cool to see climbing on strobist. here are some i shot recently using 2 to 3 light in a gym.

i have to thank strobist for getting me into this stuff.

June 07, 2011 1:42 AM  

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