On Assignment: Trip Jennings

A couple of months ago I got to photograph adventure kayaker Trip Jennings for Canoe & Kayak Magazine.

Given we were fresh out of 80-foot waterfalls for him to navigate in Howard County, we instead chose the shore of relatively somnambulistic Centennial Lake at sunset…

Prologue is Past

FWIW, this is the back end of the What, Me Worry? post from a few weeks ago. Since the magazine is out, I can now publish some of the photos here.

So we'll skip the pre-production info (since you can read it in exhausting detail on the other post) and just hit the lighting stuff.

Soft Boxes Gathering Dust

I pulled out a medium soft box the other day for a head shot, and tried to remember the last time I had used it. The gaffer-taped window panes I had created on it were literally turning to dust. And the box itself had faded to a yellow that made it almost too warm to use on skin -- even without the warming gel I normally use.

It's amazing to me how indispensable soft boxes were to me for so many years, and how little I use them now. Nothing against soft boxes -- they are still in wide use -- but I am just tending toward harder light. (And when I do use soft light, I tend to go with the very packable Westcott double-fold shoot-thru umbrellas, or maybe a beauty dish.)

But using harder lights of course means harder shadows to deal with, and where I used to use soft boxes as key lights I now tend to use the circular Moon Unit soft box on an ABR-800 ring flash as a fill.

These photos of Trip are a good example, too. Since I am shooting into sunset, Trip is gonna be pure sillo if I expose for the ambient -- much less drop it down a stop or two as I did here.

So the ring fill allows me to create detail into what will be the shadows of the key light before I ever place my main light source.

Here's an iPhone pic, courtesy my friend Ilana Bittner who biked past us during the shoot and tweeted us out, real-time. Pretty cool pic, actually, with that sun creeping in from upper camera left.

The ring/box is pushing fill up into the shadows, which allows us to use a hard, gridded key without worrying that the result will be too harsh.

As always, we build from the ambient. In this case, the ambient is an exposure for the post-sunset lake behind Trip (which we underexposed by a stop or so.)

From there, we built Trip's base/fill exposure back up with the soft ring light. It reaches everywhere the camera can see, which is why I like it for this purpose. We added the key light last.

All of this is to taste -- no ratios or flashmeter come into play. The one thing I will be looking at is the histogram on back of my camera when I add the key light. I should get a spike about a stop above medium gray on a close-in test shot if my exposures are okay, as caucasian skin reflects at about 36%. (That's a stop over medium grey.)

One for Shape, One for Detail

So the ambient exposure gives us the environment, the fill gives us detail and the key gives us shape. The right-hand pic up top is what we were getting when Ilana took the setup shot above. Although, I think we had lost the warming gel on the key at this point, as we had been playing around with a tungsten key-shifted (huh?) shot earlier.

I love how much the soft ring fill lets me cheat the key. I can shape Trip however I want, with totally controlled legibility into the shadows. If you look at the tighter pic up top, his eyes are not even being hit by the hard key light -- that's all ring. And that catch light is coming from the ring, too.

That combination of hard texture and legibility is very interesting to me -- far more so that the typical soft box portrait.

This is a reverse build of the "one light for shape, one for detail" mantra that has long been many a photog's game plan. It's only within the last few years that I realized that if you build the detail first, you free yourself to take more chances with the shape (key) light.

Moving to a Softer Key

As the ambient dropped lower and lower, we chased it by dropping lower and lower on the shutter speed to concentrate. Always shoot well into that twilight mix, as you never know what those colors are going to do. You'll often get a happy surprise.

So here's a setup of one of the later shots, using a gridded beauty dish as a key. Same lighting build as before, but the key is a little softer and it is coming from more overhead. (This shot was by Linh, who was helping me along with Marc and Les.)

The result is the photo up top on the left. FWIW, the grid on the top light does not make it harder. But it does give us an edge to the beam that we can control if we want. Didn't end up using the edge of the light here, but it is a useful thing to have at the ready.

Canoe and Kayak

In the end, the AD at Canoe and Kayak chose a photo from this series and converted it to B&W for the cover, which is seen at left. They ran another photo in color inside, so I kinda got to have it both ways.

I would have loved to have been able to shoot Trip in a more appropriate environment, but his schedule did not allow time for travel for the shoot. And we really do not have much to excite him in the BaltoWash area, either.

Here's how Trip prefers to spend his time kayaking (heads-up on music autoplay if you are cubicle-bound):

As you can see, Mr. Jennings is quite insane. And I do especially like the POV shot for the last few seconds of the video -- as if the long shots were not fear-inducing enough.

You can find out more about Trip at his site, Epicocity. You can see Canoe & Kayak's story on the web, here.

Next: STB: Gus Sentementes


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Blogger garrett hamilton said...

Would have loved to see some traditional "strobist roots" on this one and have done the shoot with speedlights, netherless good results!

February 08, 2010 3:38 AM  
Blogger Nicolas said...

nice article, nice pictures but....
That guy is insaaaane!!

February 08, 2010 7:53 AM  
Blogger Stuart Key said...

It's a good job that you've shot him already, because judging by the video he ain't going to be available for too much longer... HE'S CRAZY!

February 08, 2010 7:54 AM  
Blogger David said...

@ Garrett-

You may want to back read a little bit ...

February 08, 2010 10:10 AM  
Blogger Steven K. Ramsdell said...


February 08, 2010 1:56 PM  
Blogger Kurt Shoens said...

Interesting that the client chose a soft light picture for the cover. The hard light stuff is neat, but I have reservations about the eyes lit only by fill. 'Course that's just me.

February 08, 2010 2:09 PM  
Blogger garrett hamilton said...

Yes, I know, I've been following this blog since 06 and have read every post. I'm still a "small guy" in terms of my lighting gear bag, and just was wondering how this would have turned out with smaller strobes, do you THINK you could have gotten the same results? Because, honestly, some of my work is just like this and im trying to decide when enough is enough for my small sb's


February 08, 2010 2:17 PM  
Blogger -FD- said...

It is interesting how Trip's dry suit colors are amped-up sunset colors and play well with the overall palette of the image. Was that choreographed or a coincidence?

On the flip side though I do find that my eye is drawn to the bright red on the bottom left of the headshot (left image in the pair). That bold red is a tough color to work with.

Almost completely OT: my copy of Dan Winter's book arrived in the mail on Saturday and I was surprised that I felt like a 10-yr old on Christmas morning.

February 08, 2010 3:44 PM  
Blogger Mead Norton said...

I would have liked to seen a few of the shots with just the ring flash without the key to see what you meant by using the ring to "create detail in the shadows"

But nice pic and love all the info you give on your blog.

Mead Norton

February 08, 2010 4:00 PM  
Blogger Max said...

what does he need that helmet for?

Nice shooting David.

February 08, 2010 4:11 PM  
Blogger mjk_photo said...


February 08, 2010 4:22 PM  
Blogger Forrest MacCormack said...

Nice gig to get.. I agree with you.. this would have been better in a more interesting location. Too bad this guy was "too busy" to travel with you to somewhere like Harper's Ferry, WV (about an hour away) where you could have shot him on rocks in the Potomac or Shenandoah Rivers. The photos are nicely done.. but I feel the shoot would have been better in a "more kakak-like" environment. Not trying to be harsh.. I've had assignments like this where the shoot would have worked sooo much better if the environment/location was different. I blame the subject and editors on this shoot. They should have gotten him at a better location or waited when he was available to be shot in a more interesting locale. Often the photographer's hands are tied in circumstances such as this. It is sort of like asking for a Gourmet Magazine photo shoot to take place at the ugliest, dirtiest, nastiest McDonalds using only the food only as it is sold on the styofoam containers and paper wrappers- a great photographer can make something happen - but it ain't gonna look like the rest of Gourmet. Location is often very important. Just my 2 cents.

BTW - sometimes hotshoe flashes just won't cut it - sometimes the the big lights are required.

Great work you are doing David educating photographers about all this stuff.

February 08, 2010 4:30 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

David, any chance you could post a sample histogram depicting what you are looking for when shooting caucasian skin?

February 08, 2010 4:44 PM  
Blogger Kirill said...

My name is Kirill Doroshenko, i have new Russian language website, devoted to Photography. I want to ask for your approval to place translations from your spledid website into mine. I will place a link to your site, of course. And i will not drag photos from your site and place them to my, so people will have to go to your site to see them, when they read the article.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Kirill Doroshenko. (http://svetlayakomnata.ru)

February 08, 2010 6:54 PM  
Blogger David said...


Chill, dude. The assignment was short deadline, and Trip was leaving to go to Brazil in a few days. The magazine was just trying to respect the guy's sked, as was I. Simple as that.

The world does not revolve around what will always make the best photo.

February 08, 2010 7:25 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hello, Kirill;

Thanks for your inquiry, but I am not ready to allow translation sites at this time other than the two that are already in operation.

However, you may not realize that Lighting 101 has already been translated into Russian (authorized) and is available via the link on this page.

But I do thank you for asking, rather than simply scraping and translating the content. That makes you one of the good guys, and I appreciate that!


February 08, 2010 7:30 PM  
Blogger Jomi Garrucho said...

Hello David,

Awesome shots and descriptions on the setup. but I myself could just weep in envy on those big monolights that you use, they're expensive and unavailable in my country. I'll just have to continue learning how to light and try to follow your shots with small flashes :(

February 08, 2010 10:58 PM  
Blogger David Ryder said...

I really like the ring fill. I'm wondering what the tungsten key shift images looked like in this shoot ...

February 08, 2010 11:43 PM  
Blogger Tony Mac said...

I enjoy the photo on the left, however with the photo on the right, there's a different looking rembarndt light pattern. Were you going for that effect? It just looks a bit odd.

February 09, 2010 3:38 AM  
Blogger Corinne Fudge said...

Just love these, David...

February 09, 2010 4:09 AM  
Blogger Kirill said...

Thanks for your answer David. I see your point. That's OK.
Yes, i don't like stealing the content. It's nasty thing.

February 09, 2010 4:21 AM  
Blogger Patrick Cavan Brown said...

I shoot a bit for Canoe & Kayak (real good folks over there)... recognized your name in the latest issue and thought I'd stop over and say HI and Good Job. Liked the B&W treatment on the pic...

...and no, the world does not revolve around what would make the best photo, though I wish it did. For C&K I just had to turn a frozen lake (literally) into a warm and sunny scene... on deadline... one word: ug.


February 09, 2010 3:18 PM  
Blogger Rob Horton said...

OK, so we have a technically flawless that makes Trip look like...a choirboy at the communion rail. Was there something else in the story that you were deliberately after that "tender-side-of-a-blazing-maniac" look?

Given that his kayak spends more time airborne than some airplanes, I would have expected something along the lines of the Blair Bunting shot of an ASU football player that you blogged a ways back. Sorry if I'm missing something big, but this was a letdown, especially after the outstanding scout post that preceded it.

February 09, 2010 10:06 PM  
Blogger David said...

Sorry to disappoint you Rob.

FWIW, I was very happy with it. But then, I am a completely different person than you or Blair.

February 09, 2010 10:50 PM  
Blogger Forrest MacCormack said...


Sorry - no offense meant.

I definitely agree with you about
"The world does not revolve around what will always make the best photo."

This was probably not the best place to air my frustrations about assignment limitations and my analogy probably wasn't the best. Regardless I think you are a very talented photographer and are very generous with you knowledge. Keep up the great blog and hard work.


Forrest MacCormack

February 10, 2010 12:33 AM  
Blogger Rob Horton said...

Apart from the overall mood of the shot, I'm not so much disappointed as I am desperately trying to come to terms with a ring flash as fill. I understand it intellectually, but I keep asking, "why?" Am I missing something huge (if an awesome photographer is excited about it, it must be awesome...right?) or is it just not doing anything for me personally?

Frankly, the legibility in the shadows is too much. It works OK for his shirt, but I crave parts of his face going to black. Likewise, it would've been nice to have a rim to separate his shoulder from the background in the B/W shot that they ended up putting on the cover.

Moreover, I fail to see why having no key on his eyes is a good thing. OK, so the ring fill is a neat trick that lets you get away with it...but, why?

February 10, 2010 9:18 PM  
Blogger bobusn said...

After seeing the vid, I'm amazed Trip can maintain his "composure" well enough to execute those drops so expertly. Crazy—undoubtedly. Awe-inspiring? Absolutely. Thanks for sharing.

Hope to catch you for another shoot in the B/DC area!

February 13, 2010 11:51 AM  

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