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On Assignment: Earth Treks, Pt. 1

One of the first questions that pop into my mind when planning how to shoot something on location is that of which lights to bring.

Do I bring speedlights? How many? Bigger flashes? Just one big flash as a key and some accent speedlights?

For a recent shoot for Earth Treks, the answer was simple: Bring everything.

Seemed to make sense, given that the canyons we were going to light were five stories tall.

Dark is Not Your Problem

The first thing you notice when you walk into Earth Treks' Timonium climbing gym is that it is huge. The 5-story height is not even the long dimension -- that canyon just keeps going.

Which is, of course, a delight to the insane mountain goats who climb there, seemingly with no regard for things like "gravity," or "the laws of physics."

The second thing you notice is that it is dark, which is a big relief to a photographer. And if it wasn't dark, I'd be looking to get the shoot scheduled for the evening and get some lights turned off.

Reason is, you are gonna be throwing your light a long way, which is gonna cost you some serious aperture. Shooting at f/11 would not make my flashes happy.

If my ambient is in the "30th at f/2.8" neighborhood, I know I can work with that. In short, when you walk into a room with an ambient level that makes available light photogs curse silently under their breath, it should make you happy.

An SB can reach out pretty far if your aperture is wide open, and the AlienBees we were using could swing it without even sucking much juice out of our Vagabond II portable power packs.

So, the first step is to control the ambient. You want an ambient exposure that will do a few things for you. First, it needs to be below the "correct" exposure so when you add flash you will not combine the two for an overexposure. You have to have something dark enough to light against.

Second, it should be bright enough so that unlit areas will still be somewhat legible -- if only because there is no way I can light every cubic inch of this space. Those two limits bookend my ambient exposure choice. And where I place the ambient within that range will in large part determine the contrast level of the photo.

It's exactly like doing a flash-and-available-light portrait, but on a bigger scale.

And once you choose how bright you are going to make the ambient you should make your shutter/aperture combo something that will give you sufficient depth of field and/or avoid camera shake -- whichever is more important. That would be the difference between a 30th at f/5.6 and a 125th at f/2.8. They are the same exposure, but with different priorities.

In the end, we opted for both, shooting this at 1/80th at f/5. I knew the climbers would be moving (if pretty slowly) and I wanted a little extra aperture from wide open to keep things sharp corner to corner. Remember, that is an underexposed ambient exposure, so you have to compensate in some way to boost both aperture and shutter.

So we just raised the ISO to 1000, which doesn't even make a D3 blink -- files look great. But it is important to know that the ambient component of the exposure does not care how big your flashes are. You have to deal with your ambient with a combination of shutter, aperture and ISO.

We were working pretty run-and-gun (off of a shot list) all day on these shoots. But that thought process allowed us to light both large and small areas quickly.

Add Light to Shape and Define

Next step is to add light and bring some of the surfaces up to our shooting aperture. We were lucky in that we had a ~3rd-story balcony, off to camera right, which ran the length of the canyon. So the first light (an AB800) went there, about halfway back, and lit the main climbing wall in the center of the frame. No meters -- just dial it in until it was as bright as we wanted.

We then placed another AlienBee on the balcony in the back, to bring up some of the other climbers. Same process, and it added some depth into the photo. We passed on lighting the far climbers, to let it go a little dark in the back of the frame.

Next, we added another light (an AB800) at far camera left to light the wall and climber as it goes around the corner where the first light would not reach. All of the lights were standard reflectors, as an umbrella is not going to get you any real softness at that distance and would only suck up light.

Last was a domed SB-800 speedlight, stuck up into the bouldering cave at center bottom to highlight it. We had used PocketWizards on the various other lights, but just slaved the cave light and stuck it on the floor.

One For Shape, One For Detail

In other situations, such as their climbing gym in nearby Rockville, you can light the whole area with just one light.

In this case the one light is a Profoto Acute head set at 150 watt-seconds. (I was test driving them at this point -- more on that later.) Doesn't sound like much, but remember that it is a zoomed, undiffused head and the angle at which the light is skimming off of those walls is very efficient.

It is way back in the gym, hidden behind Josh's head. The flash is pointed right at us and feathered up a little, which is what creates all of the three-dimensional shadows on the various facets and planes in the gym.

That leaves Josh in full shadow, of course. That is easily fixed with what I call a "special," a term borrowed from my friends in the theater for a light that is tasked to do just one thing. More accurately, I tend to think of a special as a mobile, one-task light on a voice-activated light stand -- in this case, Erik.

Erik just floats an SB-800 in an umbrella above Josh's face and keeps it at a relatively constant distance as he moves with Josh. Erik is just holding the rig on a small lightstand, which doubles nicely as a boom in this instance. A VAB kills a boom in this instant because a person will start to get intuitive about where and how you want the light to hit the subject's face, and move around to compensate.

This shot is built almost entirely on flash, so the ambient is not really an issue. We just worked above it, so it wouldn't be a factor.

I left the background light in this frame, just because I thought it looked cool. We shot it both ways, but when it is visible in the frame you can see the location of the light and how it interacts with the different planes.

In this case, the "special" is again being held by Erik and pointed at the front dangling climber from the direction of hard camera right. No umbrella this time, as Erik was keeping the flash pointed at the climbers as they moved through the internal space of the gym.

Again, we're not lighting the whole space, but rather lighting the planes selectively.

Next: Earth Treks Pt. 2


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