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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Blogger Ivar said...

Awesome! I lit some climbing a few months ago, though it was on a much smaller scale. Bare speedlites at close range rock. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivarvong/4460829783/


April 11, 2010 8:53 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Having fun looking through your climbing gym shoot photos, and can't wait for more.

I shot a bouldering competition at one of our local gyms, and was trying to figure out how I would have lit it if I was doing it as more of a professional shoot. (during competitions they don't tend to be too big on setting off a bunch of flashes around the competitors, and there are bodies dropping off the walls, making safe places to stick a flash kind of difficult ;-)

You do get some Absolutely Crazy moves pulled though. (look at the hands...) and that's on a 45 degree overhang!

I'd love an opportunity to do more of a controlled shoot with some of these guys!

Can't wait to see part 2...

April 11, 2010 10:04 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

It's either me or the monitor I'm viewing the photo with but the photo doesn't seem to have depth like the portraits do. Three hot spots seem to be pulling the eye in too many directions, but maybe that's just me. I think I would have dialed both the left side and inset flash down just a stop. But, then again, I don't know the subject matter or the shot list requirements.

I kinda wish the Alien Bees could have been used to simulate a sun's golden warmth on the wall. But I don't know the place at all and it might just be impossible to get them in the right place.

April 11, 2010 10:36 PM  
Blogger David said...

Welp, Tim, it's not a portrait, so I am probably not gonna light it like one.

And to be honest, that's kinda the cool thing about lighting -- you can do it however you want to do it.

If that includes using AlienBees to simulate the sun's golden warmth on the wall, that's just great.

Go for it.

April 11, 2010 11:22 PM  
Blogger jonsp said...

Is it just my bad maths or should the equivalent of 1/30 f5.6 be 1/125 f2.8 rather than 1/250?

I was using this article as an example to someone who didn't feel ISO was a creative choice, so the maths became relevant.

Aside from that, another helpful article as usual!

April 11, 2010 11:31 PM  
Blogger David said...

You are correct, jonsp - thanks! (fixed)

April 11, 2010 11:34 PM  
Blogger Daveybot said...

Fascinating stuff, and I can't wait for part II.

I must admit, though, if you think THAT place is big, you should come to Ratho here in Scotland some time!

a few of my shots from there.

I've only ever gone for ambient light myself, but I imagine a lot of fun could be had with lights too, especially in the bouldering areas.

April 12, 2010 7:21 AM  
Blogger spencer said...

Great shots. Rock gyms can be hard places to light for sure. They are usually really big or really cramped with bad warehouse lighting.

Really liked the framing of Josh. Would play really well as part of a diptych. Josh on the right with his eyes leading into the left image of some action happening in the gym.

Here is an iphone snap of one of my employees putting holds on the wall.

And when it isn't raining in Portland we get great sunsets.

April 12, 2010 2:05 PM  
Blogger Kenneth said...


Great article!

I hope we can see some pics of you hanging next to a climber have way up! :-)



April 12, 2010 3:59 PM  
Blogger Dr. Benny said...

My friend Pat does some great Strobist photography in climbing gyms. Take a look at his stuff - it's not very conventional but it is very exciting.


April 12, 2010 5:27 PM  
Blogger Scrivyscriv said...

David - I see you mentioned triggering with PWs. How are you dialing the strobes in when you tweak their light levels? Using an assistant or adjusting remotely?

April 12, 2010 6:51 PM  
OpenID lolaorlando said...

Baby Anneliese here, Sooo Im wondering do you use the bees as your ambient light and the sb800's as flash? Is this a good kit? Im in the process of buying lights and Im bit over run by options. Do you know I actually read the emails from your blog. Most emails dont make it very far in my busy world, but yours do. So thanks David Strobist. Also David from what Ive read a d700 is as good (almost) as the d3, how say you?
Photog's, tee hee I knew that would catch on.
Baby photog aK

April 12, 2010 7:33 PM  
OpenID Miles said...

Thank you David for the great post (as usual). As an aspiring strobist climbing photographer it was right up my alley and I am definitely looking forward to part 2.

A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to photograph a climbing comp at my old university. I opted not to use any sort of flash and fortunately the newer gym we were in had large skylights. I was able to pull off around 1/80th at f/4 and iso 800, which was plenty high on my D300.
Here are the shots.

April 12, 2010 11:05 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I just wanted to let you know I mentioned you in a recently blog post on my Facebook Fan page
Thought you might want to check it out



April 13, 2010 7:00 AM  
Blogger Patrick Cavan Brown said...

Great stuff, David. Love the horizontal portrait. Wish I had a awesome climbing gym like that around here. I'm getting flabby!

What if you only have 1 Speedlight, I minute, 1 junkyard, and 1 large group of people?

April 13, 2010 1:11 PM  
Blogger bobfoto said...

A quick question...

If the opposing balcony was not there, what would have been your plan "B" for positioning the lights that you used on the balcony?

By the way great post and very educational.

April 13, 2010 6:17 PM  
Blogger David said...

I don't even wanna think about it...


Actually, we would have backed the lights up as far as possible from ground level, gridded them to control the beam spread and feathered them up above the top of the walls.


April 13, 2010 6:22 PM  
Blogger Hipporage said...

I read on Jerry Aveniam's blog a neat tip about location lighting. He said you should control your flash lit area with your aperture and ambient with your shutter speed. The you just balance the ratios to taste. Interestingly he said that it has little to do with DOF. Great to see how different photogs have their own way of working through chalenges.

April 15, 2010 11:51 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

I really enjoy how you have walked through this situation almost step by step. I also like how you have chosen to step beyond the conventional ideas of how portraits should be lit. I am all for experimenting with the speedlight/ambient mix. good read.

April 18, 2010 3:50 PM  

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