First Time in the US: Gulf Photo Plus is Coming to Seattle.

On Assignment: Earth Treks, Pt. 2

One of the coolest things about the recent Earth Treks shoot was the variety of scale the assignment contained. With the 5-story canyons, we kinda threw everything we had at it and built the whole thing on an ambient base.

But with the bouldering shots, we were essentially lighting a hole -- with a person inside. The geometry of that problem knocked me for a loop on the first day -- resulting in a big ol' FAIL.

But if at first you do not succeed -- try, try again.

On day one, I approached the bouldering photos the same way I would if I were trying to separate anything else -- with a little back light. And with nowhere to hide the lights in the hole (and the climbers hanging off the roof) the range of solutions narrowed down pretty quickly: Hide the backlight behind the climber and try to fill from the front somehow.

Does it separate? Yep, does that just fine.

Does it look logical, or even real? Not so much. Kinda sucks, actually.

And this is something we face as photographers all the time, having to solve our physics problems in a way that makes sense to the people who will ultimately be viewing the photos.

As McNally says, there should be a logic to your light. The light on the photo above … isn't very logical.

Why would there be a light on the ground behind the climber? Easy answer: There would not be.

Okay, enter Plan B.

Again, we are limited by the available locations for the lights and are working the key from the bottom. This time we are lighting from a little further away. It's better than the other effort, but it still just does not look logical.

Fortunately, we still had two more days with opportunities for bouldering shots, so we went back to the drawing board.

Here is our problem, shown in a stunningly detailed top view perspective of a climber in a bouldering cave. Only there also is a roof overhang which I have not included. From the side, it would look like this:

So we decided to establish a baseline illumination on the hole, lit from out in the open space. To do that, we back a hard light way up (for even coverage) and fire it from anywhere the along the arc from which we can see the entire cave. In this case, the hard light was an AB800.

This gives our illumination of the whole hole. We can alter the texture of the lighting by making it back-ish, straight-in, or camera-side light. Then we can underexpose it (after all, it is going to be our fill/texture light) to whatever degree we want. This gives us control over both the texture and the contrast range of the photo.

So, what about our key? Where ya gonna hide that one, Slick?

We realized pretty quickly that the key did not have to come from the front of the climbers. Good thing, too, as there was a bumpy wall about a foot or two away.

If the key came from the top/slightly back, we could catch their faces as they looked up while moved through the holds. We also got nice fill reflections off of the cave walls. And since they moved pretty fast (fricken' monkeys, truth be told) we would have to be mobile.

Enter Erik the WonderVAB (AKA voice-activated boom) and his "special" -- a speedlight in a shoot-thru umbrella. Once we establish how far down we are gonna have the texture/fill light, that gives us a working aperture. (Mind you, the shutter is closed down, as we are doing this all with flash.)

Then, it is just a matter of floating that umbrella out there on a stand that acts as a mobile boom as Erik holds it. Now we can follow the climbers all around with the key light and everything is gonna be just fine.

We then establish a working distance (say, five feet) adjust the light power, and as long as Erik keeps his working distance fairly constant our key light exposure will take care of itself.

The umbrella floating out over the climber is a relative constant, if that makes any sense. It moves with the climber, and keeps the same quality of light and exposure.

So by altering the position of the fill/texture light and the ratio of the key vs. the fill, we can get very different kinds of photos.

In this photo, the fill/texture light (an AB800 with a standard reflector) is coming from hard back camera right. It sees the whole cave, throwing long shadows on the far holds and almost straight-on shadows on the near holds. This is because the light is scraping the side of the cave on the right and hitting the left side almost perpendicular to the wall.

The photo has a very low contrast range and looks very natural, because we worked the fill and the key pretty close together in intensity. Maybe one stop difference. Overall, the light does not call attention to itself -- it just does its job.

On the other hand, with this climber we raked the texture light in from the side at hard camera left. We left a little more contrast in the photo by increasing the exposure differences between the texture and key lights. Two stops, maybe two and change.

Again, the umbrella is hanging out above the climber -- orientation and distance fairly constant. A VAB beats a static boom here, for obvious reasons. Less obvious is that Erik will quickly get a feel for what I am doing, and will begin to alter the location of the light to best suit the climber's body attitude, too.

That's why a second set of photographers' eyes (or in this case, a third, too as Dave was assisting, too) is a great asset.

In the end I was very happy with this little mini-revelation. It not only solved our cave problem but opened up a new lighting avenue for contextual portraits, too.

For example, this portrait was taken in almost the exact same spot, with pretty much the same lighting setup. Yet it looks completely different because Erik is bringing that top light "special" in pretty tight/high/back with the umbrella. Ironically, Erik should rightfully get the credit for that photo, as he is technically designing the key light on the fly.

Whereas I am just the button pusher, sucking up perfectly good oxygen.

Next: Earth Treks Pt. 3


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Blogger Artur Gajewski said...

Nice work on the sketches, whatever brings out what you think, right? :)

Even though the back light brings a lot of seperation on the first picture, I prefer the latter one as it really looks like natural light to me.

April 20, 2010 7:10 AM  
Blogger James said...

I really liked the first shot, I know it's not natural light, but then again it's not a real climbing wall... but then again, I like to make "arty" photo's...

April 20, 2010 12:02 PM  
Blogger Ian Johnson said...

I love seeing others work through problems to pleasing solutions. Thanks for showing the whole issue and not just the pretty, polished, finished piece.

I like your sketches too. I work on markerboards and notebooks all the time to help get my ideas across to people. A great addition to verbal descriptions.

April 20, 2010 1:18 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

Nice walk-through Dave thanks.

for a more 'extreme' ;) look at lighting climbers check out some of Tim Kemple's work:

(2nd pic here I suspect)

April 20, 2010 1:20 PM  
Blogger Surly said...

OT: I saw a picture in an old book I have that I thought might make a good blog post for you (us?). It was clearly a shot with strobe balancing the daylight in the background. It reminded me that a TON of old industrial photography used strobes in quite the same way you teach it. One specific photog comes to mind but his name escapes me. My email is on my blog if you have questions about the book, etc...I

Also, I can't wait for Syl Arena's book to come out so you can review it on Strobist.

April 20, 2010 1:30 PM  
Blogger Rockhopper said...

VAT is the evil thing that prevent us mere mortals from saving up for a new pocket wizard.

Hopefully could come down for a day in Brum


April 20, 2010 2:58 PM  
Blogger Todd said...

It's a hard place to light for sure. Had you thought about using different colored gels for the wall and key? Nothing crazy, but that might have thrown a nice pop and seperation to it as well. For off-camera lighting regarding climbing, check out Keith Ladsinski. Nice guy and pretty damn good with the White Lightnings as well. Cheers!

April 21, 2010 2:11 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

The sketches are great! I think David learned to draw from Joe

April 21, 2010 4:28 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Unrelated, but cool:

One part remote control car, one part camera, and two parts flash make up this all-terrain camera.

April 21, 2010 6:01 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

Yes...echo the Keith Ladzinski as a great climbing photog as well as Tim Kemple.

Here are some samples of Keith's work in the bouldering arena:

Nice to see something a little different on this blog. Photographing climbing takes a lot more thought to light as one cannot pose a climber to the right position as the rock dictates the body placement.

April 21, 2010 6:48 PM  
Blogger GeoDesigner said...

Bravo David!

I just LOVE your OA posts for the technical and psychological content. Great to learn how a pro does it, form conception to execution. Been reading Strobist for the past four years, and it amazes me to this day. Thank you!

April 21, 2010 8:09 PM  
Blogger BTC said...

I must say, that just made my day. I mean, I know other respected photographers still fail, but it's really nice to hear one admit it, work through the problem, and still deliver awesome photos.

Thanks for the hope.

April 21, 2010 10:08 PM  
Blogger JOEL said...

You might be interested to check out Tim Kemple's climbing photos. He started as a climber and moved into pro-photography for The North Face et al. Here's a link to his site:

April 25, 2010 8:16 PM  
Blogger Tim_Kemple said...

Nice work David.

I've shot Earth Treks on a few different occasions and I am always struck by how massive of a facility that place is.

My only comment is that I think if you would had gotten above the climbers and gotten them higher off the ground you might have had more options when shaping the light. I like to shoot with my light as off axis from the camera as possible and I find that shooting top down offers up more possibilities.

I also love a nice 20-30 degree grid to minimize the spill and focus the attention on indoor shoots like this (tight quarters) in gyms and parks.

I've been reading this blog for a while, great to see something different and close to my heart hear. Cheers -

Tim Kemple

April 29, 2010 1:29 AM  

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