On Assignment: Earth Treks, Pt. 3

Honestly, I never have really enjoyed shooting models.

I'd much rather shoot real people, for lack of a better term. They are way more interesting, and certainly more fun to work with. You just have to remember that they are not used to being in front of a camera and lighting gear all of the time.

After the pretty lengthy shot list during our shoots at Earth Treks climbing gyms, I suggested we get all of our volunteer climbers together and do some of what I like to think of as "speed portraits."

Expanding the Shot List

The climber portraits were not even in the original brief, but I decided to add them in for several reasons.

First, they had all graciously volunteered their time as climbers for use in the larger scale photos we were there to shoot. And one of my worries was that for some of them, there would not be a photo that featured them enough to merit the time that had been involved.

Second, I felt the the photos would be genuinely useful for Earth Treks, even if they were not in the original game plan.

Sure, the huge facilities and soaring climbing walls (see Pts. 1 and 2 in this series) are impressive. But for many potential new members, none of that would be nearly as much of a motivator as the "Damn, I'd love to be ripped like that" bodies of the members who showed up to be our subjects.

And ripped, they were. I have never seen such a sickeningly healthy group of people in my life. Erik, Dave and I were talking about how fit they were afterwards, as we downed humongous burritos at Chipotle.

Third, the scale of the photos -- individual people -- would give a nice change-up in the slideshows of our photos that were to run on the HD TVs in the lobbies of the three gyms.

Speed Lighting

Okay, maybe a confusing choice of terms for the subhead above, as we used two AlienBees for these. But the setup is very similar to a technique I use a lot with SB's, and the principles are the same.

First, I wanted to show off how cut they were, with their lack of body fat. Fortunately, I was there to normalize the percentages, if you averaged us out.

But with hard light, you are also gonna get hard shadows -- and those needed to be controlled first. If those hard shadows do not fall too far into the left side of your histogram, you can get all of the advantages of hard light and still have a more subtle look.

So the first step was to build a base of on-axis fill. I wanted a safety net for the shadows that would allow me to use a hard key light without making them look bad.

Without a ring flash, we put one AB800 into a shoot-through umbrella. We then placed this directly behind and slightly above the camera to create a fill light that did not leave its own signature. By underexposing this (just change the power level or your aperture) until we had nice subdued detail levels, we created the safety net. Whatever was not lit by the hard key light would fall into shadow, but it would not be black.

This is the same kind of thing you might do when balancing flash and ambient. But our ambient was a really crappy sodium-God-knows-what, so we worked several stops above it and built the photo entirely on light from the flashes.

In effect, the on-axis umbrella became like our ambient fill. Except we could design it to be a neutral color with no inherent direction. With our fill light nicely subdued, it was a simple matter to add the hard, gridded key light to complete the setup.

Grid spots are very unforgiving with respect to aiming them. Here are a couple tips on setting and quick-changing a gridded key light that help me work faster.

First, tape a spot on the ground and guide people to that same, repeatable location for consistency. Then pre-set the grid to hit the face of someone about six feet tall. It's pretty easy to estimate how much over or under 6 feet tall a person is when they walk up.

So with a quick, correlating change in the height of the stand as the next person approaches, you are aimed and ready to go as soon as they get into position.

Second, this is an instance where modeling lights will help you work much faster -- if for no other reason than aiming that grid beam. If you are using battery power on your monoblocs (which we were) you have to remember that powerful modeling lights will drain your batts far faster than will the flash pops themselves.

So if I am gonna be using modeling lights and batteries (as we were on the grid light only, to help us aim it quickly) I like to substitute compact fluorescent lights for my modeling bulbs for far longer battery life. You'll save 77% on your modeling light battery drain that way.

[UPDATE: Note that if you do use CFLs as battery-friendly modeling lights, set your model lights to full power. (Most) CFLs do not take kindly to dimmer circuits.]

Here is a rough (big surprise) sketch of our lighting scheme. On alternate days, we swapped sides on the gridded key light for a little variability in an otherwise consistent set.

Pretty simple:

This allowed us to move through a large number of people in very quick succession, while accentuating their muscles and lighting them in a legible way at the same time.

We averaged about two minutes per person. Which is a good thing, because I find that a quick-hit approach gives a far better batting average when shooting a group of people who are not used to be in front of a camera and lights. You'll lose them if you take too long.

So, Who's the Ham?

My favorite trick for shooting a bunch of real people without having them go all shy on you is to knock off the easiest one first, then let peer pressure work for you for a change.

That's exactly my approach in a group situation like this. You want to find a ham for a first victim, and get them all talking and reacting while you shoot them quickly.

And only part of your attention should be on your lead-off ham, as you also want to be encouraging whatever discussion is starting to happen between your subject and the obligatory peanut gallery of future subjects behind you. Because if you do it right, the group dynamic will improve your photos of everyone right down the line.

And that good vibe all the tailwind you'll need if your light is preset and ready to go.

By example, (and remembering that this was a corporate shoot) one guy on the last day slid into position, immediately crossed his arms gangsta style, and flipped me off with both hands.

Are they gonna use that photo? Probably not.

Is the group dynamic pretty much in autopilot for me now? Absolutely.

And without their buying into the idea that getting photographed will be fun, no amount of lighting is going to make good photos anyway.

Next: Gas Station Tacos


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Blogger Sean Donnelly Photo said...

how about a post on Marco Grob and the great portraits in TIME's 100? There is also a cool spread with him on set in the mag.


May 03, 2010 2:40 AM  
Blogger Mark Wernham said...

The light beams in your diagram, is that a new thing you've started doing, or is it an innovation? Either way, if I've only just noticed it or whether it's new, it's really, really helped me to visualise and understand the light balancing concept. More please!

May 03, 2010 4:52 AM  
Blogger chasg said...

Excellent post David: not only the lighting scheme, but in particular your strategy for bringing out the best in a group of inexperienced subjects.



May 03, 2010 6:02 AM  
Blogger Racertim said...

Hi David,
Thanks for another great article that takes us way beyond the technical side of lighting and into the thought processes and techniques of the "successful pro".


May 03, 2010 6:21 AM  
Blogger James said...

Lots of great stuff here - thanks. Particularly liked your thoughts about working the group vibe.

No kickers for that chiseled athletic look - too corny?


May 03, 2010 7:54 AM  
Blogger Glenn Harris said...

Good tips as usual but a bit surprised you didn't throw in a rim light or something to separate the background. While these are sort of corporate shots these aren't your usual corporate types. Just curious.

May 03, 2010 7:57 AM  
Blogger Josh Manley Photography said...

This is the best lighting diagram i have seen yet. I like how you actually show the light levels by changing opacity!

thanks for this.

May 03, 2010 12:19 PM  
Blogger t0d said...

Thank you so much for another excellent, insightful article. As another poster mentioned, not just for the lighting technique, but for the people wrangling skills. That aspect of the business is rarely mentioned by anyone else. I learn more here than anywhere else - besides maybe the school of hard knocks (in which I have a PHD.)
Again, and insufficiently, thank you!

May 03, 2010 12:36 PM  
Blogger Lee said...

Silly question maybe: which light is providing the muscle definition? Since the grid is presumably lighting mostly their face, I'm guessing the umbrella is high enough to cast the desired shadows to sculpt their ripped bodies? :)

Great post, as always!

May 03, 2010 12:36 PM  
Blogger erwin said...

i for one am glad you didnt go with a rim light or anything to hard and contrasty. i think your subjects look real... as in approachable.

going too far with jazzy lighting might give you subjects who look like Ultimate Fighting Champions, but better for the gyms customers to see these kids as potential friends. you nailed it.

excellent post, thanks.

May 03, 2010 2:02 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Brilliant post in terms of the social engineering aspect of photography (vs the sometimes all too consuming technical aspects)!

May 03, 2010 2:26 PM  
Blogger Ron Nabity said...


One question on using CFLs for modeling lights: I'm pretty sure you can't use dimmers with most household CFL bulbs. Did you have to set your AB to not lower the power on the modeling light, or was this not an issue?

Thanks again for another great On Assignment post. As always, a great read.

- Ron

May 03, 2010 7:12 PM  
Blogger David said...


I wanted to do a write-up on Grob after the Jobs iPad cover for Time. I wrote to him, and he agreed to it, then bailed on it. Fool me twice, shame on me...



Light beams? I don't see any light beams. You see light beams?

@ James and Glenn-

Just because we view most things here through the lens of lighting techniques does not always mean that it makes sense for light to be the star of the photo. In fact, the more I do this the more I feel that if the light is calling attention to itself it is usually doing so at the expense of the subject.

@ Lee-

The grid. It is up high, a few feet back and falling down across their bodies. It is not really obvious, as the umbrella is catching the shadow areas.

Now that I think harder on it, it is possible that we used a 20-deg grid. Not totally sure now.

@ Ron-

Exactly. I would use the CFLs on full power modeling. I will append the post for clarity.

May 03, 2010 8:05 PM  
Blogger OaklandMisfit said...

Well, my question was answered while I was typing my comment, thanks!

May 04, 2010 3:22 PM  
Blogger OaklandMisfit said...

Same question as Lee above: it says in the post that the gridded light defines their cut figures, but it also says it is set to light their faces.

Is the beam of the 10 degree grid wide enough to hit more than the face? If not, how does it work?

In the Flickr stream the arms of the climbers are clearly featured, especially the girl with the grey tank, and I wonder what does it.

Love the Earth Trek series, thanks for all the details!

May 04, 2010 3:22 PM  
Blogger Alonzo Riley said...

Let's seriously have a tutorial on how you created that lighting diagram! I love it! I mean, I could probably figure out how to do it, but wow, if some package helped automate that'd be genius.

May 04, 2010 7:46 PM  
Blogger Mark Wernham said...

Yes. I see light beams (hold on, is this the Sixth Sense?) Y'know, those yellowy bits coming out of each flash, in the diagram, with different opacities (as someone else said). They look like, erm, beams of light emanating from the flash guns. Don't they? Guys? What? Hello? The beams! The beams!

May 05, 2010 12:12 PM  
Blogger Henri Ennui-Banal said...

I find too difficult real people even. Now I make just real inanimate.

May 05, 2010 6:46 PM  
Blogger garrett said...

Yes, they look like light beams.

The light coming out of the gridded key is brighter and more focused than the light coming out of the umbrella'd fill.

Or maybe Mark and I ate the same (spoilt) food.

May 05, 2010 10:59 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Lots of great stuff here - thanks. Particularly liked your thoughts about working the group vibe.

Thanks for this.

May 05, 2010 11:20 PM  
Blogger petermcdonagh said...

Great post David. In particular the insight on nurturing a group dynamic. It's maybe not the route to a sincere and revealing portrait, but it certainly pulls out some fun shots for these corporate photos.

I find 'people herding' and directing skills more challenging than lighting, but a large part of that, I imagine, is down to the fact that I've spent the past 3 years absorbing your lighting knowledge, drip by drip. These recent posts are filling a large void, and inspiring me to get out of my comfort zone again. Keep 'em coming.

May 07, 2010 3:02 AM  
Blogger gretsch said...


Great series, thanks so much.

A have one question that's been brewing for a while. [Insert disclaimer that I am in no way questioning the use of monoblocs, etc. - pls hear me out -D ]

In years gone by, you would (unless working in the B Sun studio) use SBs by default (upgrading from 26s to 800s when the wife wasn't looking? ;) ). Now most On Assignments are done with ABs instead (with SBs filling in here or there).

Why the change? Is it because you now have a willing assistant/sherpa on your shoots, or is the quality of light from ABs winning you over despite their added bulk and weight? I know they give you extra Wsecs for sunlight bashing, but you seem to use them more often than not.

Please take this question as one of genuine interest and in no way being one of those d!cks who say that monobloc lighting is anti-strobist, or whatever.

May 08, 2010 9:22 AM  
Blogger David said...


Hmm. Coupla factors, I think.

First, when shooting at the paper I was totally reactionary. Meaning, I frequently did not know what I would be shooting until I got my assignments in the morning form picture desk.

So I tended to work out of a waist pack and adapt everything to that.

Lately, almost none of my shoots come on no notice, meaning I am in control of the process and planning. Which is a big luxury, of course.

And that, combined with the fact that I have gotten assignments recently that had me either working in big spaces (i.e. Earth Treks) or doing more "produced" outdoor portraiture (for HCAC) have had me more likely to use big lights.

I have also been working to learn the Profoto system, and there is definitely a bit of a learning curve. I am writing about that on Monday.

That said, the recent food shoot (tacos) was shot with all SB's. I just did a kinda cool outdoor headshot with two SBs yesterday, too (here). I was testing out a new light mod and am looking forward to writing about it.

May 08, 2010 10:47 AM  

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