On Assignment: Tenor Nathan Carlisle

I recently photographed opera singer Nathan Carlisle as part of my long-term project for the Howard County Arts Council.

Nathan is an out-of-towner, and I caught him while he was on a quick swing through HoCo. Because of that, we had to improvise with a quickly selected location.

As I frequently do when in a pinch, I opted to roll the dice and see what the evening's sunset would give us by way of a backdrop.

Sunsets, of course, make great backdrops for us lighting photographers. Which is one reason you should be wary of them -- but not in the way that you probably think.

Don't get me wrong. I would be happy shooting into sunsets three days a week. No matter what the weather, as long as it is not raining buckets you can probably do something very cool looking with twilight and an off-camera flash.

And therein lies the rub.

The first time you throw a flash up against a sunset you are gonna come out of it thinking you are the best thing since sliced bread -- it's a great little ego stroke. The problem is that it looks so cool you might never try anything a little more ambitious.

One light into the sunset looks great, but it can be even better if you consider that a starting point and experiment just as you would when lighting against any other background.

For Nathan, I used an umbrella (high and slight camera right) as a main light and filled with a ring at about a stop and a half down. Then I used two bare SB-800s (gobo'd to avoid flare) as pretty tight rims to separate him from the backdrop.

That makes him look more three-dimensional, and at the same time relegates the very cool background to, well, background status.

In hindsight, I now feel that I went too far with it and should have held off on the ring fill. I think just a high umbrella with the rims would have looked better. I probably will stop short of the on-axis fill in this situation next time. Might even go with a harder key, too.

But I do enjoy experimenting, and I am pleased with the BW conversion for this frame. I could still lose the ring fill -- think it woulda looked more edgy without it. And it also would have helped that young Johnny Cash look Nathan had going on in this photo.

So in that sense, I am glad I pushed into an area I normally do not do when shooting into a sunset. I'll be doing more B&W sunset / lit shots in the future.

The black and white sunset yielded a sort of "epic" look, which I think would be a plus for an opera singer. But since Nathan performs and lives in New York, we also wanted to get something that could at least pass for the city.

Given that our exotic location was the soccer field behind the local middle school, our Big City in a pinch was the back wall of the gym -- which is generic brick.

But for this, the fact that the ring was already set up helped us to create something very quickly with the last remaining bit of twilight.

Underexposing the ring light fill by about two stops, we scraped a bare speedlight across the wall at a near-90-degree angle to Nathan at hard camera left. That provided is with a little bit of edgy light, and the ring made it all fit into the right tonal range in a cool way.

Not exactly urban, but can pass for it in a pinch.

Next: The Soprano


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Blogger pete said...

David - for the ring flash fill you mentioned. Did you use the speed light type ring flash for this assignment?

May 24, 2010 12:51 AM  
Blogger David said...



May 24, 2010 1:45 AM  
Blogger Zach Gillit said...

You're exactly right David, I recently shot my first wedding, and my favourite shots came at sunset using a single umbrella (using my fiance as a VAL, what a beautiful VAL). I took one look at them and immediately thought, "These are amazing, why does anyone else even bother taking pictures?"

May 24, 2010 2:28 AM  
Blogger Maurizio said...

Glad you're coming to the same conclusions I've come as soon as I've seen your photo (and many of your latest too). On-axis fill is a cool idea, but in my experience is rarely a good idea.
Apart from that, you know you're wonderful and your site is the best online resource for everyone that really wants to learn something.

May 24, 2010 4:55 AM  
Blogger ASI EMPEZO TODO said...

Hi David, Was it the AB the main light behind the umbrella? or was another SB800?

May 24, 2010 5:24 AM  
Blogger Wayne said...

Thanks David for another great post.
I'm trying to understand why you think you went too far with the ring fill? You mention it was set at a top and a half down. Without the ringfill, wouldn't you get more shadow under the nose/chin? Surely not as flattering?

Thanks Wayne.

May 24, 2010 6:21 AM  
Blogger Bruce Birmelin said...

I agree the ring fill was unnecessary, and in my opinion the camera left "rim light" which seems to be only illuminating a small slice of Carlisle's jaw. Just two lights could have sufficed, and would have still produced the dramatic result you were seeking.

May 24, 2010 11:31 AM  
Blogger Dylan said...

David, that black and white is to be proud of, sir! Fantastic conversion! I'd like to see a comparison of this technique with and without the extra light... however, stunning work as is!

May 24, 2010 11:43 AM  
Blogger alim said...

Hi David,

Great post, thanks for sharing.
Quick question for you...

When you talk about "scraping" or raking light across a background (i.e., the brick wall), do you orient the flash head vertically or horizontally?

More specifically, how far is the light from the wall and where is it pointed? Is the light really feathered in instances like this?

Thanks again...

May 24, 2010 12:12 PM  
Blogger JoeH said...

I can't believe I'm saying this....I disagree with you! I think the ring fill is just right. If I were to lose one light it would be one of the rims...probably the left since it is a little more "ambiguous" to me as a source.

May 24, 2010 12:31 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Hiya David

Felt I wannted to add a comment on the image in the article. If I am wrong, please guide me in the right direction.

Whilst the fill and rim lights work well, would it not have been a better option to drop the main light a tad (or strengthen up the fill)?

I'm finding the shadows under the eyes and nose a tad distracting (as if he has not slept in a while).

My personal taste is kicking in here so I will grab the knife and fork if humble pie is the offering (gulp).

BTW - love your articles - they make one think at the same time guide one in a direction

May 24, 2010 1:29 PM  
Blogger David Solo said...

David, The B&W shot is really hollywood. I love it! Thats a sky that John Ford would have been proud of. Incidentally I'll be at the Edinburgh gig on Friday. Look for the tall slim handsome guy. I'll be with him...

May 24, 2010 5:37 PM  
Blogger Chad said...

Oh the old cliche´ opera singer in front of a brick wall. — I kid because I love.

May 24, 2010 6:22 PM  
Blogger kargy said...

How has the mount on the Ray Flash held up? I was wondering as I am on the verge of ordering.

May 24, 2010 10:01 PM  
Blogger shawnpix said...

Hey David,

I just had to say, that anyone living in New York would clearly be able to tell that the third photo wasn't taken in the city because there's no graffiti on the wall :)

May 24, 2010 11:49 PM  
OpenID davidyoungphoto said...

Despite your second thoughts on it I think the first pic works well David. Enjoy your visit to Edinburgh this week.

May 25, 2010 2:53 AM  
Blogger Nick Sparks Presents said...

Amazing detail in the picture and his work is good to! Great post.


May 25, 2010 5:30 PM  
Blogger Adrian said...

That b&w looks fantastic,must try something like that. I've got a lot to loearn but you're certainly the main person helping me learn it!

Anyway, really looking forward to Leeds tomorrow!

May 25, 2010 5:42 PM  
Blogger BallardFamily said...

NuBe here, in addition to the lighting setup, in future posts I would like to know how you work with the subjects themselves, what you are saying to them during the shoot as to how they are to stand, where to look etc. For example, did you tell Nathan Carlisle to put his hand behind his head for the 'city' picture, or did you just happen to catch him at the right moment?

At the shoot I did this weekend the subject said "where do you want us"? The ever reashuring "uhm..." was my first word.

Thanks David for all your hard work on this site, very much useful and enjoyable!

May 25, 2010 7:31 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Not for publication!

Hi Dave,

I hope you will answer my question although I know that you gave notice a long time ago not being able to keep up with the questions anylonger :)

Will adding tags from the 102 sessions to my assignment pics still yield any results or has it been a too long time?

Thanks for all your good work.


May 26, 2010 11:34 AM  
Blogger mikepenney said...

All I can say is the guy;s eyes look so bad my clients would reject this main shot of yours in a heartbeat.

Using tiny hard lights on people is risky and doesn;t always work out for a positive look.

May 26, 2010 10:00 PM  
Blogger Frozen Forever Photography said...

Thanks David,
How far over are your rim lights from the main? I am guessing about a stop or stop 1/2?


May 27, 2010 10:35 AM  
Blogger Glyn Dewis said...

Real nice post David.
Funny but I actually thought of the Johnny Cash style of photo before I read what you had put; made me think of a shot Michael Grecco took of him.

Would really like to see more of your B&W sunset shots; being a fan of B&W myself.


May 28, 2010 5:15 AM  
Blogger artistguy said...

The pictures look great. I also agree about leaving out the ring light next time. I don't really care for ring lights in general. Putting a catch light right in the middle of someone's eye just isn't that flattering. But....Close ups look okay if the ring light is all around the pupil giving a slightly creepy washed out zombie look to the eye's which is great in some situations. Otherwise I really don't see what the ring light flash dealy hype is all about. Probably a marketing thing to sell more equiptment. Just my opinion! Thanks for the great website it's amazing!

May 31, 2010 2:00 PM  

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