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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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