On Assignment: The Soprano

No, not Tony -- a real soprano.

And not to be underestimated, as soprano Erin Holmes could probably stand in your front yard and let loose a note that'd break all of your front windows. I had heard her in concert the night before, and hers is a voice not to be trifled with.

So to play it safe, we shot in the garage…

Okay, maybe it also had something to do with the fact that the headshot area in The Cave can't really handle 3/4 shots. It's pretty much a seated, head-and-shoulders type of place because of the low ceilings.

We were scheduled to shoot for HCAC long in advance, with no rain date. The weather was looking very iffy to be dragging flashes out to a location, so we decided to improvise in and around my garage.

So I dragged my flashes upstairs to the garage, put some Pandora on the iPad and luxuriated in a high-ceiling space. Have to say, I actually like the pullback shot of the garage. When I first saw it big, I really loved the crispness of what the two hard lights on the 45's did with the stuff in the background.

They were meant to light the white paper, of course, with each aimed at the opposite side for evenness. But the overspray looks cool to me, and I will definitely use that look to light a three-dimensional background soon.

Mind you, I would not do that to a person. Lights on the 45's don't really do it for me. Olaf Blecker can pull it off, but I can't. But I loved what they did to the stuff on the wall. Never know when you are going to learn something, right?

So, the challenge would be to get a few different looks out of one cluttered garage. And given the weather was holding off for a bit, we went just outside the door for our first shot.

The girls have the green thumbs in my family. Ben and I could probably kill a plastic plant. But thanks to Em and Susan, we live surrounded by plants. Don't ask me the plants' names -- I haven't a clue. I am more like, "plants … prett-ey…"

So we stuck Erin in front of a large, leafy bush right next to the garage door. It was low, so she sat down so it would be at the right height for a backdrop. It was appropriate, too, as she tends to play roles of nymphs and midsummer-night-dreamy stuff, etc. So earthy was good.

It was a cloudy day, so we had nice fill from the get go. We underexposed for that and brought in a big, soft light source -- a Profoto Acute in a 60-inch Photek Softlighter II. It's an umbrella with a diffuser on the front, and very cheap way to get into massive octa-ish territory.

The Softlighter is getting some real competition lately from the new (and more efficient) Paul Buff PLM system. They are both well under $100, and I use them each for different reasons. I have an upcoming post on the PLM, and another comparing the two. Long story short, if you want serious square inches for not a lot of money they both deserve strong consideration.

Anyhoo, that big light source allows us to tailor a soft bank of illumination from any direction that we want. With the underexposed cloudy light acting as fill, it's a subtle combo that does not call attention to itself.

This is mostly because we set the fill exposure pretty tight. Not much lighting ratio going on there. We could definitely drop the shutter speed, kill some ambient and make it more about the key light -- it's your choice.

Here is an ambient-only setup shot. The flash is coming in from high camera left, in very close. I clamped a large piece of cardboard to another stand and used it as a gobo to keep the flash off of the leaves on the left.

The light was a single Profoto head, dialed way down in the Softlighter. The ambient was cloudy (read: friendly for photogs) and we were working in close. This could have easily been done with a single speedlight.

So fifteen minutes in, we have our first look in the can. Next it was back into the garage, to scrounge another backdrop before we moved to the seamless.

If you look at the garage pullback shot big, you'll see a little ledge of foundation wall at the far lower left. Bingo. I love scrounging a completely different backdrop a few steps away.

The garage was dark, so we had to manufacture our own fill here. Cue the Softlighter again, this time positioned right behind the camera. It is big -- so much so that I can sit right in front of it and it still makes a great, on-axis light source.

Same principle as using a ring light for fill, only this thing is huge and leaves even less of a ring shadow signature.

As you can see by Erin's shadow at camera right, we had the fill light set very tight. Maybe one stop down. Easy process -- expose correctly for the fill light, close the aperture down a stop and bring in the key. Dial the key's power until it looks right. Done.

The key in this case was a beauty dish with a white nylon diffuser over it. Bonus: The garage door did not extend all of the way to the wall, so we had a little outcropping of front wall (camera left, just out of frame) with which to gobo and tone down the key light at camera left. (The key was coming from just out of the frame, so it would have been hot at left otherwise.)

We could have done the same thing with the stand and cardboard seen above, but it is somehow more satisfying to scrounge a mod built into the location. At least to me.

I love that we went from earthy to gritty in just a few steps of travel. That gave us a nice set of bookends, so we moved to the artificial backgrounds last.

The setup shot up top shows the lighting for the seamless white shot we did next. We used clamshell light on Erin. The Softlighter made a gorgeous key, but I had it dialed all of the way down. That meant I could not get enough underexposure on the umbrella I wanted to use as the bottom half as fill. As I said earlier, I am still finding my feet with the Profotos.

No biggie, tho. Since I was working at the low end, a speedlight on 1/8 power in a shoot-thru served nicely as a bottom fill light.

I love clamshell light. I am starting to experiment more with hard variants of clamshell, which is something that I find very interesting. But not today.

With those same two front lights, we shot the final look -- a 3/4 shot -- in front of a gray, Botero #023 backdrop in the same location. The collapsible backdrop is 5x7', subtly mottled, and lighter on one side than the other -- one very versatile backdrop, IMO.

For this shot, we used the Softlighter high and to camera right, turning Erin away from it to let it fall across her face. This shot is designed loose and with plenty of room for type to be added. Heresy, I know, to a newspaper shooter. But it can be very helpful to think ahead for a designer -- especially if you do not know how it might be used.

Since the key light was high and to camera right, I brought the speedlight/umbrella in low and to camera left -- almost 90 degrees form Erin. It is dialed way down, to just keep things from going to black without giving the appearance of another light source.

It is probably three stops down, and helps keep the hands from going black as they wrap around her body. Honestly, most of the fill on her face is probably coming from her own torso -- which you can also tell by the color.

Next: STB: Sian Meades


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Blogger Rab said...

Brad Trent has fully embraced the lighting set-up shot. Check it out at http://www.bradtrent.com/#/Portfolio/Artificial%20Portraits/11/thumbs

June 08, 2010 12:37 PM  
Blogger David said...

Who is Brad Trent?

June 08, 2010 12:53 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Hi David,
One the final shot, (red dress/seamless), how did you light the background? Just spill from the two sources? Also, from a design perspective, is it common to leave the space behind a person vs. in front? I get your intention, but I'll admit it makes me uncomfortable to see her front so close to the edge of the frame. Thanks for coming to Portland, I hope I can be there! Brian

June 08, 2010 1:25 PM  
Blogger David said...


The light on the BG is spill from the main and fill only. And yes, space is for type -- that is what the photo is designed for.

There is a little more space on the left in the original, but it is designed to fill the frame after the addition of type.

Maybe not "common" to do so, as you say. But "common" has never been a major compass point of mine, FWIW...

See you in Portland!


June 08, 2010 1:34 PM  
Blogger Nas said...

Thanks for a great OA. Last week I was so close to going for an Acute2 pack with 2 heads in the value kit but thanks to your write-up about the difficulties you've had with dialing the power waaay down and the learning curve associated with the Acute2 I went for a set of D1 Air's. I'm a huge fan of bokeh.

June 08, 2010 2:40 PM  
Blogger Kurt Shoens said...

I'm a big fan of the 60-inch Softlighter II. It's inexpensive, light, packs up small, and you set it up and take it down quick. What's not to love?

As you point out, you can be in front of the thing and it's huge enough to wrap around you. I tried a faux ring light look with it by sticking a P&S on a tripod with the Softlighter directly behind and a long cable shutter release. Not something you'd want to use that often, but sort of an interesting look.

June 08, 2010 3:23 PM  
Blogger m said...

looking forward to the hard clamshell examples - i am trying to imagine the effect, possibly something similar to this?

June 08, 2010 5:23 PM  
Blogger Theis said...

Nice shots - I actually like the pull back shot in the garage the best :)

Has some nice order in chaos feel to it :)


June 09, 2010 3:57 AM  
OpenID anil said...

Great stuff! I always enjoy your posts and the wealth of information that is available at your blog. many thanks!

June 09, 2010 8:03 AM  
Blogger Darren Whitley said...

I'd like to hear more about this Botero collapsible background you have. I like the tone and texture of it, but what do they mean by collapsible? Is it like a Denny twistflex? If so, that'd be something I'd be interested in.

June 09, 2010 9:28 AM  
Blogger Rob Acocella said...

Excellent work David, I'm a big fan of portraits in front of plants/trees/leaves. Love the giant umbrella, gotta invest in one of those!

June 09, 2010 11:48 AM  
Blogger Andy M said...

Fantastic OA as usual.
Just wanted to say the lighting is gorgeous, specially the last shot love the subtlety of the red dress texture, perfect contrast and above all in all the shots in the series you've mastered showing correct skin tones and avoiding the common pitfall of white-washed skin tones.
subject-driven lighting at its best, well done.

June 09, 2010 12:47 PM  
Blogger mbigelowphotographer.com said...

Lookin good my man!


June 09, 2010 5:12 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

These really are crazily well lit -- among your very best, David. The lighting is so present in its subtleness, as if not artificially lit at all. Appreciate your talent; appreciat more your sharing of your techniques.

June 09, 2010 6:07 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I really can't work out what 'on the 45's' means, as in, 'the two hard lights on the 45's'. Someone please clarify!

June 10, 2010 7:56 AM  
Blogger Franci J. D'Costa said...

Hi dave just wanted to tell everyone i've found (as a suggestion by youtube on my homepage) this series of videos of gregory heisler speaking at a conference. Always good to listen to him..


June 10, 2010 11:45 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I've been struggling to get my light out and over the camera and I see you sued a boom to do that in this shot. Any particular insight required on a boom, or is it a "just go get one" kinda thing?

June 10, 2010 1:35 PM  
Blogger Cory said...

Dave - You mention clam shell lighting (as used in the garage) and I wanted to point out that I have been successfull using a 3' round white bounce as the lower fill. I find that it gives a great oval catchlight in head shots. I have also experimented with using a silver reflector as the lower fill on an overcast day and the catchlights have been amazing.


June 10, 2010 2:13 PM  
Blogger treborserrot said...

Great info on setup and beautiful subject. Looking forward to the PLM post.

June 10, 2010 2:37 PM  
Blogger jking said...

I think "on the 45's" means "at a 45 degree angle".

June 10, 2010 5:39 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

@jking That did cross my mind, thanks:)

June 11, 2010 4:38 AM  
Blogger Morne said...

I'd be very interested in a Paul C. Buff PLM vs. the Photek Softlighter discussion. I've mailed to find out when the Buff PLM is being released in a 7mm shaft for Profoto D1 heads but have received no response. David, any experience on attaching 8mm shafts to your Profoto equipment?

June 14, 2010 12:12 PM  
OpenID Backdrops said...

the model looks gorgeous and additionally the lighting suits the environment you choose. the green tree as the background adds great color depth to the skin tone and the lighting is fantastic. i really like to try with my wife in backyard.

June 21, 2010 8:03 AM  
Blogger Erin Holmes said...

What a surprise to come across this on your blog. I feel so honored to have worked with such talent. I knew I was in good hands the whole time. Best of luck in your future endeavors and I hope to work with you again soon! ~Erin Holmes

July 21, 2010 10:16 PM  
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