On Assignment: Betty Allison

See that black blob?

It's not a mistake. It's the first frame of any consequence on a quick biz portrait of Betty Allison, the woman who runs our local wholesale food market. Her job is to make sure the fresh food supply runs smoothly for the state of Maryland and surrounding areas. And we have to shoot a quick portrait of her for a local business paper.

So, c'mon -- hurry up. We only have a few minutes to get the light worked out before we shoot her between appointments…

Okay, the black(-ish) blob is there for a reason. That is a knocked-down, ambient-only exposure. What I am looking for is an exposure that is dark, but not excessively so.

Reason is, I will be adding lights to this in just a minute. And since I am using speedlights I also want to be conscious of not cranking down my exposure excessively. That would mean I would have to ask for more power from the strobes to compensate.

Okay, that was easy enough. Those refrigerated room barriers are translucent. So all I have to do is to stick a speedlight behind them to get a cool background. Should be a piece of cake. Be right back with a test shot.


That kinda sucks. Apparently, the doors are more transparent than diffused. The bare strobe is too... point-sourcy.

No prob -- I'll add a shoot-thru umbrella to make the light source bigger and that should do it. It'll cost me a little power, but no worries -- I am only at 1/8 now.


Close, but no cigar. I need the light source to be bigger yet.

The problem is the umbrella is the biggest light modifier in my bag. I was not expecting to use a big light source, and now I need one.

Alright, let's kill the umbrella altogether and turn the flash around. We'll use the whole fricken' wall as the light source.

That oughtta do it.


And the lines in the door flaps hide the flash, too. I'd rather be lucky than good, any day. But still, needs more cowbell.

I could vary the exposure a bit, walk the aperture up and down to see how it looks. But no, the exposure looks fine. That's not it.

Hmm… cold…

I know:

A 1/2 CTB gel on the flash cools it down a little.

This will give me some nice color separation from Betty, and it connotes the cool temperature. Full CTB woulda been a little too much.

Plus, that wall and the gel combined to force me to pump the speedlight up to 1/2 power. Remember, it has to go thru the gel, bounce off the wall and go thru the door flaps.

All of that costs light. And 1/2 power is my effective upper limit when shooting people. I'm not so big on a 4-second recycle. Much rather cut that in half.

Here it is without the doors. That whole wall is my light source. Little hot in the center, but that will probably work for me as a framing device.

Okay, let's set up the front lights.

I already have my working aperture and shutter speed, so I'll have to adjust the power on the key and fill lights to match. (Oh, and subtract a couple stops for the fill...)

Since we started out on the threshold of ambient black, we can bring up the ambient very easily at any point by opening the shutter speed. Or we can make it a flash-only exposure by leaving the shutter alone.

Here are the front lights -- including some ambient dialed in so you can see them better. We'll add the blue background light back in a minute.

We're using a fairly harsh key to give her some pop in the cheekbones, and some nice on-axis fill to tame the harsh shadows. The key (a Lumiquest SB-III) is feathered up and away from her to let the light fall off nicely. Add a 1/4 CTO to the key to give her a little color, and you're golden. Or she is, anyway.

She will hide the fill light's reflection in the doors. The key light is small, and that reflection looks fine. Okay, good to go. Bring her in.

Hmm… need something to do with her hands to keep her from looking stiff. Most people are not used to being photographed this way, and it is harder than it looks.

Does she have a Blackberry? Of course she does. That'll give her something to be doing, and a natural look for her hands.

A couple minutes later:

All set, and good to go.

Only took a couple of mins for her, and she is off to her next appointment a little bit early. It's a bread-and-butter biz portrait, done just about as quickly as if we'd used natural light -- only it has a lot more pop.

Okay, let's tear this down, throw the gear into the car and get some breakfast -- it's your turn to buy.

Next: Cellist Caleb Jones


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Blogger Matthew said...

Nice shot, as usual! Maybe it's just me, but I think I actually preferred the bare wall as a background, without the curtain-thing... but cool either way :)

- Matt

August 02, 2010 12:25 AM  
Blogger Lucas said...

Very nice post, thanks for taking the time to do that!

August 02, 2010 12:34 AM  
Blogger charles said...

Man, your a great teacher!

August 02, 2010 12:40 AM  
Blogger ProfRick said...

Another satisfyingly informative, thorough and inspiring post. Keep it up, Dave.

August 02, 2010 12:47 AM  
Blogger Jarra said...

Thanks David. As a longtime reader I very much enjoyed this fun and insightful approach to OA.



August 02, 2010 1:03 AM  
Blogger David Getsfrid said...

I absolutely love that use of those plastic fridge/freeze separators. I'm going to have to steal that at some point. Particularly in your 2nd frame, while not suitable for a business portrait, could make for some awesome dark editorialy stuff.

-David Getsfrid

August 02, 2010 2:43 AM  
Blogger TV said...

Thanks for that excellent play-by-play of the shoot. That's a great corporate portrait and is such a welcome compared to the usual dross that I was looking through at work today.

August 02, 2010 2:55 AM  
Blogger David Young said...

Excellent stuff David - I love these walkthroughs

August 02, 2010 3:04 AM  
Blogger George said...

Thanks for yet another informative post! I never would've thought those plastic flaps would make a cool background.

Btw... I really like style of talking through how you problem solve all the issues of a shoot... reminds me a lot of Joe McNally's books. :-)

August 02, 2010 3:06 AM  
Blogger ghphoto said...

Really nice breakdown and thought process. I love understanding your rationale. Was the chiller actually on. Could you have captured her breath if she exhaled? Great work. I live for these breakdowns. Thank you.

August 02, 2010 3:27 AM  
Blogger Rune said...

The high keylight does create a mabye too drastic shadow under her right cheek-bone, or?

August 02, 2010 4:18 AM  
Blogger ...number88 said...

Perfect walkthrough! When I first saw the black blob pic I thought, "OK, it's a post about getting things wrong." But I should know better; you're rarely wrong (or rarely admit it!!) :-)

August 02, 2010 4:35 AM  
Blogger Dean said...

I really love these kind of walkthroughs just for the nuts and bolts view of a simple looking portrait, Thank you.

August 02, 2010 4:40 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Great walk-through David. you make it all look so easy, but of cause its not. Well done.

August 02, 2010 5:32 AM  
Blogger Felipe said...

Great post, Dave! Very detailed and informative :)

August 02, 2010 7:18 AM  
Blogger Bill Morgan said...

I so enjoy your posts like this giving details and process. Thank you.

You've probably done it before but maybe in the future you could talk more about your thinking process in shooting the portrait in this specific location for this specific person. In other words: when you're hired how does you mind scan the environment in order to decide to shoot such a shot that carries the message you need from the portrait? Did that make sense? How do you actually think as you scan the environment prior to figuring out the wonderful technical process so nicely laid out above?

August 02, 2010 7:25 AM  
Blogger Tommy said...

David, thank you so much for the detailed dissection of the thought process that went into making this shot.

August 02, 2010 7:41 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

As always, filled with info!

August 02, 2010 7:55 AM  
Blogger أثير النور|EtheR of the LighT said...

Great David!

I very much liked the CTOed background lighting.

However, I have two questions regarding the background lighting:

- what is the wall to refrigerator barriers distance, and the wall to speedlite distance?

- what zoom you used in the flash?

Since as per my understanding(I might be wrong) the speedlite will be zoomed out (wider) if the wall to speedlite distance is at least half the distance of the wall to refrigerator barriers.

Thanks for such powerful assignment.

August 02, 2010 8:01 AM  
Blogger Josh said...

This is a great post among many you have shown. I love the photos of your dialed down ambient. It is mentioned a lot, but to see it well makes it that much easier to understand. I also like the shots that didn't work. If the pro does it, I feel much less sheepish when I do it.

Again thank you for taking the time to share your passion with the rest of us!


August 02, 2010 8:05 AM  
Blogger Michael David Fisher said...

David, I love the way your mind works. The step by step of how you thought this through, tested, and finally photographed her is priceless. That's why I check you blog every day (even though you don't post every day).

August 02, 2010 8:12 AM  
Blogger John said...

Very cool! Love seeing your thought process advance from one stage to the next. Also like the fact that you included the time it was taking you to create this portrait.

BTW, nice portrait too!

August 02, 2010 8:19 AM  
Blogger Keven said...

Nice article! Seriously, I love that "how I proceeded" way for explaining your shoot, that brings more reality / real world confrontation :)


August 02, 2010 8:31 AM  
Blogger A said...

Talk about timely. I have a portrait/headshot shoot tomorrow. Just a reminder that good lighting does not just happen and one usually does nail it on the first try.

Thanks for walking us thru the process (again). Keep 'em coming.

August 02, 2010 8:54 AM  
Blogger Stephen Diroll said...

Great Post! More like these! I enjoy seeing the step by step breakdown of your logic and creativity at a shoot. Portrait looks great! I think i'm going to carry an old blackberry around with me as a prop....

August 02, 2010 8:55 AM  
Blogger dls said...

Great article!

This is just the kind of thing I need. I have been reading your blog for a long time and have learned a lot. But what always gets me is how to build up the shot. This article really showed me how you thought it through and made it all click.

I would really like to see more articles in this style.


August 02, 2010 9:52 AM  
Blogger Marshall said...

Not adding much to the debate here, just wanted to say that this is nicely done. An easy read, very thought-processy, and thus quite educational. Nicely done, Mr. Strobist.

Waffles, with fruit? Or something bigger like a Western Omelette with salsa?

- Marshall

August 02, 2010 9:59 AM  
Blogger JLykins said...

Beautiful shot. Why didn't you control the hot spot on the back wall by using a shoot through before bouncing it off of the wall? I would think that would spread the light a little bit better before it hits the wall, less of a hotspot.

August 02, 2010 10:01 AM  
Blogger Evan Wilson said...

That is pretty damned cool. Really digging the 'thinking out loud' approach!

Thanks as always for a great post David!

August 02, 2010 10:05 AM  
Blogger Franci J. D'Costa said...

Well man, sure you've been lucky, but luck is nothing if you don't know what to do with it. (Don't know how this sentence sounds in english, but well, in italian it makes sense and gives the idea..)

August 02, 2010 10:10 AM  
Blogger Dave6163 said...


Thanks for the post. The details and explanation on building out the background is awesome.


August 02, 2010 10:23 AM  
Blogger pavel said...

Great article! I love the step-by-step photos. Just getting into strobe photography, and details like that are a BIG help!

August 02, 2010 10:29 AM  
Blogger Hylandsson Studios said...

Awesome talk-through of how you did the shot!!!

Many Thanks, Sensei!

August 02, 2010 10:40 AM  
Blogger MeMyselfAndI said...

So what was the working shutter, aperture and ISO?

August 02, 2010 11:35 AM  
Blogger kaziutek said...

Great walk through, but some exif would be even better. Really, presenting your thought process along with step by step pictures is much better then just a narrative of the final shot. Thank you for your work!

August 02, 2010 11:51 AM  
Blogger D. Travis North said...

I learned a great deal from that post. I love the thought-process-walk-through style. Not only did it show me a little bit about your thought process while setting up a shoot, but it also gave me a great deal of confidence knowing that you also have to play with a set to fully realize your vision. Albeit - I realize that some of those steps were possibly for educational purposes only...but I still feel good about what I learned.

August 02, 2010 12:31 PM  
Blogger Hilltop said...

That is exactly the nuts and bolts process walkthrough we are so hungry for. Perfect! Keep em up!

August 02, 2010 12:47 PM  
Blogger Ynad said...

This is great, David!
Better then any school.
f4 1/250 iso 250 44mm nikon d3 "no flash" :-)
you can download picture and see the exif data David kindly leaves with the photo.

August 02, 2010 1:14 PM  
Blogger diegonyc said...


you're the man. these OA's never get old.

the way u walk us thru is just perfect.

August 02, 2010 1:35 PM  
Blogger jimm said...

I too live for these step by steps. Thanks for taking the time not only to show the shot but the creative side of the process.

August 02, 2010 1:43 PM  
Blogger VT said...

Is it just me, or are her eyes a bit out of focus? It looks like your camera grabbed focus on her necklace/blouse.

Thanks for the walkthrough. Very nice to see how you think it through.

August 02, 2010 2:51 PM  
Blogger LightandPixels said...


Loved spending a little time inside your head this way - I found that place to be frightening and brilliant all at the same time. I hope you'll do more of this for us in the future!


August 02, 2010 7:11 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

I loved, Loved, LOVED the commentary on building up the light for this shot. Very helpful indeed. Thank you!

August 02, 2010 8:36 PM  
Blogger Addison Geary Photography said...

Interesting how you added CTB to the background light rather than change your WB to tungsten and then use a full or 3/4 CTO on the main, you gelled it anyway. I usually go the tungsten WB with full CTO on the main but I'm never happy with flesh tones.

August 02, 2010 9:31 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thank you for the detailed post on how you made this portrait, and also the step by step photos showing your setting up process. I learned several things and will put them to use myself next time.

August 02, 2010 9:57 PM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

Like the lighting tip, love the tip about giving her something to hold. The best lighting in the world is useless if the pose/composition doesn't look right. Thanks again.

August 02, 2010 11:44 PM  
Blogger Christian said...

Best. Site. Ever.

David, you are an inspiration!

August 03, 2010 12:53 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

I LOVE the extra show and tell!!!

August 03, 2010 10:18 AM  
Blogger Chuck said...

The background is evocative of a car wash or Bates Motel shower. It does not look too good. Better the bare wall, maybe side lit.

August 03, 2010 12:36 PM  
Blogger Tim Skipper Photography said...

Great walk-through of your shoot.

August 03, 2010 2:42 PM  
Blogger Tim Skipper Photography said...

Great walk through on how to complete a shot

August 03, 2010 2:43 PM  
Blogger OaklandMisfit said...

Very cool walkthrough, thanks.

August 03, 2010 3:40 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

David really is the Sherloch Holmes of photography, "He see's all the clues and answers within the lighting set-up. once again, thank you.

August 03, 2010 7:22 PM  
Blogger Rick Tracy said...

Great solution. As usual it takes some brains and some speedlights to make a scene look its best. The right lighting takes advantage of the environment. When you explain it, it seems so easy!


August 03, 2010 9:28 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

I am looking forward to reading more about lighting

August 04, 2010 12:18 AM  
Blogger Spencer said...

Love these kinds of posts. Nice walkthrough, thank.

August 04, 2010 12:31 AM  
Blogger Matt Heath said...

great portrait. thanks again for a great walk thru! I learn so much here!

August 04, 2010 12:44 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

This is some of the Camera Data from the Original file "Hope you don't mind David",

Make Nikon Corporation
Model D3
Date Time 17/06/2010 – 10:18:42
Shutter Speed 1/250
Exposure Program Manual
F-Stop f/4.0
ISO 250
Focal Length 44.0mm
Lens 24 – 70mm f/2.8
Flash Did not fire
Metering Mode Matrix

The raw Data is also in the file.

August 04, 2010 5:16 AM  
Blogger CameraStageLeft said...

"Okay, good to go. Bring her in."

That line alone was worth the read for me ;-)

August 04, 2010 5:59 AM  
Blogger gretsch said...

Top post Dave. Poss yr best walkthrough get-inta-mah-head post yet.

Showed it to the non-'tog, non-strobing missus who understood it(!) and said "Wow, he tells everyone this for free?? Pls thank him for teaching you how to take nice photos". So I am. Thank you! -D

August 04, 2010 8:37 AM  
OpenID kmarciante said...

Awesome post!! I love reading and seeing the thought process in taking these photos. Nice to know it all doesn't go as planned for you either. That's the biggest lesson. Look and then adjust. I use to think all great photographers knew exactly how it was to be set up but know I see some of it is trial and adjustment. Great image in the end!

August 04, 2010 9:47 AM  
OpenID photopathway.com said...

As always, great post Dave. I have a question regarding the on-axis fill light to deal with the shadows. Do you decide the power of it by trial and error or you have some technique for this?

August 04, 2010 10:34 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

In Holland we'll be serving bacon and eggs this morning with toast and fresh orange/strawberry juice.

And no, let's not do the little 'check-dance' it's on me today.

This is because I absolutely loved the post!
I really like the reviews, don't get me wrong, but this stuff is golden!

As many have posted above me, I really find it useful to see how it is done, step-by-step, but even more so the thought process leading up to every decission you make. I have watched many McNally shoots and I often find myself rethinking his steps and taking them myself when I'm shooting.
I did so as well with the shoot I did today, and I took the steps you showed us in this post!

A great deal of thanks


August 04, 2010 11:23 AM  
Blogger Rob Acocella said...

Very nice David, love the end result. Sometimes we're all stuck with the initial "Eww. Yuck" when we chimp our setups. Nice way to talk us through your thinking.

August 04, 2010 6:18 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

David, Call me an ass but I just noticed the Upcoming Seminar link at the bottom of each post. Will you be doing any between Baltimore and Philly? If not where can I keep an eye on your schedule?

August 04, 2010 10:24 PM  
Blogger DodoVillar said...

Fantastic! this nice explanation of the shoot is so amazing.. so.. why the orbis ring adapter on the flash? i do no see the explanation for that.. only for the catch lights?


August 04, 2010 10:24 PM  
Blogger jay said...

dude! dude! dude!

never commented before...but just had to say...love the writing style/format you posted this in. so much easier to follow for a simpleton like me.


August 05, 2010 12:29 AM  
Blogger Fransisko said...

David, you make it look so easy...
I really love your blog.
Nice works!

August 07, 2010 12:36 AM  
Blogger only1platinum said...

Okay! I have to say! This was a great post. I don't comment often but I read your blog like an addict. Just plain great to see your work flow. Very informative and will really help me in the future on my shoots. I already picked up a few tips. Thanks again for a great site!

August 07, 2010 7:18 PM  
Blogger Patrick M. Ryan said...

Very nice work. I happened to stumble across "The Business Monthly" at my dry cleaners today and saw this portrait on the cover. Congrats on the cover shot!

August 07, 2010 9:20 PM  

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