On Assignment: Caleb Jones

Here's the scene: You're at the shore of a beautiful lake on a summer's evening, with live cello music set against a backdrop of twinkling fireflies.

The ground, alas, is covered in goose crap. And that's where you are — on your belly — because that's where the best shooting angle is.

Such was the case for our HCAC shoot of cellist Caleb Jones.

Caleb was the winner of the 2010 Howard County Rising Stars competition, in which 10 very talented young artists compete live onstage for a $5,000.00 prize. The winner is by audience vote, and the evening is part of a gala which raises money for local arts in all forms.

Suffice to say that our background music for the shoot was very, very good.

We started off near sunset, shooting tight headshots through the quickly changing light. After sunset, it usually takes about 15-20 minutes before the color starts to get really interesting. But at that point it is also changing very quickly, and it can be an advantage to be working with a minimal amount of gear. Typically, you get to spend a decent amount of time preparing but then have to work quickly to make your photos while the light is good.

One Light for Shape; The Other for Detail.

I used to use a single flash in an umbrella against sunset light for an easy, reliable look. But I have since moved to using to flashes, which gives me lots more flexibility.

If you are using one umbrella (or one light in any mod) your key light angle will usually be a compromise between position vs. detail. Frequently, the best position for your key light to define your subject may be one that also leaves too much of the subject in the shadows. Which means that you may have to move your key closer that you want to the camera to preserve more detail.

But with two lights you can choose to light your subject from any angle with your key. And you can use the second light (in this case, a speedlight in an Orbis) to control your level of detail in the shadows.

The two-light combo is such a sweet spot in the curve. It gives you lots of options, in addition to being a backup in the event one of your flashes goes down.

In this case, I wanted to light Caleb soft and from the top, which would have left his face in very dark shadow without the fill. Since he had dark skin (not to mention an awesome-but-dark vintage tux) I used the ring fill and dialed it up a little more than normal. It's probably a stop down from the key, maybe a stop and change.

The key light was from a shoot-through umbrella overhead, courtesy Dave Kile as the voice-activated boom. You can see it at left, and can also see what the fill would have looked like if it were dialed down a bit. This is because I moved back to pop the setup shot, and didn't crank the ring up enough to compensate.

Remember -- when you are working with ring fill in manual you have to compensate the power level if you move closer or further away from your subject. Or, you can not make that adjustment and think of it as an added feature -- an auto-bracketing fill light. Just sayin'.

At first, it almost doesn't look like there is any fill on Caleb at all in the above frame until you realize that there has to be something lighting Dave. It's not until you take the fill away that you see how much it is contributing even at that relatively low level:

See what I mean? The detail goes away completely without the fill.

Also, there is something interesting going on here with the umbrella. See the edge of the umbrella light happening on the other side of Dave and Caleb? That's raw spill going past the shoot-through. Usually, it ruins a shot but here it kinda helps bring up that background area a little. I'll take it.

More and more, I find that if I am gonna use an umbrella as a key I am coming in from high overhead. It just looks a little more atypical and interesting to me. But that's not gonna help me if I totally lose Caleb's face against the background.

But shoot when he is looking up, and it's another story altogether. To me, the top light all by itself works well here. But it's very close to not working, too. IMO, the eyelids catching the light makes it okay for much of his face to be in shadow. Lose the eyelids and I'd have more trouble with it. (Kinda hard to see at 400px -- click the pic for a bigger view.)

Also, the B&W conversion helps, too. Two totally different photos -- one built on shape and texture, the other on pure graphic form.

These finished pics are done with the same key light and two extremes of fill -- a lot and none at all. But there are a lot of different looks to be had between those two extremes, and it gives you an idea of how much control you have by varying the fill intensity.

Goose crap and all, it was a wonderful evening. Caleb played most of the way through the shoot, so people on the hiking path around the lake were surprised by a soundtrack that even included some of his original cello compositions. He'd finish a piece and applause would spread around the lake. Very cool.

Assistant Erik Couse was covertly shooting a video of us with his iPhone, conveniently making himself a felon in the State of Maryland in the process. We are gonna wait until the next time he pisses us off to press charges.

And the fact that it was almost nighttime accounts for the production quality, which is about three notches below that of Faces of Death 6. But still, I am pretty sure the felony charges will stick.

The first couple minutes are from the headshots at the beginning. Then all the light goes away and we shoot the photos seen above. But it does show a that modest amount of strobe can transform a tiny amount of ambient light into something cool:


Next: STB: J.D. Roth


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Blogger domonic said...

Thanks for the post. I've been reading and reading and reading. And for some reason when you illustrated the "fill" light in this post it actually dawned on me what it was. I had somewhat of an understanding but for some reason it"clicked" just now.

Also that was the best expression ever when you asked him was he "right of left-eyed".

August 09, 2010 1:02 AM  
Blogger Samuel said...

"But I have since moved to using to flashes, which gives me lots more flexibility." should be moved to using TWO flashes. lol I caught the error this week, i guess i was playing attention. BTW - David, i have cuestion. Do any of your advanced students take any work away from you? I mean, the get full acces to all your secrets. Great lighting, great blog, great pictures, great proyect. Hi from Madrid... when are you coming here.

August 09, 2010 1:36 AM  
Blogger Wil said...

Can you talk a little about your post process? They look slightly different to me this time.

August 09, 2010 2:21 AM  
Blogger StonePhoto said...

Lovely shot DAvid.... As always!

August 09, 2010 2:27 AM  
Blogger alim said...

David, great series! Love the creaminess of the light. I am still amazed at what one can pull of with just a couple of flashes.

The hot spot that appears on Caleb's left shoe (from the Orbis), could that be minimized by having him rotate that foot toward camera a bit?

I would be very interested to hear more about minimizing hot spots, which I know you've touched on in previous posts.

Thanks to the Rising Star, Caleb, for sharing his music, Erik for the BTS vid, & to your VAL, Dave.

Nice job!

August 09, 2010 2:31 AM  
Blogger Evan Deffley said...

The B&W version is just sensational, so much so that I just wanted to leave a comment to say that :).

The color version is nice as well, but I think the fill is bit too much. All the drama was taken out for me. The B&W is just oozing with moodiness.

August 09, 2010 3:00 AM  
Blogger Brett said...

This is my most favourite shot of yours David, just beautiful!

August 09, 2010 3:16 AM  
Blogger Virgil Lund said...

Why can't I have that kind of background music while I work?!

Thanks, David, good work. I really appreciated the video too. Is it something you will provide more of in the future?

August 09, 2010 3:25 AM  
Blogger נתי said...

Eventually a picture is worth a thousand words
And video worth a million words.
Thank you for shared with us

August 09, 2010 3:52 AM  
Blogger mdeniz said...

Hi David, can you leave the parameters of your gear (f-stop, mm).
And how can you get that low recycle time?

August 09, 2010 3:57 AM  
Blogger Clive said...

Thanks for a great walkthrough on an awesome shot, lots of inspiration for me.

August 09, 2010 4:28 AM  
Blogger pablosalgado said...

Thanks David for sharing this. I would like to know about the camera settings you used... thanks!

August 09, 2010 4:33 AM  
Blogger tonyinthecountry said...

Hi, I was just wondering: why did you first use a cable to trigger the umbrella flash instead of going with a PW from the beginning? was it to 'fool' the camera and gain a higher shutter speed sync?

btw; great blog, great source of information, congrats!

August 09, 2010 4:34 AM  
Blogger JM said...


I have to agree with you in saying that the B&W version is a totally different animal. I can't quite put my finger on it but I must say the B&W version looks absolutely stunning to me! I've always liked the chello as an instrument and this photo really does it for me.

About the colour version, I'm a little disturbed by the ringlight effect around his hand. It looks almost as if his right hand is photoshopped or undergone a cut&paste or something because it looks so different than the rest of his body. But I love the tone and colours, very pleasing and calm.

Thanks for yet another fantastic On Assignment, it's always a pleasure and a huge learning opportunity for me!



August 09, 2010 5:38 AM  
Blogger Reinoud said...

Hi Dave,
beautiful pictures!

One question: I assume that the Orbis is mounted on a SB-900 on your camera. How do you fire the flash in the umbrella? With optical slaves? Or do you manage to get a pocketwizard in there somewhere?

August 09, 2010 5:52 AM  
Blogger Mindaugas Grigas said...

Isn't the chair too bright (distracting...) with the fill? Probably this is the reason why I like the BW version better...

What do you think about on-axis snoot type fill in such situation?


August 09, 2010 6:21 AM  
Blogger Klee said...

Really crafty use of small lights as always David, thank you so much

August 09, 2010 6:46 AM  
Blogger CovenantMan said...

Maybe you can guess my "unknowingness" by my question, but nevertheless, may I ask where your ambient exposure was here...was it correct, was it a little under?
Many thanks for a great lesson.

August 09, 2010 8:10 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Thanks again for these behind the scenes. They are so helpful. It amazes me how your "casual conversation" distracts the subject so much from his photo being taken, all the while you're scamming the good shots from him. Excellent work as usual!!!

August 09, 2010 8:26 AM  
Blogger John Fowler said...

My camera bag always has a couple of oversized green plastic garbage bags - handy for crawling around in goosepoop and also handy as emergency raincoats.

August 09, 2010 8:31 AM  
Blogger bored_stupid said...

Once again David, a great walk-through. I love the video that goes with it. This really shows where the lights are placed in relation to the subject...more please.

August 09, 2010 8:40 AM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

About that goose poo on the ground.

I always keep a couple of plastic garbage bags with my camera gear. I started doing it as emergency rain gear, and have made hazmat suits (gaffer tape plus bags) when I had to get on nasty ground. Yes, you will look funny. Yes, others will laugh at you and take your picture. Yes, it is hot (the bad kind of hot).

August 09, 2010 9:28 AM  
Blogger CovenantMan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 09, 2010 9:40 AM  
Blogger David.Capino said...

great bts, I like the discussion on using the Ring as a fill.

August 09, 2010 10:18 AM  
Blogger k said...

Thank you David! I loved this post - not only was it a great demo and explanation of your lighting techniques - you brought the 3 dimensionality of video while combining wonderful music and imagery together. I'd love to see more posts like these. Bravo and thank you!

Karen Vaisman


Portrait Artist

August 09, 2010 10:38 AM  
Blogger Ronny said...

Hi David,
What would be the differences between using a bare flash as a fill when compared to the Orbis ring. Thank's again for your explanation.

August 09, 2010 10:50 AM  
Blogger Rudolph said...

Awesome! Very clear walk through! Can't believe I'm the first one to comment!!!

August 09, 2010 10:57 AM  
Blogger best mobiles said...

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August 09, 2010 11:01 AM  
Blogger Vince Edward said...

Sounds like a fun shoot. The point you make about the umbrella is interesting. When I'm practicing in my apartment (high ceilings, but all white and white walls), the shoot through umbrella is tough to use without heavy flagging (or even occasionally snooting the flash in the umbrella) to control spill. Outside, the shoot through umbrella is such a nice, cheap modifier. It really makes for an amazing B&W image there. Not that I don't like the color version, but the B&W one is really dramatic.

August 09, 2010 11:02 AM  
Blogger Leo said...

The B/W version really rocks - more dramatic and really unexpected look. All in all, great work!

August 09, 2010 11:33 AM  
Blogger Mignonette said...


August 09, 2010 12:00 PM  
Blogger andré blais said...

Good stuff!

August 09, 2010 12:05 PM  
Blogger Chris Giles said...

Hey Dave
Great work! Question for you. In your video, it appears that you are using two SBs for your lighting. But there is an audible recharge beep going on throughout the video. What's that from?


August 09, 2010 12:07 PM  
Blogger kitehill said...

Hi David,

This is a beautiful photo! Can you say anything about shutter speed in this situation. To get that light in the sky you had to be fairly slow and the flash would freeze the cellists movement mostly. But he must have been moving quite a bit. I was surprised to see such cleanness in his moving parts when you still had a sky like that. Any trick to it?

Heather D'

August 09, 2010 12:14 PM  
Blogger Urbantor said...

nice. its fun to see BTS. More of them please :)

August 09, 2010 12:17 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Right eye, left eye, why did you ask that?

The video is the BEST!

August 09, 2010 1:56 PM  
Blogger diegonyc said...

Thank you again David. I also prefer the mono version but just love the way the color one pops out at you.

For those that don't have a ring light, is it possible to get similar results with something like an sb with a lumi III or even a beauty dish as fill?

August 09, 2010 1:57 PM  
Blogger layzieyez said...

I actually like the different textures visible in the color version as opposed to the black and white. His hair, his tux, the grain of his instrument, etc. draw me further in than the B&W version although I like that one,too, just less.

Thanks for the BTS.

August 09, 2010 2:17 PM  
Blogger William said...

The short video was very helpful. Please include a quick and dirty low res video in all your assignment in the future !!!


August 09, 2010 5:32 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

Photographing to that music must have been so inspiring. Just my kind of atmosphere and subject.

August 09, 2010 10:15 PM  
Blogger filipl said...

more videos please! It is oh so helpful!

August 10, 2010 9:40 AM  
Blogger Łukasz Kruk said...

"See the edge of the umbrella light happening on the other side of Dave and Caleb?"

On the other side? Do you mean behind? It seems to me the raw spill on the first (main) photo of this post is just the small triangle of light on far right. The strip of ground between his shoes and the stones is brighter because the sand is brighther than the grass and this indeed makes for a nice background, but it seems to me it's illuminated through the brolly. Hope I didn't confuse something here.

Regardless of that, controlling and creatively using spill from a shoot-through is next on my to-learn list. SB's rotated flash head should help quite a bit.

August 10, 2010 11:08 AM  
Blogger Sigmoid said...

Another in your series of outstanding posts, not just for the technical information but also for the artistic beauty of the final compositions.

I see the PWs on your hot shoe and dangling from the key strobe. How are you triggering the ring-fill?


August 10, 2010 11:44 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

Hhhm lemme see... cello. Lake. Why am I thinking of Airwolf?

Great lighting. Thanks for posting the video.

August 10, 2010 12:23 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

@Sigmoid :

I wanted to ask the same question.
It seems David used some slaved strobe since it beeps after every single shot.

It goes like this :
Pocket Wizard fires the key strobe in the umbrella, which fires the ring fill via an optical slave.
My bets are on SB-800 in SU4 mode.

August 10, 2010 3:49 PM  
Blogger Ynad said...

Thank you David for yet another great post. Please allow me to save you some time.
@ other readers with some usual questions.
The EXIF info is available with the picture. Download the photo and see
properties of the file.
According to previous posts David is using PW triggers to trigger one or more flashes and build in optical slave to trigger the others.
Nikon SB speedlights have optical slaves build in.
Recycle time varies with power of the flash. Full power - 4sec. 1/4 power - 1sec.
Enjoy your vacation David.

August 10, 2010 4:50 PM  
Blogger estielow said...

What was causing the beeping noise? It seemed to indicate that the flash heads were recharged and ready to fire .. but I have never heard that before!

August 10, 2010 5:16 PM  
Blogger chrisgraphics said...

I think I prefer the strong contrasty one. It just oozes more drama.

August 10, 2010 6:17 PM  
Blogger AdvRdr said...

As Larry DeSantis, legendary UPI photo editor, would say "that's a Pisser" David. Well done.

August 10, 2010 6:18 PM  
Blogger Silver Image said...

The B&W treatment is fantastic! Thanks for the post.

August 11, 2010 1:40 PM  
Blogger Robbedblind said...

Great shots, David.
Your photographs are really inspiring...

Reminds me of other photographers that i like.

Chris Buck’s photos are pretty inspiring too, not too technical.. alot of natural lighting. but amazing, creative portraits…

I would also check out Bill Diodato’s blog as well: http://www.billdiodato.com/blog (great commercial photographer who recently did a great fine art body of work which i went to the book release for, Care of Ward 81)

August 11, 2010 3:56 PM  
Blogger cm said...

Some great insight, thank you for letting us observe and understand how great lighting is made.

August 19, 2010 7:25 AM  
Blogger B Max said...

I've been reading your blog for a little while now. I have learned a ridiculous amount in a short period. This was the perfect post for today because I literally ripped open a box from UPS containing my Orbis about an hour ago. I can't wait to start using it. This is a perfect example of one of its many uses.

Thanks for keeping up this site. It's helping more people than you can possibly know.

September 25, 2010 6:02 PM  
Blogger Roberto Montalbano said...

Hi David,
Roberto from Italy, thanks for sharing this :)
There is one thing I don't understand: for the first shots you used the cable for the key light, ok.. but how are you triggering the fill light? Maybe I'm wrong and you are only using the key light on the top, but It seems the fill light is firing too.
How did you trigger it? Nikon CLS using the key light as commander? Thank you very much!

October 12, 2011 9:46 AM  
Blogger Veli Ojala said...


what kind of lens you were using? There are virtually zero distortion, and you are shooting from groundlevel!

October 05, 2012 1:53 AM  
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