On Assignment: Armed with Preconceptions

Planning ahead is a good thing, and I always try to pre-think a job before I head out. It gives me ideas to fall back on if nothing jumps out at me at the location.

But you can pre-plan things too far. So much that they blind you to better ideas and leave you banging your head against the front windshield even as you drive away from the assignment.

That's exactly what happened to me last week when I was assigned to shoot one of the coolest pieces of tech I have ever seen.

You are looking at a real, prosthetic limb in the photo above. But not just any prosthetic limb, as this limb has quite a bit of special sauce.

For one thing, much like your own mostly-dark-meat arm it can move in 22 different ways -- brushless motors everywhere. It has a ton of processing power inside the hand. Not a lot of space there, but you want the thing to be modular with the smarts at the end. That means you can attach it to partial limbs.

Much like Popeye, this thing has its power in the forearm. That is where the user-replaceable, rechargeable battery is. And it has power to burn. It can curl 50 lbs. That's more than my arm will do.

Oh, and did I mention it is designed to be controlled by the human brain? Just like in Firefox, where Clint Eastwood has to think in Russian to fly the advanced fighter jet he just stole. It gets impulses from the brain and provides neural feedback so your brain kinda knows what is going on with it.

My first thought when I saw it: Where is the rest of the cyborg it was attached to, and where do you have to shoot it to kill it. (People always aim for the head in the movies, but this thing has its brain in the hand. So it pays to ask.)

The folks at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab hate it when people write stuff like that, because they really are not trying to hatch a T-virus. (Of course, that's also what SkyNet said.) They just want to give high-level function back to people who have lost a limb.

And they are doing it, too. Live, clinical trials within a year with these things, thanks to a $34 million dollar DARPA grant. Sorry, Steve Austin. $6MM doesn't really cut it anymore.

So you can probably already tell how stoked I was when I got the assignment to shoot this thing for a local biz pub. And the fanboy stuff only got worse when I got to the lab.

Fortunately, I knew exactly what I wanted to do -- all planned in advance. I had a cool idea for a portrait of Mike McLoughlin, the head of the Modular Prosthetic Limb project. And I also wanted to get a sexy product shot of the arm itself.

For a variety of reasons, the portrait I visualized wasn't coming together. So I did the photo above which was perfectly serviceable for the assignment, but not what I had hoped. Then I circled the wagons and worked the product shot to salvage at least one of my preconceptions.

The lighting was pretty simple -- on axis light with an Orbis and four SB-800s spread around the floor to create highlights along the edges. On the clock face, the wrap lights were about at 2:00, 5:00, 8:00 and 11:00. Power levels were all about the same by the time the lights hit the arm. (I cranked up the Orbis a little to compensate for the light loss.)

Except for the Orbis, everything was hard light. This gave me a lot of shape and highlights. The Orbis mostly erased the shadows and makes the whole thing look strangely soft.

In the setup shot above, you can see the distances involved. You cannot see all of the flashes, but the highlights on the floor will point you to them. Dave Kile (who was helping me) piggy-backed my flashes with a channel-1 PW as I pulled the ring away between shots. (I was shooting through the ring for the actual shot.)

Background was a cheap poster board, in a complementary color. I'll usually bring three or four different colors if I am gonna do a small product shot. Way easier/cheaper than background paper.

While I was on location, I was thinking that the portrait I wanted which did not happen. But at least I got the product shot I visualized. It wasn't until I got back to the car and was reviewing photos until the photo I missed hit me.

The portrait I wanted would have been cool. But the iconic picture was right behind my subject the whole time.

I should have shot a still life at the workbench.

You know, just like any other DIY hacker's work area -- soldering iron, pliers, a smattering of little parts and a couple cyborg limbs that mark an amazing leap in bio-mechanical science just sitting around. Static, but a great narrative.

I am such an idiot for missing it.

Of course, I even fawned over the workbench while I was there. But I was so blinded by the pictures already in my head (especially 'cause one of them was giving me fits) that I did not see it.

Pre-planning is not a terrible thing, and I am not ready to give it up. But you can bet I will be on guard for awhile against stupidly missing found pictures because too much thought is being given over to the preconceptions.

Next: Summer Reading


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Blogger Nik said...

After looking at your images I imagine a shot of one of the arms holding the soldering iron while repairing another of the arms.

September 05, 2010 9:03 PM  
Blogger WDW said...

Thanks for a very informative and confidence-boosting essay. I'm a beginner, and regularly kick myself for not noticing things during the shoot. It's good to know I'm not alone and to have this story as a reminder to be more present during a shoot.

It is very helpful to me to see professionals' mistakes and omissions as well as their successes. I learn at least as much that way.

(And speaking of mistakes, I think you meant "on-axis" fill, not "on access." I have more experience with editing than with photography.)

September 05, 2010 9:07 PM  
Blogger Peter MacDonald said...

Great post as always David, love that you post no only about your successes and great ideas but ones that got away and didn't occur until later too. Thanks.

September 05, 2010 9:36 PM  
Blogger Schorschi said...

So, if it hit you while you were on the way to your car, why didn't you go back and said, you just had a vision of a better shot?

September 05, 2010 9:46 PM  
Blogger Adi said...


Being blinded by one's own GRAND VISION! Has happened to me on a few occasions. Every time it happens I tell myself I need to carry a check list / note to self, to avoid this and other mistakes.

Most of the time, I shoot for some local papers in the Bronx. As you know, time is always short and its easy to get tunnel vision.

I find time spent after the shoot with one's photographs can be a bit
Torturous but worth its weight in gold as a learning tool.

Thank you for sharing

September 05, 2010 10:00 PM  
Blogger David said...


Thanks for the typo police! :)

September 05, 2010 10:01 PM  
Blogger Stormin said...

so now we know that Adam Savage (Mythbusters) has a twin brother!

September 05, 2010 11:39 PM  
Blogger Zntgrg said...

Going from the VAL (Voice Activated Lightstand) to the AIL (Artificial intelligence Lightstand)? ;)

September 06, 2010 3:20 AM  
Blogger N. said...

Thanks David for sharing your train of thought - very insightful indeed. It happens so often, right? But it does happen and all we can do is make the best of it and learn - as you have shown here.
Thank you for that again,
All the best,

September 06, 2010 4:48 AM  
Blogger Davidikus said...

One of the most interesting posts so far. We learn more from our mistakes and mishaps than our successes, I guess. (I write small notes about what went right and what can be improved after every assignment or shoot).

In that case, it's probably less about over-preparing, than about thinking too much in technical terms, and not enough in visual terms, perhaps?

One of the best tricks on an assignment (even a self-assigned one) is to look around. Literally, just do that: look around, look at the things (objects, furniture, lights...) surrounding you, as if you had never seen them before. On every assignment or shoot, I try to do that at least once, if not twice (because things are sometimes more interesting once they have been moved around etc.). I end up with some pictures which are a bit 'oblique' as the editors would say, but they usually provide the fodder for the most interesting pic of the shot. (I think of these fodder pictures as the sketches that painters used to do before doing the painting).


September 06, 2010 5:02 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

Hi David,

See the background on the product shot? Is the fall off at the edges a result of the on-axis fill, a vignette added in post, or a combination of the two? Looks really good!

Ian :)

September 06, 2010 5:57 AM  
Blogger Ciaran De Bhal said...

Another Great Post David. Interesting and inspirational as always. Just one question, where did you get those shorts, very cool and flattering on your legs...

September 06, 2010 7:43 AM  
Blogger David said...


Normally, that is what I would do. But there was a lot of security protocol involved with this place -- sign-in, equipment check, handlers, etc. Wasn't gonna happen...


The Orbis is pretty even in its coverage -- one of the reasons I like it so much. I did a slight, 250-pixel gradient in Photoshop to seal the edges.


The shorts are from R.E.I. -- I pretty much live in them. :)

September 06, 2010 8:47 AM  
Blogger Mario I. Crespo said...

This is amazing. Great subject,story,and product shot.Definitely was an interesting subject.

September 06, 2010 11:23 AM  
Blogger James said...

First off, super cool tech for sure, everyone has known this kind of thing has been coming for a long time

Secondly, nobody wants to build a super military robot with this thing, thats why it was funded by DARPA, a group that (from their own web site) "Commissions advanced research for DoD"

September 06, 2010 12:11 PM  
Blogger ProfRick said...

David, when you get a chance, what is it that you are holding in back of your camera (other than the PW)?

September 06, 2010 2:58 PM  
Blogger Bret Harris said...

When you talked about the background I though you were talking about making some sort of juxtaposition between the arm and the similar-looking arm holding the work light. Might be some photographic meat there.

September 06, 2010 3:08 PM  
Blogger robert said...


The "Doh" moment is the bane of my existence. And, like you say, it typically occurs in the car 10 minutes post-assignment, or in the editing process.

Thanks for posting this and for reminding us all to avoid over-think.

September 06, 2010 3:15 PM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

Well done David, thinking I'm the photographer shooting the paid/ money/in the can shot and then.... did photo shoot of food...and to my stupidity a cook was throwing food up in the air in a pan.....jezz....I was taking a static shot of pork chops!

September 06, 2010 5:41 PM  
Blogger TheArtfulBurner said...

Very cool that you chose to write about a cock up. The product shot is great.

I would have gone for a "Beast with five fingers" type thing.

September 06, 2010 8:28 PM  
Blogger John said...

Wonderfully educational, as always. Reminds me of your repeated advice to look for detail shots (e.g., On Assignment: Always Look for a Detail, 18 Jan 2007, and others).

PS: The anal proofreader inside me always notices someone who knows the difference between 'complimentary' and 'complementary'... :-)

September 06, 2010 9:32 PM  
Blogger rharrison said...

I think these have got to be the best learning moments. I've thought of my best shots the moment a model leaves the studio or I pull out of the parking lot from a location. I'll guarantee one thing, I don't miss that shot on my next shoot.

I feel for you man. I'd loose my mind if someone asked me to shoot that arm.

September 06, 2010 10:38 PM  
Blogger samsp99 said...

I think this is the same robotic arm that was featured in the cover article for the Jan 2010 National Geographic. They have a very similar image of the arm, that Mark Thiessen photographed and I think he nailed it.

September 07, 2010 3:21 AM  
Blogger Nikica said...

Unrelated to this post, but hilarious-Russian wedding photographers!Hahaha!


September 07, 2010 5:45 AM  
Blogger Andreas Knüpfer said...

Oh, Nice!

The new Manfro**o Magic Arm Mark II!

Great Light!

MfG Andreas

September 07, 2010 6:44 AM  
Blogger David said...

Aweome! Duly tweeted.

September 07, 2010 9:33 AM  
Blogger Flavio Martins said...

Great post David. I have found myself in this situation many times, and it's good to see that it happens to experienced pros also. It's a good reminder to keep an open mind.

A similar situation I often run into is being so focused on where and how to set up my strobes that I miss the beautiful natural light shot right in front of my face.

Thanks for the reminder.

September 07, 2010 11:22 AM  
Blogger wofungla said...

Off topic, but this post reminded me of a TED talk:


Ted.com is one of the few websites worth spending time on. Strobist is on my short list. Spend a little time on Ted.com today. You'll be glad you did.

Thanks a million Mr Hobby, I'm learning a lot from you and the commentors.

September 07, 2010 3:39 PM  
Blogger Edo Tsoar said...

Great post!
The thinking proses, problem solving and coming up with a creative idea in very little time while in the field is just as important as the great and tech stuff. I love this post as it reminds me of the early posts from when you worked at the news paper.


September 07, 2010 4:26 PM  
OpenID duartemedia said...

Hi David!
This is my first comment in your blog despite the fact that I've been following it for over two years.
Your work is an inspiration for me and of course I had to follow your steps and start a blog of my own http://visualstorytellers.wordpress.com/
I know I probably won't ever have the kind of readership but I'm still loving blogging about photojournalism and visual storytelling.
All the best,

September 07, 2010 5:54 PM  
Blogger Doc Brown said...

I'm pretty sure that JHU wants to help people restore limb usage, but I'm not so sure that DARPA money's entirely 'free'. I think DARPA just might have more than one type of use for thought-controlled bionics in mind...

ON TOPIC, thanks for encouraging a review of images on-site or even in the parking lot. Lot easier to *maybe* get a do-over if you're there and can smack your own forehead than if you wait to review images at end of day over a cold one.

September 08, 2010 2:26 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Hi David,
The soft light effect from this setup is so cool...What subject elements do you consider when you choose to light a product shot this way?

September 08, 2010 4:24 PM  
Blogger Ranger 9 said...

Just out of curiosity, what did their faces look like at the moment you said, "Okay, let's just lay your $34 million gizmo down on the floor here..."?

September 12, 2010 12:08 AM  
Blogger Caleb Kerr said...

How did you avoid having the wedge-shaped highlights on the background paper due to the flashes lying directly on it? I've tried a similar look but always end up with a way-too-bright background. In yours you've got a very nice vignette. Post production?

June 06, 2011 4:29 PM  

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