On Assignment: HoCoPoLitSo

Sometimes you happen upon beautiful window light for a portrait, and there is no sense even unpacking a speedlight -- just frame, and snap away.

Alas, this portrait of Ellen Kennedy was not one of those times.

I photographed Ellen, founder of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, in her home office for the Columbia Archives last week. The window light was beautiful, but not in a way that would translate well in my camera.

So I decided to recreate that light with a lower, camera-friendly contrast range using a pair of SB-800s.


Columbia, Maryland is a community that was pretty much invented by a visionary named James Rouse in the 1960s. It was designed as a garden to grow people, and by most measures it has been very successful. I moved here in 1988 and quickly grew to love it.

Rouse designed the city around principles such as racial integration (in the 1960s, very forward thinking) economic integration of housing and even things as simple as clustered mailboxes to increase the likelihood you would meet your neighbors.

It was a different type of community and it attracted interesting people. People who, as the Apple ad used to say, would think different. Very early in its life Columbia nurtured an archives program, a charitable foundation, an orchestra and, thanks to Ellen and her ilk, a poetry and literature society. The latter has gained national and international recognition since its founding in 1974.

Though I am neither a poetry nor a literature person (my wife, of course, is) I can completely identify with taking a leap off of a cliff into the unknown just to see what what happens. I would like to think I have a lot in common with people like Ellen. Just a different time, subject and medium.

I have photographed her several times, and always enjoy spending time with her. She retired recently, and the contents of her home office are being put into preservation in the Columbia Archives. My job was to photograph it as it was -- a marvelous room full of literary history.

Since 1974, many a great writer has passed through Columbia at the request of HoCoPoLitSo. There would be readings, large-venue performances and of course, lots of after-parties. (This did start in the '70s, after all.) For several decades HoCoPoLitSo has also produced the local access TV show "The Writing Life," which I like think of as Wayne's World meets Masterpiece Theatre. For bookworms, it doesn't get much better.

Invisible Light

I wanted to make a quiet photo of Ellen in her office, and I did not want the light to call attention to itself. It made sense to mimic the window light with flash so my camera could see it the way my eye saw the ambient.

The sliding door at left looks out over a beautiful lake, and there are trees around the patio. So you would expect that the shaded trees would be dark enough to hold detail even if the light source was the indirect sun beyond.

I placed an SB-800 in a shoot-through umbrella outside the door, synced with a Pocket Wizard. At one-half power, I could pull everything together at 1/250th at f/4 at ISO 400. The room had a very warm feel, but looked too sterile under white light. A 1/4 CTO gel on that key light warmed it up just a tad, for a better connotation.

Since the light is only about three feet on the other side of the door, it falls off very quickly as you move over to the camera right area of the frame. So I filled from on-axis using a second PW'd SB-800 in an Orbis ring flash adapter. It is dialed way down (1/16th power) as I do not want this to appear to be a second light source at all.

You really can only see that it was there if you take it away. The only telltale is the subtle highlight coming back at me from the wood on the camera-right chair. It allows the natural falloff across the frame, but puts a floor under it to keep it from going to dark at camera right.

This light is appealing to me because it doesn't appear to be artificial. I see this photo as being for 100 years from now, for someone studying the cultural renaissance that was early Columbia. The last thing I want to do is to hammer them over the head with the lighting.

The lines and framing in the photo are maybe a little anal-retentive. But the subtle light helps to balance that out. I love that the room is exactly as-is and speaks to countless hours of reading -- total immersion in literature. I also like the scrunched-up pants leg. It's just … comfortable. Makes me wonder how many winter days have been spent in here with a good book, a blanket and maybe a warm beverage.

Close to Home

Nothing makes me happier as a photographer than producing photos that have a place in my immediate community. It was the key ingredient in my formative years, and I had the time of my life doing that right out of college in what may have been the best photo paper in the country at the time.

I have been working hard not only to find and create as many of these type of photos as possible, but to develop a business model around it. In many ways I am still feeling around in the dark, but some things are starting to work, too.

It is something I hope to talk about about more in the future, with an eye towards inspiring others to consider a similar approach.

Next: Frickin' Lasers


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Blogger diegonyc said...

this is nice dave. u almost had me fooled. i thought it was all natural.

November 01, 2010 3:00 AM  
Blogger LouJanelle said...

Very nice environmental portrait. I like the use you made of the speedlights and gels.

November 01, 2010 3:54 AM  
Blogger Grzegorz Biermanski said...

In my opinion, your key light is a little bit too high - mainly hitting books on the shelf, to which it's drawing attention (instead of Ellen). I would also setup slower shutter speed to increase amount of ambient light. Framing is also a bit off.

Please, don't get me wrong, the picture is nice, but it could be improved.

November 01, 2010 4:28 AM  
Blogger Raul Kling said...

Great work! Love the natural looking light that doesn't call attention to itself. Thank you for the details.

November 01, 2010 4:31 AM  
Blogger Evan Wilson said...


Great subtle lighting for a photograph that seems subtle now, but will carry much more weight in a century.

I remember you talking about this concept when you were in Edinburgh in the spring, and it's great to see you finally producing these kinds of shots!

Can't wait to see more, and as always, thanks for the insight!


November 01, 2010 4:37 AM  
Blogger Steve Kalman said...

Tangentially related: When studying at Ohio State (circa 1970) I took a class called Business Innovation and we used Rouse and Columbia County as case study. As a veteran of the 60s, the forward thinking ideas resonated well with me.

While I travel to DC quite often, I've never had the chance to live there, otherwise we'd be neighbors of sorts.

November 01, 2010 5:23 AM  
Blogger Davidikus said...

imvho this is one of the most interesting pictures so far, precisely because the artificial light is nearly invisible. I don't really understand when people seem to think that the whole of the frame should be either filled with light (shadows, obscurity are what makes pictures interesting, I think) or look like it does to the human eye (it's taken with a camera, we might as well get on with it). I really think that, on the other hand, flash can be helpful to obtain a picture that looks exactly as the photographer wants it!


PS. I don't understand why you are criticising the lines? This is probably one of your best composed pictures ever. It is simple, it works, it is not showing off. Great.

November 01, 2010 6:21 AM  
Blogger Dominik said...

I read you about 1000 times writing about the on axis fill with the orbis but never asked myself the question on how do you connect it? PW, or directly via cable to the hot shoe? In the latter case, how do you trigger the PW to go with the second flash (outside the window in the example above)?


November 01, 2010 6:58 AM  
Blogger budrowilson said...

The lighting and composition is very effective in capturing and conveying the literary context of her past and present.

November 01, 2010 7:01 AM  
Blogger Jan Luursema said...

The light looks a bit weird though, like a giant hotspot just illuminating 3 shelves and the rest of the surroundings pretty dark. The reflection on the top half of the door (window) post adds to that.

November 01, 2010 7:09 AM  
OpenID Ludwig said...

An interesting post, as usual. Although I was rather expecting to see this year's halloween strobist shot of your kids ;-)

November 01, 2010 7:55 AM  
Blogger PhotoInspirations said...

Did you take, and would you mind posting, a photo of the scene without the artificial lighting so we could see how the natural lighting would have been different?

November 01, 2010 8:08 AM  
Blogger Jakob said...

Good post. I wonder if the reflection in the door could be avoided - ususlly reflections comes from inside light, but it might not be the case here.

November 01, 2010 8:39 AM  
Blogger ar said...

external sliding doors
The screen looks terrific in that spot and really adds a good vertical to the room. What a transformation - so nicely done. Will look forward to seeing more. (Are bloggers ever satisfied?) Jane F

November 01, 2010 8:56 AM  
Blogger Toomas said...

Nice shot, may be some more light to the wall behind, natural indirect light is softer and spreads more uniformly. And direct sunlight from the other hand gives more shadows. In this case the situation looks little bit artificial. Look at the stripe in the window frame. May be PP the light stripe away and it gets better.

November 01, 2010 9:03 AM  
Blogger Bernhard A S said...

very nice picture that captures the mood you describe perfectly

November 01, 2010 9:28 AM  
Blogger caroline said...

I was going to comment on the scrunched up pant leg, which I always find really uncomfortable. In this image I feel it distracts from the subject and overall composition because my eye is immediately fixed on it. Curious to see what others think!

November 01, 2010 9:31 AM  
Blogger Gage said...

As always, David, a wonderful and inspiring post. I have always loved to use natural light in my photography ( or at least imitate it to the best of my ability).

November 01, 2010 10:14 AM  
Blogger andrew said...

Thanks for the awesome post David... I enjoyed the photo and really enjoyed the history behind it!! I think its a very important thing to have to really understand the importance of what is being photographed!! Also just want you to know that I am learning so much from your site and from your work ethic!!! I work fulltime as a portrait photographer but aspire to be a photo journalist... I am really inspired by the way you can really tell a story. Thanks Again David!!!! Andrew L. Hunter alhpro@live.com

November 01, 2010 10:33 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

Yes this is a lovely natural portrait, if you'd asked me I would have said natural light only. This is much more fitting lighting for a little old lady in her room than a SI flash bang wallop.
Could you advise on a warmer gel than CTO for an autumn look, one that doesn't go so orange but still carries the warmth of low autumn sun.
Thanks for a great post.

November 01, 2010 10:43 AM  
Blogger David said...


"So I filled from on-axis using a second PW'd SB-800 in an Orbis ring flash adapter."

On PW on the camera hot shoe triggers both PW'd flashes.


Similarly, I might think you soup has the incorrect amount of salt in it.


Ben was a Stink Bug.


Outdoor ambient would be exactly the same, indoor would be black except for a tiny bit of ambient on Ellen's face. Completely overpowered by flash indoors.


Sure, just add a polarizer if you wanted to get rid of it. But I preferred it with.


Um, okay.

November 01, 2010 10:53 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...


Thanks for the breakdown. Where was your fill pointed, how high?

Thanks for the culture too, I do love a good book!


November 01, 2010 1:11 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Gee, I must be getting better. I knew there was a light source outside immediately...too strong for my taste. Don't care for the highlight on the door frame inside. Nice composition and 'story telling' of the woman

November 01, 2010 3:01 PM  
Blogger stan chung said...

Hi David, I like the picture, however I wonder if it's possible to make her head stand out more from the bookcase?
I see very little room to create separation.

November 01, 2010 5:46 PM  
OpenID project3three6sixty5five said...

Very nice photo. It is classic, just like you implied. It would stand up over the next 100 years. These types of photos are not something everyone goes for, but are IMO, really, really great.

I've only been taking photography seriously the last year and a bit, and I've been thinking about photographing the artists in my community over the course of the next year (a 52 week portrait type thing), and I think the mood and tone of the photo you have here, is something I'd like to aspire to. I don't think the light is too strong, like others are saying. I knew it was light, because there always some present, :), but it's subtle.

Thank you for teaching, inspiring and sharing with the photographic community the way you have.

I'm not sure if you've mentioned this in previous posts, but is there someone who acted like a mentor for you during your early years working for papers or magazines? If so, in what way did they help you the most?

November 01, 2010 6:21 PM  
Blogger ISO1200 said...

Another fantastic post Mr. Hobby. We have included in our online magazine www.iso1200.com.

November 01, 2010 7:05 PM  
Blogger david said...

David et al, thanks so much for the pics and the comments. I learn so much from you all. I look forward to each posting and love the dissection that follows. Thanks again.

November 01, 2010 7:45 PM  
Blogger Rey Bugia said...

Hi David, was it the flash that caused the reflections of the bookshelf on the window? That happens to me a lot when I try to do this and that gave it away for me. :)

November 01, 2010 8:04 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

The society name reminds me of the Judoon - 1:40-ish in to this clip - http://bit.ly/aSsCI3

November 02, 2010 2:57 PM  
Blogger Maks said...

Still want to add:
1. a dash of fill from cam right
2. 1/2 CTO on main?
and finally 3. this set up looks good in B&W

Thanks for sharing,


November 02, 2010 4:03 PM  
Blogger Lucid One said...


Um, okay.

LOL nicely done David. Thick like leather.

November 02, 2010 8:05 PM  
Blogger Dashney said...

Interesting how you seem to get more comments/criticism (especially the latter) about your flash use when it's the most subtle. Good thing everybody could see exact details of what it looked like to your naked eye, giving them the ability to correctly critique what the real reflections on the frame etc really looked like at the time. It's a gift to be able to see outside the frame of a photo (including sun position etc). Wish I was omnipotent like that.

November 03, 2010 7:13 AM  
Blogger Connor Walberg said...

Very cool post David. I really like how you go into details with a back-story about the community.

November 03, 2010 4:13 PM  
Blogger Sharna said...

Thank you for all the blogs you've posted on lighting. It's amazing how many people never even look at your site though they have the link. I admit I only started reading your blog a few weeks ago but I'm so glad I finally did. Your stuff has taught me so much already and I'm very grateful for you and all the people on the flickr strobist site too. Amazing bunch of people. Thank you all so very much.

Sharna from California

November 03, 2010 6:46 PM  
Blogger Joe S said...

I love this lighting. First thought was :gasp:...available light?

Silly rabbit.

"My job was to photograph it as it was -- a marvelous room full of literary history." Some people should read the post before nit-picking. The lighting not only highlights Ellen, but the room as well.

LOL @ Ben as the stink bug, that's classic!

Thanks for another great post, David.

November 03, 2010 8:11 PM  
Blogger Levi Thomas said...

David, tell me you watch Doctor Who and your title on this post was a nod to the Judoon!

As for the pix--nice balancing act. Sometimes all the drama, pop and gloss that serve so well for other assignments, just isn't the look called for. Sometimes simple is best--even though the process of making the image simple is not *quite* as simple as it looks.

And I love the quirkiness of the pant leg, of course. Perfection sucks.

November 04, 2010 1:09 AM  
Blogger Pat Morrissey said...

I love this shot. The light reminds of our old home which had a similar window and in the early summer morning the sun would just creep into the room by degrees. Convincing and natural.

November 04, 2010 3:21 PM  
Blogger Steinhard said...

I like the reflection of the bookshelf.

November 06, 2010 3:01 AM  
OpenID skuli said...

Great shot, David! Curious what lens you were using.

November 07, 2010 3:56 PM  
Blogger MeruWarrior said...

Superb result. You sure had me fooled about natural light :)

November 09, 2010 7:48 AM  
Blogger James said...


My first time posting. The critics on this particular image make me laugh. I think most people are missing that natural light is ... well unpredictable. I can certainly see this as a mid morning or late afternoon shot with the sun just peeking over a fence or through the trees outside and hitting the book shelf and starting to spill on her. Any more centered on her and it would have looked manufactured and/or you would have expected her to move to the other chair due to sun shining in her eyes.

Also, the reflection of the books/shelves in the glass is perfect and helps highlight the other subject of the image.

Great photo in my opinion.

November 09, 2010 4:15 PM  
OpenID borutpeterlin said...

Nice concept, but you shouldn't use an umbrella. You should use it on max zoom and put it like 5 meters away. Now light is focused, it's obvious to me that it's a flash. Check my results on the same concept:


November 11, 2010 6:37 AM  

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