On Assignment: Standing Behind Their Work

Ever see a thriller movie where someone (usually Matt Damon) is talking to the bad CIA guys while they sit in their office even as Damon has them zeroed in from across the street?

That'll soon be implausible if Dianna and Wayne Wilhelm any say about it. They are building (and retrofitting) government buildings with normal-looking, 1/2" glass that will stop a metal jacketed 9mm round at point blank range. And within two months, glass of that same thickness will be stopping rounds from high-powered rifles. Really cool stuff.

I was assigned to shoot the Wilhelms for a BizMo cover, and thought I would take advantage of the fact that this new laminated ballistic glass is also optically decent. So I shot them through a piece of glass that already had stopped five 9mm rounds in an earlier demonstration.

Most bullet-resistant (never say bullet proof) glass is thick and wavy. Think of the encased cashier at a high-security bank branch. But this stuff was thin enough (and clear enough) to where you could actually shoot through it with a camera and keep the subject reasonably sharp.

Normally, I prefer SB-800s when shooting indoors and save the Profotos for when I am battling and overpowering sun. But to hold the impact marks in the glass in decent focus, I new I would need a very small aperture. So I brought my big lights to what would normally been a cut-and-dried speedlight portrait.

f/16 and Be There

The process was to set up my lights on a modest power setting, so I could get really fast recycle times. Then I would adjust the ratios and tweak my ISO until I was able to shoot at f/16. On a D3, anything at ISO 800 or below looks pretty much the same to me. So as long as I have DoF, I valued recycle time over marginal grain.

This photo was shot with a Nikkor 35 f/2 AIS, a screaming sharp manual focus wide-angle lens. And even after the optical trip through the half-inch glass, the sharpness was acceptable if not perfect.

I used three light sources. The first was a Profoto head in a large Paul Buff octa, positioned to do two things. First, I wanted it to edge-light the glass shatter marks from a hard angle. You need that lighting angle to get the crack lines to pop. Second, I wanted it to provide a small amount of (near) on-axis fill for Dianna and Wayne.

You can see it just above the glass, in the photo above. This position gets me twice the bang for the buck. I was more concerned with the exposure level of the glass marks than the subject fill level. But by tweaking the position and angle I could get both effects pretty close.

The key light was a boomed Profoto head in a beauty dish, slightly in front of and above the subjects. The dish is silver on the inside (efficient, but specular) so I socked it to turn it into a smallish, diffused light source.

The separation light was a hard-angle kiss on the back wall from a slaved, gridded SB-800 seen at right. The wall was not black before the separation light hit it -- it was getting some illumination from the dish and the octa. So the speedlight just created a small gradient to separate the subjects better.

It was a pretty straightforward shot, as far as the lighting goes. Honestly, the hard part was positioning the camera at the exact spot where the subjects' faces would each appear inside of an intact pieces of glass.

It was harder than it looked. It is a three-dimensional solution, made more complicated by the fact that the subjects are always moving to some degree. I was bobbing and weaving like a boxer behind that glass to constantly compensate for the three variables.

And in the end, I thought it was a little ironic that I was able to do what the bad guys aren't -- shoot both Dianna and Wayne right through a pane of their very special glass.

Next: HoCoPoLitSo


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Blogger Rob Acocella said...

Nice work! I've been wanting to do something similar, but with a video. I wanted to have that "glass breaking" effect in front of the lens as someone hits a piercing high note during a guitar solo.

The clarity of that glass really is something... The pull back shot was helpful, too.

October 19, 2010 12:18 PM  
Blogger KlineTimes said...

I LOVE both the concept and execution of this photo!

October 19, 2010 12:28 PM  
Blogger s.e. miller said...

Quite nice David :) Cheers!

October 19, 2010 12:40 PM  
Blogger Ric said...

Hi David,
Great picture and post. Why does the glass look blue?

October 19, 2010 1:29 PM  
Blogger Ric said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 19, 2010 1:31 PM  
Blogger WingedPower said...

Nice shot!

October 19, 2010 1:34 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

Thanks for the explanation.

Joey L. happened to shoot with a somewhat similar setup for a metal band called Disturbed :

Your blog has the undeniable advantage of not costing 300$. :D

October 19, 2010 1:49 PM  
Blogger Tim Skipper Photography said...

Very cool idea to use the glass in front of the subjects.

October 19, 2010 1:58 PM  
Blogger Paul Bennett said...

Have to say this made me think of Joey's shot of Disturbed.

Is there a particular reason why you'd do it this way and not composite it as the glass and subject look a lot sharper in the aforementioned shot?

October 19, 2010 3:52 PM  
Blogger akoloskov said...

Very cool idea and implementation.

Why did you use glass with 3 bulletins in it? Was it only one available for you or you want it that way?

If it would be only 1 bullet in the middle of the glass, you could have people faces closer...

Thank you for sharing:-)

Alex Kolsokov

October 19, 2010 4:08 PM  
Blogger Mystery Jig said...

Great setup and idea, but (putting on my photo editor's hat) you could have made a better picture of the humans. They don't look like they're stopping bullets. I think they'd benefit by looking a bit more stern. Arms crossed? Turned slightly together and looking back at the camera?

October 19, 2010 5:19 PM  
Blogger George said...

Just a one comment from the peanut gallery..heh

It would be cool to see some government buildings in the background. For me it would bring it all together.

I know....easy for me to say! Maybe just a little work with photoshop?

Great implantation nice shot.

October 19, 2010 6:39 PM  
Blogger Dashney said...

I agree with the posters who ignored the BTS point of the post. I think you should've had spiderman shoot a web on optically clear glass, then shoot spiderman with a camera (and a Glock), then composite all of it to look like it happened on top of the Eiffel tower underwater.

October 19, 2010 11:48 PM  
Blogger Oscarson Photography said...

Ha! That last line got me. Ain't you clever? It's shots like this that humble me. It's easily recognizable and at one look makes you think, 'I could shoot that!', then you run us through it and I realize I wouldn't have had a clue where to start. Thanks for always sharing.

October 19, 2010 11:52 PM  
Blogger Shep said...

I think that this is a great feature shot which quite elegantly tells the story, in the david hobby style. it doesn't look like the image of disturbed, because of the distances involved. the way the light picks up the shatter in the glass is half the story. As for looking stern, I think that they would look concerned; that wouldn't speak confidence of the power of the glass. It does strike me that Wayne looks quite a lot like Mayor Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) from the wire....

October 20, 2010 6:04 AM  
Blogger Don said...

I believe this is my favorite "on assignment" shot of yours in a long time. The concept and execution is simply superb; I love the final result, and I'm sure the client did to. *Nice* work!

October 20, 2010 9:01 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Thinking aloud and if it had been me...I would have wanted to see what the glass looked like lit from the other side? Could I have got the crazing to silhouette? Then I'd tighten up the pose, bringing their heads in closer together and rake the light across them from behind on both sides (ie from the corners of the room) and doing double duty lighting the reverse side of the glass. The beauty dish can stay to provide some fill.

October 20, 2010 9:37 AM  
Blogger joaopsr said...

haha... you make it sound so easy... great shot!

October 20, 2010 10:21 AM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

Nice composition. Out of curiosity, was the glass already shattered or did you have some say in how it was cracked/shattered?

October 20, 2010 10:54 AM  
Blogger LakerFan said...

Very nice! It would have been cool to get a shot of the bullet actually hitting the glass showing how much they believe in their products.

October 20, 2010 2:20 PM  
Blogger Connor Walberg said...

Hi David,

Great picture and I really like the idea of shooting them through the glass. It makes a lot of sense and helps explain what they are doing. Gives it a definite crime-scene feeling, looks like CSI!

October 20, 2010 6:34 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

Nice shot - I inferred that you had pre-visualized this setup before you got there with the f/16 and big lights comments. Well executed.

[/ranton] Why must people focus on something as subjective and arbitrary as composition and whether or not the glass was broken by elves in darkness with ice picks in a LIGHTING blog? Just a little rhetorical wonderin'. [/rantoff]

October 20, 2010 9:44 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

Loved looking through the glass. Curious though if lighting the glass directly from the side(or all sides) would make for more pop. Maybe if somehow adding a snoot to the edges to send all the light of a speedlight directly into the side and travel more directly through it.
Either way I loved it.

PS. have you ever thought doing about a Strobist iPhone/smartphone app?

October 21, 2010 3:34 AM  
Blogger alistairkerrphotography said...

Wonder if the window would stop a Raufoss Mk 211 .50 calibar BMG round.... oh sorry did I write that out loud.... whoops!

Love the idea for the shot, sorry photo.....

October 21, 2010 4:21 AM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

Great job David!!!

@the distractors who want to do everything digitally, the reasons not to are:

1.) it's journalistically unethical 2.) it's several more hours of unnecessary work 3.) it would feel fake and cheap.

4.) A perfectly focused composite solution wouldn't replicate the way the human eye works, as we know by the scale that the bullet holes are close the the people reasonably far away and we can't hold that distance in focus with our eyes. Don't believe me, hold a pen 6 inches in front of your face and watch everything else go out of focus as you look at it.

Congrats again david on a well executed piece.

Fenix Fotography | www.fenixfoto.com

October 21, 2010 2:18 PM  
Blogger Ivan said...

Another great post.
Always love to read how you find a solution on every problem you've encountered.
Thanks for sharing.

October 21, 2010 10:39 PM  
Blogger Developmental said...

This is unrelated to this current post, but I have no other way of getting it to you. I know that LumiQuest is one of your advertisers and you have little control over what comes from them and is displayed on your site, but their current ad is one you might want to look at. It's essentially a call for free advertising photos, something that is pretty common now. Asking for photos for a "contest" where "Your photo could appear in one of our ads!" without payment and a rights-grabbing contract is something you don't want to promote.

October 22, 2010 6:22 PM  
Blogger David Ritchie said...

This effect looks similar to what happened to this guys camera... only your camera didn't really get damaged, lol. Link: http://www.petapixel.com/2010/10/21/broken-bat-smashes-camera-at-mlb-playoff-game/

October 22, 2010 6:57 PM  
Blogger David said...


They are not grabbing any rights. They are very respectful of photogs and actually worked with me to help design the parameters of the contest.


October 22, 2010 8:28 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I agree that those who are suggesting outlandish, high-production "improvements" are missing the point! It's a simple shot done fairly quickly (so as not to waste their time). It's for a business magazine, not an advertisement. Given these factors, I think what was done is very appropriate. Also, this shot has "David Hobby" written all over it (if like me you're a long-time reader who is familiar with his style). He doesn't tend to do huge stylized productions - find another photographer if that's your thing.

That said I am curious about the background... having it not be uniform is important, I think, to make it not look like a composite but the dark bands and the ceiling line at the top are a little unfortunate. Spider man, anonymous government buildings, etc. are unnecessary, but I do wonder if a different background (maybe their lab/workspace, the shooting range where the tests take place, I don't know) would have added anything. Tough call.

October 24, 2010 3:21 AM  
Blogger Rod Lamkey said...

Hi David, well done. The over all shot show how you positioned the lights was really helpful...and what your gear was too...great stuff!

October 26, 2010 7:38 AM  

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