On Assignment: Frickin' Lasers

Update: I've answered several reader questions in the comments.

Being both a photo geek and a garden-variety tech geek, I love it when my two worlds collide. Shooting people who roll with cutting-edge tech is one of my very favorite things to do.

I photographed Shirley Collier, CEO of Optemax, for the Maryland Entrepreneur Quarterly. Her company is beyond cool as far as the tech goes. They specialize in setting up laser-based data networks in just about any location. Local/terrestrial is no problem. But neither is air-to-ground -- as in using a laser to send data to and from a moving aircraft. And they can move that data at the rate of one terabit (about 9 DVDs worth) per second.

When emailing back and forth with Shirley for ideas, she suggested she could bring a laser pointer. Ten seconds of Googling told me that was a big no-no for the CMOS chip in my D3. But it did give me an idea…

Welcome to My Studio

A quick scout of the local tech center where Optemax hangs out yielded this hall, which looks kinda like a Stanley Kubrick set three days after a killer party. There are no windows. There is no decor, save a single chair -- which made it all the creepier. There's even some water damage in the ceiling and the rug.

My kinda place. (Seriously.)

Our local tech incubator in Howard County is a repurposed Allied Signal building from back in the '70's. These guys are taking the aging shell of a former business and incubating the hottest new tech companies in the area.

If some of the disused hallways still have water damage from back in the day, who cares? These guys are focused on growing tech -- today and tomorrow. Besides, for my purposes the room is big with tall ceilings, controllable light and low traffic. Perfect.

Now all we need is a laser -- one that is controllable and won't fry my chip. So in lieu of a real laser, I went with an SB-800 with a deep red gel. We put it in a LumiQuest FXtra to provide a little layer of something clear should things start getting too melty. We also left a little air space between the gel holder and the flash (muy importante) to let it run cooler.

To get a nice starburst, we gaffed it off to shape the light source into about a 1-inch diameter circle. (The rectangular shape of the flash head had distorted the star in an earlier test.) That is gonna eat some light, but this photo hinges on the quality of that burst in the back.

So first off, we want to get the best looking "laser" -- that being one with good burst saturation and also painted the walls well. Zooming the flash head gave us relative control between those two variables. (105mm looked best for a "tunnel" type of effect.) Here are three shots at different apertures, with the goldilocks shot coming in at center between f/8 and f/11.

With our working aperture now set, we adjusted the other two flashes to hit that exposure. Unlike the exposure from a key light, this is a totally subjective choice. Whichever one looks best to you is the "correct" backlight coming in. And three different people might give three different answers.

Now working back against this backlight, the fill would be from an Orbis about two stops down.

Originally, the key was to be a LumiQuest LTp. If we used a gobo at camera right we could cut it to make a cool "reveal" of light falling across her face. (Here is a test shot from that look.)

But like me, Shirley has oily skin and was pretty specular. She was also wearing a dark leather vest. So we wanted a bigger light source on her face to control the specular highlights, and to better define the vest.

In a white room, getting a bigger light source is easy. We just bounced a (1/4 CTO'd) bare flash off of the white wall for a bigger, less specular light source.

Working through the layers of light, the exposure is built on what looks best from the laser flash. Shooting at that aperture, the Orbis's power is dialed in so we have shadow detail everywhere on Shirley -- about two stops down. Then the key (SB-800 off the wall) is dialed in so where her face is properly exposed.

And, as they say, Robert is your father's brother.


Frequently, I still feel like a 12-yr-old about this lighting stuff. And this is a good example. It is so cool to me that with just three speedlights -- two bare and one in an Orbis -- you can transform an institutional hall into a cool, appropriately tech-looking setting.

Is the "speedlight laser" a gimmick? Yup. But I think it holds up in the context of what Optemax does. It'll probably be a few years before I trot out a red flash right into the camera again. But in this instance, why not?

Second, would that every business shoot I have be with someone as cool as Shirley. Beautiful, funny, can take some kidding (and dish it out, too) and just ridiculously smart. Any day when you get to hang out with people like that is a day well-spent.

The setup shots are courtesy Dave Kile. Erik Couse, who also was assisting, shot some video while we were shooting. If you are really into the BTS thing (mostly repetitive shooting stuff and banter) it is here. It's still kinda trippy to me to realize that every time we snapped the shutter, that iffy white hallway turned into something dramatic for just a 250th of a second.

Fun stuff.

Next: Brian England


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Blogger Rusho said...

Thats really cool. At first I thought you used a real laser. Using a red gel with a flash is obviously a better choice when camera health is considered.

November 15, 2010 12:29 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Hi Dave,
might be a silly question, but,
how does the exposure on your subject not affect the "frickin laser" by washing into that exposure? Or is it so far away that it doesn't matter?

Nice behind the scenes post and I think your subject looks like Nina on Fringe. ;)

November 15, 2010 12:36 PM  
Blogger David said...


You answered your own question!

November 15, 2010 12:40 PM  
Blogger Simon said...


In the first part of Erik's video, there's a beep going on after each shot. I though it might one of your strobes but you only use speedlights. What is it ?

November 15, 2010 12:46 PM  
Blogger Rob Acocella said...

AWESOME final shot! Amazing!

November 15, 2010 12:55 PM  
Blogger dmourati said...


I love it. Could you be more specific on the gel? I used a gel last night against black and did not get the saturation I wanted. You's looks better. Distance again is important yea?

November 15, 2010 12:55 PM  
Blogger BWJones said...

David, from the perspective of a retinal neuroscientist, I should also point out that in addition to damaging the CCD, the lasers can damage your retina... particularly if looking through an SLR that focuses light on the retina as you look through it.

The profusion of laser pointers is likely going to lead to an increased number of visual deficits and scotomas and should not be taken lightly.

November 15, 2010 1:01 PM  
Blogger Rajan Chawla Photography said...


Thanks for another interesting post. Do you have an example of that second shot referenced in the video? And can you elaborate on why you went with the profoto ring for that one?

November 15, 2010 1:03 PM  
Blogger James Bong said...

NICE! I really like the halo on the lower edge frame from the "friggin laser"!

November 15, 2010 1:08 PM  
Blogger Balls said...

Great article as always. But can you put in HUGE FONT the massive warning about shooting lasers with a dlsr.

November 15, 2010 1:09 PM  
Blogger Surly said...

Was she ill tempered? Sorry I couldn't resist. Seriously, that is a way cool portrait. Thanks for this. I cant wait to try this out.

November 15, 2010 1:14 PM  
Blogger Reflections by the Hill said...

At first glance, I felt that you didn't shoot through the Orbis, right. Since the hallway was narrow, using a softbox or shooting through an umbrella would have been to much trouble and that is why you used the Orbis?

Great session, love what you can do in 250th sec.

November 15, 2010 1:31 PM  
Blogger Abe said...

I'm following most of this but I'm not sure I understand the reason for the CTO on the bounced strobe.

BTW, I thought it was a laser until you explained what you were doing.

November 15, 2010 3:32 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

That's pretty sweet. I work with high-end laser equipment as well, and have had a bit of trouble balancing shots as well due to the brightness. Our pump laser is around 514 nm (the brightest green you've ever seen) and it can be overpowering. The beam delivers 18W, so there's no way we'd shoot directly 'down the barrel', but the scattered light alone usually provides MORE than enough light.

Here's a shot I took last week for a proposal:


I shot for ambient with the room lights off, then filled by bouncing a single SB600 off the low light fixtures over the table. Turned out very well for 2 minutes of setup..


Nikon D300 and Tamron 17-50 f/2.8
ISO 1000 1/13 sec @ f/4.5
SB600 set to 1/64 full power.

November 15, 2010 3:33 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I don't see a PW on the main or "laser" light. SU-4'd?

November 15, 2010 4:34 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...


It's not a CTO, it's only a 1/4 CTO.
You usually use it for warming skin tones with a WB set to flash/daylight. Not many subjects will complain about the fact that they look too suntanned. :D

As others have mentioned, I thought I didn't read correctly when you mentioned shooting lasers would be a bad idea for your D3.
Its sensor might be expensive, but it's nowhere near precious as your retina. Anyhoo, if you really want to do this (Hint : don't!) pick some compact camera with an electronic viewfinder.

November 15, 2010 5:44 PM  
Blogger Tom Meyer said...

Kinda Star Trek, with the black vest and all. What's she holding? Mylar with circuit schematics or something? Well done... t

November 15, 2010 6:45 PM  
Blogger John said...

I love your sense of creativity! I would have never thought of (or probably been able to figure out) using a speedlight to mimic a laser, very cool indeed.

Oh, good tip on the laser pointer thing/damage your chip too!

November 15, 2010 8:01 PM  
Blogger CarlSanSoc said...


A couple quick questions. How are you triggering wall bounced flash? I don't see a pocket wizard. It looks like there's a PW on the Orbis. Why not just hardwire it in? With the Orbis on a stand do you still run the lens through the opening and why not just use a dialed back strobe with sto-fen or some other modifier? Is the quality of the light from the Orbis that diffused for use as dialed back fill. Sorry for so many questions. Nice work.

November 15, 2010 8:03 PM  
Blogger Ulfius said...

Maybe clone out that stuff hanging from the ceiling?

November 15, 2010 8:15 PM  
Blogger nolaphoto said...

David, you said "I need to shoot more people from Louisiana". Come on down! We have all the attitude, shrimp and crawfish you can stand. Seriously, I would love to see a seminar down here.

November 15, 2010 8:56 PM  
OpenID Dougie Hoser said...

Great image and interesting buildup... One thing had me puzzled ever since I saw this image w/out the blog post. What lens gave you that nice star at "between f/8 and f/11?" I'm surprised a 1" circle at that distance would make that starburst pattern with any recent Nikon lenses, anyway. They tend not to be very difficult to force into starbursts at any aperture, but I'd expect you'd need at least f/22 or something.

November 15, 2010 9:07 PM  
Blogger MichaelHope said...


Hey Si, you can make your SB's beep. That way you know when your batts are dying.



November 15, 2010 11:16 PM  
Blogger FOOTOOBLOOG said...

"It's still kinda trippy to me to realize that every time we snapped the shutter, that iffy white hallway turned into something dramatic for just a 250th of a second."

As long as we're getting all technical here: the hallway only looked like that for however long the flash burst was, which was less than a 250th of a second.

Come to think of it, if the flashes were set to different power settings, the hallway NEVER actually looked like it does in the picture. Because the flashes don't put out different power levels, they just stay on longer.

God I love getting geeky about this stuff.

November 16, 2010 2:57 AM  
Blogger Adam Hourigan Photography said...

David - finally a photo that befits the lofty standards of instruction this blog provides. The choice of the soft light over the usual awkward nose shadow of the gobo'd harsh light LOOKS professional. It flatters her, it gives beautiful tones and complemented with the effect/rim light and the perfect amount of fill - this is what we should see. Keep on this track. I really, really, REALLY hate that gobo'd overhead light - it doesn't look like anything apart from maybe an interrogation room - and NEVER flatters your subject. Love this :P

November 16, 2010 6:58 AM  
Blogger Sheri said...

this is an awesome blog post, amazing ideas and glad to know you didn't kill your camera with a laser.

November 16, 2010 7:37 AM  
Blogger Bret Harris said...

Curious if you tried a version with the ceiling darkened a bit - seems like that would tone down the (IMO) distracting stuff there as well as potentially highlight the rim of her head better.

November 16, 2010 9:04 AM  
Blogger Richard G said...

@Ben, I feel for you on balancing the bright light with the green lasers. My first laser shoot I did about 20 years ago on a 4X5 camera. I don't remember how we managed to actually get the exposure right without being to preview things but the shots turned out cool.

More recently I was able to include some pretty intense green lasers as accents in a shot that combined star light and flash as well. Had to get the f/stop for the laser, the shutter speed for the star light and moon, and then get the flash power right for the fill, but in the end it was a pretty fun photo.

The lasers were provided thanks to a giant replica of a VW bus that also has its own dance floor and light show.

November 16, 2010 3:15 PM  
Blogger Dawid Gorny ■ Photographer said...

Awesome idea with fake laser, that's why I read this blog.

November 16, 2010 3:47 PM  
Blogger David said...


It is a deep red gel. More important is the exposure on it. Thus the triptych.


Point well taken, sir.


Nope, just blogging on this one this time. The other was a basic, ring-filled octa shot. Maybe another example some day.

@James -

Yeah, me too. Pretty subtle, tho. Would not survive repro, even tho this photo ran full page.


I think your ALL CAPS just did the trick.


Nope, I shot thru the Orbis. Nice and small in this hallway. I use it A LOT.


I usually warm up the key light (1/4 CTO is a warming gel) when shooting portraits. Nothing new there.


The back SB-800 was slaved, in SU-4 mode.


Too...many...questions...! I use ring for fill most of the time, as it does not add it's own light/shadow direction to the image. Close to the axis is similar, but not the same.


You could if you wanted. I chose not to. I had already removed everything I wanted to remove form the scene. Not going for complete sterility here.


I have three manual focus, fixed-length lenses that are favorites of mine for portraiture: A 50/1.4, a 35/2 and a 105/2.5. This was the 35. Round aperture blades are overrated. Just another marketing tool, IMO.


Indeed, if Nth degree. But the photo was actually being taken over a period of 1/250th, so it all counts. Not that it matters much, but there is a teensy bit of ambient in there.


Oh, dude. From my perspective, that comment is so full of wrong I do not know where to begin.

Suffice to say that I am not exactly looking to limit my portraits to soft, flattering light with perfect nose shadows and fill ratios. If you want to, be my guest.

Generally, that is exactly the kind of light I am looking to avoid.



If you notice, we did take out the back FL light. But as I said above, I put a lot less emphasis on sterile than I used to. In fact, more often than not I am looking to add something in to throw a scene off balance or ask a visual question.

November 16, 2010 4:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

David -- I love that you posted on this.

I tried this very same shot last year - and watching the breakdown of finding the exposure - I think I could get my back light to be the deeper blue I envisioned in my head!

My Attempt...

Thanks for the inspiration & tutorials. You're awesome!


November 16, 2010 4:56 PM  
Blogger Abe said...

The photo looked so natural that I was wondering about the 1/4 CTO (yeah, a CTO would have been much more noticable). I haven't used gels so I'm not familiar with using it to slightly warm a subject. Going to have to give it a try and see the difference.

You're right, who would object to looking tan and healthy.

November 16, 2010 5:31 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

LOVE that setting! Would shoot in a place like that everyday and twice on sunday.
And at first when I saw the picture I was like "OMG, laser? Has he finally gone insane?"
The result is great and most of all I love how badass Shirley looks. Lights are cool and stuff, but that hint of a smirk wins the cake, for me.

(Also. I finally managed to get a proper account to comment your blog with my own name instead of 70 different nicks. it only took me a couple of years)

November 17, 2010 1:12 PM  
Blogger Glenachulish said...

Stumbled upon this post in DPreview which I thought was apposite: http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1041&message=36929664

November 17, 2010 1:14 PM  
Blogger glenn kaupert said...

Nicely done - gives a very technological fell to the space. A similar set up, dressing up a dark machine shop here:


November 17, 2010 2:39 PM  
Blogger Puggle said...

If you don't have an Orbis to shoot through, can't you use an on-camera flash and get close to the same effect?

November 17, 2010 4:25 PM  
Blogger nvjims said...

You might try one of the new superbright red LEDs. The color is right and they are a small point source.

November 17, 2010 8:20 PM  
Blogger Addison Geary Photography said...

I shot directly into a small laser with no ill affects. I had an assignment to photograph a Techie that designed a gadget that transmitted music over a laser beam. I too was worried about damaging my sensor so I called Canon pro services, they told me it wouldn't harm the camera. I composed and focused the shot while the laser was off then fired the camera and monitored the results on a tethered laptop. I would put my camera at risk but not my eyes! Camera was a Canon 20D which gave me several years of service afterward. I'm only saying, This was my experience, your mileage may vary.

November 18, 2010 8:40 AM  
Blogger Addison Geary Photography said...

I had an assignment to photograph a Techie that built a gadget that transmitted music over a laser beam. I too had reservations about shooting directly into a laser so I called CPS. I was told it would not damage the senor on my 20D. I composed the shot and focused with laser off. When I was ready the subject turned the laser on and pointed it directly into the lens. I fired the camera and monitored the images from a tethered laptop.I will take risks with my gear but not my eyes.It looked really cool and the laser affect was different in each frame so I made a lot of exposures. I got a few more years of service out of that camera. I'm just saying, your mileage may vary. Next time I may just rent!

November 18, 2010 8:51 AM  
Blogger Johan said...

Always intressing to read about your assigment. Much to learn.

November 18, 2010 1:25 PM  
Blogger Dean said...

Although interesting I was hoping for some ideas on using lasers. The last time I used a laser in a photo it took a lot of thought to make it work and I used up just about all my ideas doing it. So I am looking for more. Maybe that could be a new assignment. Here is my last try with a laser. http://www.flickr.com/photos/dazt/3061616016/

November 19, 2010 7:18 PM  
Blogger Ed Lefkowicz said...

Late to the discussion, but speaking to the issue of dealing with people with oily skin (like me) and avoiding too much specular reflection, a great solution is oil-absorbing wipes, available in the makeup or skin-care sections of most drug stores (CVS, Walgreens, ...). About 1/4 the size of s kleenex, they come in small packets—I keep one in my lighting case, another in my rolling camera bag. Work like a charm, are very absorbent, don't smudge makeup, don't leave lint, don't seem to intimidate guys. Not cheap, btw, but they work.

November 21, 2010 2:20 PM  
Blogger dave said...

Funny, I assumed it WASN'T a laser... you're not going to get a nice star-point pattern like that out of a laser normally. From there, looking at the red-drenched hallway, it was pretty obvious it was a gelled strobe. Maybe I'm just an engineer.

Very cool setup, though! I really love how ultramodern you made a generic industrial hallway look.

November 29, 2010 11:23 AM  
Blogger Alviseni said...

i think this is the 3rd time i read this post. very cool stuff!

i didnt know the laser could damage the sensor, i somewhere read that x-rays would also damage a ccd sensor but it didnt happen, i place my camera in that table where patients get some x-rays in that machine...and that camera still works. this is what was captured..


May 22, 2011 6:44 PM  
Blogger Allie Stevens Catchings said...

David! Didn't know you were an LSU fan, Geaux Tigers!!

I LOVE this - just got my Strobist gels in this week and can't wait to try them out.

January 13, 2012 12:38 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Oh, no. I am a Gator. :)

January 13, 2012 6:20 PM  
Blogger ABWC said...


You are genius personified.

No foolin'; for reals.

Keep it up, it's working.

November 23, 2012 4:43 AM  

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