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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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