On Assignment: Brian England

I shot a job last month for a story on the downstream impact of the new Jobs Bill (as in small business, not Steve.) Local auto shop owner Brian England, above, was one of the voices in the story.

It's your basic talking head. And just about anything would suffice for this kind of story in the local biz publication. So I always see these kinds of job as a perfect time to try on a new lighting style for size. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by experimenting -- as long as you cover yourself in case it doesn't work.

Brian is a great guy, a very smart businessman and a long-time community leader. So it certainly is not inappropriate to light him with painterly, Leibovitz-style lighting. Which is exactly what I had been wanting to try out.

This is something I really don't play with very much. And a practice run on a safe, low-risk job will make me much more comfy the next time I pull it out. Especially if it is in a high-pressure environment.

Similarly, that's why I always liked getting the dreaded "mug shot" assignments for The Sun. It was license to play, and no one would ever question the result. Mug shots were my sand box for nearly every lighting style I ever wanted to try.

For this shot of Brian I used two Profoto Acutes in large light mods. Which is pretty much overkill, and very unusual for me. The light mods were both Paul C. Buff models, with one having been adapted to fit the Profoto mount. This is ridiculously easy and cheap to do, and it is a good way to soften the sting of the transition from one brand to another. Which is where I am at right now.

One of the things I loved about the Paul Buff gear was his foldable soft boxes. They are cheap, very well-made and open/close like an umbrella. And, they use a universal speed ring mount, which means you can swap the fitting on them cheaply and easily.

You just remove the innermost fitting, which marries them to a Paul Buff light, and swap it for an off-brand Profoto speed ring. (The branded Profoto speed ring will not fit the Buff mods -- cheap FTW.) I used one made by SP-Systems, which was less than $20.

I got that tip from JoeyL's second video tutorial, which meant the videos more than paid for themselves as compared to the difference in price for buying Profoto boxes. Joey did the same hack and actually prefers the PCB boxes to the much more expensive versions.

The key light, a 10x36 strip box with a grid, was converted from a Paul Buff mount to Profoto. I have since converted all three of my boxes (two strips and a 47" octa) in the same way. It was a no-brainer.

One caveat. If you are gonna do this, measure and make sure the lip on the new adapter will fit the speed ring on your soft box. There are a couple of different sizes, but the Paul Buff soft boxes tend to match up with the 3rd party ring inserts pretty well.

The key light is coming in from close, high camera left and the grid keeps it off of the Snap-on toolbox background. (You think lights are expensive? Try buying an armoire-sized Snap-on tool cabinet.)

In most cases like this, I would have used a ring for fill. But it would have created a blown-out, donut-shaped specular on the metal box and that would have been much more distracting. So I used a medium (64") Silver PLM with a front diffusor for an on-axis fill, and placed it right behind the camera. Exposure for the fill was about 1.5 stops down from the key. Pretty tight ratio for me, but I am still experimenting with that big PLM as a fill source.

This gave me a specular that was both larger in size and lower in intensity on the metal. So I can see the texture without blowing it out, as a small light source like a ring would have done.

I like the tonal range on Brian's face with this lighting setup -- crisp and 3-D without being too contrasty. And the contrast range thing was important, as this was going on newsprint.

But the look itself almost has a medium-format vibe to it. I'll definitely trot out this two-light technique for something more involved in the future -- maybe something outside in full daylight. And will do so with a high comfort level, having tried it first in the talking head sandbox.

Next: Inside the Black Box


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Jukka said...

Great shot! The only distraction is the highlight on the tool case. Could that have been moved behind his head (also for a little cool halo effect) by pointing it slightly to the right? And would that have changed other parts of the pic?

December 13, 2010 2:52 AM  
Blogger Grey Trilby said...

Morning DH - nice post!

Just wondering, what kind of distances are involved here with the PLM and the strip box, plus subject to background. I'm struggling a little to see where the keylight ends and the fill begins (I know, I guess that's the point ;-)). Looking at the diagram it seems as though only the cam-left-hand side of his face would be lit by the key since it's coming slightly from behind. Do you have a shot you could show (with Brian's permission, of course) of the keylight only?

Oh, and how's that project going you mentioned when you came to London?

December 13, 2010 2:55 AM  
Blogger parv said...

Why does the subject seem to be tilted to his left, to make room for "Snap-On" label?

December 13, 2010 3:48 AM  
Blogger Wayne said...

I need a coffee. I kept trying to reorient my laptop thinking I was getting sun shining on the screen until I realised you added this yourself David to the lighting diagram.

Too early...

December 13, 2010 4:24 AM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

Very interesting post.

I found the picture harder to reverse-engineer than usual.

I came up with a large on-axis light source, but the lack of specular highlights or distinctive shadows made it hard to find where they key was (if any).
The 1.5 stops difference didn't help either!

Anyway, the look is interesting : not much contrast yet the picture isn't flat nor boring.

December 13, 2010 6:59 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I'm always amazed at how you manage to make solid portraits with the subject so close to the background. Especially ones as reflective as a glossy tool box.

May I just say, you are the opposite of a tool box.

December 13, 2010 7:08 AM  
Blogger sites said...

Good shot. But, would be interested in seeing a speed light set up to compare.

I am also looking at the PF Acute and D1 to migrate to. Don't know if the Acute head offers more than the D1. D1 same weight (+/-), digital and AirS equipped. If you had used a D1 head on the softbox you might have needed the optional dome.

Its daunting when you really get into all the lines of strobes, softboxes, battery packs, modifiers, etc. Especially, how quick the prices add up. But, one strobe can take the place (price) of 4 - 6 speed lights. And, if you want to keep one line, i.e. Profoto. It can be expensive to go down the wrong one.

Curious to hear your comments on PF. I like to keep everything mobile. Thought about the EL Ranger, but still deciding.

Anyway, I am interested in more of these setups. Appreciate all the effort you put into your blog.

December 13, 2010 7:11 AM  
Blogger Rangefinder General said...

Nice use of the plm. I have been fighting with mine on the last few shoots and now like you have used diffusion on it to soften the specular nature of the beast.

December 13, 2010 8:28 AM  
Blogger jarle said...

Is it just me that find the toolbox highlight a little disturbing? I find it hard to look at the face with the shining reflection next to it. Personally, I'd also increase the distance between the subject and the background, with the horizontal lines and everything. There's simply too much going on here. Just my two cents. Thanks for sharing.

December 13, 2010 9:17 AM  
Blogger Randy Gay said...

David, you wrote: sting of the transition from one brand to another. Which is where I am at right now.

So, from what brand to which brand are you switching and why?



December 13, 2010 9:35 AM  
Blogger The Rabbit said...

I am just curiouse, would it be possible to get the same look (or close to it) with a pair of speedlites? I think one could. It should not have to look the same but should get close to it. would that be possible?

thanks in advance.

my work: www.flickr.com/photos/therabbit1967

And many thanks to you Mr. Hobby since you improved my photography and the way i approach lightning a big deal. This is one shot that would not have been possible without you and i made one of my girls pretty happy with this shot of a feather of an eagle: http://flic.kr/p/8ZRonV

so, thank you again and keep up the great work.
kind regards

December 13, 2010 10:24 AM  
Blogger Phil Ball said...

David. Your blog is all about lighting, and I like the way this is lit. But im more driven to comment about the pose. Its an interesting pose. His face is turned so hes looking out the side of his eyes and he's leaning. How did you arrive at this pose?

December 13, 2010 10:39 AM  
Blogger fishtoprecords said...

I too found the specular off the Snap-On box a bit distracting.

When photograhphers whine about the cost of photo gear, they really should look at the price of that six foot high Snap-On cabinet and tools. That stuff is great, but seriously expensive.

December 13, 2010 11:36 AM  
Blogger Rogier said...

The big highlight on the reflective toolbox is distracting for sure. I like the tones overall ... but that shiny area next to the subject's face knocks it down a couple pegs from what could have been perfection.

It's good to realize that even the best photographers don't always knock it out of the park. Have you seen Mario Testino's engagement photos (released yesterday, I think) of British prince William and his main squeeze? Same deal: terrific photographer, not-so-terrific results.

December 13, 2010 1:26 PM  
Blogger WingedPower said...

I see what David means about going for a Leibovitz-style lighting and having some of that MF quality to the image. The question I have is whether some of that nice contrast on the face came out like that out of camera, or if a slight tweak was applied in post? I really like that look.

Man.. regarding Snap-On cabinet costs.. *shudders* We had a few SnapOn chests and several sets of tools back when I did some shop work and man that stuff is expensive. Armored, heavy, durable as heck, but expensive.

The whole softbox is convenient like an umbrella thing is really growing on me. Not having to insert/"flex" spindly metal rods is a Good Thing(tm).

Just read about JoeyL's video tutorial last night and drooling over getting it... but will need to save up, having already allocated those funds for shoot time...

December 13, 2010 1:37 PM  
Blogger Stan said...

Personally, I'm glad that the whole Snap-On logo is entirely visible. I'm always glad to see full words rather than mystery pieces since the eye is drawn to and tries to read words in the frame.

December 13, 2010 1:47 PM  
Blogger James Kiffmeyer said...

Got to say I love the head shot, can't stand the background. The "Snap-on" is too prominent, I kept trying to find out the connection with the subject. And then the dark emblem in the upper left is a stark contrast by being almost completely black. Finally, I agree that the highlight is very distracting.

Why not move that tool chest back a few feet and light it separately? More evenly lit, more OOF, less highlight. I assume the toolbox, large as it is, wouldn't be large enough at a distance to provide a suitable backdrop, hence the proximity to the subject. Maybe longer glass would cure that? I'd love it to be less of a distraction from that awesome head shot. I agree about the lighting to his face, very MF looking.

December 13, 2010 2:55 PM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

Really digging this sculpted look here. I'm excited to try it out myself as I've not had much success getting that look on me own!

Thanks again, David!

December 13, 2010 4:55 PM  
Blogger Developmental said...

I'm looking at the post, I can see all of the setup images, but there is no finished photo! Refreshing does not seem to help, has it been removed?

December 13, 2010 9:19 PM  
OpenID shootmepretty said...

I have used the Alienbees softboxes and Pro Studio Solutions version. They are both foldable but I prefer the Pro studio version better. Check it out for yourself.


I used the Pro Studio version on my Profoto Acute2R 1200.

Just something different to throw out there :)

December 13, 2010 10:58 PM  
Blogger Frederick said...


When you say that you had the camera in front of the PLM, where you between the camera and the PLM or was the camera "unmanned" on a tripod? I'm trying to figure out if the light was modified by your presence. :-)


December 14, 2010 6:23 PM  
Blogger Dynamicmoment said...

I'm very interested in the 64"PLM you used. Have you tried it with speedlights? I'm wondering if I shove two speedlights with diffuser caps on how effective would it be? What would be the light quality? Have you tried it?

December 14, 2010 9:46 PM  
Blogger Digiphotoneil said...

Toolbox highlight isn't giving me my Liebovitz kick.

What would happen if you double diffused the PLM? Would this be a helpful thing to do?

December 15, 2010 6:04 PM  
Blogger Adam Krause said...

Hey David

Are you hacking the new alien bee/white lightning softbox's that open up similar to an umbrella? I have profoto gear and have been wanting to play around with this.

Also, the whitelighting softboxes are silver interior, if one was to peal off the silver, do you know if its white underneath or the black fabric?

December 21, 2010 11:23 AM  
Blogger Ynad said...

Too striking of an image to forget.
Here it appears again.

Sadly no mentioning of David Hobby(as I saw), just this quote:
"I photographed him a few months ago for a BizMonthly story on small business."
I'm sure he meant other pictures and this one slipped in covertly ;-)

June 01, 2011 6:18 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


HoCo360 is my own local blog. It is linked at the top left of every Strobist page, too.



June 01, 2011 6:35 PM  
Blogger bronney said...


I don't find the specular distracting at all in fact it looks like a garage opening to me which fits the context. I wonder what kind of room were you in when you're doing it though :D

April 17, 2012 10:55 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home