On Assignment: Inside the Black Box

Normally, a "black box" is a metaphor for the part of a process during which you cannot see what is going on. Much like the "show your work" section in my math tests in high school.

But any long-term reader of this site will know that we do not take kindly to black boxes around here. So this OA is not about the metaphorical black box but rather the literal kind. As in, shooting something literally inside of a black box.

I love me some good barbecue. Sadly, after leaving my hometown of Eustis, Florida -- and with it, King's Taste BBQ, the best BBQ on the planet (sorry, South Carolina) -- I have been on a quest for good smoked ribs ever since.

Probably a good thing I left, too. Because if I lived close to King's, had a car and even a small amount of ongoing disposable income, I'd be dead by now.

But it would take the mortician a week to pry the grin off of my face.

King's is a taste not to be replicated. I even import the yellow mustard- and vinegar-based sauce up to Maryland and do the best I can with a combination of slow cooking and finishing on the grill. But it is still not King's.

So when I do find a quasi-substitute I usually want to tell other people about it. Which is why I shot the above BBQ-in-progress inside the smoker at Kloby's Smoke House in Fulton, MD for HoCo360.

Is it the equal of King's? Nope, but it is pretty darn good. And chef Steve Klobosits does it right, too, with a long, slow trip through a pitch-black smoker. And if that's not dark enough, there's a good dose of soot on every wall just as a bonus.

Wherein lies the problem.

First thought: Get a light in the back. Maybe a LumiQuest SB-III, 'cause my brain pretty much has a function key devoted to producing an SB-III when I need a small, softish light source.

Except for (a) there's really no logical reason to have lighting coming from the back, and (b) you'd be able to see it. And to a lesser degree, the same is true for a top light inside there, too. And I wanted this to look natural, but just with a little quality edge. So the light would need to come from the front.

Oh, and, there was less than three feet in front of the smoker before you ran into a wall. So not a lot of room to work either -- and certainly no room to get a person in there and do anything nice.

Not that the three feet is a problem. I have worked with less space but in that case there were exterior angles in which to locate and aim the other lights. No so here.

So I pressed the other function key in my brain for tight locations (any guesses?) but that was really not going to work either. First, the light was gonna be too close. Which meant it would not reach back very far, either. And a ring would be small, so it would be pretty hard as a key. So I decided to go all hand-held (for space reasons) and do it with two bare speedlights -- one on camera and one in my left hand.

The on-camera one was a no-brainer. Point it around backwards and use the wall right behind me as a light source. It would be close to on-axis, so it would see into the hole. And it would be as far away as possible (still not very) so it would reach into the hole better than a ring light at a closer distance.

Using that as a key light got me most of the way to where I wanted to be. But the ribs on the bottom rack were still way too dark. So I reached in on the left and held an Su-4'd SB-800 just outside of the frame. With a couple of test shots to dial the power level in, it did the job just fine. But the ribs were too hot on the left and underexposed on the right -- mostly because the light is only about a foot away from the left-hand ribs.

Easy fix. First step is to go to full tele on your beam -- 105mm on an '800. Then feather the light back towards yourself to keep the heat of the beam off of the ribs on the left. Just glance past them on the way to the ribs on the right. Chimping the back of the camera, it is a very intuitive process and you'll zero the aim in very quickly.

As far as the exposure, just stick the on-camera flash to 1/4 or 1/2 -- lots of light -- and bounce it off of the back wall. Adjust your aperture until the light looks good. Then add your detail light from the left and adjust the power and aim until that looks good, too. Less like math and more like cooking.

In the end, this all-handheld light setup does not call attention to itself and just makes what would soon be my lunch look crisp and 3-D. And besides, this is one place where you do not want to spend a lot of time on the light. It's much more about the first-hand research after.

Next: Plain and Simple Light


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Blogger Team Louish said...

Wow. I would of never thought to zoom in the flash like you did and aim it to the right... great tip. Mmmmm. BBQ chicken.

January 17, 2011 9:21 AM  
Blogger BJ said...

Love your articles, but your comments about the BBQ made me laugh. Lived in SC and enjoyed the BBQ there, but NC BBQ was far better and now that I live in Tampa, I've found BBQ even better than that! And King's Taste is fantastic!! Any time I head over to Mt. Dora / Tavares area (3-4 times a year) I always stop.

January 17, 2011 9:27 AM  
Blogger Raul Kling said...

Excellent post and very practical tips about lighting in that situation. Tele and feather... who would have thought of that?

January 17, 2011 9:31 AM  
Blogger Ian Pack said...

Reading this at lunchtime is not such a good idea. Good looking food and very unobtrusive lighting. Oh well, back to drooling over the food, sorry work!

January 17, 2011 9:57 AM  
Blogger Clay said...

Yeah, zooming the speedlight and then feathering it across was a great idea/solution. I seem to forget that option a lot for some reason.

January 17, 2011 10:02 AM  
Blogger alim said...

Great post!

Have to agree with the others, I too would not have thought to Tele the flash. Very cool tip or should I say smokin? ;)

January 17, 2011 10:41 AM  
Blogger gkolanowski said...

Obviously a less than optimal situation, and a good solution. I think I would have liked to see a strong light raking down the sides of the smoker box to define the space and further separate the racks. I know you try to get your shots in one exposure, but this is a perfect situation to use Photoshop, assuming you had the camera on a tripod. I think I'd have gotten the base exposure like you did, and then done two more using the handheld flash on either side to get that definition. Load 'em up in layers and blend in the amount of definition you like.

January 17, 2011 10:46 AM  
Blogger Dustin said...

Wow! You made this vegeterian crave some BBQ! Wonderful image, and you made it sound so simple to produce as always. Just curious, What Focal Length/lens where you using??

January 17, 2011 11:24 AM  
Blogger David said...

@gk- Of course. But I tend to do things more in camera. The NAPP class is down the hall. :)

@Dustin- 24-70, close to 24mm.

January 17, 2011 11:30 AM  
Blogger cdlink said...


Clever stuff!


January 17, 2011 1:11 PM  
Blogger -FD- said...

Thanks for posting the details on how this shot was made. It is one of my favorites from HoCo360 and one that I had been curious about. Love BBQ!

January 17, 2011 3:16 PM  
Blogger Nicolai "Cuki" Gamulea said...

I'd be tempted to take the grills off the oven, hang them one above the other with some black wire, then light them at leisure in front of a black background - since the oven itself is so black it doesn't show at all in the picture anyway. Was it a matter of ethics to shoot them in situ, or were there practical reasons as well?


January 17, 2011 5:04 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

I thought I had the perfect pun to punish you for the "light beer" thing, but I checked and what for us italian would be "you have a lot of meat on the fire" is translated "you have many irons in the fire".

I'm a vegetarian and have no idea how a smoker works but you could also throw in that fog machine of yours and one more light gelled red in the back to have something ubercool!
(hmmm. I'm googling "smoking meat" and apparently there's not that much of a smoke involved. Bummer)

January 17, 2011 5:22 PM  
Blogger admin said...

I see the "Black Box" all the time. Usually when reviewing pictures during my lighting setup when I've forgotten to turn on the flashes (or pocketwizards)!

I'll keep this setup in mind. Seems I run into this situation a lot shooting towels on tight shelves. Never did find a solution.

January 17, 2011 8:11 PM  
Blogger deaner66 said...

No, no, no, you impostors. The best BBQ is in Kansas City. Florida? You've GOT to be kidding me!

January 17, 2011 9:28 PM  
Blogger Patey North said...

David, I love this. In particular, one line stands out:

"Less like math and more like cooking."

To me, this sums up the Strobist philosophy perfectly. :-)

January 17, 2011 11:39 PM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

So did you eat one of the ribs after the shot?

January 18, 2011 1:43 AM  
Blogger Bernhard A S said...

This is definitely the most tasteful picture you have posted in 2011!

I'am hungry now.

January 18, 2011 8:50 AM  
Blogger PrePhoto said...

"No, no, no, you impostors. The best BBQ is in Kansas City. Florida? You've GOT to be kidding me"

At the risk of turning this thread into BBQ Wars, let me offer this:

I may not know what region offers the best BBQ, but I would postulate that any State that puts sauce on beef is not in the running.
Worcestershire and horseradish are for beef. Sauce is for pork and chicken.

January 18, 2011 10:02 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

I grew up outside of Eustis and live in Tavares now. Anyone who knows BBQ will tell you there is NOTHING better than King's BBQ!!

January 18, 2011 2:59 PM  
Blogger AL marcus said...

If you are in MD, Kloby's should definitely be on your to do list. I was sad to see their Rolling Rd location go. Oh, nice shot btw!

January 19, 2011 1:40 AM  
Blogger Peter Conrey said...

David, if you ever come to Memphis, TN, I will introduce you to REAL BBQ ;) Ribs are on me when you visit.

January 19, 2011 12:18 PM  
Blogger contact said...

Blasphemy. Sorry brother - SC bbq is the ONLY bbq...

January 19, 2011 7:47 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Kansas City. Nuff said.

January 19, 2011 10:22 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Smoked meat and off camera flash (well, off camera light source at least) in the same post ... I must be dreaming. As hobby smoker (meat that is) I think you've truly captured the dark, sooty, grimy essence of smoking in this one. Too much light just wouldn't have been right.

Off to the supermarket to going and buy me some ribs!

January 20, 2011 4:11 AM  
Blogger Applebits said...

This is a very confusing text and setup where a diagram could really aid in explaining the setup.

January 20, 2011 10:52 AM  
Blogger Applebits said...

Should have read better. On camera strobe bounced off wall and handheld SB-800 pointed slightly towards self in 105mm zoom mode. I need to try this!

January 20, 2011 10:56 AM  
Blogger HKM said...

As a fellow HoCo resident I must confess that I am a BBQ junkie / snob. I enjoy ALL styles and types and have found that some locals do it better then others. Kloby's isn't bad and RHB (RedHot&Blue)has good pulled pork and potato salad, but unfortunately the best are gone.

Not long ago there used to be a guy that drove a step van with a BBQ smoker /grill off the back and parked it between Laurel and Beltsville along U.S. Route 1. Rumor was that the reason he always parked in different location was to stay one step ahead of the "revenuers". Regardless, there was always a line of cars parked next to his van and loyal customers waiting in all types of weather. The other was in Laurel on U.S. Route 1 in an old motel. They used to have a converted oil tank/smoker billowing clouds along southbound Route 1 that would cause drivers to slam on their brakes and make u turns in order to get a BBQ fix.

I'm currently on a Peruvian BBQ chicken craze, and would be happy to treat you to lunch at one of my two favorite hangouts.

....Sorry about the BBQ rambling

January 21, 2011 11:32 AM  
Blogger XSportSeeker said...

If this was my shot, I'd probably never even try getting it inside the grill...
Wait to take everything out after it's done and make the shot with another background.
But I see it would completely change the idea.
Thanks for sharing the thoughts!

February 05, 2011 7:18 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

David, for best home-made ribs forget the slow cooking grilling method. Go buy yourself a Weber Smokey Mountain Water Smoker and go to this website for advice (this guy is the strobist of barbecue :):
I did, and once I learned to use it no restaurant could make good enough ribs for me.

February 06, 2011 5:45 AM  
Blogger John said...

You have some crazy skills in lighting, thanks for sharing.

February 15, 2011 6:23 PM  

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