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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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