On Assignment: Mixing Light with Finn O'Hara

Ed. note: I'm living on a bus for a bit. Please welcome today's guest poster, Finn O'Hara.

Good afternoon Strobistors. My name is Finn O'Hara, and I'll be your guest blogging pilot for the day.

I'm thrilled that David asked me to guest blog this week while he's off on his road trip of a lifetime. I greatly admire this site and it's community based approach to photography.

I'm most likely new to a lot of you, so I'll give you a little background on myself, and how I fit into the photography world. I first came to photography at a young age, as my father worked at Kodak after we emigrated to Canada from England. I dabbled in photography growing up, but it wasn't until 8 years ago that I started to take it more seriously.

I'm self taught, so my camera and lighting techniques are all cobbled from a few years of assisting, as well as a lot of trial and error. I specialize in location based portraiture, and some of my clients include Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Esquire, Time, Nike, Coca-Cola, and the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club.

After reading through the archive here, and pondering an appropriate lighting subject to write about, I realize that all the tools to enable you as a versatile photographer (lighting wise), are all here. So what I'd like to impart to you all is my lighting approach, which has established a somewhat recognizable style to my work, and I think it might offer some of you a next step in your own emerging lighting processes.

What usually kicks off my commissions is a call from a Photo Editor or Art Director, that briefs me on their project. We bat around ideas, establishing the tone and positioning of my photographs, and I'm usually left with a story to read, or a creative brief to read through.

It's here that I establish how to best photograph my subject, which is mainly based on time and money: if I get 15 minutes with CEO Bob, and the budget is $500, the results will look a lot different if I have a full day with him and a $10,000 budget.

Usually before the shoot, either days or hours beforehand, I try and get in to see where I'll be shooting, as to eliminate most surprises and start building my shoot. I ask for a tour or walk around of what spaces are available to me, which offers me the opportunity to start formulating my lighting approach. This is what directs the basis of how I'm going to light my subject.

What I normally gravitate to is the best looking, well lit space, and then simply shape my lighting from that existing source.

Here are some examples:

This was one of my first commissions, and initial uses of mixing sunlight and strobe. I had done a location scout the day before, at the same time that the shoot was scheduled the next day, and established a suitable location for the four subjects to stand, which featured the Toronto skyline in the background (all requisites of the shot).

I really liked the look of having the sun a half or full stop over, providing a very good looking side/rim light. This portrait was shot on film, and I remember being excited with the sudden confidence in how this image was going to look. I had finally grasped the concept of mixing the existing sunlight and my strobe, thanks in part to location scouting and packing the right gear for the job.

I was given this Motel to shoot after it's owners had sold it to a Development Corporation. It was used in many movies that were shot in Toronto (RoboCop, True Romance, to name a few), and I wanted to give it a cinematic sendoff. So I created five different shots that drew inspiration from the Motel's history, and this is one of the shots from that series.

I love utilizing the late, inky, dusk light for my night skies, as well as the existing authentic incandescent light as a basis for these type of shots. I also use some strobe to fill in the lighting "holes" that I see. To get all of these components in one shot, production is key.

I plan the shoot around the time that the night sky is at its best. I then see how the existing incandescent light looks, and alter those as necessary. I then use my strobe light to start filling in the areas that need some highlight, or a little kick. Having all my cast ready is key as well, so I have them arrive hours earlier, and work with a wardrobe stylist so that they not only look authentic, but they arrive on set on time.

For this shot, I wanted to keep everything as natural looking as possible, and again achieved this with a mix of ambient and strobe to help give the shot a little kick and not look too forced. While I waited for the sun to set, I set up two lights to accentuate the car and the foreground, and one light inside to emulate an internal car light.

As the sun began to set quickly, my assistant and I were running around the set adjusting our lighting packs to achieve the perfect mix of light, while pumping the hazer inside the car, and checking our exposure on my tethered laptop. At one point during our run around a white Hummer full of young young lads pulled up, and with big grins on their faces asked us if we wanted to smoke the car out for real. This shoot almost took a surreal turn if it weren't for the last ounce of common sense that I have left.

So in summary, I think by taking my lighting cues from what's already available, and doing as much pre-production possible, I've been able to achieve a more natural, and at times cinematic look to my work. I don't like to have my lighting looking too obvious or forced, and I find that this approach helps me achieve that.

If you have any questions about my work, please fire away. You can also follow me via my blog or my website.

More Finn:

:: Blog ::
:: Website ::
:: Follow @Twitter ::

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Blogger jpablo said...

Great work! =) I have a doubt in the first photo in Toronto, how do you get the background (skyline) 1 step over without getting the foreground (main subject) overexposed? Please excuse me if it's a basic question, I'm familiar with underexposing the backgound and compensating the foreground with flash, but I don't understand how to get the vice-versa.-

March 28, 2011 12:38 AM  
Blogger Evan Deffley said...

Great work Finn! I enjoy your photos, and the Maple Leafs set is killer.

I'm really digging the guest photographer series while you're on tour David! It's great getting exposure to photographers like Miller and Finn. Hopefully you'll keep this up even when you return to your usual schedule!

March 28, 2011 12:40 AM  
Blogger Sean Austin said...

I like to hear your take on the business end - thanks. Your Maple Leafs shoot video was awesome, btw.

March 28, 2011 12:43 AM  
Blogger MeruWarrior said...

Thanks for stepping in, Finn :) and moreso thanks for sharing some of your thought process.

March 28, 2011 4:52 AM  
Blogger MeruWarrior said...

And congratulations for getting onto PDN's list of 30 :)

March 28, 2011 5:03 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

Great post. It's inspirational to see that a self-taught photographer of 8 years can actually compete in the market. And do well!! Thanks!

March 28, 2011 6:37 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@ Sean-

Finn was gracious enough to fill in and write about his lighting process in my absence. To just ask/assume he is also here to tell you about how he makes money sounds way more presumptuous than you probably intended.

Kinda like asking for a full salary history upon first meeting someone.

I did not want to kill the rest of your comment, but neither did I want to validate your request for that level of info.


March 28, 2011 7:21 AM  
Blogger cmdtacos said...

@ jpablo The sun was hitting them from behind, so their fronts would be in shadow and dark. The background could be overexposed and they would still be in shadow. Flash was used to bring their fronts to the right exposure.

March 28, 2011 10:56 AM  
Blogger Human Gobo said...

Hah! I actually recognize that motel!

I worked on a show where we shot crime recreations out of that very same room... brought back fond memories of the shoot! (not of the place though...it was actually quite seedy ;)

March 28, 2011 2:44 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Nice post, Finn. Your work and the work on your website is fantastic.

March 28, 2011 6:29 PM  
Blogger stevenjames said...

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience, personal & professional.

This site is amazing & addicting!


March 28, 2011 7:19 PM  
Blogger Nick said...




March 28, 2011 9:13 PM  
Blogger Debra said...

Hi Finn,

Thank you for sharing your work and approach to a shoot! I love how your lighting makes intuitive sense and feels so natural and seamless. My fave is your "chop" shot... the timing is just perfect with the logs falling, wood chips flying, and dust cloud from the impact... and still so nicely lit. I once tried to shoot lightning (epic fail :)) and that has given me a much keener appreciation for shots like yours! Great work!

March 29, 2011 2:54 PM  
Blogger cjapryor said...

Great post, thank you. The 'Chop' films have been an inspiration - I love a nice axe : )

April 01, 2011 7:44 AM  

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