John Keatley's "Best in Show" Christmas Card

Ed. note: Today's guest post is from Seattle-based photographer John Keatley, who will shortly suggest you give yourself permission to blow $50 building your own set...

I know by now many of you are missing David while he’s off driving around the country, flashing people from a bus.  Not sure how he convinced his wife to give him the okay on that one, but to each his own.  I would encourage all of you to turn the other way, or shield your eyes at the very least, if you happen upon the Flash Bus.  But seriously folks.  It’s great to be back on Strobist and I hope you find what I have to say interesting.

More and more, lately, I have been emailing and meeting with photographers who are just starting out, and have questions about taking the next big step toward photography as a career.  What I love about these conversations is the lessons I am reminded of myself as I try to guide others.  In those lessons, I have been reminded of one thing above all others.  Practice what you preach.  But to be more specific, work hard and go after it.  

This could be said in many different ways, but the point I will focus on today is this: do what it takes to make your vision a reality.  This applies to just about everything in photography, from landing that first job with your dream client, to making the ideas floating around in your head a photographic reality.  

The Creation of "Brown Town"

Via Twitter:

@strobist- “Please tell me that brown room is real. I want to believe.”
@johnkeatley - “It was real David. It was very real. And then I had to tear it down. Never stop believing.”

Last fall, I emailed photographer Jenny Jimenez about taking some pictures of my family.  I love how genuine and honest her work is and how easily she captures everyday life.  After talking, we decided to do a photography exchange.  In exchange for our photographs, I would do a photo shoot for she and her husband in my quirky style, similar to what I have done with my family the past couple of years.  I looked at this as an opportunity to have some fun with creative people, as well as a chance to add something new to my portfolio.  We talked a lot about different concepts for the shoot, and eventually decided on casting them as dog people who are a bit obsessive.  

In the past, I would have possibly done the photo shoot at Jenny’s house, or maybe looked around for another location.  But I had a very specific idea in my head of what I wanted the picture to look like.  I decided building a set was the only way to ensure that vision would become a reality.  Too often, the outcome of a photo shoot is left to chance.  Hoping your lights will fit in the room, or that the walls will be the color you want, or that there won’t be an ugly mirror on the wall.  

There are a million little things like this which have an effect on the outcome of your final image.  Do you cross your fingers and hope the people you are shooting happen to have clothes that go with the concept you have in mind, or do you find the clothes you know will work before hand?

I am sure some of you are already rolling your eyes, and thinking you can’t afford to do anything like this.  But really, it’s more about preparation and resourcefulness than money.  I had a simple set constructed with materials costing less than $50, and the furniture was all borrowed.  Jenny and I also talked quite a bit about wardrobe and she was able to provide several options along the lines of what we discussed.  


So what about the lighting?  I used a GE Photoflood light bulb in the lamp on the side table.  It is the same shape as a normal light bulb but it’s 300 watts and daylight balanced.  This allows the lamp light to balance with the strobes, and you won’t get an orange cast as you would from a standard household bulb.  

The next thing I thought about was the key light.  I chose a Profoto Giant 5 foot Silver Reflector on camera right for the key, and a Profoto Giant 7 foot Silver Reflector to camera left for fill.  The Giant Reflectors create beautiful soft light with an edge, and without the hard shadows you get from smaller reflectors.  

Because the image is monochromatic, I wanted to create a sense of depth and separation between the back wall and the subjects.  Another great benefit of building a set is your lights are not limited by a ceiling or walls.  It could prove difficult to place hair lights into a shot like this if you were working in an actual house or apartment.  

Two Elinchrom Ranger battery packs were placed behind the wall with one head on each pack.  The heads were raised up above the top of the wall and each one was equipped with a 7 inch grid reflector with 30 degree grids.  These lights create the subtle highlights you see on the shoulders and tops of the heads allowing everyone, even the dogs, to stand out clearly from the back wall.  The lights were also angled down slightly, so the center was pointing on Robin and Jenny’s backs just below their shoulders.  The grids cause the light to become less intense as it falls off from the center, and the fall-off is what I used to create the rim light.    

Beyond Lighting

I used to think the more lights in a shot the better.  I was always trying to add as many lights into a setup as possible.  Thankfully I have changed my approach to lighting in recent years.  Rather than using many lights with small modifiers, I have shifted toward using fewer lights with large modifiers.  Despite the fact that there are five lights in this image, it seems like the norm for me is to use only two lights for most of my work these days.  The reason I mention all of this is simply because I feel it is so important to internalize lighting once you get to a point where you have a good understanding of what you are doing with it.  

Rather than set up tons of lights and pose my subject like a statue, so as not to ruin the lighting, I find it is much better to light in a way that allows for more freedom and experimentation.  By using larger light modifiers, your subject can turn their head without effecting the light too much.  Suddenly both the photographer and the subject have room to explore and allow the image to grow beyond what you thought it initially could be.

What makes an image great isn’t just the lighting, but the attention to detail, putting the extra effort into production, and working with your subject(s) to convey the right expression.  Lighting alone can’t save a poorly produced idea.  Think through what it is going to take to make it perfect and do it.  Give yourself permission to build a set if you think that will give you a better end result.  Focus in on what it is you are trying to say with your image and give yourself the tools to tell a complete story.   Do what it takes to make your vision a reality.

I hope this encourages some of you to start exploring what else is possible with photography by putting more into your planning and production.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, just convincing.  Combine this with the lessons in lighting you learn on Strobist and I may have to look for another job.  

I would love to see this post turn into a discussion in the comments, and I will do my best to check in often to answer any questions you may have.  Thanks for having me!

Ed. note: If you are looking for a good photographer to follow via Twitter or via RSS on his blog, I highly recommend John. I enjoy following him through his various channels as much for the wry humor as for his photos and behind-the-scenes posts.

:: John's Portfolio ::
:: John's Blog ::
:: Follow John on Twitter ::

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Blogger Raul Kling said...

John, I loved this photograph the minute I saw it in your portfolio. Thanks for posting about its concept, lighting and setup. To know how great photographs were MADE is an added privilege.

April 11, 2011 2:48 AM  
Blogger Parabola said...

good to have a reminder to attention to detail, thanks.

April 11, 2011 3:08 AM  
Blogger Rangefinder General said...

Oh yeah this is a revelation, I'm using lots of small stuff, big modifiers is what I should try. Iam just worried I will lose my lighting ratios and it will look flat.

great shot, dare I say American Gothic?

April 11, 2011 7:40 AM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Ahhhh the luxury of all that space!

April 11, 2011 7:48 AM  
Blogger Callum said...

Liking the image. Pity the girl wasn't a brunette ;)

$50 to build a set which is easily doable, but there wasn't any mention of how much it cost to hire the studio?

April 11, 2011 9:02 AM  
Blogger M said...

Wow. My house still has authentic wood paneling from the 1970's!


April 11, 2011 9:20 AM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Was the portrait of Annie L done with big modifiers too? I would love to see you at a creative live seminar there in Seattle. Think you will ever do one?
Love your work!

April 11, 2011 9:35 AM  
OpenID kristihines said...

I love the second photo... I'll have to set that up with my husband and our Schnauzer. Thanks for the great tips John!

April 11, 2011 10:38 AM  
Blogger alim said...


Great post and great concept!
I really enjoyed your statements about statues vs exploration, and turning vision into reality.

Thanks for sharing! =)

April 11, 2011 11:18 AM  
Blogger Bruce Birmelin said...

I think this image could easily be replicated without using an $1,800 Profoto 7' "Giant" Silver Reflector. But, if you've got one just sitting around the studio, ...go for it.

April 11, 2011 11:35 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

John - can you talk a little about the color? How did you go from an orange wall and chair in the behind the scenes photos to the brown in the final while maintaining the skin tones? Is that done in post or with lighting/exposure? Is this a stupid question?

April 11, 2011 12:30 PM  
Blogger James said...

Thanks for the breakdown, John. What about the brown? With the exception of the dogs and Robin's suit, everything in your set up is in various shades that differ from the final shot.

April 11, 2011 1:05 PM  
Blogger Kevin Halliburton said...


I've got to agree with David on your dry wit - Love it! Your comment at the end there about using big lights to give your subject more room to move was a real jewel of a tip. I love the way your subjects are sort of Saran wrapped in large, crisp highlights with nice clean edges on the detailed shadows. I see you used a smaller (ha- relatively speaking) light for key with no diffuser and a much larger diffused light for fill. BING! Light bulb went on for me on that one. It makes such perfect sense I don't know why I've never tried it. I'm going to experiment with that one - Thank you!

April 11, 2011 4:02 PM  
Blogger Kevin Halliburton said...

Thank you for sharing your knowledge and fielding a few questions John. I've always tried to shoot with the longest glass possible when I've had paneling as a background so I could keep my lights in front of my subjects but out of the family of angles that gives me those distracting hot spots on glossy wood walls. It looks like your lights are well within the family of angles that would cause that. Is it just the sheer size of your lights turning that hot spot into a subtle diffused highlight or are you using some other trick to get that under control?

April 11, 2011 4:13 PM  
Blogger John Keatley said...

@Debbi_in_California: For the portrait of Annie, I actually used smaller modifiers. I used a 22inch beauty dish and a 3 foot silver lined octa.
As far as creative live goes. I can't really say. Maybe if I were invited at some point down the road.
Thanks for your comment!

April 11, 2011 7:04 PM  
Blogger John Keatley said...

@Tim and James: Good questions guys. I work with a post production studio (Gigantic Squid -, and the colors were achieved in post.

April 11, 2011 7:07 PM  
Blogger John Keatley said...

@ Kevin Halliburton: Thanks for your comments. Good question. The paneling is actually pretty flat and it didn't reflect as a glossy wall would. Using a larger light source does spread out the reflection (as minimal is it is) so it is not focused on a small spot on the wall. When you are working with reflective surfaces, it just comes down to angles.

April 11, 2011 7:12 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Thanks John. Have you seen
you are on page two and he didn't guess right, but very close.

April 11, 2011 8:09 PM  
Blogger Brence said...

This is a fantastic post. I love Johns work, and it's very interesting to get some insight into the way he works.

What I found even more interesting, was when I followed Johns tweet which gives a shout out to his re-toucher
Here I found a breakdown of how the image was crafted from what was caught on camera, into the final polished image that you see on his website. Interestingly the pictures on the wall are comp'd in, and Jenny was swapped out from another select where she had the most appealing posture and expression. There is also a lot of post production polish to get to the final treatment.

I am always interested in the full end to end process - so I found this very interesting to read through, after reading the post above!

Here is the post:

April 11, 2011 11:37 PM  
Blogger Wearetheneons said...

Great post John, very interesting work!!! Bravo!

April 12, 2011 2:59 AM  
Blogger info said...

You should have asked me, my parents house still looks like that!

April 12, 2011 11:31 AM  
Blogger info said...

You should have asked me, my parents house still looks like this!!

April 12, 2011 11:32 AM  
Blogger Neil Hanawalt said...

I like it. I Would have added a couple grids on the dogs to bring them out more (they would stay still enough : ) )

April 12, 2011 12:16 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Hi John-
I enjoyed your post and keep getting drawn into to images from your portfolio. I particularly like your yeti Christmas card. I am hoping you could share a bit about how that particular image was made. Was it shot outside or on a set? How did you go about creating such nice gradations in the whites (snow, snowsuits, yeti etc)?
Thanks again your great post. Fun stuff.

April 13, 2011 10:39 AM  
Blogger jim golden said...

hey people, remember you can trade people for stuff (ie studio time) or ask to do a test at a reduced rate Rental is very affordable as well. no need to own can rent hat $1800 umbrella for $50/day in a lot of cities or if you must own, fleabay...

April 16, 2011 2:45 PM  
Blogger Rajiv Sarathy said...

I met John this weekend during a couple of sessions he was giving at a local photo event in Seattle. I asked him a lot of questions and he gave real answers and held nothing back. Quite like David Hobby's style. (In case you see this, John -- thanks!)

June 10, 2012 11:40 PM  

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