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On Assignment: Concert Pianist

Shooting in big, dimly lit rooms used to scare the heck out of me. I'd bring out all of my big flashes -- and borrow whatever others I could get my hands on. But still, I never seemed to have enough light to do what I wanted.

What I didn't know then was that it is usually better to let the ambient in a big room do its own heavy lifting, then tweak it with a little strobe. And by "a little," I generally mean speedlights set in the 1/8 power range, max…

This particular shoot was one we discussed at length on the Flash Bus tour, but we don't often spend much on the blog about embracing -- and tweaking -- the ambient light in a big, dark venue. Ditto the idea of embracing an incorrect ambient temperature.

For this photo I wanted something that did not really look lit so much as a look that was more painterly and ambient-influenced. So we worked a couple stops over the ambient, to try to create light that looked more natural than showy.

Here is the setup, with all of the light sources shown in the photo. I knew I was going to remove the light behind the piano in post when I placed it there. Very easy to do, and I am no longer bound by the same limitations as when I was shooting for newspapers.

All three are speedlights, and all are at low power. In fact, the background light and the kicker are probably both at 1/32 power or below. Given that, this shot would probably be harder to do with big lights. You need to hang out at an open f/stop to better allow that ambient light to paint at a decent shutter speed.

By hanging out in the low power range of speedlights, I can blend the room in nicely at, say 1/30th of a sec. (I wanna say it was ~f4 at ISO 400, also.) If I had an Acute2 pack driving my main light, I'd either be shooting at half a second or eating up much of that excess power with ND on the flash.

Nope, if I am gonna mix light in a darkish room, I want my flashes to live in a similar power neighborhood.

Speaking of that, I am becoming much more open to letting the ambient light burn in with its color cast intact. I can control the mix and any color shift with the shutter speed, and it blends in a way that gives an organic reason for the color scheme in the photo.

So if I turn off the flash (above) and just show the ambient portion of the exposure, you can see just how much of the photo is ambient light. I like this mix, even though in the end I pulled some of the red out of it in post and just left the warmth. This left the photo looking more natural, but not-at-all color correct. I spent a long time being anal about color temperature, and ended up with a lot of sterile-looking photos as a result. Trying to learn to go with the flow a little more these days.

As for the strobe, it is coming from what many people might consider to be an atypical direction. But we do tend to light rooms (with our continuous lights) from above, so that's what I did on Thomas -- and then blended the fill with this ambient light.

By pushing a small amount of strobe down from directly above (in a soft light mod) I can keep a natural looking light. And if it is balanced with the ambient in the room, I keep a natural legibility in the shadows, too.

Big dark rooms don't need to be scary. They just need a different shutter speed -- and not to be overpowered with too much flash.

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Blogger Paolo said...

Welcome back on-line David! I enjoyed very much your latest DVD's and meeting you in LA with Joe McNally was nice too!

May 09, 2011 1:43 AM  
Blogger 陳一豪 said...

I was wondering... since the pianos tend to have elaborate and beautifully crafted working innards, couldn't you give it a very light pop and let it be caught on the reflection of the tilting piece (whatever its called).

Or would it lead to too much distractions?

May 09, 2011 2:56 AM  
Blogger Grey Trilby said...

The kicker on his face - is that coming from the 'photoshopped' light, or the one at the opposite end of the piano?

It looks like the 'shopped strobe is lighting the wall, but I can't see in that setup where the third light is pointing.

May 09, 2011 3:12 AM  
Blogger Ugo said...

If I may add something, don't you think the front of the piano is a bit too dark and dull? Personally, I would have though of lighting it, maybe from camera right at an angle, to bring out its shiny surface and shape. Or maybe you didn't want to bring it up to the viewer's attention and to compete with the player. Can you explain a bit more about your choice here?

May 09, 2011 4:14 AM  
Blogger Rolsted said...

Thanks, as always, for sharing. Love your blog!
Re. the shutter speed: How do you keep the human subject tack sharp when you are working at such a low shutter speed as 1/30?
I would have thought it impossible for a guy to keep his head perfectly still while playing the piano. Does it all come down to rear curtain sync?

May 09, 2011 4:25 AM  
Blogger kevin murray said...

Nicely done David. I can almost feel the tones resonating in the room.

May 09, 2011 7:37 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I enjoyed hearing the story behind this shoot during the Flash Bus tour. It truly is proof that big, powerful studio strobes can be massive overkill when capturing a scene such as this.

So when is Flash Bus 2.0 launching? :-)

May 09, 2011 7:47 AM  
Blogger Sergei said...

Thanks for sharing, David.

Interesting set, but i sort of miss textures on his suit that are there in first version. In final - they gone, and so are ones from instrument.

May 09, 2011 7:48 AM  
Blogger JA said...

NIce lighting what type of unbrells is that wth the additional cover on the bottom?

May 09, 2011 8:03 AM  
Blogger LudaChris said...

Nice to have you back!
You were missed, especially by those that couldn't get to the tour. Did you move your stand around for easier post removal, or just clone it out?

May 09, 2011 8:53 AM  
Blogger PeejAvery said...

This has always been a problem for me. Thanks for covering it!

Also...any chance of a font-size boost on the site? I spend hours on this site a week. In order to read without a headache, I up the browser magnification 3 times every time I come on this site. But then I have to deal with photo pixelation.

May 09, 2011 9:27 AM  
Blogger Tonia Mc Caskill-Johnson said...

Hi David,

I really enjoyed learning about the set-up for this image on the Flash Bus Tour. It was the first time where I actually saw how just a few speedlites strategically placed can really compliment ambient light. I also really enjoyed learning about the lighting set-up for the young man playing the instrument outdoors. As always interesting, inspiring work.

May 09, 2011 9:34 AM  
OpenID Joe said...

Perfect ambient balance with a soft warm feel. Your subtle use of the strobes, enhances the subject without calling attention to the lighting. Very well done!!

May 09, 2011 9:35 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I shoot a lot of events in dimly lit environments like this, and would like to know your preferred method of reducing reds in post production. Thanks for this timely post.

May 09, 2011 10:01 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

So what if you are shooting this concert pianist "in action" - in the middle of a concert? Suggestions?

May 09, 2011 11:04 AM  
Blogger Clement said...

@Kim: Same thing but you would bump the ISO at 1600 to get fast shutter speed. Of course you'd probably won't be allowed to put a softbox on a boom in the middle of the stage...

May 09, 2011 1:01 PM  
Blogger rjg said...

I was wondering, what is the Boom arm and Lighting modifier you are using in this shot?

May 09, 2011 1:23 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

The piano post was perfect timing for me - last week I shot a marketing event: large, dim room with only ambient light - fortunately incandescent, no worse. I went around to the table displays shooting the people and their product tables. The previous time I did this I used a Nikon SB800 into an 16" Ezybox via a cable and mounted on a light stand. Cumbersome, but fairly decent results. This time I tried the Lumiquest softbox 3 with same flash, holding it at arms length. This seemed to directional. I couldn't avoid shadows on the walls which were only 3 to 5 feet behind the tables, or specular highlights from the product signage, even with the signs on an angle. Am doing a whole lot of post and blessing fill light in Lightroom.

So, all of this leads up to asking you how you might work this kind of situation.



May 09, 2011 2:04 PM  
Blogger Kim said...

@ Clement - ya - they don't really like all the lighting equipment on the stage during a concert :o) I actually used this setup to do a portrait shoot last week and had great results but we shoot a lot of concert work on the stage too.

I'd also be interested in knowing about the post work to reduce red. Seems we end up with red or yellow regardless of the white balance setting.

May 09, 2011 3:34 PM  
Blogger IvarS said...

Nice to see you, also on the last DVD, introducing the softbox umbrella on top of a boom. would a white translucent do the same?

To avoid cloning away the flashstand behind the piano, could a gorillapod be put on top of the piano? I guess the rubbered feet would prevent sliding.

May 09, 2011 4:24 PM  
Blogger Oli said...

Like it. Very natural looking light. I'd also be interested in Grey Trilby's question. The photoshopped light is obviously lighting the background. What is the purpose of the strobe to the right?

May 09, 2011 4:53 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

With regards to toning down the red, using Lightoom, I find that if I decrease the Vibrancy just a little, it brings the reds in line. If the result is a bit flat, increase the clarity a touch.

May 09, 2011 7:28 PM  
Blogger photo said...

David what boom and boom stand is that?

May 09, 2011 7:44 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Wow ... lotta Q's on this one. Keep 'em coming. I will write up a QA post shortly, rather than doing a magnum opus comment.


May 09, 2011 7:58 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Thanks David, I've been wondering how Eric Ogden achieves his awesome cinematic look and I think you've answered this question with this post.

Is it necessary to use gels to help blend the flash with the ambient light? Or is this achieved by using the slower shutter speed?

Thanks heaps for all the tips and inspiration, you've been a massive influence in developing my current style :)


May 09, 2011 9:36 PM  
Blogger Pauh said...

Thanks for posting this, David.

You reviewed this shot during your Seattle FB tour stop, and I recall you referring to the main light mod as being a "poor man's octa" - and just to echo what a couple other posters have asked, what make/model is that?

Thanks for all you do - I've learned a ton from you and your readers!

May 10, 2011 12:56 AM  
Blogger hoanpham003 said...

Hi. In my case, I found the piano is too dark sometime. It's glossy, but not easy to differ the contour of the piano. Also I don't want to move the focus from the player to the piano. Some scene both player and instrument can be seen as a whole. I ended up by shooting portrait of the player through the opening of the grand piano.

What is your thoughs when I also want to include the piano, which is pretty dark glossy?

May 10, 2011 6:39 AM  
Blogger toofan said...

Awesome take and lightning. I wish there could be more orangey tone which were shown in the image with flashes off.

Loved it and learned a lot.

May 10, 2011 9:50 AM  
Blogger MichaelHope said...

Hi David,

You kinda skirted the issue on the light mod. Did you gel it for tungsten with, say a half CTO? If not, how long do you need to drag to have the whiter strobe warm up with the ambient?

Thanks David (nice that you're back)

May 10, 2011 10:47 PM  
Blogger RayPlay said...

Nice and interesting post.
The piano trolley is a pity. What is the kicker on the right kicking except the pillar behind the piano?

May 11, 2011 9:59 AM  
Blogger MG said...

The brolly looks like a Photek softliter or similar to me (???)

@陳一豪 I can't speak for David's artistic vision with this shot (and I agree that a reflection might have looked cool although probably nightmarish to get it to work right, especially if the piano was matte black instead of polished finish and/or the finish had any flaws/chips/dings) but, speaking as a professional musician, unless one is going for an "artsy" shot, the focus is usually on the musician and/or the musician in-situ rather than the instrument. I'll be interested in DH's take on this :)

Lastly... where the heck was this taken? I'm wracking my brain because it looks so familiar!

May 12, 2011 2:29 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

I love piano music but don't know how to play it :D

May 13, 2011 4:14 PM  
Blogger markleethephotographer said...

Ok, I have the soft lighter and in none of the sale images and even in this setup shot, I don't see the ROD that comes sticking out if it towards your subject. Did you cut the rod to get rid of it?

May 16, 2011 11:19 PM  
Blogger jsychan said...

I apologize if this is a noob question, but I thought that when you combine the ambient incandescent light with strobes, you would get really weird colour temperatures (warm tones for ambient area, and colder bluish highlights for the areas lit with flashes). Or is that a given and just corrected in post-processing?

May 19, 2011 7:21 AM  
OpenID bimchum said...

Am a mere mortal in front of you David, but just wished to share my frank view. If the final shot is the crop thats displayed in top, it looks bit blatant to me. While the 3rd one with only ambient is so much more juicy and shows the mood and state of the pianist. Could you have included more of the room with a longer lens to compress the frame and show the artist in same size? And somehow hung the light from further above instead of using the boom?

May 26, 2011 6:16 AM  
Blogger Greg Buffone said...

I had a hard time finding a portable boom and a means of attaching it to a light stand. I noticed the setup you have for "table topping" and hoped you'd be able to recommend a source for these items.

Thank you,

May 17, 2013 1:35 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I use a Paul Buff Boom Arm, which unfortunately is not being made anymore. There are other solutions. You'll have to look and ask around to see what might work best for you.


May 17, 2013 2:31 PM  

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