Q&A: Thomas Hunter

Lotsa good questions popped up in the comments section of last week's On Assignment: Thomas Hunter post.

Fair enough. Hit the jump for the A's to your Q's.

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

A: Yep, a little confusion about that one -- coupla people asked. Thought it was obvious with the setup shot included, but obviously not. Sorry about that.

The light at far right is the one lighting the background. It needs to be relatively far away to get a more even throw on the background. The light behind the piano (which I took out in post) is the little kicker on his face. That does not have to light evenly across distance, so it can be closer and more targeted.

Q: 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?

A: You are right about it competing, IMO. Totally subjective, but I wanted it to be more of a shot of a pianist, rather than a piano.

And that's a black-lacquered piano, so even lit, it is gonna be black. If I wanted detail on the piano, I would hit it with a big, soft light -- probably from camera right. Nice big source (maybe a speedlight thru a white sheet) and dialed *waaay* down.

All I would be looking for in that case would be a specular highlight hitting on the curves of the piano to give shape. Reason is, you show shape and detail on very dark objects by using reflections. (And on light objects by using shadows.) But the black would be the dominant tone, with the specular highlights defining the curves -- and thus the shape.

Q: 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?

A: Ah, but he is not tack sharp. If you look at a blow-up of his hands, they are motion blurred. But he is pretty sharp otherwise.

That's a numbers game -- shoot multiple frames and it'll work itself out. Less so at 1/15th or 1/4th of a sec on the shutter, obviously. Remember, the flash is gonna freeze him. And the ambient is a couple stops below that exposure, so movement is minimized. You can see what movement there is, in this detail from the final photo.


Q: 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? :-)

A: TFB 2.0? Not anytime soon. And please do not even let Missus Strobist know you brought that up.

Q: What type of umbrella is that with the additional cover on the bottom?

A: That is a 60" Photek Softlighter II. I like to think of it as a poor man's octa, and I love it. I have a post on choosing soft light mods coming up soon. More detail (especially relative to the similarly priced Paul Buff "PLM") then.

Q: Did you move your stand around for easier post removal, or just clone it out?

A: Just cloned it out. Moving my stand around would have forced me to abandon hand-holding the camera (which I am usually loathe to do) to be able to register the two images for layered erasing of the stand.

Q: 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.

A: That's an easy one. In Photoshop, Hue/Saturation, choose "Red," and move the slider down. Incidentally, I generally remove about 10 units red (and 5 of yellow) to bring my D3's chip closer to neutral.

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

A: I'd prolly jack that ISO up, and spray and pray. With a sound blimp, of course.

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

A: That's a Paul Buff 13' stand and boom. (The boom arm no longer is appearing on Paul Buff's website, for some reason.) The build quality is not exactly confidence-inspiring, but it does the trick for me -- especially when well-sandbagged.

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

A: Hmm ... kinda. The light would be less controlled. I like the beam edge that the SoftLighter gives me. Also, there would be some raw light spill around the umbrella (and thus onto the background) if you did not bury the flash head into the umbrella.

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

A: Probably not -- it would have been too close on axis to Thomas' face. I would have needed it a little more behind him. The stand was a foot or two behind the piano.

Q: 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?

A: I tend to work ~2 stops above the ambient, so the ambient color does not blend and/or contaminate the strobe too much. Remember, that ambient is supporting fill, and thus is muted. If I wanted to work at a tighter ratio (say, with the strobe just one stop over the ambient) I would probably have to go into tungsten WB and gel the strobes to compensate. As it is, the fact that the ambient is roughly 1/4 as powerful as the strobe (being two stops down) keeps the color shift in check.

Q: 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?

A: Again, nope. The overhead light does have a 1/8 CTO, but that's just because that is my standard warming gel for the key. But that has nothing to do with the blending of the two light colors -- I usually 1/8 CTO my key no matter what. "How long" on the ambient is not really an absolute answer. (It was 1/30th, I think.) But it is more of a relative thing -- a 2 stop difference to the strobe.


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Blogger Chromatic Dramatic said...

Thanks for expanding on the "photoshopped" light. I too was wondering about that, so glad others asked.

(Also sorry if this post has appeared twice, keep stuffing up the post).

May 16, 2011 12:27 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

The overhead light does have a 1/8 CTO, but that's just because that is my standard warming gel for the key.

1/8 CTO.. I only have Full, 1/2 and 1/4... Does this mean I have to go and buy more strobist gear? :P

May 16, 2011 12:52 AM  
Blogger SJCT said...

Great article and Q and A. I have one more "A" though. What is a sound blimp?

May 16, 2011 10:33 AM  
Blogger londonblue007 said...

Shooting a black piano is a pain... the only way IMO to bring depth to the piano is to include the interior if possible. Since DH was on-axis to the side of the piano, there was no chance with this shot but maybe if taken from some height (small ladder maybe) with a speedlight off right shooting into the piano.... I shot a steinway a while back and couldn't keep the piano from drifting into the background due to the black finish and black backdrops and lack of ambient in the theatre, so I just let it go and lit the interior instead. With the interior lit, the piano can disappear into the black background but you can still tell it is a piano due to the lit plate and strings. (http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3189/2782071266_6a8a93341d_b.jpg). Most concert grands have beautiful interiors, a little light on it and bam a killer piano shot. But, DH is right, he's shooting a pianist, not a piano. Thanks much DH for this Q&A post!

May 16, 2011 11:57 AM  
Blogger JS said...

Thanks so much for this, DH.

Not to add more questions to the stew, but it seemed like a good time to bring it up...

Do you use gray cards/MacBeth cards to help in post?

Bonus Q:
Do you use a monitor calibrator (like the Spyder, or Eye-One)?

May 16, 2011 12:07 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

@SJCT - the A to your "Q" is easy enough to find...


May 16, 2011 12:14 PM  
Blogger H A R R Y G O A Z said...

GREAT tips !!!

Have a super week.

May 16, 2011 3:13 PM  
Blogger ClayToney Photography said...

So I have been looking at modifiers for a while now, I only have a shoot-through umbrella, and I want an octa softbox so very badly. This picture suggests that strobes are powerful enough to be shot through large octaboxes. Am I correct?

May 16, 2011 10:07 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


The SB-800 in this SoftLighter was either on 1/4 or 1/8 power.

May 16, 2011 11:13 PM  
Blogger michaelbs said...

You could also have placed a simple speedlight inside the piano to create some glow from the beautiful interior. I did just that in this image:

May 17, 2011 3:15 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I too was a little confused about which light was lighting to background and which was the kicker on his face, at least before seeing the shot with the lights visible. I think the confusion comes from the fact that the background light is evenly lighting the wall but the specular from the Softlighter, which draws attention to Thomas in a subtle way, unevens the light on the background a bit so it appears to be coming from a smaller source.

May 17, 2011 6:32 AM  
Blogger Arden Tilghman said...

I highly recommend the Photek Softlighter II. It is incredibly good for most occasions. I just used it a couple of days ago on location for a swimming pool shoot. Amazing modifier, low price. Save some money on Octas and go with the Softlighter II.

May 17, 2011 6:45 AM  
Blogger :) said...

Thanks for the follow-up DH! (I think my comment to the prior post got eaten in the blogger-comment-glitches-maelstrom, but you answered most of my questions anyway. :)

May 17, 2011 10:56 AM  
Blogger Cody said...

If you use a 1/8 cto on your key light as a standard, do you use a custom white balance before you add the gel? Or do you use a camera preset?

May 17, 2011 11:52 AM  
Blogger MG said...

(apologies if this is a repeat to my follow-on comment - I think my previous one got eaten when I submitted - clearly having issues of all kinds today!)

Previous comment was mine - have no idea why it appeared as a smiley-face instead of my usual handle....

In any case, one final question: why not use the existing stage/house lighting - more control with your own strobes rather than presets onstage? Just interested. (Also still trying to figure out where that was taken - it looks so familiar!)

May 17, 2011 12:13 PM  
Blogger SJCT said...


Point taken. Haha. I thought about the fact that I should have just googled "sound blimp" myself.

May 17, 2011 1:49 PM  
Blogger p. said...

David, I did not comment when you originally posted this, but my initial thought was that you "hit it out of the park".

Thank you for the follow-up, because it answered a few of the questions I had.

Maybe most importantly, you answered my one lingering question of whether or not a SoftLighter could be effectively used with a single speedlight.

Cheers, thanks again!

May 17, 2011 8:12 PM  
Blogger Derek Auth Photo said...

What an amazing article. I was wondering, what were the flash heads mm set to? Wide, tele? Thanks

May 18, 2011 11:09 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Hi David-
Thanks for this. I am a "lurker" and have been silently following/appreciating you for 4 years. I was raised in B'more and loved your Sun Paper posts. I have learned more about lighting fundamentals on Strobist than I did in my full time photography school.
You may have covered this but what is your current recommendation for a Speedlight Octa? Paul Buff or other.

May 18, 2011 12:37 PM  
Blogger ratan mehta said...

hi david,

I'm thinking of getting a photek softlighter.

I already have a hotshoe umbrella mount.

Will my Speedlight and 8mm, 46'' softlighter be compatible?

Or do I have to buy some other mount to make it compatible.


May 19, 2011 9:15 PM  
Blogger fvdvhome said...

Hi David,

I love your website and photography.

Did you add a flag, snoot or modifier on the background light to prevent spill on the piano?

Thank you.

June 06, 2011 11:26 AM  

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