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On Assignment: Mathieu Young, Moonlighting in Cambodia

When I first saw Mathieu Young's photos of rechargeable Moonlights from Cambodia, I admired both the photos and the lighting. And then I thought, how exactly does a commercial/advertising photographer from L.A. end up in a fishing village with no electricity halfway around the world shooting solar LED lamps?

Both, ahead.


If there is one theme you will see me beat to death on this blog, it is the value of self-generated work. I do not know a single successful photographer who does not in some way use self-generated work to kickstart both their creative process and their portfolio.

Mathieu Young is no exception. He's pushed a cart with a Profoto 7b 20 miles on foot across LA, photographing the people he met along the way. He's lived in his van to photograph a story on a tent city. He has even picked up and headed to East Africa in search of self-generated photos.

The stories start either with the seed of an idea or meeting someone who can grant access. Then comes research. Lots of research. Finally, the shooting part.

The photos from these self-gen projects have lead to more (and better) commercial work, to the point where he now actually has to schedule time to go out and shoot for himself. Which is how he found himself in Cambodia for a month last February, in search of nonprofits who could use his services. The trip was open-ended and serendipitous. Once there, he ended up volunteering to shoot for TEDxPhnomPehn and was able to network with fellow attendees.

Having myself organized photo coverage for TEDxMidAtlantic in 2010, I agree that TEDx's are great places to meet very interesting (and forward-thinking) people. Plus, TEDx's can generally use still photo coverage. Volunteering there is damn-near a perfect match as far as I am concerned.

Via TEDx, Mathieu meets someone from KamWorks, who connects solar-powered LED lights with people in dark, rural fishing villages. Through a low-cost rental program, the $25 lights are affordable -- even for people who typically live on as little as $1 a day.

"I thought right away that it would make outstanding photos, just by nature of the subject matter," Young said. "The story was the light, and you can't ask for much more than that."

But shooting the images would present technical challenges.

"The 8 little LED bulbs don't stand a chance against the sunlight," Young said. "So I knew the best shots were going to take place during the 30 minutes of twilight after sunset and before sunrise. I was going to have three twilights on my visit to make the photos."

Plus, he would need to add light of his own to bring the contrast range of the twilight images into something his Canon 5D Mk II could handle. So, you have three different kinds of light: Strobe, varying ambient (the twilight) and fixed ambient (the Moonlights).

Young's lighting kit was a single Elinchrom Ranger Quadra, a small, light-weight 400ws battery-powered flash. Ideal for this kind of trek, it can balance against full sunlight -- or drop all of the way down to 8.2WS for tweaking the light at dusk. His modifier was a single 15" soft box, which allowed him to further reduce the light output by using the feathered edge of the light's beam.

"For these photos, I never brought the power above that minimum level," Young said of the combo. "And in fact, I never had the light pointed directly at subject -- I always had it feathered far away from them. This gave me the correct level of light, but also a softer quality of light."

Young talks about the process:

"Making the photos was an absolute joy. Like all Cambodians that I met, the people in these villages were completely generous when I asked for their photos, but also these folks were also genuinely excited about the Moonlight and happy to display them. It is a credit to KamWorks that they worked with these communities to build an ideal product as opposed to coming in and trying to impose what they thought people would want. They really had built a nice rapport with the communities and we were welcomed everywhere we went.

By the third sunset I felt I had got into a swing, working inside people's homes during the last of the daylight hours, then moving outside for the twilight. I did my best to let the Moonlight tell the story and only brought in the strobe when I felt the picture needed it. Since the story was the light, I didn't want my lighting to overpower it."

Given that the Moonlight was an important subject in the photo, Young had to both record it and let it be seen by the camera as a light source. This can be a little harder than it looks. It's essentially an exercise in deciding how much to overexpose the Moonlight so it both illuminates the surrounding area in the photo and looks the way your eye would see it in real life.

Inside, the Moonlight is easier to balance. You can shoot before sunset, so the other ambient is still pretty constant:

"The photo inside with the father reading to his two kids was taken just before sunset, at ISO800, 1/60 shutter, f2/8. I exposed for the Moonlights first, but the background and the father and son's face fell away to total black, so I brought in the Quadra to fill. It was at 8.2w/s inside the hut with me, camera left, feathered hard away from subject, basically pointing back towards camera."

For the image of the girl cooking, Young used a second Moonlight as an on-axis fill. Given he had just one light source of his own, this was pretty smart improvisation. The "fill" Moonlight is further away from the subject than the in-frame Moonlight, so the ratio takes care of itself. Then, add the Ranger to bring up the rest of the scene:

"The photo of the girl making dinner was taken at night after sunset. I hung one Moonlight around my neck to illuminate the front of her a bit, exposed for her Moonlight hitting her the pot, and had the Quadra pinned back against a wall firing at minimum power just to separate her shoulders out from the background a bit. When I made this photo I was literally standing ankle deep in mud, in what I believe was also their trash/compost pile, getting eaten alive by some sort of bug, but it was worth it. The elders that were sitting around in that hut got quite a kick out of us and the lengths we were going to get the picture…"

Outside, things get a little trickier. Twilight moves fast, and Young had to make use of the small window of time where the LED Moonlight glowed appropriately when compared to the fast-changing ambient level of dusk. Then he keylit and added detail to the area surrounding the subject with a low-powered Quadra:

"The photo of the women holding the firewood was taken just before sunrise, ISO4000, f2.8, 1/50 shutter. Again, the Quadra was at minimum power, camera left, feathered hard towards camera."

Capturing a large area with the minimal equipment proved tricker yet. Young decided to drop back and punt:

"The photo of the kids on the bridge was taken well after the sun went down, and it's actually a composite. The background plate I shot at ISO4000, f2.8, 3 second exposure, the foreground was a 1/40 exposure. The Quadra was at minimum power far away camera left, providing just a tiny pop on the kids. "

On Gear and Light

The gear pack was absolute minimal. Young uses a Canon 5D Mk II and a 24-70/2.8. A small video tripod doubles as a monopod when collapsed. Add in the Quadra and the 15" box, and that's it.

As for the use of lighting in photos that are to varying extents documentary, Young explains the balance:

"Almost every photo on my website utilize strobe lighting in some capacity, which I find a fine line to walk. When it works, I feel like it really elevates the photos and makes them more striking, arresting, dynamic; that it makes the viewer stop and look a little harder. But, worrying about lighting can also get in the way of telling the story, which at the end of the day is the primary goal. So, it's a tightrope, and one that I am constantly working to balance."


And, the Pitch:

Young is already looking towards his next self-generated project, and maybe you can help:
"Moving forward, I am hoping to explore other ways to use my resources as a photographer to have a positive impact. These Moonlight photos felt like a perfect intersection of my interests in both photojournalism and commercial photography, so I would love to collaborate with more innovative social entrepreneurs to help them promote their work. If there are any out there, please feel free to contact me. I am hoping to hit the road again this fall."

There you go. If you are involved with an nonprofit org that is doing something very cool somewhere in the world, consider that an invitation to pitch Mathieu with a good story idea.

Next: Working Inside the Soft Box


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