Bjorn Stopped By the House on the Way Home…

I first met photographer / retoucher Bjorn Holland in London a few years ago, just before he was to head out on a little motorcycle ride. Eighty thousand miles later, he stopped by my house for a visit on the last leg of his round-the-world trip.

Given that he did not have an official portrait from the journey, we decided to fix that with a trio of speedlights -- and one very big light mod…

The three-year trip started and ended at The Ace Cafe in London. Along the way he traversed 50 countries and collected countless experiences.

When he rolled up into my driveway on his heavily modded BMW F650GS Dakar, the first thing that popped into my mind was Mad Max. Bjorn is a pretty handy type of guy, so his bike had everything from frame-mounted metal cases and racks to a hacked inner tube cruise control.

When his radiator blew a leak 500 miles from nowhere in Alaska, he fixed it with a little epoxy smeared together in his hands.

A stock and assignment photographer, of course he took his camera, tripod and flashes with him. You can see some of his gorgeous panorama photos at

I wanted a shot of him on the bike in low ambient light, with directional light on him but full detail in the mostly dark metal BMW. So I knew I wanted some extra-large sized on-axis fill.

Solution: an el cheapo queen-sized sheet from Wal-Mart. It's so thin it only has one side, but it transmits light Like A Boss.

Bjorn and his bike were lit with two SB-800s, each on half power. The key (gelled with a Rosco 1/4 CTO) was in a 60" Photek Softlighter II, boomed above him. The fill was fired through the sheet which had been suspended from a LumoPro backdrop stand. (At $150, it is probably the most versatile piece of grip I own.)

That sheet increases the area of the fill light from two square inches to over 9,000. Huge difference. And that means the intensity of each square inch of the light reduced is reduce proportionately.

Result: rich fill light to reveal into the bike's innards keeping the specular reflections nice and soft. Even if his bike was all chromed out, the reflections would still be under control.

It's a poor man's solution for a big-ass lighting mod. But there are some caveats, the most important of which is wind. I bagged the stands (mandatory here) but you still have to allow for the fact that your light mod is essentially a sail.

Here are some solutions (in order of effectiveness) when using it in wind.

1. You clamp the bottom of the sheet for extra weight.
2. If there is a slight breeze, do not clamp it to the bottom of the stands, and let it billow in the breeze.
3. For more wind, you can swap out a sheet with slits and pockets sewn in (you buy two sheets, cut and sew).
4. You can cord-and-stake the tops of the background stands.
5. Combination of any/all of the above.

My shooting position was tucked right up under the sheet. I was laying on the ground behind it and shooting underneath. This creates gorgeous fill.

Finally, a third SB (also at half power) was scraped across the background from back camera right. This accentuated the middleground horizon line.


Afterwards, we had some good pizza, homemade peach cobbler and talked photo and RTW biking well into the night. Some notes from Bjorn:

• Best food: Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia.

• Most hospitable people: Iran and the US. (If only they could be hospitable to each other)…

• Best Landscapes: Bolivia and Tajikistan. (I can sure vouch for the amazing pano print of La Paz he left with me.)

If this is giving you the urge to pack up and head out all Easy Rider style, you'll want to spend some serious time over at, where all of the intrepid RTW bikers share up-to-date info and tips.

To see more about Bjorn's trip -- and definitely to see his stunning panoramas -- head over to

See you next time around, Bjorn. I tip my hat to your epic sense of adventure.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger DC said...

David, great post as usual. Gotta love that big fill.

The first link to (just before the setup pic) needs a fix.

September 26, 2011 6:15 AM  
Blogger Alex said...


The backdrop stands are indeed amazing when it comes to this. I have often used it to "ambient"light an entire classroom. I did a couple of classrooms which all had 3 brickish walls and one full glass one. With a large sheet as a diffuser I had no trouble with the reflections and got a great ambient light (gelled).

September 26, 2011 6:31 AM  
Blogger Patrick Snook said...

Hey Dave,

I'm still chuckling, thinking about the thin single-sided sheet! That's worthy of (that photographer) Lewis Carroll.

Smashing photo, too!


September 26, 2011 6:36 AM  
OpenID chrisnemes said...

As a motorcyclist myself, this is a very nifty idea on how to shoot my fellow riders from now on.

I've always had a large sheet in mind, but didn't quite see how it could be deployed in a compact setup. The LumoPro kit seems to be ideal.

Nice job on bringing out the details on the bike. As a suggestion, having the bike with the lights on brings a bit of pop to the overall lighting scheme.

Here's how mine looks:

September 26, 2011 9:01 AM  
Blogger Spotpuff said...

That is a great photo with beautiful quality light.

September 26, 2011 9:07 AM  
Blogger nlsphotos said...

Hey Dave,

Great idea on the sheet. I've used something very similar and love the look.

Looks like the link to Bjorn's site isn't working.



September 26, 2011 9:59 AM  
Blogger brett maxwell said...

I love the subtle effect of the background light. It makes it look like he's lit by the existing lights in a parking lot... but better.

September 26, 2011 10:48 AM  
Blogger Box of Frogs said...

Superb use of the bedsheet...this type of McGivering is where my creativity needs an injection of, well, summat.

Great post David.

September 26, 2011 10:51 AM  
OpenID said...

Cool setup! McNally & Krist did much the same 'sheet' on the Nikon CLS vid for a wedding portrait. Very effective fill. Thanks for the post!

September 26, 2011 10:56 AM  
Blogger Curtis Clegg said...

I intended to post this after your original post about your hacked background stand, but this is as good a place to share my find as any.

I have one of these $20 garment racks from Bed Bath & Beyond in my studio... it works for holding small backdrops or sheets, or for clamping lights or gobos to it (the rack has wheels so it's a breeze to move around the studio).


September 26, 2011 1:01 PM  
Blogger pierre hotpixel said...

This is the stuff that keeps me coming over to Strobist. Thanks David.

September 26, 2011 2:02 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Hi David, Amazing what you do with a few small flashes. Powered down like that I'm curious as to what ISO and exposure was used. Thanks, Greg.

September 26, 2011 2:47 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Hi David, Amazing what you do with a few small flashes! Powered down like that I was curious as to ISO/exposure. Thanks, Greg

September 26, 2011 2:50 PM  
Blogger Alan Lapp said...

As another motorcyclist & shooter, I'm very pleased to see your interest in the subject.

Shooting bikes has always been a bit troublesome for me because of all the dark nooks & crannies that just go black in the shadows and when I try to light it, the highlights wash out and bloom.

This is a good solution, thanks.

September 26, 2011 2:58 PM  
OpenID modifiedphoto said...

Amazing and Inspiring work by Bjorn. Nicely lit portrait too. ;)

September 26, 2011 7:28 PM  
Blogger Nicole van As ~ Fotografie said...

Great photo with good light!


September 27, 2011 6:04 AM  
Blogger trinifaus said...

Hi Dave,

I would be lying if i said i was not jealous of the level of creativity you posses. God bless you for sharing your knowledge with those that seek it.

September 27, 2011 8:18 AM  
Blogger James Pratt said...

Cool photo. Sort of like my pic of this guy in Oregon. His bike had over 320,000 miles on it and he was the original owner. I rode to Oregon on my BMW and had two speedlights with me that I used for this pic.

September 27, 2011 11:59 AM  
Blogger Cindy Fandl said...

Is he single?:) - Oh! I mean, great light Dave! Nice job on the sheet.

September 27, 2011 12:39 PM  
Blogger Cindy Fandl said...

Is he single?:) - Oh! I meant, great light, Dave! Nice job on the sheet.

September 27, 2011 12:40 PM  
Blogger WASIO photography said...

the photo is outstanding! What kind of post processing have you done on it and white balance? I like the moody feel of it and trying to figure out the colors.



September 27, 2011 5:19 PM  
Blogger Leslie said...

Hi Dave,

What a fantastic picture. It's amazing what you can produce out of those speedlights and fantastic modifiers! This is my first time posting and I would just like to say that it's down to guys like you, Joe McNally and Scott Kelby that I'm now earning a living doing something I adore, when only 3 years ago I thought getting your flash off the camera would void your warranty! Sincere thanks for this amazing blog, your an inspiration.

September 27, 2011 7:28 PM  
OpenID jmont1 said...

Fantástic and inspirational David!!
But I can not image the light!
Can you help me???

September 27, 2011 8:10 PM  
Blogger Alyn said...

I work in Bullet Basecamp, a biker bar in Pokhara, I meet a lot of people on bike tours, a few on RTW tours. One guy about to leave us to drive from here to London on a 135cc Yamaha RX. This makes me realise I really should get some good portraits of these guys, feeling very inspired by this post.

I'm also thinking of doing the same trip to London next year, also with the Ace Cafe as my proposed target destination. Lets see what happens, I'm a poor man and it won't be a cheap trip.

September 28, 2011 2:41 AM  
Blogger Ace said...

The lighting ratios are just fantastic. I like how subtle the details are lighted.I am going to try this lighting set-up. Thanks David!

September 28, 2011 4:15 AM  
OpenID tuphoto said...

Sorry David I asked for the third light!!

September 28, 2011 6:29 AM  
Blogger seshu said...

That 3rd SB800 was subtle and beautifully executed. I nearly didn't see that but the image is definitely more alive because of it. When you do use it in the background, do you snoot it, so that the light follows a certain path. Left uncontrolled, I figured a bare SB would spill light all over the place. Thanks for this post. So many ideas swimming in my head now.

September 28, 2011 8:17 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

It's amazing that riders will go to great lengths to help those on the road. Whether RTW or 'round the block.

Bjorn's posted a few pictures over on too. Amazing stuff.

I like the lighting and feel of the shot too.

September 28, 2011 9:31 AM  
Blogger droptheshutter said...

"It's so thin it only has one side, but it transmits light Like A Boss."

that one cracked me up :D

very nice shot David and another good read. keep it up! (off to explore Bjorn's shots :P)

September 28, 2011 3:53 PM  
Blogger Spyros Heniadis said...

Hell of a mod. Beautifully simple. I love it.

September 29, 2011 9:35 AM  
Blogger Maks said...

Anyone can recommend good boom stand to hold small flash as well as studio strobe, just like one used here? - Thanks!


October 05, 2011 8:46 AM  
Blogger Maks said...

Can anyone recommend a good boom stand for applications like this one as well as for use with a studio strobe? - Thanks!

Back to bed sheet, I though it'll be nice to make a whole in a middle of it.Stick your lens through and shoot with all this fill from right behind you. Thoughts?

October 05, 2011 8:49 AM  
Blogger James Harrang said...


Generally it's easier when shooting with a large fill like this to just stand (or sit) directly in front of the fill and shoot from there. That way, you don't have to worry about the possibility of undiffused spill hitting the subject, which you would if there were a hole cut in the sheet. Cutting a hole in the sheet would also limit you to one shooting position. In this shot, David was shooting from near the ground, but if he wanted a higher perspective, all he would need to do is stand up.

The disadvantage of this, or for that matter of any true on-axis fill, is that you can only shoot from as far away as your fill is located. This means either sticking to short glass (which is generally not optimal for some kinds of portraiture) or moving your fill farther away, sacrificing power and apparent size in the process.

In this particular case, the fill is so large in size that you can move it quite a ways away before approaching specularity in the highlights. As far as power, this was shot at dusk, so David has plenty of power to spare. Were this shot during the daytime, he would probably break out the Profotos. The power to light through large sources from a distance is one of the areas in which big lights have a clear advantage over small strobes.

@Dave - Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post. I'm pretty sure you've mentioned this trick before, but it's nice to see an example of when, specifically, you need a large fill source.

October 06, 2011 5:01 PM  
Blogger benaisa marzoughui said...

Great photo with beautiful quality light.Thanks :)

October 18, 2011 8:25 AM  
Blogger Dimitris said...

I don't know if it has been mentioned before, but you can release some of the "sail" wind tension by perforating the sheet. V shaped cuts evenly spread will allow the wind to come through without compromising it as light mod.

Protesters do this to large cloth banners to allow for them being hand-held in breezes.

November 25, 2011 6:41 PM  
Blogger Matej Petrovic said...

Always wanted to ask this one... What type of white sheet are you using just plain cotton fabric? Or something special?

May 26, 2012 1:14 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Thin white cotton sheet. Nothing special. Cheaper and thinner the better...

May 26, 2012 2:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home