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On Assignment: Stephanie Barnes

Shooting against sunset usually looks pretty good, even with just one light. So much so, that can keep you from experimenting with that second or third light that can give your photos more texture and depth.

Most of my sunset photos lately seem to be done with two lights, one for shape and one for detail. But the third light added to the photo of soprano Stephanie Barnes above was a great help, and will definitely affect the way I shoot portraits at dusk from now on.

The technique was borrowed from photographer Brad Trent. And it not only made a nice difference on this sunset shot of Stephanie for the Howard County Art Council, but also extended my shooting window well into the night.

Looking at his self-portrait in a post I did last year on his artificial portrait series, I kept going back to a hard light he splashed on the ground behind himself.

It's there to create some separation between Brad and the background. (The setup was for another subject, but Brad likes to set into the set and pop off a quick self-portrait once and a while.)

My lighting tends not to be as contrasty as Brad's, but I still liked the idea of a splash of light on the ground behind the subject. And for me, it is especially useful because I use speedlights.

What has speedlights got to do with it? Simple -- I tend to place my lights pretty close, both for apparent size and power when using soft light sources. This is especially true at night, when I am working to overpower sunset as soon as possible, when the light is still brighter.

Working in close with your lights means your falloff will happen a lot sooner. Which can leave a pitch-black "middle ground" when you are exposing for the background of a post-sunset sky.

So that splash of light give you a little more separation after your key light peters out as it falls off behind your subject. Ironically, the splash light (for me at least) is probably going to be the most powerful light in the group.

Why? Because I want it relatively far away to evenly light a fairly large area. That needs distance -- and a little bit of power.

Nevertheless, the shot above was done with three speedlights. Which cost about what Brad paid for sales tax on his bevy of Profotos, but the technique still carries over.

And speaking of lights, the fill was an SB-800 in a 60" Photek SoftLighter II (one of my favorite soft light mods) just behind me and firing over my left shoulder. This was my safety net light, giving me detail everywhere that was important on Stephanie. It was about a stop and a half below my main exposure. You can see by the shadow on her legs that the light was close to on-axis, but a tad shifted up and left.

The key light was another SB in a Westcott 43" double-fold, being floated just above Stephanie (upper camera right) by my assistant Dave, who was holding the light stand over her.

The size -- and closeness -- of those two sources make for very creamy specular highlights. The was especially important on this night, which was very hot and muggy. Stephanie was perspiring glowing just like the rest of us, and the soft lights helped to mitigate those hotspots.

The splash light was a bare speedlight way back and to the right, and give me the separation on Stephanie's legs. But it also adds some depth to the scene.

Right away I was smitten with the effect, and immediately thought of bringing in one of my own big lights just so I could place it waaay back and scrape some light across much of that field. Next time, maybe.

But the best surprise was what it gave me when we lost the sunset and I cropped the sky out altogether:

This, I like. For a number of reasons.

First, the separation on her shoulders makes it possible to use the ground as a backdrop. If it were all black the photo would not work nearly as well.

Second, it extends my window on these evening shoots. When the sky has gone dark, we can ditch it and keep shooting. The ground is always gonna be there, even at night. Especially at night, for speedlight folks who get maximum flexibility when they do not have to overpower lots of ambient light.

But I am already seeing ways I want to use this with full daylight portraits, too. I'll need to work above the ambient, but not enough to take it to black as in the above night portrait. There are lots of subtle mixes to be had here.

Big lights would definitely be more versatile when overpowering daylight. But if working in close, and/or working with (more efficient) bare lights, I could definitely affect the ground as a backdrop with a speedlight.

This opens up a nice compositional escape hatch, because the ground is always gonna be there as a backdrop. The horizon may be crappy -- full of branches, power lines, etc. But if the ground is not there for you to use, I would submit that you have a bigger problem than your composition my friend. Like maybe finding a parachute very quickly.

Next: Theresa Daytner Pt. 1


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