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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Blogger fanatique said...

I always learn something new at Strobist. Managed to catch and correctly predict the light sources and modifiers for the first two lights but the third one (that lit up the ground) was pretty subtle.

Looks like still some way to go in terms of lighting for me! :)

September 12, 2011 12:54 AM  
Blogger brett maxwell said...

Funny, I posted just a few months ago in the Flickr Strobist group about this idea: http://www.flickr.com/groups/strobist/discuss/72157626511732511/

Lots of response, but most people seemed to dismiss the idea of lighting the background at sunset. Maybe we'll see more of this soon.

September 12, 2011 12:55 AM  
Blogger Patrick Snook said...


Great post (already thinking about applying it to my sunset shots of my soccer team at practice).

Pedantic note: in paragraph 10, you refer to "a fairy". I thought that old fairy photography guff had been debunked?



September 12, 2011 10:34 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Ha! Typo fixed, thanks.

But make no mistake -- the photo fairies do exist. Lord knows I see the photo gremlins often enough. I'll take the photo fairies whenever they wish to grace me with their presence.


September 12, 2011 11:04 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I only used the ambient / sunlight plus a fill from a Quadra / Octa set-up, but was able to get the separation by sticking my subjects into a pool of water:


Not as cheap and a small flash set up, and I probably could have used a speedlight camera left to create some rim action on the shoulders, but I do like how it turned out.

Unfortunately, the "little grey cells" didn't work too well (to misquote Hercules Poirot) and I didn't pay attention to my back-up camera, which got hit with an incoming wave. That was an $1,100 lesson.

September 12, 2011 12:22 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Great article and tip. Thanks and I'll be using this!

September 12, 2011 2:12 PM  
OpenID fauxtow said...

Another great post David and something I will try in the future.
I love the simple ideas that can add so much dimension and depth to an image.

September 12, 2011 2:38 PM  
Blogger matt said...

Great post David, thank you. One area I'm constantly mindful of my need for improvement in is backlighting a scene in a shaped and thoughtful way. It becomes so incredibly important especially when shooting outdoors and, as it does in your example, can really make a photo pop. I look forward to trying your technique.

September 12, 2011 8:49 PM  
Blogger ijaf28 said...

Yet another admirer of the "flash the background" idea.

September 13, 2011 2:14 AM  
Blogger diegonyc said...

awesome post DH.

that third light really is the difference maker imo.

can't wait to try myself.

September 13, 2011 2:56 AM  
Blogger J. Tillman said...

Another great post. You have really encouraged me to get a couple of strobes and start venturing out. I really want to give this a try.

September 13, 2011 9:11 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

I did a shoot last night and ran out of sunset. Planned to do this and ran out of time. Sunset? Time? What's up with that?
Oh yeah, wife, work, and kids.... Almost forgot.
I'm gonna try this out on the weekend. Yee Ha!

September 13, 2011 2:14 PM  
Blogger Berger said...

Out of place post, Thanks! I had to shoot at the last min. only had one flash and a very bright sun to work with. I remembered some of the things you had said during your stop in Grand Rapids. You saved my a$&. Thanks

September 13, 2011 9:23 PM  
Blogger Ruedi said...

Thanks for this interesting post.
A beginner's question: did you use any CTO-gels on the flashes?

September 14, 2011 7:14 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yes I did. May key light in almost all circumstances has a warming gel on it. In this case, a 1/4 CTO.

September 14, 2011 1:30 PM  
Blogger Stephen Caissie said...

David, have you ever considered using a plusgreen instead of a CTO for your sunset shots? It can do amazing things to the sky once you correct for the green cast in camera or in post. Got this, for instance, with just a single SB-800 in an umbrella: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephencaissie/6000297998/in/photostream/lightbox/

September 18, 2011 9:06 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Stephen, there was actually a post about that ... http://strobist.blogspot.com/2010/12/rosco-plusgreen-magic-sunset-filter.html

September 29, 2011 9:41 AM  

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