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On Assignment: Dude for LumiQuest

I shot the original ad for the LumiQuest Soft Box III back in 2008, using a pre-production sample. I love that light mod, and use it all of the time.

So when Quest Couch asked me to shoot a second version for the bigger LTp and left the subject matter up to me, I eagerly started looking for a subject.

This is my favorite kind of job -- full creative control. I imagine this is what Annie Leibovitz must feel like on a regular basis. Except that this job was not even in the same financial zip code as hers are. No matter, I was looking forward to it.

I kicked it around in my head for a while before realizing that I had been walking past a good subject 20 times a day or so. I don't really use the LTp much for people. I still prefer my SB-III for that, in combo with on-axis fill. (McNally is exactly the opposite.)

But for shooting small-scale items, both the SB-III and LTp are obviously the equivalent of huge soft boxes. So I decided to light and shoot a small, moving subject. Enter Dude, Ben's betta fighting fish.

When Ben first asked to get a betta, my first response was the same as many parents: to start pre-thinking the proper way to conduct a fish funeral. Do we bury it outside, or is it more of a burial-at-sea thing? (Ba-wooosh.)

But Ben was persistent, poring through books on betta fish and learning far more than any 11-yr-old kid has a right to know. So we caved. And Dude (and his across-the-hall roommate Poseidon) have become fixtures ever since.

For fish, they are actually quite entertaining. Bettas are beautiful, to begin with. But they are also quite interactive with people, and have a lot of personality. Ben has trained Dude (no lie) to jump nearly an inch out of the water to get his food off of the tip of your finger. You can even feel his teeth on your skin. Dude is gonna eat, one way or another.

Susan told me that Ben is even trying to teach Dude how to read, holding up cards that say "light" or "food," followed by the appropriate change in environment. I am skeptical. But I have been wrong before.

One day last month, Ben's braces meant a trip to the dentist to get five teeth pulled (yuck). I figured this was the perfect day to balance out the bad by doing some studio shots of Dude.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Seemed easy enough. Put a huge (to Dude) soft box over the top of the aquarium and blast away, right? Turns out, not so much.

For the first try (seen just above) we put black construction paper behind the aquarium to clean up the background, and used fill cards along with an LTp up top. Cool photo, but several problems surfaced. One, the black was not black due to the paper being so close. And there were still reflections in the glass when we moved it further back.

Two, any particulate in the water became bright, out-of-focus points of distraction against the dark background.

Three, as Dude swam around that meant huge (relative) changes in light-to-subject distance. And since the light on Dude was so variable (within a constant-lit environment) TTL did not feel like a good fit either.

Back to the Drawing Board

We decided to solve problems one and two by wrapping Dude in light. This not only cleaned up the background, but also erased the backlit particulate. Key light and background were LTp's. The side lights were SB-III's. Presto: Instant, full-wrap light chamber:

This left us with the variable light problem as our only remaining issue. Oh, plus how to follow focus a hyperactive betta with a macro lens…

Actually, that last problem was solved by my experience shooting high school wrestling matches before autofocus cameras. Rather than continually micro-focus as the wrestlers squirmed around on the mat I would focus on the general area, then bob and weave to mimic the distance changes the wrestlers were hitting me with. This is very intuitive to learn, and very effective. Only problem is you look like you are in some sort of trance when you are shooting.

So it was with Dude. I zone-focused my 60/2.8 Nikon micro lens to a distance wherein Dude filled most of the frame, and then bobbed and weaved to cancel out the distance changes as he swam around. With a macro subject, you need a lot of aperture to hold focus, and the combo worked pretty well. I shot between f/22 and f/45.

Speaking of aperture, that was our last problem to solve. We did that by fudging a little. We set the background flash (in an LTp, and through a piece of printer paper) to go white at f/32. If it went a little more white (or less) that was easily tweaked in post. The key light up top was adjusted to roughly match that working aperture, and the side lights were down about a stop and a half.

So now, with my focus locked (and controlled by moving my camera along with Dude) I only had to worry about my exposure as he got closer or further from the key light. As he would swim down to the bottom, I'd go to f/16 (which, with the lens extension, was close to f/22). At the top of the tank, I'd change it up to f/32 (f/45 with extension factor). In the middle I would swap to f/22 (f/32 ext.)

This worked like a charm. Actually, it became intuitive after just a few laps around the tank. In the end, we probably had fifty good photos. The colors on a betta fish are pretty unreal to begin with, and just about anywhere he goes he is in great light.

In the end we chose an image where he was interacting with the water's surface, both for context and a bit of a reflection. Look for Dude to be popping up in a trade show or photo magazine near you.

And if you decide to build an impromptu studio around your own fish, link to the results in the comments!


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