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Tyler Stableford: Dispatches From the Underground

Aspen, Colorado-based photographer Tyler Stableford generally shoots action and adventure, most of it aboveground. But this shoot for Timberland PRO would send him a half-mile deep into the earth.

That far down, before adding light it is absolutely pitch black. As in, you cannot see your hand in front of your face. And the lights the miners use while extracting coal there aren't much friendlier -- low-level, and a mix of tungsten and fluorescents.

So Stableford shot the entire campaign working on the edge of the quality envelope, and lighting with only a few speedlights.

Don't be Afraid of the Dark

If you are a small-flash photographer lighting in a three-dimensional space, dark should never worry you. Light is always about balance. And very low ambient levels are the easiest to balance with a small flash -- even if your shooting space is really big. In fact, what you should be worried about is lighting in very bright spaces such as outdoors with full sun.

Even at a 250th of a second shutter speed, you'll be at around f/16 in full sun. So you'll need a lot of flash to balance that light level. Which usually means leaving your flashes bare and/or bringing them in close. In the dark, there are no such restrictions.

In fact, your limiting factors will usually center around noise/ISO, limited depth of field and shutter speed / camera shake. Stableford found that his best compromise in the dark tungsten/fluorescent environment was to work at ISO 1600 at f/4. That combo gave him an underlying ambient exposure of 1/15th of a second. None of this is ideal. You'd like less noise, more depth of field and more action-stopping ability. But balancing flash in low light is always about the compromise necessitated by the ambient component of the exposure.

Stableford chose a Canon 1D Mk IV for its very low noise at ISO 1600, and a Canon 24-70/2.8L lens. At f/4, his minimum working aperture, he felt he could hold sharpness in the important parts of the frame even though the focus would always be on the boots.

That equation solved, Stableford tackled the differing ambient light temperatures by pre-gelling two different sets of three Canon 580 EX II speedlights -- one with CTOs and another with window greens. That way, he could work more quickly by just swapping out the set of flashes.

The ads were meant to appeal to the miners who buy the Timberland PRO boots. So the environment had to be real (read, lots of shadows and "gritty") but the shoes had to be well-lit and the star of the photos.

Balancing a little above the ambient level, he went for three-dimensionality by crosslighting on the 45's with a pair of Westcott 28" Apollo soft boxes. This gave depth everywhere, but left a lot of shadows for a more gritty feel. This is fine for everywhere in the frame, with one exception -- the boots.

Inside of the cross-lit, shadowy scene he put a "special" on the boots. A special is nothing more than a one-task light, designed to bring attention and full light to a specific area in the frame. Often these are used to light faces differently than the rest of the scene. But in this case it is all about the boots, so they get a light all of their own: a third 580 EX II on a stick, with a LumiQuest soft box attached.

This allows Stableford to have his gritty cake and eat it, too. Deep shadows are all over the scene but the boots get the glamour treatment. This is a great trick for cheating a small area of the frame -- like a face -- when the overall feel would be less than flattering.

A nice tip for critical focusing in a dark environment: Stableford had his assistant wear a head lamp, so he could easily illuminate the boot for critical focus, them switch off the lamp for the actual shooting. If you have an assistant this is great, but I also use a small headlamp to grab focus when shooting people in dark environments by myself.

To get a better feel of the environment Stableford is working in for the above shots, and how he used the LumiQuest "special," check out his behind-the-scenes video:

Tyler Stableford has gotten a lot of notice lately, from mags such as Men's Journal, Communication Arts and American Photo. He is also a Canon Explorer of Light. You can see more of his kick-ass work (and follow his blog) at

You can also stalk him on Twitter at @TylerStableford, where he maintains an active stream.


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