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 TylerStableford.com.

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


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Blogger Addison Geary Photography said...

Great lighting while still retaining the ambiance of the mine. What type of transmitter did Tyler have mounted in the hot shoe?

January 30, 2012 10:41 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Addison, for this shoot I used RadioPopper transmitters/receivers. I'm now also working with the PocketWizard Mini TT1, FlexTT5 and AC3 ZoneControllers and really enjoying the reliability of those. -Tyler

January 30, 2012 12:11 PM  
Blogger Clement said...

I think that I would rent all the gears for such assignment... David, how much for your Phase One 1/2 mile under?

January 30, 2012 1:23 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Excellent lighting.

January 30, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger Cole Bennett said...

A very informative article. I was wondering how the focusing would be handled. Great images! Thanks for making a behind the scenes video, Tyler.

January 30, 2012 1:47 PM  
Blogger JS said...

I love the long shutter. How much time and how many "models" did you have for the shoot? Were they actually working?

P.S. Unintentional, I'm sure, but I got a nice "Half-Life" vibe from the video.

January 30, 2012 2:01 PM  
Blogger Mat said...

Excellent work !!!

January 30, 2012 2:12 PM  
Blogger Max Lodner said...

Hi Tyler,

What did you use for your speedlight-to-softbox connection? Why not just bring the Hensels down in the mine with you?


January 30, 2012 2:52 PM  
Blogger JS said...

Come to think of it, I would have imagined that a mine, of all places, wouldn't be terribly excited about any radio transmitters at all. I defer to their wisdom and experience, of course.

January 30, 2012 3:13 PM  
Blogger Arno said...

Great pictures. And great stuff with the special light on the boots

However: I'd be scared s**tless. I have been in a coal mine. Any electronical device was strictly forbidden. Especially high-voltage stuff (strobe…). The MineGas and especially the coal dust are insanely explosive. I do not see any special (scuba?)casing around the strobes. Man, I'd be scared.

January 30, 2012 4:31 PM  
Blogger Tyler Stableford said...

Hi Max, in response to your question, we used the Westcott Apollo 28" kits and they have a handy adapter that attached to a lightstand, holds the Speedlite, and accepts the umbrella pole; it's really an amazing system and puts out beautiful quality light. And the reason we didn't bring our Hensel kits (although we had approval) is that they put out too much light! We were working with very dim ambient lights on the work trucks/equipment, and it was important to balance our strobes with them; so the Speedlites were the perfect match as they can go to much lower settings. For 99% of our outdoor work we use the Hensel Porty L 1200.
JS, to answer your question, we had a full day to shoot with 4 miners who work at the mine; 2 at a time for a half day each. They weren't actually doing the tasks as we shot, or we would have been in the way! -Tyler

January 30, 2012 7:14 PM  
Blogger Prelo said...

I'd like to echo Arno. How did you deal with the technical details..

January 30, 2012 7:48 PM  
Blogger hodgy said...

I use nothing Lumopro flashes and pocket wizards for all my underground/industrial work. Underground is a different environment, damp, musty and muddy. I try not to remove my lenses when underground.
Great shots Tyler!!!!



January 30, 2012 7:55 PM  
Blogger MTBTrials said...

I agree that the flashlight is nice for focusing in the dark, but I find that some heavy duty scotch velcro for the trigger on the side of my on camera flash, with a sync cord to the camera body allows me to use the AF assist beam, then either gaffer tape the flash or have it fire away from the frame at a low power level...

January 30, 2012 9:01 PM  
Blogger JPF said...

Forgive me for going back to basics here.What i'm refering to is how to achieve a starting exposure in low light without a meter.

If we are working without a light meter, as of the lighting tutorials, how does this work out in a low light situation?

Metering the ambient then popping a flash would require far too long a shutter speed to stop movement.

obviously i know the answer with a meter.I'm just interested how to achieve the end result without.

January 31, 2012 3:53 AM  
Blogger Paul Hodgson said...

Crikey! What an inhospitable working environment. Time 2.23, all that coal dust and not a breathing mask to be seen...rather them than me...phew!

January 31, 2012 7:00 AM  
Blogger Redskull said...

Great job in this hard conditions, I like the photos !

January 31, 2012 1:14 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Did you use noise reducing software?

January 31, 2012 3:58 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Fabulous shoot indeed. How many speedlights did you fit in each soft box?
Thanks for sharing such great work and how it was done.
Alex Elias

January 31, 2012 4:13 PM  
Blogger Tyler Stableford said...


Thank you for your question and please don't be bashful for asking, it's a great one. I use my camera's screen and histogram as my lighting meter, and no longer bring a light meter. So to start, when I arrive at the scene, I take some test shots w/o any strobes, and just see what the ambient light is doing. In the case of the coal mine and the bolting truck, a 'good' ambient exposure was approx 1/20th sec at f/4.0 at iso 1600 ('good' meaning it still looked mysterious and slightly dark). Then I have an assistant stand in as a model and we start adding strobes; I simply look at the back of the screen and play around with the light power and positions until the scene looks interesting and well balanced. I use the histogram to ensure that things aren't blown out or horribly underexposed, and that generally seems to work pretty well! I hope this is helpful, thank you for your interest. -Tyler

January 31, 2012 4:56 PM  
Blogger Tyler Stableford said...

Hi Debbi and Alex,
To answer your questions: we used the noise reduction software built into Lightroom 3; it's surprisingly powerful. And check out the Lightroom 4 Beta free download -- it only gets better!!
And we used one strobe in each Westcott Apollo softbox; there was no need for additional power -- many times the strobes were only firing at 1/4 power or so since we were shooting with such a high ISO. - Tyler

January 31, 2012 5:54 PM  
Blogger Chris Parks said...

Great work Tyler. Your blog title is exactly the same as one I posted a while back. So I therefore agree. Darkness in images can help create fantastic impact. Those dark and dangerous work environments make for great photo opportunities. And there are some fantastically talented industrial photographers out there doing just that. I often wonder why they aren’t recognized more.

Don’t try to throw light everywhere. Revel in the opportunity dark locations offer you as Tyler has amply shown. For a few more examples of why you should embrace the opportunity to enjoy the dark and dangerous visit http://www.effectiveworkingimage.com/blog/index.html

What does amaze me however are the safety and obvious budget differences in force in our two countries. As mentioned by some others. Being able to use your gear as you seem to have in an underground coal mine just would not be allowed in Australia. We have to have all our cameras and lights fully sealed. All battery compartments have to be sealed before entering the mine so you can not even change a battery underground. No aluminum is allowed in coal mines incase it might touch another metal and cause a spark ( Most tripods have aluminum components ). So carbon fibre is the go but remember you need the same for your tripod head as well.

Radio triggers would be wonderful to be able to use but many mine operators bring down the shutters with a might crash at that idea .... just in case. Even if its only one chance in one thousand of you causing a bang. It’s going to be a bloody big one. So its normally no to those.

I’ve also noticed American miners and workers in a lot of heavy industry are very much into the Macho look. Short sleeves, no sleeves at times, and lots of dark non reflective clothing.
That is long gone here. With high visibility safety outfits being mandatory. You know the ones with the highly reflective strips all over the place. These would bring a smile to Mr Hobby’s face as because of the way they reflect they punish anyone using on camera light sources.

Budget wise ! I wish I worked in America. Most of my clients scream if I even suggest they may need to pay for an assistant let alone a crew. And as for having guys in the work area but not actually working, forget it ! It’s get what you can, don’t get in the way, then bugger off.

Once again. Great work Tyler and thanks David for bringing it to us. Envy is not my best color so I’ll go now. Cheers all

January 31, 2012 7:42 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Thanks David, Tyler. I like this feature a lot. The first technical thing that came to mind was flash metering. I'm using older Canon bodies and the TTL metering is all over the place. I suspect you used manual metering with the RadioPoppers and Canon lights set to groups A,B,and C. Will you please elaborate and discuss the move to Pocket Wizard remotes.
Well done, thanks !

February 01, 2012 8:55 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Hey Rex-

Tyler addresses this in the 1/31/12 4:56pm comment above. No TTL, no zones. Just starting with manual available light exposure, getting that the way he wants and adding one manual light at a time -- add salt to taste.

IMO, TTL/zones/etc., extract a price of reliability and complexity for the so-called convenience.

February 01, 2012 4:18 PM  
Blogger Ken Thor White said...

I bought that Paul C. Buff mini lithium battery and use it to power up to four of my Elinchrom classic monolights. They go everywhere with me now. I find them easier to use that speedlights. They have more power, too. This increases your control and they have a large number of accessories to modify the light. Just sayin.

February 02, 2012 6:49 PM  

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