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On Assignment: Night Soprano, Pt. 2

Editor's note: This post focuses on the lighting and execution of the night woods photo of Soprano Alexandra Rodrick. The post on developing the concept is here, in Part One.

The lighting diagram for this photo is overlaid on a satellite image of the neighborhood, because the fill light and accent lights are actually two houses away from each other. And one of them is not even outside...

As we mentioned last week, lighting this photo was no different in theory than a lighting a tight head shot. But it was clear we would need some space — and power — to carry even lighting across the woods.


I knew the ambient would be a real-time adjustment as the sunlight faded. The goal was to shoot at f/5.6 at ISO 100, so (assuming we could get that much light) my plan would be to lock the camera down in aperture priority at f/5.6.

That way, we could use the exposure compensation button to dial in the amount of underexposure we wanted for the ambient. Then the shutter speed would ride the ambient down automatically, giving us one less thing to worry about.

I wanted a real nighttime feel here, but there needed to be some detail in the background woods. So we decided on -3 stops for the ambient light and dialed that into the compensation button. (Normally, I would do this manually. But I wanted to concentrate on other parts of the image so I let it ride.)

But the ambient, as always, is a very important component to the photo. Half a stop more ambient, and the background doesn't look like nighttime. Half a stop less and the woods became too dark. And worse, that made them look less natural and more "lit," which I did not want.

Normally, there is a lot more fudge factor in the ambient balance. I was pretty surprised at how fine-tuned this one had to be.


Next we needed to build the light that would fill the key on Alex, and to reach into the woods to tie the foreground the background together. Ideally, I want that one on-axis (or close to it) up a little and a ways behind me.

So we put a Profoto Acute2 1200ws pack in the dining room, (behind me and one floor up) triggered it with a PW +III and fired it at full blast directly at the scene. This flash was CTB'd to cool the light down and mimic, if not slightly exaggerate, the cool evening light.

Here's a shot of the dining room fill light, off and on. I forget which is which. Seriously, this is why you warn the neighbors. It's pretty much gonna look like the X-Files is happening in my dining room. Although, with all of that blue CTB floating around, anyone who saw it would probably think the cops were already on scene.

This light was approximately 60 feet away from the subject. There was no modifier. At that distance, it would not have made much of a difference to soften the light. But it would have eaten more than a stop of power, and we didn't have a stop to give on this pack. It wasn't a full exposure at f/5.6, but that was okay. We only needed this as fill.


Ironically, with the high-power lights we used for fill and accent, the key was done with speedlights. This is only a few feet from Alex, so we didn't need much power. I strapped three SU-4'd SB-800s together and suspended them into a silk Japanese lantern, which I got here for $6.98.

You Lighting in Layers folks already know how much I love these things. They give a beautiful, soft, 360-degree glowing light. Normally I use domes on the flashes inside for a full spread into the lantern. But this time I wanted most of the energy to point down, so we left the flashes bare and zoomed them out to the widest setting. (You also have to put some paper over the bottom hole to avoid raw light coming out.)

Above is a lighting test we did with Ben from a couple of nights before. As you can see, we mounted the fixture to a length of cord which was flung up into the branches above. (We tied the cord to a wrench, which chucks really well.) Two strings gave us the ability to control height and location to some degree.

This is a beautiful and onmi-directional light source. Especially being inside the scene where it radiates light into the frame. (We took the light out in post.) The Chimera version costs several hundred bucks, but it is hard to go wrong for <$10. Ditto the coupla bucks worth of string instead of a huge boom. The speedlights were gelled slightly warm (one of the three flashes was 1/4 CTO'd) to contrast with the cool light all around Alex.

The key light is a little incongruent with the rest of the scene, on purpose. I am trying to create a wider scene which happens to contain Alex — more of a cinematic moment than a tight portrait.


The final light was an accent light, sitting on a neighbor's deck at back-camera-left. It was about 120 feet away from the subject. It was also CTB'd to match the cool-lit woods.

Even with a Profoto Acute2 2400ws pack (every watt-second I had) it was not enough to get f/5.6 at ISO 100. So we had to back off to f/4.5 and adjust the other lights down 2/3 of a stop. That really surprised me. But distance eats light geometrically, and we are a long ways off. Plus, the CTB gel ate a stop, at least.

We triggered this flash with a PW+III, but I am pretty sure we could have slaved it. Come to think of it, I am pretty sure we could have triggered a slaved flash anywhere in Howard County that night.

We also used a little bit of smoke (hard to see, but you miss it when it is not there) in the middle background transition area. That was courtesy Chris, a nearby theater-type. First time for me working with smoke, so there was a learning curve. I learned that less is more when it comes to smoke, unless you are going for a big effect. But I could definitely see the help in post, vs. the no-smoke shots.

Here is an ambient-component shot of the scene without flash. This is the (minus-three stop) ambient floor to the photo, and shows why the photo does not go to pure black even in the back. Of everything in the frame, this is probably the most critical of the light sources.

As for Alex, we told her to just let go and sing. It's not an easy thing to be singing in a patch of neighborhood woods with giant blue lights blasting everywhere. Thankfully, one of our neighbors graciously allowed us to use their deck as a platform — and AC — for the separation light. Good thing, too. We needed both the distance and the juice.

The final image was at 1/10th of a sec at f/4.5 at ISO 100. Here's an over-the-shoulder (full exposure) ambient shot, by Erik Couse...

... follow by our final image again — with flash, under-exposed ambient and the globe removed in post:

We plugged Alex's phone into a stereo on our deck, so she could have accompanying music to which to sing.

Not a bad way to spend a spring evening, with our own private neighborhood concert. And of course with pizza and beer to follow after we struck the set.

Next: Pizza Trattoria


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