On Assignment: Smokin' Joe

I am spending lots more time lately trying to recognize and understand color as a component of lighting. It's not easy for me, as I have never had a strong sense of color in design.

So my approach has been a mix of working harder at seeing light in the real world and occasionally just flailing around, throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

The photo above, of Irish dancer Joe Duffey, is a good example of both.

I had a chance to see Joe perform a few weeks before shooting him. Not being a regular consumer of Irish dance, it immediately struck me that photographing him was going to be kinda like shooting a running chainsaw with a body attached to it. Because his feet move, like, really fast.

Still photos can really feel limiting sometimes. Not having motion, we concentrated a lot on body attitude (as it connotes speed and power) and getting him comfortable enough with being shot to lose himself a little while dancing. That's really not easy for someone to do while being photographed, but I think it is important.

Rather than going with a single, big back light (or a pair of strips) I purposely split the backlight for this HCAC shoot into many pieces. (This is one time that a bag 'o speedlights beats a pair of monoblocs.)

Why six hard backlights? As I said earlier, this lighting was part logical thinking and part, "meh, let's just try this and see if it works."

The idea was to emulate a bunch of small, harsh theatrical hot lights with speedlights. And with stage or theatre lighting, you are generally working with multiple colors at once. So none of them were white when we were finished.

To that end, there are seven speedlights at play here, all gelled with a total of three different colors. It was just a logical guess based on some performance lighting I remembered, but it is encouraging enough that I'll definitely try to stretch this some more later.

Here is the setup:

As you can see, we were in a drop-ceilinged dance studio and using a blackboard as a background. In this case, the ceiling becomes a reflector of sorts, pulling that backlight around him just a little.

This photo gets all of its feel from the backlights. I used the two stands from an background kit, as they can go tall and sturdy when needed. Noting complicated on the mounts—we Justin Clamped three speedlights to each stand.

As seen above, they are not yet gelled. But by the time we shot this photo, they had a mix of full CTO and CTB gels. The top and bottom lights were CTO'd (tungsten conversion orange) and the middles were CTB'd (the complementary blue).

In retrospect, I think it would have been cooler looking (and less anal symmetrical) to go orange-blue-orange on one side, and blue-orange-blue on the other.

I knew we'd be using smoke (or, more accurately, water-based fog) and I wanted the different hard light colors to bounce around in there are create subtle variations in light color across the scene. Since there is more warm than cool, the overall net effect is warm. But it isn't at all homogenous. The smoke, of which I am quickly becoming a fan, is not just a compositional element but also a three-dimensional light modifier. It acts as both diffuser and reflector within the three-dimensional space of the frame.

FYI, after researching I settled on this Fazer, which was reasonably priced and had a corded remote that controls timer, intensity, etc. I have been really happy with it so far for the money.

The haze is constantly varying, and combines with the multi-source, multi-color light source to create a look that is both random and theatrical looking—and to my eye, far more interesting and real than a bunch of white sources.

The key light is a seventh (I know, McNally, right?) quarter-CTO'd speedlight in a 60" Photek SoftLighter II, which is my favorite big soft light source. But given how the smoke was also working as a diffuser, I should have grown a pair and hard-lit him from the key, too. That's classic me, not wanting to take chances on too many things at once. I really need to get past that.

But the barrage of hard, color-mixed backlights coming through smoke is triple aces, and I'll definitely be willing to move outside of my CTO/CTB gel comfort zone next time. In other words, you should definitely expect some gawdawful combination of cringe-worthy colors at some point in the near future.

After the shot warm shot, we moved on to something else I had pre-planned. Mostly… because it was pre-planned. (In the end I ended up liking the multi-color, multi-backlight stuff way better than the backlit blue shot.)

But this was an easy additional look, as the only thing we needed to do was lose five out of six backlights and crank up the smoke. So this was done with just two speedlights. As above, the key was triggered with a PW+III and the backlight(s) were slaved.

In addition to (or, because of) being pre-planned, this is me being utterly predictable with my light. The predictability used to be a positive to me, but now it more often bothers the crap out of me. That's good, I guess?

For this, the key light stayed the same and we brought in one CTB'd bare speedlight. We used Joe to hide it and we aimed it right back at the camera position with a beam spread of 24mm. Here's the setup, except in the final photo we had lots more smoke:

Rather than use an opened light stand, we kept is closed and just leaned it against the wall. As long as I kept the flash behind Joe, it was easy to hide. And if we missed, the legs would be much easier to clone out. (And honestly, in some edited frames we just left them there because they were vertical and fogged and did not look like anything that should not be there.)

Another tip for keeping your flash hidden behind someone: turn your flash head around and use the ready light to be able to easily see if your subject is hiding your flash head. If you are using LP160's, they have the nice touch of front-and-back ready lights, so you can pretty much check your lights' location and readiness in the dark from any angle.

As I said, this is exactly the light I would have expected me to do. Which is why I don't like it as much. With lighting—and especially with respect to gels—I am working hard to embrace some randomness whenever possible, if only to combat repetition and predictability.

Joe liked the blue backlit fog photos more than I did, but we both preferred the other look. I think the randomness and the dirty (as opposed to clean or homogenous) light better resonates with laypeople for the same reason it does with photographers.

The light that we experience every day is not clean and white and/or structured. It is random and dirty and unpredictable and real. Which is where I am trying to be, if only through little steps at a time.

Next: Toufic Araman's Epic Sunset Resort


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Blogger Kevin Pierce said...

So it's not just "Smokin' Joe," but rather a Smokin' Joe FAZER?

August 06, 2012 8:55 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I bow to your relative headline writing prowess, sir. Dunno how I could have not seen that! D'oh.

August 06, 2012 9:03 AM  
Blogger Yugo said...

Have you ever done stage lighting? I haven't, but since I started reading your blog, I've been much more attentive to lighting in films and on stage. Maybe a few stints volunteering to help the lighting crew in a local theatre could yield some interesting new ideas. I'm considering trying it myself...

August 06, 2012 10:02 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I'm becoming a big fan of the combo use of fog and color. On a macro scale, a normal household humidifier works great.

Example: The Simpson's Rad Man

August 06, 2012 10:13 AM  
Blogger John said...

I learn something from just about every single post you throw up. I really like the top photo with the multi-colored back lighting, but I what I walked away with, is how interesting the fog makes the lights react.

I really like what its doing in the portrait with the blue backlight, I don't think that super smooth gradient look could've been achieved any other way.

Awesome stuff as always!!

August 06, 2012 12:03 PM  
Blogger Arnaud Stephenson said...

I'm a theatre lighting technician with a background in dance (with photog aspirations of course…) I think you are spot-on with your side light setup in emulating dance lighting. Dance is a bit of a gift to stage lighting as it's all about lighting the form and creating shape and mood. Unlike other forms of theatre in which you must brightly and evenly light faces to allow the performers to convey expression and emotion. Dance allows us to be more edgy.

To perhaps fill out a bit as to why the Softlighter doesn't work as well as you hoped, in theatre lighting we never really see a light source of such relative softness. We can attempt to create a soft "wash" of light by overlapping several lights. But because of the technical limitation of having to rig the lights high and out of the way, these will always effectively be point sources, creating a harder look to the light. It would be great to use something with the quality of a softlighter, but I fear some of the audience might complain it was spoiling their view!

As you've rightly suggested, using a hard light as a key next time will (I think) give the shot a more theatre feel.

August 06, 2012 1:03 PM  
Blogger Arnaud Stephenson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 06, 2012 1:05 PM  
Blogger Joel Locaylocay said...

Another great BTS post, David.

I was intrigued by the fog machine that you used, especially the fluid that was used to create the fog. Was it the water and glycol-based mixture? There seems to be a number of health concerns with regards to its use, although the studies linked in this Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fog_machine) focus more on the effects of prolonged exposure.

Also, I looked up the MSDS for one of these fog machine fluids and it doesn't mention what specific glycol/s are used (which is understandable), but it being atomized then dispersed and all, I was wondering if it had any adverse effect on electronics (or even on their plastic components) as well, since as far as I know hot shoe flashes aren't necessarily weather-sealed.

I'm sorry for the long and non-lighting-related comment. I thought I'd put this out there for safety considerations. :-)#

August 06, 2012 5:16 PM  
Blogger Sando said...

Hey David
You might get a thank you note from MTB...You not only posted a amazon comment about the greatness of their product but you also linked to the amazon page from where to buy it. They might have to step up their production now...

Hope you gave them a headsup :)

Ciao Björn

August 06, 2012 5:55 PM  
Blogger Bernhard A S said...

Very interesting post. And great results.
For me the most surprising aspect was the Fazer. Sometimes I shoot at smaller local events, and the light guys here always seem to go crazy with the fog to get their beams showing nicely. I developed a solid dislike for that as it can wash out the pictures and produce an effect that looks like really ugly flare. Especially with light beams directed into the audience, which seems to be another trend. My dislike grew to a point where I would never ever have thought of actually employing one myself.

However your results are brilliant.

Thanks for removing my mental block!

August 06, 2012 10:45 PM  
Blogger Abe said...

What type of "fog juice" do you use/recommend for this fog machine?

August 07, 2012 11:15 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

Getting a bit off-topic, but if you don't mind, I'll ask anyway.

How do you gel a big strobe with a softbox ? Do you gel the bulb or the softbox cover ? If you gel the bulb, how do you wrap it ?

August 07, 2012 5:44 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Two square inches of gel on the head of an SB-800. Not so hard.

August 07, 2012 10:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

There are some great entertainmet lighting rental companies in your area that I'm sure would be more than happy to build a relationship with you for various reasons, as such, renting a real theatre quality hazer rather than a cheapo consumer model would be way more cost effective.

August 08, 2012 10:22 AM  
Blogger Stephen Caissie said...

@simon: You can wrap the bulb, but I would advise you to keep the modelling light off, and not do fire off too many full-power pops in quick succession. To give you an idea, I wrapped a full CTO on a bare-bulb monolight on this shot.

August 08, 2012 10:35 AM  
Blogger Simon said...


Might not have been clear enough...

I talked about BIG strobes (a.k.a. monoblocs or flash heads such as PCB Einstein or Profoto Acute).

August 08, 2012 8:11 PM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

Exceptional work David... thank you for the post

August 08, 2012 11:29 PM  
Blogger Daniel Swalec said...

It's fun to read this post from the opposite perspecive... Being trained (and working professionally) in theatrical lighting for almost a decade and translating these theories into my photography has been what I can imagine to be surprisingly similar... You have come across what most theatrical lighting designers do at one point or another... when in doubt, just add smoke and gel. Great images, and excellent descriptions (as usual)

August 11, 2012 5:55 AM  
Blogger dan cumberland said...

I keep seeing this post and the first photo in my blog feed. Every time it catches my eye I think: "hmmm, it looks kinda like Twilight or maybe Lost Boys." I think it's the way he seems to be floating or flying and the gelled rims. Just thought I'd share! It's a fun shot for sure! Keep up the great work!

August 31, 2012 12:49 PM  
Blogger Julius Duys said...

Woow!! love the picture, I'm a starting photographer and I think I can a lot of this blog. But I need to learn the basic techniques.
awesome shot!

September 09, 2012 6:36 PM  

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