BTS: Jonathan Snyder's So-Cool-It-Must-Be-Fake Night Portrait

When this photo popped up on Gizmodo last week, several of the site's readers could not quite process how the image could have been made. I tweeted at the time that I hoped the guy who shot it was one of our old DINFOS lighting students.

As it turns out, Strobist reader and USAF SSgt. Jonathan Snyder attended the "one extra" Flash Bus day McNally and I did for the Defense Information School in 2011 at Fort Meade in Maryland.

Milphogs are taught to improvise in the field as a matter of course. And turns out, this image was made with neither a tripod nor a speedlight…

As an aerial combat photojournalist, Snyder carries his weapons along with his cameras when shooting in theater. In addition to his two Nikon D3s cameras, his kit includes an M-4 carbine and an M-9 pistol.

"On missions like those I need to travel as light as possible with camera gear," he said. "So I have to carefully consider what I need to visually tell the story."

He was photographing the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers from the 82nd Expeditionary Air Support Operation Squadron, who are essentially high-tech spotters for F/A-18 Super Hornet pilots. At this time they were training, and thus dropping inert bombs, at a training area in Afghanistan.

The days were unbearably hot, Snyder notes, with temps getting to more tolerable levels only after sunset. Luckily, that's when the light gets more interesting, too. He shot the typical "dime a dozen" silhouette photos through mix light. But when the star field appeared after dark, he knew exactly the photo he wanted to make.

Using a Nikon D3s and a 14-24/2.8, even ISO 2000 would give him an ambient shutter of 20 seconds. Which is normally a no go without a tripod.

So Snyder plopped the camera and lens down into the sand, which served as a bean bag-style support in a pinch.

He had his subject stay very still throughout the exposure. The small black outline you can see around parts of the subject is the result of slight subject movement. This is essentially his tracked silhouette during the time in which he was not lit.

As for the light source, that was hand-held during the exposure by Snyder, who was standing out of frame to camera left. It was a tactical flashlight, which Snyder calls, "simple but very effective."

Because of the large differences in light levels of the star field and the flashlight, he only lit the subject for a couple seconds during the 20-second exposure.

The resulting photo shared by many, quickly winding up on Gizmodo on Sept. 24th. The quality (and, certainly, dissonance) of the light led Gizmodo's normally very savvy commenters to cry "fake," and "Photoshop."

But we know better. You can see more work by Snyder and his colleagues, here.


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Blogger Scott Randle said...

Very cool photo, thanks for posting this David.

October 05, 2012 9:34 AM  
Blogger Mitch Johnson said...

Did you mean that he shoot at ISO 200? ISO 2000 seems unlikely. Love this image.

October 05, 2012 9:46 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Having shot star fields before, ISO 2000 at 20 secs at f/2.8 sounds right.

The goal is grab the lowest ISO that will get you a shutter speed that not give you star trails. By comparison, ISO 200 woulda been a 4-min exposure.

October 05, 2012 10:02 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Joint Tactical Air Controllers don't just "spot targets" they control the air space in the target area, match weapons types to targets, provide threat information, battle damage assessments and act as a liaison between the air component and supported ground commander...and occasionally we take pictures too.

October 05, 2012 2:49 PM  
Blogger Andy Kudlicki said...

@David Hobby

I've always wanted to put my camera - AND the subject - on a motorized parallactic telescope mount. Then you can do f/16 @ iso 50. Only problem is that it won't work for a portrait shot :-(

October 05, 2012 3:42 PM  
Blogger Brian Carey said...

This is so much fun.I started to do long exposure portraits with light-trails a few years ago. Interesting and fun for sure.

October 05, 2012 5:15 PM  
Blogger dom said...

Thanks for that! Great explanation and congrats on the link to such a great moment.

October 05, 2012 7:58 PM  
Blogger bobusn said...

Superb! Thanks for highlighting this shot. Don't know how I missed Flashbus at DINFOS. Drat!

October 07, 2012 11:42 AM  
Blogger Robert Paetz said...

This is awesome and I completely understand the difficulty. I recently shot an "Astro-Engagement Session" with a couple who is remarkable talanted at standing still.

Then after hours in the Joshua Tree desert at night, everyone just assumed they are fakes!

October 07, 2012 1:49 PM  
Blogger Daniel Mora said...

D3s ftw!

October 08, 2012 10:23 AM  

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