On Assignment: Gone in 86 Seconds

Two of my favorite admonitions from The Princess Bride are: "Never enter into a land war in southeast Asia," and, "Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line."

To that I can now add, "Never try to schedule a bunch of CEOs for photo shoots in August."

Because that's exactly what I was doing this past August. Which, in turn, led to this portrait being done in a grand total of 86 seconds.

First off, CEOs are typically insanely busy to begin with. Multiply that by a series of CEO shoots for a local campaign being wedged into summer and you get … some difficulty. Seriously, it's like herding cats. Families are out of school, schedules are busy to begin with and things just start to cascade into pictures sometimes just not being possible.

I had scheduled Merkle CEO David Williams for an environmental portrait a couple of weeks earlier, and his schedule forced him to bail at the last minute. (At this point in the project, I was sadly used to being bailed upon—just a reality of life when skedding a lot of busy people in late summer.)

And to make matters worse they had bailed at the last minute, when I was already onsite to do the photo. But as it happened, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we instead got to do a decent location scout with an apologetic handler.

It was during that scout that I saw this beautiful computer server room. It was damn-near perfect, as one of the things I wanted to do with this project (for the local economic development authority) was to show tech at scale. And this would work nicely. But access to the room was not a given. (Companies are really protective of server rooms, for a variety of reasons.)

The round of emails after the cancellation allowed me a chance to lobby for the room in a way that would have been impossible on the original shoot day. In the end we got our access.

I have worked in server rooms before, I told them. We would not have to plug anything in, and we'd be super-fast. (I wanted that room, and the concessions just seemed to be springing out of my mouth to get it.)

So on the second shoot date, we had the room. I wanted to be fast, respectful of the potential issues from working so close to their critical gear, and most of all to make a cool photo.

Here is what we walked into, ambient light only:

Alright, so this is not actually that bad. You could probably even do an ambient photo in here and get away with it. But there are mixed color temps, and not a lot of definition to the light. So let's fix that.

The light is flat and typical warm/green FL mix. The light from behind me is a mix of FL and daylight. So I am gonna kill that right away by going to a low ISO, close down my shutter and, let's say, an aperture of f/8. Now my room is pretty black.

Because of battery power, decent output needs and physically separated lights, we'll go with Einsteins and Vagabond Mini Lithiums.

Normally I build fill light first (after controlling the ambient). But this photo will be built on the backlight streaming down the aisles of the server room. So let's start there.

We stuck an Einstein in the back of each aisle (aimed back at us) with a standard reflector and a CTB (blue) gel. That gel eats up some light, so we cranked the power level to -2 stops from full power. This is about 160 watt-seconds on each head.

From just these two lights, we get all of the depth and color we'll need to make this room look even higher tech than it does in the (ambient) flesh. And this backlight gives us something to work against with the key. That light-against-light tension is important.

As it happens, the lights are pretty close to the right exposure right off the bat. I could tweak that at the light(s), or just tweak the aperture or the ISO by a stop or so. (We are in the middle of the lens' aperture range, so no big whup.)

Problems to fix: Still getting a little ambient bleed up top. Let's make sure we are closed down to max sync speed. Also, I want that blue to carry into the ceiling a bit, so let's aim the lights up a tad. Plus, this will be an easy select-and-tone in Photoshop if need be. No worries there.

Now that the environment is taken care of, let's light the subject.

We'll key light him with a gridded dish on a boom up top. A little warming gel will make him pop against the cool backdrop. But on my fill, which will come from the bottom, I want to tie him to the blue environment. So I stuck a white shoot-thru umbrella on the ground in front (another Einstein) and gelled it blue, too.

This establishes a relationship with the blue room environment on the subject itself. The shadows will be blue. There will be some blue highlights coming off of his suit. This is the kind of thing you learn from experimentation (or, at least I do) and from seeing white-filled portraits that just did not read right. Still learning.

So I roughed in the shot with Dave, my assistant for the day. But when we got it pretty close we asked the server room manager to come and stand in for a test. This is the guy who could have kept us out of the room, and it's the right thing to do (for many reasons) to make a quick photo for him:

Photos are a currency. Don't underestimate that. Use them freely as a thank you, an entré, an introduction, whatever. It's the smart thing to do.

I have done this all the way back to the '80's, giving work prints to the firefighters after covering a fire for the paper. I cannot tell you how many times it has come back to me in a good way.

Okay, so now we are down to the fine-tuning. Two problems we'll still want to fix:

1. That splash of bright light in the background at center left can be fixed by moving the camera a couple inches to the right. Much less distracting that way.

2. I like the blue specular (from the fill light) on the rack that is serving as the background for the subject. But I'd like to see it extend to the camera right side of him, too.

It's nothing more than the reflection (or specular) of the blue fill umbrella below. So we'll move that fill light about a foot to the right and the reflection will move as well.

At this point, we let the subject know we are ready when he is. And we truly are.

Williams has been in front of cameras many times before. He has a ready, practiced smile. And fortunately for us that's exactly what we need for this photo. We are selling the county to new potential businesses.

Given that his time was really tight (and that he had to cancel on us due to lack of time before) I make a single frame and tell him, "That's it, we're good!"

And here's the thing. We could have been done. We were totally nailed down at this point. I was glancing at the camera back to make sure he did not blink as I was telling him we were finished. We really were fine after one frame, for the purposes of the assignment.

But the reaction I got gave me two or three frames of a natural smile and expression. Good to have choices. And it lightened the moment, with him knowing we were not going to "just one more" him to death.

In the end, we did about 30 frames in the total of 86 seconds that he was in front of the lens. And we had far more than we needed.

Keep at this long enough, and you'll get people who will tell you they can only give you five minutes. Two things to know about that:

1. If they can give you five minutes, they can give you ten. And whether or not that happens will be determined by their experience in the original five minutes. Make it fun and low-key.

2. If someone tells you they can only give you five minutes, tell them you don't need five minutes. But you will need 15 good seconds. That's a win/win.

And the thing is, it's absolutely true. Just get there early, set up, test, fine-tune and relax during the brief shoot knowing you had it taken care of before it even started.

Next: MarchFourth Marching Band


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Blogger udijw said...

"beautiful computer server room" this really is an oxymoron...

October 17, 2012 9:20 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

When reading the headline my first thought was "86 seconds? what an *insane* long exposure!" ";-)

October 17, 2012 9:28 AM  
Blogger Joe Holmes said...

Damn, at first glance I thought you'd photographed him against a pillar on a subway platform in NYC.

October 17, 2012 9:33 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

I like your process. Clear and simple as always. Coulda saved some blue gels with a double cto on the key and the white balance on tungsten, though... ;)

October 17, 2012 10:54 AM  
Blogger R. J. Kern said...

The final image speaks for itself. As does your professional approach. Steady persistence pays off! Kudos.

I'm hooked by the lighting technicals, but lured in by the gold nuggets you share that have everything to do with being an all-around nice guy. Such a good reminder of the importance of being professional that doesn't "ask for forgiveness before permission."

October 17, 2012 12:12 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Loving the blue fill on him.

The first time you see (or at least notice) a warm subject on a cool, underexposed background you go "wow".

But once you've seen it done a couple more times it gets old very quickly, in part because so often it's obviously fake.

This photo works so much better because it doesn't look like a half-decent photoshop jockey could have created it out of two separate photos in a matter of minutes.

October 17, 2012 12:44 PM  
Blogger Kyle said...

I see fiber. I am surprised they let you use flash. Cool photos and nice write up!

October 17, 2012 1:08 PM  
Blogger dmourati said...

As a server guy my self I immediately recognized the venue. The shot of the data center manager made this post for me.

October 17, 2012 1:16 PM  
Blogger Wing Tang Wong said...

Coming from a data center background, I can really appreciate the look of the photograph: lack of clutter. lack of loose wires. lack of servers with random labels. lack of carts and other misc things blocking isles. lack of "vines" of network and fiber cables.

The data center is clean and looks like it was meant to be installed and only maintained, not constantly juggled.

Love the blue background light... I guess we will forever be associating blue with tech. :)

At first, the industrial details in the ceiling kinda bugged me, but then realized they serve to hint at the industrial nature of the scene shot. Kinda a software meets hardware kinda scene.

Overall, I like this shot.

Still amazed they let you bring in the strobes into the server room, as strobe discharges do release some EMF into the surrounding space. Hope it wasn't near any twisted pair cable. ^_^;;;

October 17, 2012 1:48 PM  
Blogger LeoT said...

Great BTS - really interesting to see how you built the lights.

Question on detail: are you able to spot all the minor adjustments (ambient light leak; misplaced reflection, etc) on the screen on the back of your camera, or do you pop the memory card into your laptop/tether the camera?

I find it hard to sift the detail of the image on a small screen.

October 17, 2012 1:58 PM  
Blogger hht420 said...

That's a "Stopper".

October 17, 2012 2:05 PM  
Blogger Charles Dykeman Photography said...

I wonder though how long it took to get it all set up and tuned. For me it would be a couple of hours. I can't imagine it took you that long, but am curious.


October 17, 2012 2:09 PM  
Blogger Lewie221 said...

David, I really wish you were still using speedlights for this kind of thing.

I know the principles are the same (apart from all the watt-seconds you have now), but I miss the direct connection to the stuff I have in my modest gear bag.

October 17, 2012 2:26 PM  
Blogger Sean "Madman" Sullivan said...

Nice shot. I'm a server manager as well as a photographer and I did all the shoots of the server room at my last job (no longer with them unfortunately). The nice thing was that that my images are hanging as 2x4 foot wall boards in the company's hallways and website.

Blue definitely is the color to use for this. :)

one of my pics

October 17, 2012 2:32 PM  
Blogger The Duck said...

Very professional.

October 17, 2012 4:04 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Au contraire. I think tech is beautiful, and many would agree.


Works in theory. In practice, not as good-looking as doing it this way -- esp. on the flesh tones.


Totally agree. If you are gonna create an environment, you still gotta have some logic to it.


There were no probs whatsoever in that regard.


We were in the aisles, several feet away from any twisted pairs. There were no issues.


Back of the camera.


Thank you!


About 30 mins. We had pre-thought it.

October 17, 2012 4:13 PM  
Blogger DanielL said...

The Princess Bride quote by Vizzini was actually the entire Asia continent, not just southeast Asia -- the relative smallness of which would considerably lessen the hilarity of the line.

Vizzini's complete quote:

"You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line"! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha..."

October 17, 2012 5:04 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi David,

Just wondering how you gelled the dished Einstein! Was it right over the dome? Under the deflector? Over the grid, perhaps?


October 17, 2012 8:14 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Another great shot,and a very helpful BTS feature. Did you know going into the assignment that the client would accept the wide format final image?
I love it but worry about your excellent shot being changed by a crop-happy art director.

This assignment demonstrates why photographers should not charge by time.

October 17, 2012 8:56 PM  
Blogger bronney said...


I can imagine you feeling like home in that server room. Was it too cold to wear shorts? hehehe.

It's so good to read your thought process as always. Great lessons.


October 17, 2012 11:52 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


A full-sized sheet of gel, right over the grid.


This was shot to shape. This whole series needs to be, like, almost 2:1 horizontal, with space for quote-outs.


Of course, shorts! I could have gone much colder (and have).

October 18, 2012 1:31 AM  
Blogger dom said...

I love reading through your thought process. I love the backlight, I love that it's blue. It was brilliant the way you used blue on the fill.

All in all a very sophisticated photograph with tons of takeaways for me (thank you).

October 18, 2012 2:57 AM  
Blogger Ronny said...

Hi David, I was wondering on why have you decided to use the umbrella fill (ground fill) instead of using the orbis ring? Would this be due to the lack of power if you were to use a speedlight or was it that you wanted a particular look instead? Thank's for sharing your insights.


October 18, 2012 2:59 AM  
Blogger gretsch said...

"But on my fill, which will come from the bottom, I want to tie him to the blue environment. So I stuck a white shoot-thru umbrella on the ground in front (another Einstein) and gelled it blue, too."

Filed. Thank you.

Great pic btw, tho you obv. don't need my approval ;-)

October 18, 2012 4:25 AM  
Blogger manuannan said...

"Photos are a currency....". Those are like golden words for me. Gonna frame that and keep in my wall.RESPECT SIR.

October 18, 2012 5:01 AM  
Blogger hht420 said...

Regarding where you placed the gel, in this case a full sheet on top of the grid. Do the placement and size of the gel affect the output?

For instance if you used the same gel, but trim down to fit directly over the reflector.

October 18, 2012 7:25 AM  
Blogger Sharna Lee said...

I did just that a few times. I was hired to do a shot for a businessman who only had a few minutes to spare. I took my husband along and we set up while the guy was gone to lunch. He had 5 minutes to spare after his return and still on lunch break, I brought him in, sat him down and took a few shots and showed him the shots, he wanted tighter, we did it and he was back to work with 2 minutes to spare. It went so smoothly that he told his buddies about me and I got more work from it.

October 18, 2012 11:07 AM  
Blogger LarryTheCableGuy said...

Really helpful BTS David. Thank you for these, I learn so much following your thought process.

October 18, 2012 2:34 PM  
Blogger MeruWarrior said...

Thanks David, I loved the blow-by-blow account of your setup. Just wondering, could this also have been achieved with just hotshoe flashes?

October 18, 2012 5:31 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Sorry to bring up the gel question again, but how did you gel the umbrella in the foreground: "...So I stuck a white shoot-thru umbrella on the ground in front (another Einstein) and gelled it blue, too...".

Did you wrap the whole umbrella in gel? Did you wrap the dome on the Einstein? I tried wrapping the dome on the Einstein and all I got was a crinkled, folded over mess that was not able to produce an even color.

October 18, 2012 5:42 PM  
Blogger Andres said...

Great post and what a killer shot. The before and after images show it. In regards to your Einsteins, what cause to do you use to carry then around? I shoot with Einstein's and can't find the right case that is not too bulky.


October 18, 2012 6:59 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I use ThinkTank for all of my cases -- Airport Int'l Security and a Logistics Manager.

@Unknown and hht420-

Actually, I have a post coming up on how to gel all kinds of weird large sources. Suffice to say, there is a good way to gel just about any source.


You are not the first to ask that on this shot! Stay tuned next week. Q&A on just that Q.

October 18, 2012 8:14 PM  
Blogger Jose Cañamares y Maria Santacreu said...

After reading the post I found some cool server pictures from google. I think the lighting is all ambient but still cool

October 19, 2012 4:01 AM  
Blogger Jose Cañamares y Maria Santacreu said...

Sorry I forgot the link :)


October 19, 2012 4:04 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Wow! This is why we're here Dave. Meat and potatoes baby-
"This is it, this is how I did it, and you can do it too"

Thanks once again for how you've opened up my world of photography.

October 19, 2012 1:48 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

This is like a corporate version of Dean Collins' great portrait of Joe Montana:


October 20, 2012 11:02 AM  
Blogger dave moser said...

Nicely nicely done, David. But, and this just an opinion! -- the blue... enough with the blue on science-y sets. I contend that nothing will date photos faster than this use of blue.

A greater challenge would be making a photo this effective without blue. It is, dare I say it, cliche at this point. Well, ok, i said it. But I say it with Love, bubbie...

It's professional, it's effective, that may be enough. I'm not sure, I'm questioning it myself, but... but but but... haven't we both made and seen enough of these blue shots?

October 21, 2012 9:38 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thanks for your concern. But here are some other things that will also eventually date this photo:

1. The model of the server equipment
2. The subject's clothes
3. The subject's haircut
4. The fact it was shot on a 12MP camera

Not quite sure I would want to make every photo in a way in that it would not be tied to a place in time. Not so different linking something to a physical location, now that you bring it up.

In much the same way I wouldn't choose to give up bacon if you became a vegetarian*, I am similarly not ready to give up the use of a color because you are done with it.

*(Don't feel bad. I didn't even give up bacon when my wife became a vegetarian.)

October 22, 2012 9:52 AM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

David you did better than me. I had a similar editorial assignment for an environmental executive portrait at the Charlotte Microsoft Campus two weeks ago (Charlotte is their biggest outside of Seattle).

I got to SEE the server room, through a glass partition--but there was no way they were going to let me inside. I did get a b-roll shot, also using a blue gelled light.

Kudos on your great shot.

October 23, 2012 11:37 PM  
Blogger Mike Reed said...

You and Annie; the masters of subject interaction. I dare say it's as important as any technical photographic technic used... until I read about the blue fill from the bottom. That is freaking brilliant! Thanks as always for the great insight.

October 24, 2012 10:14 AM  
Blogger Raymond said...

Did you curve or adjust RAW exposure to bring out the shadows from your test shots? I noticed the floor and servers on the right are more lit than the test shots.

November 08, 2012 9:25 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yes, of course I adjusted/toned the photo before calling it a final. I cannot imagine not doing that...

November 08, 2012 10:54 PM  

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