On Assignment: Shooting what You Can't See

As photographers we are always looking for tangible, photographable things to include as visual cues. But often we are called upon to make a photo that revolves around something invisible, or even intangible.

I tend to view those assignments not as limiting, but rather as assignments in which the physical limits have been removed. That's the case with this shot of Paul Capriolo, CEO of Social Growth Technologies.

Take a Picture of THIS:

Okay, so here is the description of what Paul's company does:

"Social Growth Technology delivers high performance online advertising and virtual currency monetization in the social gaming and e-commerce environments."

Alrighty then, let's take a little visual inventory. They work with computers. Which if course is a wonderful visual differentiator. (Seriously, people at a computer is a visual trap. We all use computers. You gotta find something different, no matter how cool the things they do on a computer happen to be.)

And as a startup, they are not yet at the phase where they have killer offices with a ball pit and baristas. That comes later. These guys are a nascent but fast-growing business.

Actually, they did have some very cool spaces, but nothing that would fit the brief of the shoot. Mostly because adding to the complications for this shoot was the fact that the photos had to be very horizontal (even more so than seen above—about 1:2 ratio) and there had to be room for boxed quote-outs within the photo.

So any plans for something cool with a computer and/or maybe a gaming environment (which I saw as iffy anyway) were out the window.

So what do we have? In essence we have a kickass, Silicon Vally style start-up, right here in HoCo. But for visual purposes, they make money by deftly manipulating digital ones and zero. Just as Google does. And Facebook. And a gazillion other companies you have never heard of.

But I liked the idea of a web startup as a visual theme, so I was drawn to their conference room and the whiteboard full of ideas and quotes therein. That's because the whiteboard is the essence of who they are and what they do—dream big, iterate often and try to change the world.

The computer is physical. But it is a tool, like a hammer to a carpenter. SGT is largely defined by their ideas, which often find their way to this board. It also represents their personality as a startup. So after scouting, I emailed Paul and told him to feel free to populate that whiteboard as much as they wanted before the shoot. (The last thing I wanted was to show up with it having been cleaned for me…)

Start Here

Here is our whiteboard and shooting space as it exists in fluorescent light, just with the white balance corrected:

From experience, I know my first step will be to kill the ambient (as in, work maybe 5 stops over the ambient with my flashes) and build a new environment of light on top of that.

So I bounced two Einsteins with half-cut CTB gels off of the wall to camera right, creating a new, soft blue ambient. I intensified the color by underexposing these lights by about two stops. The next thought was to call a little attention to the whiteboard with some gridded, neutral light.

I liked the blue environment, but no matter how I shaped the (white) gridded light, I wasn't happy. They all looked like crappy variations of this:

That's when it occurred to me that while Paul is three-dimensional, the walls (and more important, the whiteboard) are planar. As in 2-D. As in something I could easily manipulate after the fact—exactly the way I want—in post. More on that in a minute.

So now that we have the room light the way we want, it's a simple matter of bringing in some key and fill that you can control. If you remember the ATM man, this will look familiar:

The key is an Einstein in a white beauty dish, (seen at upper left) gridded, with a quarter cut of CTO. The fill is an SB-800 in a LumiQuest SB-III (seen at lower left). This grid gives me control of the warm key light not hitting the background.

The SB-III is in close and aimed straight up. In both cases, what little overspray happens will fall harmlessly out of frame.

Tweaking in Post

To separate Paul from the background I wanted to highlight the whiteboard a little—just color correct it and give it a soft glow. Pretty much the way I would have done it if I could have totally controlled that splash of gridded light.

Since it is planar (2-D) this was an easy lasso/feather/lift in Photoshop. But since Paul was in front of it, I would have to either exclude him in the selection or fix him after the fact.

I chose the latter. I am very basic (and by choice) when it comes to Photoshop post production and stacks 'o layers in my images. In fact, a large stack of layers for me would be … two. And you really do not even have to understand layers at all to do this.

Here, I just did a command-J, which is the equivalent of selecting your entire image then pasting it back on top of your image. You now have two identical images (or layers,) one atop the other.

Next, do the selecting/lifting of the whiteboard with lasso and curves. Then use the eraser tool to "erase" the subject back to his original, un-lifted state. (You are actually erasing back to the untoned photo underneath the toned, top layer.)

This is when I had a pleasant surprise. I had just rough-erased Paul with a soft-feathered brush and the overspray looked pretty darn close to a ring flash shadow—and helped to further pop him from the whiteboard. It made the photo look more three-dimensional, just as a ring fill often will.

So I went with it, tweaking the eraser overspray until I got the "shadow" look that I wanted. I know some of you are Photoshop studs and will have problems with this. Similarly, some of you are current (or ex-) newspaper shooters and will have a problem with this. Please file any complaints here.

Seriously, I liked it and the client chose it from among many others as the lede art on front of their annual report. Which is what matters to me.

The important point here is to not be intimidated by the lack of a good, physical visual. And certainly don't get railroaded into using a crappy visual because it just happens to be physical and relevant.

Just think of bad physical pegs as an opportunity to step back and look at your subject and the photo in a different way.


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Blogger Unknown said...

as usual great post. I'm also having difficulties in controlling hot spots when bouncing on a smallish room.

I have two questions though, hope you don't mind

1. Would it help by having a reflective umbrella on the einsteins for the ambient and double bouncing (wall and umbrella) it ? Or how about using a softbox or flagged STU then bouncing it on the wall ?

2. I'm I right to assume the sb-3 fill also have a quarter cut CTO ?

October 02, 2012 9:23 PM  
OpenID 281fbbb2-0cfa-11e2-94c3-000bcdcb8a73 said...

David... Did you really mean CTO... you mention it twice... Perhaps I missed something... but I think that to get the effect that you got you used CTB didn't you?

October 02, 2012 9:32 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


If the walls are neutral (or are a color from which you can handle a little shift, as here) they make a great bounce surface for the most even result. They are by definition as far back as you can get, thus the relative evenness. Add to that the fact I used two sources here.


Yes, you are right. I was correcting it as you were reading it, I think!

October 02, 2012 9:47 PM  
Blogger -SM said...

yxcessi8dang, DH...you make my head hurt...in a good way, i guess.

October 02, 2012 9:50 PM  
Blogger Jeremy Ridout said...

David, a technical question... How exactly do you gel the Einstein? I mean, with that big opaque ball on the end and inside of a beauty dish, how do you gel it???

October 03, 2012 12:16 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I just tape a full sheet of gel to the front of the gridded dish. They both (grid and quarter-CTO gel) pretty much stay there, too.

October 03, 2012 12:33 AM  
Blogger EricFerguson said...

I really like this new wave of assignment posts, keep 'em coming.

But Dave, please, for the love of god, layer masks! Not, *please not* the eraser tool. Think of the children.

October 03, 2012 1:10 AM  
Blogger Pat Morrissey said...

That pops!

October 03, 2012 4:14 AM  
Blogger Jesse Willson said...

Thanks again DH! Great to see real world application!

Don't worry about the kids. I helped out with a design comp for 14-16 year olds a week or two back. . . . . Scary PS talent haha. It's the old guys I worry about;)

October 03, 2012 6:43 AM  
Blogger Bob Rossi said...

David your blog is always inspiring as well as educational, a great combination. Your explanations of your planning and work flow are very informative. I have to admit over the course of the past three years since reading you blog I have used various bits and pieces of what I have learned here. Thanks a lot. Reading today's paper I saw this picture and thought this photographer must be reading your blog as well.

October 03, 2012 10:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Cool look. When I saw the image I expected to see a ring flash in the setup. I like the effect too.

October 03, 2012 12:59 PM  
Blogger Tim Dustrude said...

So the key is in a beauty dish and gridded? Do you mean the whole front of the beauty dish is gridded?

October 03, 2012 5:57 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

David, All, the layer mask is super helpful in removing an object from a layer and you get all of the benefits of the brush tool (intensity, flow, softness, define edge). But the best feature is the ability to paint back areas you messed up on, something you can't do with the eraser.
Just remember: "Black conceals, White reveals."

October 03, 2012 6:21 PM  
Blogger Kyle said...


Love these posts also; the ones in this style. I was wondering if you could clarify something I often wonder though:

I'm assuming you kept a neutral (daylight) white balance. How would shifting your white balance toward blue and then using heavy CTOs on the main/fill been different? Would the effect be similar or no?

October 04, 2012 8:31 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep, always daylight WB. I know what you are talking about is possible, but IMO it never comes out looking quite right to me...

October 04, 2012 9:56 AM  
Blogger szpeter said...

Great post... one thing got me thinking... the look you achieved by the technique described in the post makes the photo not real to my eye. It looks like the subject was photoshopped into the background. The difference in white-balance between the background and the subject further emphasizes this...
I'm thinking that an accent/hair light coming from camera right (gridded strip softbox) would have created a better, more realistic background separation. But then you may fall back in the usual "crosslight everything" trap :D.
Of course if this is what the client likes, my point is moot...

October 05, 2012 8:59 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


If "realistic" is your goal, you can stick with the first ambient shot of the room. I was there to amp it a bit. You could do it however you want.

October 05, 2012 11:29 AM  
Blogger Brian Bray said...

I do like what you achieved, but yeah, the eraser tool is to Photoshop retouchers what on-camera flash is to the strobist. Learning layer masks is like finally getting that flash off-axis.

October 07, 2012 12:47 PM  
Blogger p. said...

It just dawned on me the other day that I was never once shown how to use a layer masks in 6+ years of studying graphic design. I can only assume none of my instructors really understood them either.

October 07, 2012 12:58 PM  
Blogger Nick Bumgardner said...

Great job on this assignment. I would encourage you to look up how to use layer mask though. It will make your workflow a lot quicker.

October 07, 2012 10:24 PM  
Blogger John Naman said...

David: Blue screen without mask and not spending time lassoing and erasing:
1) add adjustment layer Hue Saturation
2) crank up Blue & Cyan saturation to the max and lighten luminosity
3) crank down red, yellow, green, magenta saturation to zero and darken
4) Click Magic Wand and grab (lasso) all the bright blue area, no human material
5) delete the Adjustment layer
6) goto one of your layers and the blue is selected; Select inverse if you want the person and not background.
* technique works best with background that is Red, Green, or Blue and different from skin & hair (Duhh)

October 27, 2012 11:49 PM  

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