On Assignment: Light That Isn't There

I'm as guilty as the next guy when it comes to over-the-top lighting. And why not? It's fun, it's cool and it can amp up an otherwise boring scene.

But that kinda stuff is not always necessarily the best choice. Often the best light is light that doesn't call attention to itself, but rather allows your camera to see a scene the way your eye would normally see it.

Take this biz portrait for example, which looks pretty natural but in fact is lit by three different sources.

Not Always Fireworks

Yeah, I know. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Readers of these pages will have already seen my lights emulating lasers or blasting smoke with multiple colors or completely transforming a room.

But often when you light you are just trying to close the gap between what your eye can see and what you camera can record. In other words you are trying to compress a contrast range, but in a believable way.

The process is this:

1. Expose for the bright parts. Maybe even leave them just a tad hot if you want the scene to be more believable.

2. Fill the dark areas to the point of desired legibility. Don't overdo it. Remember: believability.

3. Key light your subject in a way consistent with the surrounding ambient.

So Let's Do That Here

Let's apply this to a portrait of iBiquity CEO Robert Struble. (If you have HD radio in your car, these are the folks who invented it.) Struble was one of a series of portraits done for the HoCo Economic Development Authority.

He was tough to schedule, and we only had a few minutes. We met at a pre-arranged spot in Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia, MD, and we had him on his way after about 10 minutes.

Not having done this kind of in-photo before, I did a trial run with my own car the previous day. Good thing I did, too, as it revealed something which could have absolutely killed the real shoot.

Testing with my own car, I realized that I had better not forget to bring a rag and some Windex. Even a normally smudgy window would be really distracting. I would not have thought of that, and would have thus been S.O.L. on the real shoot.

I wanted to make this shot look conversational, have a quality edge to it and to not look lit. Think very nice snapshot. Much like the "I didn't do a thing to my seemingly randomly messy hair" look, this takes a little more work than would appear.

Here's a diagram of the light. It was done with three SB-800s, which testing the day before showed me would have sufficient power.

The fill light, an SB in a 60" Softlighter is probably the most important light in the bunch. It establishes legibility inside the car. Coming from a couple of feet behind me, it pushes into the car at an level a couple of stops under full exposure.

My considerable frame is partially blocking the light, keeping it from overpowering the foreground in the car. (Think angle of view—the closer the car interior is to me, the more I am blocking its view of the fill light.)

As for sync, I am PC corded to this light and the other two are slaved from it.

So now that I can see everywhere in the car, let's key the guy. Fortunately, the car windows allow us a pretty wide range of choices of key direction, and since we are filing for legibility the key angle is not critical. That's why I like to fill from on-axis—it allows me the safety to do pretty much whatever I want with my key.

In this case my key was another SB in a (45") Softlighter, positioned in front of the car and firing through the windshield.

Lastly, I thought the radio area was a little dark on the instrument panel. And since that is the peg for his inclusion in the series, we'll stick just a smidge of light there to make it more legible. This is courtesy another SB in a Honl ⅛" grid to control the spill. It was placed on a compact stand on the back seat of the car.

Altogether, the lights are doing everything I want but without calling attention to themselves. It's not very sexy, but it is what this photo needs.

Not to worry—I'm sure I'll be doing lasers or something of that ilk again soon enough anyway.

Next: Hiding Your Key with Fill


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Blogger Rabi Abonour said...

Nice little portrait. I firmly believe that the mark of someone who really gets lighting is the ability to light very naturally, and you certainly do that here. The shot wouldn't have made sense with dramatic lighting, but it also probably would have looked like garbage with available light.

December 13, 2012 2:18 PM  
Blogger Jon-Mark said...

How did you avoid reflections on the windows? Just put them down?

December 13, 2012 2:52 PM  
Blogger J Bailey said...

It would've been nice to see the scene unlighted. Eh?

December 13, 2012 2:58 PM  
Blogger Matt Vanecek said...

I'm wondering if I could use an Einstein in a covered PLM for the fill, pop a 430EXII in an Apollo through the windshield for the key, and a Vivitar 285HV on the radio, to create similar results? Since that's the gear I have. I've been debating getting something like a Lumopro, or another Einstein or an AlienBee.

December 13, 2012 3:59 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

As a bonus, window cleaning provides a plan B if the photo market goes bust.

December 13, 2012 4:06 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep, that'd work.


Exactly. And it only woulda been a problem with the fill light, as the other two were outside of the reflective angles.

December 13, 2012 4:54 PM  
Blogger Piotr said...

Actually it is sexy!

December 13, 2012 5:49 PM  
Blogger John said...

I really like lit portraits that don't look lit. You definitely nailed this and if I had to reverse engineer this shot, I would have NEVER got that accent light on the radio... very cool/crafty/subtle detail!

December 13, 2012 9:01 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

and wearing ubiquitous Corporate Blue, to boot! Tell me you were in your cargo's and NewBalance!

December 13, 2012 9:40 PM  
Blogger David Suddaby said...

Too much fill.

December 13, 2012 10:05 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Too much fill? Please don't say that. Your approval means everything to me.

Before I press the shutter—every time—I ask myself, what would David Sudabby do?

December 13, 2012 11:17 PM  
Blogger ken said...

Looks like you watched this:
Lovely natural (looking) light.

December 13, 2012 11:46 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Oh, I'll watch anything Peter Yang does. Big fan. But I shot this last summer.

December 14, 2012 12:02 AM  
Blogger briand liong said...

i can only guest 1 light at the first time.

cool stuff

December 14, 2012 1:06 AM  
Blogger Daniel Moore said...

Nothing would educate me more than seeing the unlit vs. the final shot. It's the one thing we don't often see.

December 14, 2012 2:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David, love the subtle mis with ambient. I would look at this without explanation and never guess you used 3 lights. One question: his shirt seems brighter than his face. Is this from the key, fill, or ambient (or is it just because he's wearing a light coloured shirt?) thanks!

December 14, 2012 6:28 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Nope, everything is hitting his face. The shirt is brighter than his face because the shirt is brighter than his face. It's a light shirt and Bob is a tan dude.

I could fix that with a quick lasso and curves in PS. Thought about it actually, but decided not to. It's a conscious decision not to fix/sanitize/perfect every little tonal variance just because I can.

In general, I am happier with my photos overall when not obsessing about stuff like this. I find that the constant stream of tonally better-than-perfect photos that assaults me on Google+, for instance, to be downright tiresome. I prefer some things left imperfect.

December 14, 2012 8:58 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I do that, sometimes. Often, actually. But you gotta learn to cut up your own food at some point and not be so dependent on the Nth degree by-the-numbers stuff.


December 14, 2012 9:00 AM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

What a nice shot. I can imagine some big-time commercial car photog shooting a similar picture yet making a big production out of it with tons more gear, assistants and heavy Photoshop post production.
Leave it to a former newspaper photographer and savvy lighting guy to do more with less and make it look easy. My luck, if I had the assignment, the car interior would be black with dark trim.
The background through the windows sure looks nice. A real plus and example of good scouting and pre-planning. Gridded light on the radio...perfect !

December 14, 2012 10:05 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

This is the kind of lighting I'd love to see more of - organic to the scene without the lighting scheme, as you say, calling "attention to itself". Like the lady who doesn't look like she's wearing much makeup because she's wearing so much makeup. But I would have made a quick pass or two with the burn brush across the light wood trim that is a tad overlit by the Honl.

December 14, 2012 1:32 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

You don't seem to use Ring Flash for fill any more, can you talk about the reasons for that?

Also your diagrams are really coming along, kudos! :) :)

December 14, 2012 1:42 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Actually, I am. Just the mix of stuff I have been writing about has not been about ring flash lately.

Just did a series of ring flash-only portraits, might have to post about it...

December 14, 2012 2:50 PM  
Blogger dom said...

Love this shot. I think like this a lot in my shooting; what would it seem like if you were just looking at it? Great balance. You see it and completely miss the light.

I often say when you do a good job nobody sees you but when you screw up you're all they see.

I wanted to tell you that black-and-white newspaper slightly dampened is the best solution for streak-free instant glass cleaning. Just water, Windex gets in the way. Colored newspaper will not work because the inks can interfere.

Thanks for sharing. Great post as always.

December 14, 2012 3:22 PM  
Blogger Jacob Härnqvist said...

David, the freedom to move around with the fill light on axis is a brilliant point. And as much as I like (and use) dramatic lighting (and composition etc), I agree that a more natural look is the way to go sometimes. Being too dramatic and ”light-conscious” might be a good way to waste the connection you want between the image and the viewer.

December 15, 2012 4:37 AM  
Blogger Fettaugraphy said...

Dave. Did you choose the forest backdrop for artistic reasons or did you need to have a background that did not overwhelm the power capabilites of your hot shoe flashes.

December 15, 2012 6:11 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I chose it because I liked the backdrop. My total available flash power has allowed me to move beyond always needing to work in relatively low light environments. I could have put 8 more stops of light on him. :)

December 15, 2012 6:14 AM  
Blogger Natural Images by Adam said...

I am curious as to whether you shot through the open window of the door, or if you had the door open.
I would think an open door would cause a cast shadow from the window frame to fall in the middle of the image.

December 15, 2012 11:13 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Nope, door was wide open. And no shadow, as the fill light was right behind me, as you see in the diagram.

December 15, 2012 1:31 PM  
Blogger Brian Bray said...

It's weird what impresses me, but the lack of spill from the rear seat SB onto the seat back or shirt sleeves is making me look at my Honl grid in a whole new way.

Side note: this lighting is perfectly appropriate to the assignment, but I gotta disagree with the commenters who say lighting should never be obvious. You risk a pretty bland portfolio if you don't let things pop from time to time.

December 16, 2012 3:24 PM  
Blogger James Gaffney said...

This is precisely the kind of street-smart, how-to stuff I used to read on David's blog in the a.m. and oft-times utilize later the same (or next) day on a shoot during my years as a staff photog at New Orleans' formerly daily newspaper. Concise. Simple. Structured. Diagrammed. The subtle radio pop in this shot is the pièce de résistance. Funny how these "tutorials" always work whenever I apply them in the real world. Can't wait to tackle this one, especially now that I'm running solo after having left the paper in September and no longer under shotgun deadlines. Thanks, David, for being a terrific teacher.

January 02, 2013 1:31 AM  

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