On Assignment: Cheap Portable Studio, Pt. 2

Picking up where we left off last week in our impromptu living room studio, let's swap the lighting around to make a different style of photo which is designed to fulfill a different purpose.

The first photo was more in-house—think PR. It's the kind of photo you would get if the subject were more in control of both the process and the edit. The photo above is more of a third-person perspective, skewed toward objectivity and with a goal of being more interesting.

So let's keep our same white-papered alcove and swap up the lighting a bit.

Two Different Styles

The best analogy I can give for the difference in the two photos (remembering the other version, here) is that of a resumé vs. a magazine article.

In a resumé you are acting in the first person, putting everything in the best light (see what I did there) but without stepping over the line into falsehoods—or, maybe even worse, needless padding. But a mag article is, theoretically at least, more objective and removed. It's a third-person document, with a goal of being informative and interesting.

An editorial portrait is, to me at least, more like the magazine article. The objectivity part is probably a pipe dream. But striving for it is important. And you definitely want to balance more toward interesting at the expense of vanity.

With academics or intellectuals, this is especially hard because there is no tangible visual peg to what makes them interesting. So I approach it more with the thought of creating a portrait of a person I'd like to have a conversation with. Because that is what the surrounding editorial material will probably be.

But why even make this picture if this shoot of for a website redesign?

The thinking is she'll almost certainly be interviewed by a trade mag (or website or whatever) at some point. And having a handout, editorial-style photo can help her in several ways.

First, she may well bump up the play of the story. Many trade publications (and websites, obviously) have little to no photo budget. Or the reporter might be charged with "getting a few photos" during the interview. Trust me, you generally don't want that to happen to you. (No offense, SoJo's.)

Second, having her own handout will allow Laurie to control the presentation a bit. I mean, the Wall Street Journal is not going to go for that, but a smaller publication will.

Although, come to think of it The Washington Post(!) did exactly that to me, asking to use a handout photo to use in a half-page feature on me in their business section. Seriously.

Gotta say that abdication of control really surprised me, given that I live and work right in the heart of their circulation area. And the story itself was a pickup from Slate. That never would happened even ten years ago. And it's probably the first time two cans of Diet Mountain Dew have been in one picture in the WaPo biz section before or since. Heh.

But enough about the best darn diet soda in the world. Let's make this photo.

Always: Start with the Ambient

First step, see whatcha got. Let's put the camera on aperture priority, wide open and on daylight white balance. The wide open part is so it chooses a useable shutter speed for indoors. The daylight part will show me the true color of my ambient light. (Auto WB, by comparison, would deny me that second piece of info.)

So, camera says 1/40th of a sec at f/1.8 and gives us this. And again, no posing needed at this point. Save it for the actual photo. No worries, Laurie. No one will ever see this one. Just stand there and let me check my light.

Suspicious glances at the photographer are just fine, too. And probably well-deserved at this juncture.

Lotsa problems with this light, though. First, the color is too warm. That's because all of the ambient is bouncing off of the warm-toned carpet and walls.

Speaking of bouncing, I have a stray hard light source coming from back camera right somewhere. See the shadow it is leaving?

Finally, I am getting some weirdness through the window out of frame at camera left even though the blinds are shut. If this was a nice, relatively homogenous ambient it would work well as fill. But it's not. So now it must die.

Let's crank our shutter speed to 1/250th to kill as much ambient as possible. And I'll drop the aperture to the middle of the range. Call it f/9, because, whatever. This should do two things: make the ambient image black and make my lens as absolutely sharp as it can be. Sorry, speed and bokeh freaks. That's just physics.

That's much better! Yessiree, no worries at all now. Seriously, that bad ambient is cured (i.e., gone) and that is exactly what we were after. Now, let's make some cool shadows. Literally.

I'm gonna place a full CTB (blue) gel on my SB-800 in the small Softlighter, then stick it right on the ground in front of her. That blue "uplight" will both define the color of the shadows from the (eventual) key and create a tie between the environment and her jacket.


Oh, I think we're pretty much done here. Who even needs a key light with you get this just from the fill?

Laurie, I know you may well be mortified that I am sharing this but … all in the interest of science, right?

So remember, this is fill. But depending on the kind of photo you are going for, you could go a lot of ways from here. Mad scientist? Sure. Just grid her face and be done with it. Or maybe splash some other gridded colors around in there, too.

And you'd need the grids to keep the other lights from contaminating the blue field you have set up. But I am not gonna grid my key because I want it to erase a lot of that blue and just leave it in the shadows.

In fact, even the shadows will ultimately be a less intense blue. That's because my key (which I will warm up with my standard ¼ CTO warming gel) will bounce around in the environment and negate a lot of that blue even in the shadows.

Here's the setup, from the camera position, shot with a wide:

My key is a LumiQuest SB-III, one of my very favorite small-flash mods for portraiture. It can range from hard to soft, depending on how close you bring it in. (We are going a little hard here, but you can totally make this little thing look soft.)

So basically we have taken a living room, stripped it to bare white, killed the ambient and replaced with with a blue upwash of light. Then we hard-lit her against that with warmed-up downlight.

Sounds like a lot, but it's really not. It's just a very granular breakdown of the methodology that you can use to turn anything into, well, anything.

Also, look at the difference between the body language and the expression. The first says, "Trust me, I'm a professional." The second says something more along the lines of, "If you don't read this article/profile, you could miss something good."

A living room, a half-roll of white, some gaff and a couple of speedlights. That's all you need to go in any of a number of different directions. Which is kinda what makes this lighting stuff so fun in the first place.

Next: Lunch Lady Land


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Blogger Marc Charbonnier said...

Great! Could you tell me which is your octogonal softbox? Thanks!

February 04, 2013 2:18 AM  
Blogger indigoid said...

Perhaps they let you provide your own as an example of your work? Seems quite fitting to me. Did they call it out that way in the article?

February 04, 2013 2:21 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

I can see this being used in Science Journal or any of the other technology magazines. This type of lighting definitely helps create atmosphere and separates the serious professional photographer from the lazy journalist without a decent brief(or budget).

Good work my man... take yourself to the top of the class and celebrate with a can of the old Dew...

February 04, 2013 3:01 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Whilst I have to admit I wasn't immediately conscious of it, I love the blue shadows here, and the way it plays off the subject's jacket.

It's quite a bit more subtle than some of the other blue background / warm key portraits you've posted (which, to be fair, you've usually used the blue as a way to suggest technological innovation).

It leaves me wondering how many other examples like this you've posted over the years in which I haven't noticed subtle coloured fill. This shot certainly lends credence to a comment you made fairly recently about learning from Heisler; that he rarely leaves a flash ungelled, because so little light we find is actually daylight balanced.

February 04, 2013 7:39 AM  
Blogger HPocius said...

David, excellent article. I like the two parter, and the different looks you give your subjects. I've been keenly watching your experiments with colored gels and am glad for it. Your posts keep me thinking and growing. Thanks David!

February 04, 2013 8:34 AM  
Blogger mindrust said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 04, 2013 9:39 AM  
Blogger mindrust said...

Really enjoyed part 1, but we all knew you were saving the good stuff for part 2, right! Great articles, really love how you build the techniques and thinking from the ground up, step by step. Articles like this keep me comnig back to this (the best) blog time and again. Thanks, David - keep them coming!

February 04, 2013 9:45 AM  
Blogger Brian Lahue said...

Reading this blog has really taken my photography from color-by-number to a blank canvas... which is both good and bad. I'd love to hear the Cliff's notes version of how the conversation and thinking went from "Can you take my picture for the company's new website?" to where you ended up with both of these shots.

As I'm learning, a good photographer is an idea machine with a camera.

February 04, 2013 10:19 AM  
Blogger Dave_Reed said...

I think that after reading your blog for 3 years, I'm starting to really understand what you're talking about. Thanks for contributing to my photographic education.

February 04, 2013 1:16 PM  
Blogger nomorspam said...

In the one with the blue fill I feel like the subject is ready to fall over.

February 04, 2013 1:54 PM  
Blogger Žoa Pacal said...

Hi, thanks for posting all this information on your blog. It helps an enthusiast getting into advanced lighting without paying for expensive courses.

I am just wondering what is your scale on "portability". I just want to hop on strobes, but getting two SB800s, 900s or something that powerful seems way too expensive. Why spending 390€ per each, plus accessories, when I could get a two lights Elinchrom D-lite 4it kit for the same price. Do you think it's worth the little less size and hassle; and less power? Thank you.

February 04, 2013 3:47 PM  
Blogger Ted Vynorius said...

Another awesome article...


February 04, 2013 5:21 PM  
Blogger The Duck said...

Is there anyway, or better yet, a need to remove the shadow? And, would you comment on the choice of pose. I wonder why you showed so much body?

February 04, 2013 7:05 PM  
Blogger Bob Redd said...

I see that you have at least one flaw....you drink Mountain Dew!

February 04, 2013 11:24 PM  
Blogger Brian Bray said...

If I have one unsolicited critique David, it's that you're too soft on the unsolicited critiques.

Commenters: nobody cares what you would personally do to tweak an image. It's subjective. Instead of seeking a formula for the perfect image, be grateful for whatever insight you get from this VERY HELPFUL EXPERIENCED PROFESSIONAL and go make your own work of art!

Rant over.

February 05, 2013 11:22 AM  
Blogger diegonyc said...

The gift that keeps on giving. Thanks again for the writeup DH.

February 05, 2013 1:23 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@The Duck-

You don't need to have a shadow there. But I wanted it, so I made it. As for losing it, did you read part one?

February 05, 2013 5:18 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

@brian bray I totally get what you mean about responses to a critique but I believe that this is one of the things that people (like me)like about his blog: honest, educational, humourous and unconfrontational.
@Strobist this 2-parter make me feel empowered to try my own thing. To some this might seem like well trodden ground but there are always new gems to be found. Appreciated.

February 06, 2013 8:00 AM  
Blogger cdlink said...

Thanks David, I too enjoyed this two-part study of a studio on the cheap.

Chris in Oregon

February 06, 2013 11:18 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Well this is very interesting. There are two big ideas here for me. The first is a reminder how softness depends on distance. I am generally trying for the softest light possible to mimic a cloudy day – so this is important.

The second idea is tailoring two photos for final uses. I do publication design and if someone handed me the second “blue” image, I’d be really happy. It has space for a title at the top and I can easily imagine the first few paragraphs of text flowing down the page on the left.

That was a surprise to me, because I my personal work is almost entirely portrait based, and I never thought of this aspect. I took a more absolute view, thinking there is generally one absolute best shot from a session and it has to do with who that person is, how you want to show them and so on. But here you’ve changed not just the framing – you've changed everything. Hmmmm ideas are flowing ...

February 07, 2013 9:54 AM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

Fabulous David.. You really enlighten us with your approach to gelling to create mood. I'll repeat...this blog is the best for learning the how to's of basic photographic lighting. Btw are you still happy you switched to phase one?

February 08, 2013 9:31 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Actually, I never "switched" to PhaseOne. I've said several times that the majority of my work is still done with other cameras. I use the PhaseOne when max quality and tonal depth (or image size) is important.

Given that, I love it.

February 08, 2013 11:12 AM  
Blogger Kathy Cronise said...

Happily learning more with every post. I personally believe Diet Mt.Dew is not Diet and Pepsi is pulling a good one on all of us!!

February 08, 2013 11:41 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

David, thanks for keeping "On Assignment" posts a part of your rotation. I feel like this is the heart and soul of the Strobist phenomenon: an "open source" approach to knowledge and wisdom. By day I'm a public high school teacher, and while this doesn't make me an expert on anything per se, I do know good teaching when I see it. So, again, thank you.

February 13, 2013 11:03 AM  
OpenID chrisnemes said...

Awesome stuff. I always wondered how the blue shade is rendered. I thought it was a WB thing, but you've put things in the right place.
By the way, I've been reading your blog since 2006 when I got my first strobist kit.
Since then I've done quite a bit of stuff with off-camera light, commercial or personal work.

Today I've shot my first assignment for a magazine. Simple portraits, wide angle, that's all the editor wanted.
The right shot was reluctant to show up. Something was never quite right - the angle, the light, the frame. One hour later, finally managed to get it. I have a renewed respect for guys like you and McNally.

February 15, 2013 7:28 PM  
Blogger keloidscarproject said...

Thank you. Sorry if this is a stupid question, but would you have used a full CTB (blue) gel even if her jacket was a different color or would you have use it anyway (to define the color of the shadows from the (eventual) key)? Thank you.

February 27, 2013 10:15 AM  
Blogger Juan Tellez fotografias said...

David utilizo White balance en la camara? o 3400K?

April 27, 2013 7:49 PM  

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