On Assignment: Back to the Well

Tian Lu (left) and Yuri Shadrin are both accomplished pianists in their own right. But when they play as a duet (on the same piano) they produce an intuitive mix of music and banter that could only come from the married couple that they are.

He is Russian, she is Chinese. Which made them the perfect choice to perform in China later this month in commemoration of an upcoming regional trade partnership between China and Russia.

So I shot their publicity portraits in one of my favorite little environmental portrait nooks in Howard County—under the fountain downtown at the lakefront. I have shot here before, but every time I come back I see the place a little differently.


Taken as a whole, this setting doesn't look too promising. "Under a fountain" means water. And when it's windy, that water can often end up in your face. But is also has a mix of columns and textures that also make for a neat environment for portraits.

You Flash Bus folks from 2011 may recognize the setting. It's where I did this picture:

Same location, slightly different angle and way different lighting. And in a way, the work done in this alcove has been a proxy for the different ways I have grown to understand and use light.

The bluish photo just above represents a completely completely different approach than the one I used when I photographed blogger Jessie Newburn at this same spot in 2008. Those process photos went on to become the BTS series for the main post on balancing light in the Lighting 101 updates.

As your perception and use of light evolves, you sometimes will wish you could turn back the clock and shoot a location portrait in a different way. If you are using the same location repeatedly over a period of time, you can.

Interestingly, while shooting the 2011 photo above, I recognized that a fill light specific to the subject's face (like a grid, here) would give me much more control over the dynamic range of my scene. When I photographed Jessie here five years ago, I was more or less depending on the ambient to be my fill. Not just on the environment but on the subject, too.

That's fine if those two desired light levels happen to coincide. But if not, you can fill your subject with a second light and independently choose your brightness/contrast level for the rest of the scene.

On to 2013. Here's an available-light-only BTS (courtesy Dave Kile) of the scene around the subjects. For clarity, there is another light scraping the unseen wall behind them—an SB-800 in a Honl ⅛" grid.

The key light is my trusty 60" Photek Softlighter, firing nearly straight down in front of them. This allows me to use the edge of the light and keep the column from getting too bright.

Inside this Photek are three SB-800s, all at ¼ power, on a three-way bracket. I don't need three flashes for power here—I could get more output from a single speedlight on 1/1 power.

But shooting with multiple flashes at a lower power level gives me two things: faster recycling and faster t.1 times. The latter is very important because I am shooting with the Fuji X100s and its leaf shutter, syncing at 1/500th of a second.

That single pop at full power is not going to fit so well into a 1/500th of a second if the t.1 time for a full-power pop is 1/250th of a second. Which it is. Almost. On a good day with a tailwind. (Really, it's about 1/200th—even worse.)

But by using 3 flashes at ¼ power, my t.1 time won't be a problem. I could even drop my shutter speed two more stops to a 1/2000th of a second and kill lots more ambient if I want. Plus, I can shoot quick double-taps when needed.

The fill light, seen at bottom, is a single SB-800 in a 43" umbrella on a collapsed compact stand. (I love compact stands for this reason, among many others.)

And that fill is very important. If I decide to speed up my shutter to kill some ambient, the fill will still preserve the lighting ratio on Tian and Yuri. So that gives me more control over my environment than I had with, say, Jessie and no secondary fill light.

On the contrary, one aspect of the environment that I can't control is that fountain. It was close enough to where I spent most of the shoot with one foot hanging over its slippery edge. Which, I suspect, is mostly why Dave was shooting BTS shots to begin with.

Better luck next time, Dave. If I am going into the drink, I am gonna do it when no cameras are around.

Next: Martin Prihoda Photographs Priyanka Chopra


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Blogger diegonyc said...

great write up dh. makes it even more special that u used the fuji which i can't wait to get my hands on.

May 22, 2013 1:40 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Did you use the 3 flashes in the Photek because you had them? I'm defiantly and advocate of use what you got...

Curious why not an Einstein and a vagabond? Would't that be an better option for you - and most people? Could use any modifier then, plus still get speed and cycle times. At 100ws (guessing thats what your running) you'd be recycling in a second.

Just wondering…
And just to just clarify, I'm learning from you here. :)

May 22, 2013 1:45 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Did you use the 3 flashes in the Photek because you had them? I'm defiantly and advocate of use what you got...

Curious why not an Einstein and a vagabond? Would't that be an better option for you - and most people? Could use any modifier then, plus still get speed and cycle times. At 100ws (guessing thats what your running) you'd be recycling in a second.

Just wondering…
And just to just clarify, I'm learning from you here. :)

May 22, 2013 1:45 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

The fountain is a great spot—site of my all-time-favorite Strobist post. But then again, I might be biased. http://strobist.blogspot.com/2009/05/on-off-assignment-blown-shoot.html

May 22, 2013 2:00 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

Lovely lighting. Lots of shape and texture but its done subtlety so its not too obvious. Is there much post processing in the shot or is it pretty much as it came out of camera? Ive only just got my x100s and Im still getting used to the files.

May 22, 2013 2:10 AM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

Top drawer info as usual, especially the reason you go for three speedlights on 1/4 power, giving more control over ambient due to the shorter T1 time allowing you to use faster shutter speeds on the X100s leaf shutter. Then there's the built in ND filter for even more ambient latitude! Brilliant little camera with a knockout punch, get the beers in for Fuji.

May 22, 2013 4:02 AM  
Blogger Roberto Alonso Lago said...

" If I am going into the drink, I am gonna do it when no cameras are around".

Famous last words, David. famous last words...

May 22, 2013 4:31 AM  
Blogger dwbell said...

I'm guessing you posted this because you wanted me to critique it online? Correct? ;-> Hehe..

Table top soft-lighter is an "A-ha!" for me. It's just using the edge like we do on the side, but up above, yet I never really thought about it that rationally / three dimensionally. Has me thinking about using the lower fill edge now too....

May 22, 2013 6:20 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Great writeup and I love seeing the evolution of your lighting and style.

What did you use to sync the fill? Looks like a sync chord, but what kind?

Also, I'm guessing you sync'd the main and BG flashes via optical slave/SU-4 mode, correct?

May 22, 2013 7:01 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey S Baker said...

DH, Last time I was down at the lake there was a sign stating no photography. Were you working on the down low or did you somehow get a permit?

May 22, 2013 7:13 AM  
Blogger M said...

How are you triggering the Nikon flashes with your X100s?

Great article, thanks


May 22, 2013 7:26 AM  
Blogger Ernesto Rausa said...

Did you do headshots too? I spy backdrop gaffed up to the wall.

May 22, 2013 8:48 AM  
Blogger Dave6163 said...

David like the idea of visiting a familiar environmental site and working towards a different mood or style. There are challenges in finding the right locations and seeing a locations with different views is good way to push yourself.

Well careful about pushing yourself too far as you might just fall in!

May 22, 2013 9:57 AM  
Blogger Randy Gay said...

I'm a little confused: where's the light with the grid? what's it doing?


May 22, 2013 10:06 AM  
Blogger ginsbu said...

Just a lovely portrait. Wonderful textures throughout make it appear very three dimensional without being over the top or distracting.

May 22, 2013 10:37 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Nick- Coulda gone either way, but knew from experience speedlights would be enough. Plus, they're lighter.

May 22, 2013 10:44 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I actually get a decent amount of what I need in-camera, both via the lighting and in the crazy amount of tonal control that the Fuji X100s offers. See my video here for more on that.

May 22, 2013 10:46 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Matt- I used a 10m TTL OCF cord meant for Nikon. Works fine w/Fuji and speedlights. Working on an evolution of that, tho. More later.

May 22, 2013 10:47 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I got permission.

May 22, 2013 10:48 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Indeed we did. Good eye!

May 22, 2013 10:48 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


The gridded light is creating the splotch of light in the upper right background. The light itself is just out of frame to the right.

May 22, 2013 10:49 AM  
Blogger Swing42 said...

Hi David,

I'm guessing that since you are using a sync cord that PWs or other radio based triggers won't work with the x100s?


May 22, 2013 10:59 AM  
Blogger alan decker said...

why are you hard wired instead of using pocket wizards??

May 22, 2013 11:03 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Swing and @Alen-

It's for best sync speed. See my earlier post on the leaf shutter of the X100s.

May 22, 2013 11:04 AM  
Blogger Ken Gray Photo said...

Wow David, this is really impressive. So subtle. Quite a change from 2007 and even 2011.
What I love the most is the sepia tone I would not have noticed if not for DK's BTS photo. The red brick, the slate gray walls, the black coat. With your 1/4 CPO I assume, the photo now shows the gray, black, and red to be harmonious. Almost a sepia tone while the blue gets deeper and richer. Love it. I would not have seen it if I were there shooting. You really have a vision beyond the scene.
Thank you...

May 22, 2013 12:14 PM  
Blogger editwizard said...

I must say, this is one of my favorites that you've done! Amazing light. I bet they can't believe the look you achieved in this simple location. It really looks like some other country!

May 22, 2013 1:15 PM  
Blogger Randy Gay said...

2 setup questions: what's the do-hickey on the grip arm about 8 inches away from the stand? how is the triple flash bracket attache to the grip arm?


May 22, 2013 1:35 PM  
Blogger Jan said...

Question on the side: Where did you get these cool yellow-black striped sandbags?
Love to have some!!

May 23, 2013 9:02 AM  
Blogger dave moser said...

nice work DH! i love the x100s, have one, use it... but... it would be great to have a longer version -- i think this pic could have used a 50mm, and that would have worked just as well, syncing at 1/200th without the need to worry about "t1" times.

you're loving the flat toplight these days, aren't ya? gotta try it myself, never have, interesting

May 23, 2013 10:28 AM  
Blogger dave moser said...

And, uh, just to tweak you a smidge, Mr Hobby -- with ALL due respect 'cause i <3 u --
not using an Einstein because of weight, but schlepping sandbags to the shoot?

love the light... again... might have taken that Honl on the back wall down a stop and moved it a tad into the frame, what what???

enjoy your trip to NYC... make sure the folks see the Highline... great cheap outing -- the Staten Island Ferry, do it!


May 23, 2013 2:46 PM  
Blogger Ron Davis said...

Hey David, what brand light stand are you using there for the Photek? I noticed the same one in the shoot for the soprano

Thanks, Ron

May 24, 2013 7:45 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Does anybody know how David attaches the C Stand Grip Arm to the Photek? I know he mentioned the flashes are mounted to a three-head bracket. Is the Arm attached to that?

May 27, 2013 9:06 PM  
Blogger mary henderson said...

the bracket attaches to the arm:


May 28, 2013 2:01 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


If you click on the link supplied on the 3-way bracket, you'll see that it is merely an umbrella swivel that holds three flashes. It attached to a stand or C-stand arm just like anything else.

May 28, 2013 2:16 PM  
Blogger Meal Planning Made Simple said...

How do you mount your hot shoe flashes in the Softlighter? I feel that you would need at least 2, maybe 3 to get solid output from a modifier that large. I just haven't been able to find the exact bracket that I would need.


June 07, 2013 1:21 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


June 07, 2013 9:45 AM  

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