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On Assignment: Don't Deny the Obvious

We give a lot of attention to light mods around here: big ones, little ones, hard ones, soft ones, umbrellas, soft boxes, grids and the like. But sometimes the best light mod is no light mod at all — especially indoors, with neutral walls.

In that environment, often the smart choice is just to stick your bare speedlights on stands and go.


This is something I used to do a lot more often as a time-pressed newspaper photographer. Not so much specifically for the quality of light. It was just, well, faster to set up and tear down.

But it is also a way to maximize the apparent size of your light source, hide your flashes when necessary and give yourself the absolute most room to work.

The First One's Free…

As most of you know, bounce flash is sort of the gateway drug to off-camera lighting. It beats the crap out of direct flash and it's easy. You start out with a ceiling or two, and pretty soon you're scoring a white wall. Next thing you know, you're zooming your flash head to make different size light sources and by then it owns you.

Bounce flash from the top of a light stand is an evolution from that. That's because your light source is not tied to your camera position, tilt or orientation. And with multiple light sources the possibilities expand even more.

For the shot above of chef José Andres, done in his home kitchen, I was tagging stills off a video project. They were the primary and I was working around them. So I wanted to be quick, easy setup and unobtrusive.

There was a glass backsplash behind him, so I could not light him from straight on at all. You'd see the light in the reflection. And I wanted light that didn't call attention to itself, too. Just give me some soft illumination and a little separation and I'd be good to go.

So that's exactly what we did. All of these light sources are ungelled, and his walls and ceiling are both white. Any time I get a white-walled room with a white ceiling I at least consider the possibility of bouncing at least one light.

My key light was an LP180, bounced up high into the wall-ceiling juncture over my left shoulder. The room sorta filled itself, given white walls on all sides.

I used two other bounced flashes (another LP180 and an SB-800) as separation lights. One was high off the wall behind José's camera-left shoulder. I guess it was pretty much a mirror image of my key light.

For a hair light I bounced the third speedlight off of the ceiling behind him. The "wall" you see in the back of the frame does not extend to the ceiling. It is more of a room divider unit with a gap between the top and the ceiling. I prefer to think of it as an expensive, custom-built gobo. It was just too convenient, and you can see how I used it in the side-view diagram above.

The hair light is subtle — just needs to separate two similar tones (hair and background) and keep them from merging. This is not, "HEYEVERYBODYLOOKATMYLIGHT" light. It's just designed to do it's job and disappear, much as I was trying to do for myself.

In fact, the takeaway from me for that day was just getting the chance to watch someone who is truly great at what he does perform in his own home kitchen. That's a neat and privileged moment, not unlike the time I photographed a soprano singing in the shower. (My fancy stereo has never sounded good since.)

Working in Haiti

I don't often intersect with high-end restaurants or world-renowned chefs. I am just as happy at a great barbecue joint in South Carolina (mustard and vinegar, not tomato).

But having met one, I'd like to think they are all as cool as the guy in the one-minute video you see above. Taking that talent and publicity and pointing it at the long-term efforts to rebuild Haiti is the kind of thing that makes chef José Andres triple aces in my book.

Next: Chasing Light: Actress Margo Seibert


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