UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


On Assignment: Pool Portrait

A few days ago, I had an assignment to shoot a professional triathlete at a local pool. It was a quick, bottom-of-the-page sports assignment. But the photos were a good illustration of how to use location to control bad sunlight, and then build the good light back up with flash. So here it is.

We were doing a story on her because she will be competing against men in her next event. She's not superhuman - there was just a scheduling mix-up on a race for which she had properly entered and trained before they cancelled the women's event. So it's gonna be her against the guys.

The assignment was in for 2:00 in the afternoon, which is just in time for bad-quality sunlight. Naturally, I grabbed a flash with a light stand and set out to tame it. I am trying something a little different here and just walking you through the process step-by-step, thinking out loud as I go.

I get there traveling very light, as usual. I am carrying one camera with a wide-angle zoom, a flash with an external battery (overkill in this case) and a portable light stand kit.

I meet her at the front door. She's very personable, and I figure it'll be easy to make a nice portrait of her. As always, one of my first conversation points is to find out how much time she has for me. That's always very important when planning what I'll do. And it also shows that I respect her time constraints, which is important to her.

She tells me that a group of athletes are concurrently being shot by another photographer, Nicole Martyn, a young Patuxent Publishing photographer with a very good eye. So I make it a point to keep an eye on how Nicole is photographing the other athletes. You can always learn something.

The fact that the subject is already occupied with another photographer might have irked me 20 years ago, but now I use it as time and space to figure out how I want to shoot her while I wait. I tell her that I'll need 5 mins to find a spot and set up light, and that works out well for the her, too.

So, where to shoot and how to shoot it?

As I said before, the sun is coming in high and hard. So I am looking to (a) get away from it, and/or (b) make it better. (As it turns out, I ended up both - one each in two separate shots.)

I find an alcove by a door to the locker rooms that is in the shade. The pool is in the background, as seen in the top photo. The shady area is about 4 stops below the sunlit pool area, which gives me a good platform from which to add light.

Within about 30 seconds there is an SB-800 up on a stand to camera left, set on 105mm beam spread and 1/4 power manual. This gives me f/16 @ ASA 200 a few feet away at the wall on the right, as measured by my "Flashmeter LH" (left hand.) As always, I fine-tune my flash exposure by shooting my hand in the subject's light and eyeballing the back of the camera.
It's fast and free. The water drops on the front filter (thanks to the wet kid that just ran by me) even show up at f/16. And at f/16 at ASA 200, I have plenty of shutter-speed choice to set the sunlit pool area just as bright or dark as I want via the shutter speed.

I'm about 3 minutes into the assignment at this point, and catch the eye of the triathlete. She pops over for a minute (not even a minute, actually) and the first shot is done.
Here's the set-up. As you can see, I am using a cardboard snoot on the flash to control the light spill. This gives me a little edge to the light, and a photo with nice, sealed edges.

It could hardly be simpler or quicker. The coiled cord thingie hanging down is my SC-17 off-camera TTL cord, which never ever gets used for TTL. Today, it is doubling as a lightstand-hotshoe adapter, as it has a 1/4x20 thread on the bottom. (When I do use it as an O-C cord, it is in the manual mode.)

I ask here if she can meet me on the other side of the pool in 5 mins. Fine. She goes back to re-join the others, who are being shot individually by Nicole.

Five minutes may not seem like much time to plan a shot. But if you are already familiar with your ambient and have your light already set up, it is more than enough time.

A minute later, I am set up by a ladder on the other side of the pool, facing into the high-angle sunlight. It's coming from overhead background camera left.

I decide to shoot her on the pool ladder to get a clean (water) background that the sun can light for me. I can nuke her from the front, and she will not leave a shadow on the background, either. What I now have are two planes. One is flash lit, and one is ambient. And I can control both independently. Lighting with flash against the ambient this way always give you the most control.

I stick the flash at camera right and set it to 1/2 power on manual. I want the ability to really dial down the water while shooting, without having to alter the flash. I can easily do it with shutter speed at this flash level. The snoot is still on the flash, which will keep the chrome rails from throwing an unmanageable highlight back at me.

Three minutes later, she is back and on the ladder.

I sight down the snoot and aim it right toward her face.

"Can you see the flash at the other end of the tube?"


Good. I know that her face will be lit by the snoot's beam. Who needs modeling lights, anyway?

Now, we all have our different ethical compass points - as do our publications. Mine is such that I feel comfy positioning her for a portrait. This photo does not purport to be a hands-off, documentary action shot of her practicing. It's a portrait. I have already altered the scene by merely showing up and talking with her. Ditto for using flash. And that's true whether it was crappy, direct, on-camera flash or something a little higher on the lighting food chain.

So, if you feel differently, then by all means act on it. But just be aware that an extreme aversion to injecting yourself into a scene for something like a portrait can sometimes be a fear of lighting, masked with the indignance of an ultra-hands-off, documentary artiste.

My position is that you have to convey your subjects with integrity, and balance the fly-on-the-wall times with the times that require you to elevate the technical quality of a photo. On a portrait (if they know you are shooting it) you are already a little bit pregnant with respect to controlling the photo. Learn to work along the ethical continuum in a way that is both honest and allows you publication to have strong images.

Sermon's over. Back to the photo.

Here's a trick I use to improve the quality of light from a snoot when shooting someone. Have them turn their body toward the light and look at it with their face, then have them look back at you with their eyes. It'll help the quality of a hard light. And it is a natural task for the subject to perform. Much easier and less cumbersome than trying to nail everything down and then shoot them while they are stiff as a board.

Just do not get the light too far off of the shooting axis, or it starts to get weird.

So, there's snooted, half-power flash firing into the shadow side of the subject, in line with her face. Looks fine, but the exposure is out of whack for both her face and the background.

This is why I have the flash powered up to give myself some leeway. With the camera set at 1/250th, I pop a test photo. Using the TFT screen on the back as a guide, I adjust the aperture until her face looks properly exposed.

With that nailed down, I repeat the process for the background, except I alter that by adjusting the shutter speed. Takes about 15 seconds.
A minute later, we are done. That makes 10 minutes for the whole assignment, with only two or three minutes of the subject's time actually taken up. Why so fast? After all, I could have shot 300 frames and kept her there for 30 minutes.

My reasoning was two-fold. First, I didn't want to monopolize her time and shortchange the other shooter. And second, it is very good practice for those times when you are shooting someone very important (or consumed by their own ego) and they have very little time.

And, as I am both so very important and utterly consumed by my own ego, that's it for me.


Next: Strobe on a Rope


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
My current project: The Traveling Photograher's Manifesto