On Assignment: Hit for Average

In almost every way, this is an utterly unremarkable sports portrait. But it makes a good example to illustrate that having a minimal lighting setup with you at all times can help you maintain some semblance of a standard when the deck gets stacked against you.

That's exactly what happened a couple of months ago when I made this shot of a prep soccer star who was closing in on a record for the number of goals scored.

There are days when you wake up and try to decide if you should call in sick, and there are days when you know you should call in sick. This day was one of the latter. But we are also short-staffed at The Sun, so calling in sick can sometimes turn into the starting point in a negotiation.

Unfortunately, we had a heavy assignment load and the desk guy said it would really help out a lot if I could spend most of the day in bed and then pop down to Laurel, MD, to shoot the prep soccer portrait during practice. The assignment was a quick turnaround, and the girl was not going to be available for several days after this afternoon.

No prob. I'll crash in bed and then try to look healthy for 30 mins in the afternoon. Hey, it happens.

So I show up to shoot her during practice, except there is no outdoor practice. That's because it is raining cats and dogs. So now they are gonna do drills in a dimly lit gym, which means absolutely zero soccer ambiance.

I have the normal SB in my waistpack, with a stand and umbrella on my shoulder. This is pretty S-O-P, even when going to shoot a feature at a practice. You never know.

But now I have no action, and no environment. So we decide to call an audible and see if we can get access to a classroom. Classrooms are one of my favorite drop-back-and-punt locations because they all have chalkboards. And chalkboards are practically as good as seamless paper backdrops in my book.

They are even better in one way, which is that they can be quickly customized to add a layer of context. (Just add chalk.)

I confessed to being contagious to avoid shaking her hand and to allow her the chance to keep her distance enough to stay healthy for the state tournament. So we worked quickly, and at a safe distance for her. We put a tick mark on the board for each goal she had scored and stuck her in front of it.

Fancy? Nope.

Nuanced? Hardly.

But it got the conceptual point across using just about the last two brain cells I had to rub together that day.

Lining this kind of a shot up can be trickier than it looks, as chalkboards typically start at about waist height. So I put her on a chair and stood on one myself to line it all up.

The light is simple and straightforward - no rule breaking here. I just wanted to get in, get a decent shot, get out and get back in bed. I put the SB on a stand about 5 feet from her, firing into a double-fold umbrella, and PW'd it to the camera. The light is coming from camera left up high near the ceiling.

Same drill as always: Set the camera on the max sync speed and get to the right aperture (in this case, f/5.6, I think) by trial and error. I was on 1/4 power manual on the flash. Then adjust the shutter speed until it is a couple of stops below the ambient to get nice fill.

(If that makes no sense, then go back to Balancing Light in Lighting 101 for a refresher.)

I used my electrical fluorescent filter - turn off the overhead lights and work with the window light as the only ambient. Hey, I was not feeling ambitious.

A dozen exposures later and we were out of the room in less than five minutes total.

You could do this without the added light. But you would be at the mercy of the window location in the room, and the shot would lack any crispness and/or separation between the subject and backdrop. Since it doesn't have a whole lot going for it to begin with, at least the light gives it a little quality edge.

A few takeaways:

• Always having the small light (and modifiers) with you gives you options that can bail you out in a pinch.
• Some pictures do not have a whole lot going for them other than the crispness that light can add.
• A chalk board is a quick and easy, variable backdrop that is waiting for you at any school. Lots of possibilities here.
• If you use light regularly as a matter of course, it's nothing to quickly do a shot like this - even if you have a fever of 102. Repetition makes this stuff so easy as to be nearly automatic.

IMO, you are defined more by what you do on the low-end, day-to-day stuff than what you do in the unusual, high-yield assignments. Light can help you make a photo better. Or it can allow you to make something out of (almost) nothing.

The satisfaction taken from a shot like this is less about what it is than what it could have been - a shot of a soccer player in a gym, with absolutely zero visual connection to the main theme of the story.

Next: Always Look for a Detail


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