UPDATE: Strobist was archived in 2021.
Here is what I am up to now.


On Assignment: Steve at Google

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to spend several days on the Google campus. For a guy like me, that borders on being a religious experience.

I have never been more intimidated than I was while setting up to spend all day teaching to a room full of fifty Google employees. On the one hand, I was absolutely certain that I was the dumbest guy in the room. But on the other hand, the whole campus just oozes with camaraderie and collaboration. Which adds a whole new (and very cool) layer to the enlarged frontal lobe thing.

But when it was all said and done, I could not remember ever having hung out with a more broadly intelligent and fun bunch of folks. Add to that the amazing environment that Google has created for their people, and you have a remarkable place to spend a career.

I won't get all of the perks and bennies of being a Googler, because there's a lot. But I will take a moment to give a shout out to the food -- all free -- and prepared by 5-star chefs. These guys know how to get their grub on.

Just imagine being on a cruise ship, every day, three times a day, but with better food. (Lobster tacos, anyone?) It is said that some Googlers do not even keep a fridge in their house. And yes, the campus coolers were stocked with ice-cold DMD's.

That food is from all over the world, and top notch. But they still know how to bring it down to street level: All hail Chef Dave's Special Bacon Fried Rice.

Okay, now I am getting all distracted. Back to shooting Steve, after the jump...

The Need for Speed

Google prides themselves not only on being the best search engine on the planet, but also on being breathtakingly fast. That's a good skill to have when lighting a portrait, too. In this case, for instance, the sun was quickly disappearing behind the top of a nearby building on campus. (The building just past a full-sized T-rex skeleton sculpture devouring the remains of a Christmas tree, to be exact.)

So this was gonna have to happen within just a few minutes, or it wasn't going to look very good. Just for fun, I am going to run this one real time. Times are pulled from EXIF data. But please remember to allow for the fact that we are explaining the process as we go, which slows us down a bit...

(Fortunately, with these guys, you rarely have to explain something twice. They pretty much get it the first time.)

Time = 00:00

My lights are on stands, and I am walking to the shoot with them, just as if we were doing a few looks, shoot-and-scoot style.

First off, choose an angle. Grab a natural light shot to assess the ambient portion of the photo and check the sight lines. No problems here. Exposure, 1/400, f/4.5, ISO 400. That's an easy place to hit, and to move around, with flash.

Note all of those not-very-bright guys hanging out in the back.

Time = 00:10

We are now ten seconds into the shoot. Having placed a bare flash (1/2 power, if memory serves) I grab a test shot, blocking the light with my hand, to see what my backlight will do to the surroundings when blocked by Steve.

Everything looks fine. In fact, I am always amazed at what one hidden backlight can do. Here, it is working in spades, reflecting off of the glass and white aluminum and doing all sorts of cool things. More often than not when designing light, I start in the back and move forward.

Later, when editing at a less insane pace, I would realize that the people who were just hanging around in this test looked pretty darn good. Especially Aaron, back center right, leaning against the post with the "come hither" stare. (He is nowhere near that attractive in real life.)

I could use this technique (combined with a front light) to shoot a kickin' 10-person group shot, if needed. So I file that away somewhere, for later.

(EDIT: Second thought, I think there is some un-aimed, unadjusted front light kicking in here on my hand. See my head shadow. But it is not reaching back to the back guys -- it is too far and the gridded beam way to narrow to get them all like that. That's all bouncing backlight, I'd bet.)

Time = 00:56

Just for comparison: Note how useless a backlight test is if you do not block it with something when testing it.

That's an important thing to remember. I always travel with one hand, and a spare, just for this reason.

Time = 00:59

Less than a minute after first visualizing the scene, I am testing the second light -- from the position of the second light. This is critical when working fast, as it allows you to test both exposure and aim while seeing what your light will see. This light had a gridspot, so aim counts.

Then I waste twenty secs of precious sunlight talking about the fact that the front light is too dark. Adjust light to be more powerful. Shut up and get back to work. Note that I am not even bothering to focus these shots yet. No need. Why waste the time?

Time = 01:22

There, that's better. If memory serves, I am at 1/2 power on the back light, and 1/8 power on the front light, which is coming from just a little bit camers right in the final shooting position, and a little higher than Steve's face.

The power settings are not important. The thought process is important.

I see here that I would like a little more exposure in the sky. Open the shutter from 1/400th to 1/200th of a sec. Problem solved for first real shot, which is at:

Time = 01:44

We are off and running. Starting at 01:44, I am making photos I can use. For the next two and a half minutes, I concentrate on making good frames. Vary the angle. Get different expressions. Watch for changing ambient light and adjust the shutter if needed. Remind the fifty people standing behind me to leave a path in the tunnel, because people are actually needing to use it as we shoot.

In four minutes and change, we go from visualizing a two-light photo to having thirty usable frames to choose from. Not that we're stealing a car or anything. But I want my frames before the light goes away, simple as that. That's a good way to be able to work, and very doable when you have been lighting long enough for it to get intuitive.

Here's the frame I chose. For one thing, Steve wasn't blinking or picking his nose in this one, and the expression and lines both look good.

Someone asked about the reflection of the backlight in the glass. It is either too close to me (in the side glass) to see, or is hidden by a post. You can see it popping up in the first "real shot" frame, at time = 01:44.

I was working to fast to know or care why it was not a problem later. But if it had been a problem, I would have moved forward or back to hide the reflection in a white post and zoom the lens to recompose. Easy-peasy.

NOTE: You can see an available light / setup / compromise exposure shot, here. (Thanks, Jennn!)

And why, you may ask, is this man smiling? Because he, my friend, works for Google. And that's enough to make anyone happy:

Thanks to all of the Googlers for showing me such a great time on campus. I cannot remember a tenth of the stuff I learned, but it'll come back to me a little at a time, I am sure.

And to all of the new friends I met in Mountain View, if you ever get over to the new Washington, DC Google office and want to hang out, shoot me an email. I am only 20 mins from there.

NEXT: Michael in Paris


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