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


On Assignment: Weed Eaters

I spent Tuesday afternoon shooting a fleet of all-terrain mowers in Herald Harbor, MD.

Using goats instead of herbicides to clear land is growing in popularity, especially where runoff and watersheds are involved. And you have to admit, it is a pretty cool way to clear a monster patch of kudzu that has taken over a cliff.

Brian Knox is the supervising forester for Eco-Goats, a Davidsonville, MD company that specializes in ecologically friendly land clearing. Okay, so the goats do a lot of the work. But Brian takes care of them, moves the temporary fences and is a much more articulate spokesperson for the business than are his charges.

If you have the right kind property to be cleared, it is a smart way to go. Not only does it save herbicides getting into the ecosystem, but it is low-carbon. The goats are just recycling the carbon in the topsoil biomass rather than burning petroleum.

Heck, Google does it, and they are the smartest people I know.

We were out in the afternoon on a clear day, with sun raking over a kudzu-covered cliff that acted as our backdrop. For this wide shot and the picture up top, we used two speedlights -- one on-axis for fill and another on a voice-activated boom. The "VAB" in question was Erik Couse, who also helped out on a shoot for Rivals.com earlier this season.

I exposed for a rich-looking ambient, then keylit with Erik's flash and filled with an SB-800 in a Ray Flash. I used a Ray Flash rather than an Orbis this time, as the Ray Flash is a little more efficient.

They both have their relative strengths, as I have been finding out while shooting with each. I have a two-part, in-depth comparison slated to begin next week.

In this case, Erik's SB-800 was high and camera right, and set on 1/4 power. You can see how it hits Brian's face and also sculpts the goats from high up. It is doing the same thing in the photo up top, only the ratio to the ambient is a little tighter so the light is less dramatic. When shooting closer to the ambient and lighting from a high angle, the look is more of a crisp, 3-D feel than anything else.

Here is Erik in action, showing just how easily he can drop that flash in just about anywhere with little effort. If you have a second person (even just a bystander) you can work really fast like this. No need for a fancy-pants boom, either. You can just use an extended light stand with the legs collapsed.

In the wide shot of Brian and goats above, the boom light works against the hard, streaming backlight coming from the sun. But given our ambient exposure, this would be way too contrasty without the use of the fill. The Ray Flash with the SB-800 was set to 1/2 power. Remember, the Ray Flash is going to eat up some light. So the net effect is a pretty good balance between the two because the fill-to-subject distance is also greater than that of the key.

One quirk about the Ray Flash is that it gives up a little angle of coverage to get its efficiency, which in this case is doubly helpful. I was able to feather it up a little to keep from overexposing the foreground goats.

And as long as Erik keeps his flash to a constant distance from my subject, this setup travels very well using manual mode all around. Light stands would not last five minutes with these guys. Who knows -- those flashes might be tasty…

Using this setup, we were also able to follow the goats as they wandered around in what would have otherwise been extreme patchy ambient backlight. Here we just went with Nikon's built-in CLS/TTL. (See? I can be flexible.) We used an on-camera flash as both the on-axis fill and the master light, combined. Fill was set to -2.0 stops from full TTL, with the boomed key light running at full TTL. Worked pretty well, too.

The important thing is the key light location. You'll be nudging your VAB into the lighting locations you want until they start to get it intuitively -- which Erik did pretty quickly.

We wanted to do something with a different look with Brian, so we turned around and shot him using the river as the backdrop.

He would be in full sun, if he were not being shaded by the trees behind me. And by keeping the key light and ambient light all coming from a similar direction, you can build a nice, logical lighting scheme. (Of course, you can cheat it a little with fill and a kicker, too.)

Use the shade to knock out the sun, then build the key and shaping lights until he looks the way you want. That way, the light in the background has a directional consistency that makes it look kinda natural, but juiced.

We placed the lights in this photo one at a time, starting with the ambient. First we went to a low ISO and set the shutter to a 250th. Then we dialed in the aperture that made the background look nice and saturated. I think we were underexposing it, like, a stop-and-a-half maybe.

This, of course, places Brian in a black hole. So we just build him back up one light at a time. (All in manual mode here. Everything is locked in -- the light is not gonna change.)

There are three lights going on -- all SB's. Try to reverse them before reading further if you want. Spoilers ahead.

Key is kinda obvious, I guess. It is coming from high camera right, about 5 feet away. Power level? No idea. Maybe around a quarter or so. Doesn't matter -- the idea is just to dial it in until he looks good. We set it on a 105mm zoom and feathered it up a little, which gave us a nice falloff down his torso.

Second light is subtle, but important for shape. It is a back/right kicker, also zoomed to 105mm and dialed down until it just skims Brian's head and gives it a nice, 3-d look. Not too much power on this light is the secret. (Look at the photo bigger to see the subtle kicker at work.)

The third light needs to fix the shadow depth from the key, so it is coming in from low camera left. Erik is just holding it. We PW'd the first two lights and slaved (using SU-4 mode) the fill. It is subtle because it is set to a nice, low level. (Again, just add salt to taste.) But if you just look above Brian's camera-left collar you can see how much of a black hole the shadows would be without it.

Controlling the shadow depth from the key light is what makes those hard, sculpting lights look good. This also give us power to burn (at reasonable working distances) with the SB's. You could not do this very well with light-sucking umbrellas.

"Cue the Fill Goat!"

This last one is a straight ambient shot, using the streaming sunlight from back camera right and a very convenient fill goat from from camera left. I was amazed at how much she filled Brian's face from that distance.

But I'll sure take it.

Most of the day was handled with patchy backlit ambient and just two SB's. Nothing real fancy, and we did not use a single light softener the whole time. That was possible because we were mindful of the fill light, which allowed us to lift up the shadows cast by the hard key.

And I am already thinking of using these guys to go after that big patch of poison ivy (goats love it) that will otherwise make the woods in our backyard all but unusable next spring.


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