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


On Assignment: Caleb Jones

Here's the scene: You're at the shore of a beautiful lake on a summer's evening, with live cello music set against a backdrop of twinkling fireflies.

The ground, alas, is covered in goose crap. And that's where you are — on your belly — because that's where the best shooting angle is.

Such was the case for our HCAC shoot of cellist Caleb Jones.

Caleb was the winner of the 2010 Howard County Rising Stars competition, in which 10 very talented young artists compete live onstage for a $5,000.00 prize. The winner is by audience vote, and the evening is part of a gala which raises money for local arts in all forms.

Suffice to say that our background music for the shoot was very, very good.

We started off near sunset, shooting tight headshots through the quickly changing light. After sunset, it usually takes about 15-20 minutes before the color starts to get really interesting. But at that point it is also changing very quickly, and it can be an advantage to be working with a minimal amount of gear. Typically, you get to spend a decent amount of time preparing but then have to work quickly to make your photos while the light is good.

One Light for Shape; The Other for Detail.

I used to use a single flash in an umbrella against sunset light for an easy, reliable look. But I have since moved to using to flashes, which gives me lots more flexibility.

If you are using one umbrella (or one light in any mod) your key light angle will usually be a compromise between position vs. detail. Frequently, the best position for your key light to define your subject may be one that also leaves too much of the subject in the shadows. Which means that you may have to move your key closer that you want to the camera to preserve more detail.

But with two lights you can choose to light your subject from any angle with your key. And you can use the second light (in this case, a speedlight in an Orbis) to control your level of detail in the shadows.

The two-light combo is such a sweet spot in the curve. It gives you lots of options, in addition to being a backup in the event one of your flashes goes down.

In this case, I wanted to light Caleb soft and from the top, which would have left his face in very dark shadow without the fill. Since he had dark skin (not to mention an awesome-but-dark vintage tux) I used the ring fill and dialed it up a little more than normal. It's probably a stop down from the key, maybe a stop and change.

The key light was from a shoot-through umbrella overhead, courtesy Dave Kile as the voice-activated boom. You can see it at left, and can also see what the fill would have looked like if it were dialed down a bit. This is because I moved back to pop the setup shot, and didn't crank the ring up enough to compensate.

Remember -- when you are working with ring fill in manual you have to compensate the power level if you move closer or further away from your subject. Or, you can not make that adjustment and think of it as an added feature -- an auto-bracketing fill light. Just sayin'.

At first, it almost doesn't look like there is any fill on Caleb at all in the above frame until you realize that there has to be something lighting Dave. It's not until you take the fill away that you see how much it is contributing even at that relatively low level:

See what I mean? The detail goes away completely without the fill.

Also, there is something interesting going on here with the umbrella. See the edge of the umbrella light happening on the other side of Dave and Caleb? That's raw spill going past the shoot-through. Usually, it ruins a shot but here it kinda helps bring up that background area a little. I'll take it.

More and more, I find that if I am gonna use an umbrella as a key I am coming in from high overhead. It just looks a little more atypical and interesting to me. But that's not gonna help me if I totally lose Caleb's face against the background.

But shoot when he is looking up, and it's another story altogether. To me, the top light all by itself works well here. But it's very close to not working, too. IMO, the eyelids catching the light makes it okay for much of his face to be in shadow. Lose the eyelids and I'd have more trouble with it. (Kinda hard to see at 400px -- click the pic for a bigger view.)

Also, the B&W conversion helps, too. Two totally different photos -- one built on shape and texture, the other on pure graphic form.

These finished pics are done with the same key light and two extremes of fill -- a lot and none at all. But there are a lot of different looks to be had between those two extremes, and it gives you an idea of how much control you have by varying the fill intensity.

Goose crap and all, it was a wonderful evening. Caleb played most of the way through the shoot, so people on the hiking path around the lake were surprised by a soundtrack that even included some of his original cello compositions. He'd finish a piece and applause would spread around the lake. Very cool.

Next: STB: J.D. Roth


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