On Assignment: Stephanie Yezek

My ongoing partnership with the Howard County Arts Council has yielded a steady stream of talented, interesting people to stick in front of my camera. And dancer Stephanie Yezek, above, is a great example. She can pretty much disobey the laws of gravity whenever she wants. She has amazing strength and control.

Regular readers will know that I love shooting against dusk. And since this project is essentially a license to experiment, that's exactly what we did…

Dancing in the Dark

Ever since I first stuck an umbrella'd flash in front of a sunset, I have been hooked on the ever-changing, tweakable backdrops that dusk has to offer.

Just dial your flash power into a certain aperture on your subject, shoot at that aperture and choose the shutter speed that gives you the background value that you want.

The problem for many people (including myself for a long time) is that flash against sunset looks good enough to where you can be happy with your first efforts. Which is to say that you tend to not stretch yourself with different forms of light, and risk getting stagnant.

So I have been trying to just think of the sunset/dusk backdrop as just that -- a backdrop. And then I try to put more effort into lighting my subjects in front of it.

In this case, for instance, rather than a single umbrella I am using a key light, a separation light and a fill light. The result is a crisp, three-dimensional look to Stephanie as she flies through the air.

But the more difficult problem was one of shutter speed and shooting window. Your window to shoot opens when your flash can equalize the background light levels at your camera's sync speed. It closes when you cannot walk your shutter down any further to compensate for the dropping light level.

Which is why I decided to use my Profoto B600s for this shoot. The extra power they put out meant that I could start shooting earlier, lengthening what would have been a very short shooting window otherwise.

And it's not like I could blast away at 9 FPS, either. She needed to run, hit her mark, land, walk back around, occasionally catch her breath, etc. (Heck, I got tired just watching her.) So the extra power absolutely made this shot possible -- especially considering I was shooting at a mid-range aperture so she would stay in focus through the jump.

We got about a dozen or so leaps before our light levels would no longer permit leap-freezing shutter speeds. There were some nice images, but nothing that really jumped out at me. So we decided to stretch our window and our luck.

If you look closely at a larger version of the image, Stephanie is perfectly frozen (by the flash) but there is a little movement shadow around her body. There's even more movement in the tree line at bottom.

That's because this frame was one of the last ones we tried. It was shot at 1/100th of a second at f/7.1 at ISO 800. We were well into Hail Mary shutter speeds, as far as leap-freezing was concerned. And I never would have expected my favorite frame from the evening to come at a 1/100th of a second. In fact, I was concerned as soon as I had to drop below 1/250th.

But what matters here is not Stephanie's right-to-left speed but rather how accurately the camera is tracking her as it pans along with the jump. That's why the only real motion blur is in the fixed objects.

(You can see a much, much slower/cooler version of this same shutter speed flash-pan concept here.)

I figured that we were finished as soon as we went below a 200th of a sec. But Stephanie had more gas in the tank and so was able to jump in the dark for a few more minutes. And that is exactly what it took to make the best frame of the night.

Designing the Light

As we said above, there were three sources. And the key needed to be a big source so we could move it back and still retain some softness. (We needed it further away to keep a consistent exposure through the leap.)

So that light was a Profoto B600 in a (converted) Paul Buff 47" Octa. It is up very high because she is leaping way up in the air and you still want to be well above her face. It is placed at camera left.

The rim light is a LumoPro LP160, at back camera right, synced with it's internal slave. This light is bare, so I do not need a ton of power out of it compared to the others. Good thing, too, as I only have two B600s.

The fill is from the second Profoto B600 in a ring light, which is not something I would have ever imagined using against sunset even a couple years ago. But that is the light that dials in the detail anywhere the key or rim does not hit. It is hiting her at a couple of stops down, and feathered up just a bit. This keeps more of the light heading to her upper body, which is further away from me than her legs and feet.

And to me that ring light (along with the slow-speed pan) is the key to the photo. The key and rim give you the shape, but the ring gives you the detail to exactly the degree that you want it. Doesn't call attention to itself, either. But you'd sure see a big difference if it wasn't there.


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