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On Assignment: Concert Pianist

Shooting in big, dimly lit rooms used to scare the heck out of me. I'd bring out all of my big flashes -- and borrow whatever others I could get my hands on. But still, I never seemed to have enough light to do what I wanted.

What I didn't know then was that it is usually better to let the ambient in a big room do its own heavy lifting, then tweak it with a little strobe. And by "a little," I generally mean speedlights set in the 1/8 power range, max…

This particular shoot was one we discussed at length on the Flash Bus tour, but we don't often spend much on the blog about embracing -- and tweaking -- the ambient light in a big, dark venue. Ditto the idea of embracing an incorrect ambient temperature.

For this photo I wanted something that did not really look lit so much as a look that was more painterly and ambient-influenced. So we worked a couple stops over the ambient, to try to create light that looked more natural than showy.

Here is the setup, with all of the light sources shown in the photo. I knew I was going to remove the light behind the piano in post when I placed it there. Very easy to do, and I am no longer bound by the same limitations as when I was shooting for newspapers.

All three are speedlights, and all are at low power. In fact, the background light and the kicker are probably both at 1/32 power or below. Given that, this shot would probably be harder to do with big lights. You need to hang out at an open f/stop to better allow that ambient light to paint at a decent shutter speed.

By hanging out in the low power range of speedlights, I can blend the room in nicely at, say 1/30th of a sec. (I wanna say it was ~f4 at ISO 400, also.) If I had an Acute2 pack driving my main light, I'd either be shooting at half a second or eating up much of that excess power with ND on the flash.

Nope, if I am gonna mix light in a darkish room, I want my flashes to live in a similar power neighborhood.

Speaking of that, I am becoming much more open to letting the ambient light burn in with its color cast intact. I can control the mix and any color shift with the shutter speed, and it blends in a way that gives an organic reason for the color scheme in the photo.

So if I turn off the flash (above) and just show the ambient portion of the exposure, you can see just how much of the photo is ambient light. I like this mix, even though in the end I pulled some of the red out of it in post and just left the warmth. This left the photo looking more natural, but not-at-all color correct. I spent a long time being anal about color temperature, and ended up with a lot of sterile-looking photos as a result. Trying to learn to go with the flow a little more these days.

As for the strobe, it is coming from what many people might consider to be an atypical direction. But we do tend to light rooms (with our continuous lights) from above, so that's what I did on Thomas -- and then blended the fill with this ambient light.

By pushing a small amount of strobe down from directly above (in a soft light mod) I can keep a natural looking light. And if it is balanced with the ambient in the room, I keep a natural legibility in the shadows, too.

Big dark rooms don't need to be scary. They just need a different shutter speed -- and not to be overpowered with too much flash.

Next: Hi-Def Asparagus


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