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On Assignment: Night Soprano, Pt. 1

One of my goals over the last year has been to push against the boundaries a little more, both creatively and technically. This portrait of mezzo soprano Alexandra Rodrick is a good example of that, so I thought we'd do a full 360-view with a two-part OA.

Today, we'll pre-think the lighting in theory (as before a shoot). In Part 2, we'll walk through the specifics as it was done.


So here's the final image from the shoot, above. And it's actually pretty close to what was envisioned when we started pre-thinking the shot.

Having photographed several sopranos for the HCAC, I have grown to see opera as an archetypal, earthy and pure art form. And I wanted the photo to reflect that, so we decided to shoot in the woods. Doing so at nighttime would offer more mood and fewer logistical hurdles with the lighting.

These kinds of larger, more three-dimensional environments bring some of their own problems to solve. But the basic lighting principles are exactly the same as working in close and/or 2-D (i.e., person against a flat backdrop). Shooting at this scale at night, I knew the main two concerns would be power and light color.

Beyond that, we would also want to get some light close into the scene itself, to give it a more three-dimensional feel. Plus that would save some power on the key light, because of the small distance involved.

Distance; f/Stop; ISO

Those are your three lighting variables to solve. Choose any two and you can do it with speedlights. But needing the third one means you will need more watt-seconds. And I wanted f/5.6 at ISO 100 at a huge distance.

As it happens, I have spent the last year stalking eBay and Craigslist for good deals on big lights. If you are patient (and willing to let a lot of deals go by) you can sometimes pick up big lights for a song.

Case in point, I bought a used Profoto Acute power pack, two heads, soft boxes, extension cords and a case for $900. From a dentist. As a bonus, that feeling of satisfaction means that every dental procedure I have from here on out will hurt a little less.

Lighting Distance = Depth of Field

To push light evenly across a scene this size means the lights are going to have to be very far away. This is the exact opposite of the way I usually light, bring the strobes in close to get maximum power with a fast, controlled fall-off. Which of course was borne of necessity from using speedlights.

As a rule of thumb, we planned to have the lights about 4-5 times as far away as the width of the field we were trying to evenly illuminate. Thus the need for power.

The lighting distance may seem extravagant. But that evenness of light across the scene is, IMO, what sells it as having a more natural feel.

Next, we drew up a game plan. Whether a headshot or a large scene like this, the approach is always the same: ambient, fill, key, accent. In that order.


Ambient always comes first. It is the feel, the contrast range, the safety net of your photo. Fortunately, ambient is free. You can buy as much as you want just by tweaking your shutter speed. The ambient exposure would carry the background — and thus, the mood and believability of the lit scene.

At twilight, the ambient would be dim and blue, which is great for a couple of reasons. One, twilight would give a sane working aperture as opposed to full sun or night. And the blue would connote nighttime without it being full dark. So we would imitate (exaggerate, really) that in the foreground with gelled fill and accent lights.

Ambient also gives us our shooting window. We can start shooting when the light crosses our sync speed at f/5.6 at ISO 100. Walk the shutter down as the ambient fades. The window closes when you run out of reasonable shutter. With a tripod, we'll call it quits at a speed of one second or so. Figure half an hour, max.


The fill light will give detail, color and a "local floor" to the lit area of the frame. It will also carry the natural color of the background into the foreground, but at a higher level of illumination. The fill exposure will let us control detail in the shadows in the foreground independent of where we decide to place the background illumination level.

So the fill would need to be a big light. It would come from on-axis but from behind the camera. And the further behind the camera it comes from, the further back into the frame it will carry. Plus, it will be gelled sufficient to eat up a stop of power. That's definitely a big light.


The key light, as we said earlier, would be in close. So, ironically in this big-lights scene, the key can be built on speedlights. This is for several reasons, actually. I want it close for softness on Alex's face, so we won't need much power. I want it light and battery powered, since I do not own a 25-foot high monster boom.

So we will literally string this up into the trees and dangle it in front of Alex. We'll take the light out of the frame in post.


Last comes the accent light. In this case, a back-camera-left rim for depth, definition and separation. This would also be gelled, and need to be back even further than the fill.

How far? That's easy: as far as humanly possible while keeping our working aperture. If we can't get both, we'll have to figure out which to cheat. I will be inclined to favor distance, as that buys us even light across the frame.

So this would need to be the most powerful light source, and will still likely be the limiting factor in the scene. Ideally, we can get f/5.6 @ ISO 100 at a sufficient distance. Maybe.

So those are the broad strokes, hopefully to get you pre-thinking the problems that would need to be solved for this photo.

Next up, the full BTS and specifics — including the only time I have ever needed to use Google Maps to make a lighting diagram.

Next: Night Soprano, Pt. 2


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