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


On Assignment: ATM Man

I am working on a series of portraits of businesspeople for my county's Economic Development Authority, and it almost feels like I am back at The Sun shooting dailies for the biz section.

It's been awhile since we have done a full 360-degree OA, and this is actually a good example of working on top of a fluorescent environment.

So what the heck, let's go. Follow the bouncing ball…

Okay, so here's the assignment. Mr. Yong Cho is a made-from-scratch entrepreneur, starting out 14 years ago in the ATM business with a grand total of, lessee… zero customers.

Fast forward to today, where he has a healthy business with over 10,000 customers, and thus is exactly the kind of success story the EDA would like to highlight in attracting more business to the county.

First thought was to shoot him in a local commercial environment with one of his machines. But a quick scout did not show anything that would make a cool area in which to shoot. So I dropped by the office to find a small lobby full of ready-to-roll ATM machines. (And I say ATM machine only to piss off the pedantics, mind you. Your welcome.)

Okay, I can do something with this. Let's see what we got here:

(Note: Except for the final image—and one color shift I'll explain in a minute—these are straight out of the camera. What you are seeing is exactly what I am seeing on the back of my D3. Which is the whole point of this post.)

Yep, those are ATM machines, alright. And this is an auto exposure on daylight white balance. Wide open, aperture priority, ISO 400 if I remember correctly. Or thereabouts anyway. A little green for my taste. And the wall, which is already like a sea foam color, is greener still.

I could roll with this and green it up a little. You know, green = money, yada, yada.

Nah. It is too close to fluorescent to me. Maybe it is just because I have spent so much time getting rid of fluorescent light casts that I am biased against green tinges. I dunno. Let's go blue.

But before we do that, let's get rid of the fluorescents. So now I'll drop from ISO 400 to something slower. I am trying to bleed some ambient out of my exposure. Let's also crank the shutter up to the top sync speed (1/250th of a sec - sorry Canonistas) and drop down to f/8 or so.

Why those settings? I am just killing ambient and seeing what happens. I'll also see if I can turn off the lights. Because that is always the best way to alter a less-than-ideal ambient light situation.

So the lights all go out except for the one on the emergency circuit. Which of course is right over my shooting area. Oh well.

But look, my ISO/aperture/shutter change nuked that pretty well:

That's dark enough to build on. I.e., the ambient will not influence my photo. So let's CTB our first flash, an SB-800, and boom it overhead in a 60" Softlighter.

I am gonna start with that on half power, and here's why. It is pretty powerful (even through the gel) but still has just a 2-second recycle. And you can double-tap a half-power SB-800 instantly and get pretty much a clean second exposure. Works for me.

And my new exposure is pretty close to that new light, too. Just a lucky guess, and having done it about a bajillion times before:

If this would have been way off I probably would have simply adjusted it at the camera. Changed the ISO or aperture until it looked the way I wanted. I am already at a pretty low ISO and a medium aperture, so I have lots of wiggle room here.

Once that light and exposure is set, I will adjust all of the other light sources to hit that exposure as I place them.

So the ATMs are starting to look a little sexier and hi-tech now. Color and direction of light are working for me. But they are not very blue. Why not? Because I am (unknowingly, at this point) not on daylight white balance. I am on flash white balance, which I almost never use. And it is sucking the life out of my CTB. I'll end up seeing my mistake a few minutes later.

What next? Hmm, the wall is a little hot up top. I want the ATMs to be the second layer of interest, not the wall. Easy fix: let's rotate that Softlighter towards me a little. With its nice, flat diffused lighting surface, I have much more control than with a normal umbrella.

That's better.

Oops, there's some plastic showing on the left ATM. Lemme grab that. So what's next?

Okay, so the bottoms of the ATMs are pretty dark. Oh, I know. Maybe I'll inject some cool second color into the scene and get my Greg Heisler on. Maybe …. magenta.

Emmm, nope. I am not Gelmaster Greg Heisler today. Alas, I am still gel weenie David Hobby. (Plus, an allen screw in the boom stand worked loose, spitting out a shim and it is now being held together with gaff. It is a little iffy, and I am now reacting by sweating. A lot. So my confidence is not brimming over.)

Not making excuses. Just sayin'.

So I'll push my color envelope another day. I'll throw some more blue up from the bottom. Call it three CTB'd SBs on Justin Clamps in between the machines. Doesn't take much—1/128 power:

That's better, for now. Still want to take more chances with my gels tho. But later. Today I am a sweaty weenie.

The ATMs look good now, let's set the key and fill. The key will be a ¼ CTO'd dish on a monobloc, pointing down to keep that warm light from contaminating the blue background. (Really, it doesn't take much warm spill to kill your blue.) We'll want it close and gridded, to further control spill. Plus, when the dish is in close it is a great headshot light.

Fill will be another SB, ungelled, in a LumiQuest LTp. On a compact stand the LTp makes a great, targeted fill light for clamshell setups.

Let's bring in one of my two assistants, Mr. Hand:

Hey, that's pretty close for a first guess. "ll add another half stop or so to the key and maybe 2/3 stop to the fill beneath. I'll fine-tune that exposure and the light(s) placement with the subject in place in a minute.

But right now Mr. Hand looks a little warm, even with a half-CTO gel. Hey, waaaait minute. This is ALL too warm.... (And thus I figure out my camera is on flash WB.)

Fixed. And here is that same shot with the color shift applied in post for direct comparison:

And that's pretty much it. Just tweaked the key and fill after Mr. Yong was in place. Here is the setup, exposed for the lighting, in a pullback:

You can really see how the warm light is contained from this angle. Pretty much zero contamination into the blue background.

Here is a daylight (really!) WB auto exposure, ambient lights only:

The drastic color shift in the final image is possible only because we are working so far over the ambient. And that nice light on his face in the ambient pic is not really room ambient but rather the model lamp from the Einstein e640 that was used as the key.

Power-wise, I could have easily keyed him with a speedlight. But when working with a grid, the model lamp is very helpful for keeping him right where I want him in the beam.

Here's the final again, with some very basic post in Photoshop:

I like the color shift, I like the blue spilling over his shoulder from the back, the blueish rims mixing on his face and the ATM up lights. In fact, I just realized that every light in this frame is pointing almost straight up or straight down. Not by conscious design, just angling them to control spill and contamination.

He merges into the ATM a little, so that could be better. But overall, this is a pretty center-of-the-bell-curve biz portrait for me. A solid double, in baseball terms.

And don't knock a double. It may not make the highlight films, but if you can hit a double every time you step up to the plate you are guaranteed to end up in the Hall of Fame. After all, you batted a career 1.000, right?

Alas, I do not always get doubles. But I at least try not to ever strike out. I have an On Assignment in the hopper that's (charitably) a close-call single. And only because the tie goes to the runner.

But I was quite happy with it, if only because the pitch itself was a monster curve…

Next: Man on a Mission


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