UPDATE: Strobist was archived in 2021.
Here is what I am up to now.


On Assignment: Smokin' Joe

I am spending lots more time lately trying to recognize and understand color as a component of lighting. It's not easy for me, as I have never had a strong sense of color in design.

So my approach has been a mix of working harder at seeing light in the real world and occasionally just flailing around, throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

The photo above, of Irish dancer Joe Duffey, is a good example of both.

I had a chance to see Joe perform a few weeks before shooting him. Not being a regular consumer of Irish dance, it immediately struck me that photographing him was going to be kinda like shooting a running chainsaw with a body attached to it. Because his feet move, like, really fast.

Still photos can really feel limiting sometimes. Not having motion, we concentrated a lot on body attitude (as it connotes speed and power) and getting him comfortable enough with being shot to lose himself a little while dancing. That's really not easy for someone to do while being photographed, but I think it is important.

Rather than going with a single, big back light (or a pair of strips) I purposely split the backlight for this HCAC shoot into many pieces. (This is one time that a bag 'o speedlights beats a pair of monoblocs.)

Why six hard backlights? As I said earlier, this lighting was part logical thinking and part, "meh, let's just try this and see if it works."

The idea was to emulate a bunch of small, harsh theatrical hot lights with speedlights. And with stage or theatre lighting, you are generally working with multiple colors at once. So none of them were white when we were finished.

To that end, there are seven speedlights at play here, all gelled with a total of three different colors. It was just a logical guess based on some performance lighting I remembered, but it is encouraging enough that I'll definitely try to stretch this some more later.

Here is the setup:

As you can see, we were in a drop-ceilinged dance studio and using a blackboard as a background. In this case, the ceiling becomes a reflector of sorts, pulling that backlight around him just a little.

This photo gets all of its feel from the backlights. I used two large light stands and clamped three speedlights to each stand.

As seen above, they are not yet gelled. But by the time we shot this photo, they had a mix of full CTO and CTB gels. The top and bottom lights were CTO'd (tungsten conversion orange) and the middles were CTB'd (the complementary blue).

In retrospect, I think it would have been cooler looking (and less anal symmetrical) to go orange-blue-orange on one side, and blue-orange-blue on the other.

I knew we'd be using smoke (or, more accurately, water-based fog) and I wanted the different hard light colors to bounce around in there are create subtle variations in light color across the scene. Since there is more warm than cool, the overall net effect is warm. But it isn't at all homogenous. The smoke, of which I am quickly becoming a fan, is not just a compositional element but also a three-dimensional light modifier. It acts as both diffuser and reflector within the three-dimensional space of the frame.

FYI, after researching I settled on this Fazer, which was reasonably priced and had a corded remote that controls timer, intensity, etc. I have been really happy with it so far for the money.

The haze is constantly varying, and combines with the multi-source, multi-color light source to create a look that is both random and theatrical looking—and to my eye, far more interesting and real than a bunch of white sources.

The key light is a seventh (I know, McNally, right?) quarter-CTO'd speedlight in a 60" Photek SoftLighter II, which is my favorite big soft light source. But given how the smoke was also working as a diffuser, I should have grown a pair and hard-lit him from the key, too. That's classic me, not wanting to take chances on too many things at once. I really need to get past that.

But the barrage of hard, color-mixed backlights coming through smoke is triple aces, and I'll definitely be willing to move outside of my CTO/CTB gel comfort zone next time. In other words, you should definitely expect some gawdawful combination of cringe-worthy colors at some point in the near future.

After the shot warm shot, we moved on to something else I had pre-planned. Mostly… because it was pre-planned. (In the end I ended up liking the multi-color, multi-backlight stuff way better than the backlit blue shot.)

But this was an easy additional look, as the only thing we needed to do was lose five out of six backlights and crank up the smoke. So this was done with just two speedlights. As above, the key was triggered with a PW+III and the backlight(s) were slaved.

In addition to (or, because of) being pre-planned, this is me being utterly predictable with my light. The predictability used to be a positive to me, but now it more often bothers the crap out of me. That's good, I guess?

For this, the key light stayed the same and we brought in one CTB'd bare speedlight. We used Joe to hide it and we aimed it right back at the camera position with a beam spread of 24mm. Here's the setup, except in the final photo we had lots more smoke:

Rather than use an opened light stand, we kept is closed and just leaned it against the wall. As long as I kept the flash behind Joe, it was easy to hide. And if we missed, the legs would be much easier to clone out. (And honestly, in some edited frames we just left them there because they were vertical and fogged and did not look like anything that should not be there.)

Another tip for keeping your flash hidden behind someone: turn your flash head around and use the ready light to be able to easily see if your subject is hiding your flash head. If you are using LP160's, they have the nice touch of front-and-back ready lights, so you can pretty much check your lights' location and readiness in the dark from any angle.

As I said, this is exactly the light I would have expected me to do. Which is why I don't like it as much. With lighting—and especially with respect to gels—I am working hard to embrace some randomness whenever possible, if only to combat repetition and predictability.

Joe liked the blue backlit fog photos more than I did, but we both preferred the other look. I think the randomness and the dirty (as opposed to clean or homogenous) light better resonates with laypeople for the same reason it does with photographers.

The light that we experience every day is not clean and white and/or structured. It is random and dirty and unpredictable and real. Which is where I am trying to be, if only through little steps at a time.

Next: Toufic Araman's Epic Sunset Resort


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
My current project: The Traveling Photograher's Manifesto