BTS: Jonathan Snyder's So-Cool-It-Must-Be-Fake Night Portrait

When this photo popped up on Gizmodo last week, several of the site's readers could not quite process how the image could have been made. I tweeted at the time that I hoped the guy who shot it was one of our old DINFOS lighting students.

As it turns out, Strobist reader and USAF SSgt. Jonathan Snyder attended the "one extra" Flash Bus day McNally and I did for the Defense Information School in 2011 at Fort Meade in Maryland.

Milphogs are taught to improvise in the field as a matter of course. And turns out, this image was made with neither a tripod nor a speedlight…

As an aerial combat photojournalist, Snyder carries his weapons along with his cameras when shooting in theater. In addition to his two Nikon D3s cameras, his kit includes an M-4 carbine and an M-9 pistol.

"On missions like those I need to travel as light as possible with camera gear," he said. "So I have to carefully consider what I need to visually tell the story."

He was photographing the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers from the 82nd Expeditionary Air Support Operation Squadron, who are essentially high-tech spotters for F/A-18 Super Hornet pilots. At this time they were training, and thus dropping inert bombs, at a training area in Afghanistan.

The days were unbearably hot, Snyder notes, with temps getting to more tolerable levels only after sunset. Luckily, that's when the light gets more interesting, too. He shot the typical "dime a dozen" silhouette photos through mix light. But when the star field appeared after dark, he knew exactly the photo he wanted to make.

Using a Nikon D3s and a 14-24/2.8, even ISO 2000 would give him an ambient shutter of 20 seconds. Which is normally a no go without a tripod.

So Snyder plopped the camera and lens down into the sand, which served as a bean bag-style support in a pinch.

He had his subject stay very still throughout the exposure. The small black outline you can see around parts of the subject is the result of slight subject movement. This is essentially his tracked silhouette during the time in which he was not lit.

As for the light source, that was hand-held during the exposure by Snyder, who was standing out of frame to camera left. It was a tactical flashlight, which Snyder calls, "simple but very effective."

Because of the large differences in light levels of the star field and the flashlight, he only lit the subject for a couple seconds during the 20-second exposure.

The resulting photo shared by many, quickly winding up on Gizmodo on Sept. 24th. The quality (and, certainly, dissonance) of the light led Gizmodo's normally very savvy commenters to cry "fake," and "Photoshop."

But we know better. You can see more work by Snyder and his colleagues, here.


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