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


On Assignment: Gone in 86 Seconds

Two of my favorite admonitions from The Princess Bride are: "Never enter into a land war in southeast Asia," and, "Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line."

To that I can now add, "Never try to schedule a bunch of CEOs for photo shoots in August."

Because that's exactly what I was doing this past August. Which, in turn, led to this portrait being done in a grand total of 86 seconds.

First off, CEOs are typically insanely busy to begin with. Multiply that by a series of CEO shoots for a local campaign being wedged into summer and you get … some difficulty. Seriously, it's like herding cats. Families are out of school, schedules are busy to begin with and things just start to cascade into pictures sometimes just not being possible.

I had scheduled Merkle CEO David Williams for an environmental portrait a couple of weeks earlier, and his schedule forced him to bail at the last minute. (At this point in the project, I was sadly used to being bailed upon—just a reality of life when skedding a lot of busy people in late summer.)

And to make matters worse they had bailed at the last minute, when I was already onsite to do the photo. But as it happened, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we instead got to do a decent location scout with an apologetic handler.

It was during that scout that I saw this beautiful computer server room. It was damn-near perfect, as one of the things I wanted to do with this project (for the local economic development authority) was to show tech at scale. And this would work nicely. But access to the room was not a given. (Companies are really protective of server rooms, for a variety of reasons.)

The round of emails after the cancellation allowed me a chance to lobby for the room in a way that would have been impossible on the original shoot day. In the end we got our access.

I have worked in server rooms before, I told them. We would not have to plug anything in, and we'd be super-fast. (I wanted that room, and the concessions just seemed to be springing out of my mouth to get it.)

So on the second shoot date, we had the room. I wanted to be fast, respectful of the potential issues from working so close to their critical gear, and most of all to make a cool photo.

Here is what we walked into, ambient light only:

Alright, so this is not actually that bad. You could probably even do an ambient photo in here and get away with it. But there are mixed color temps, and not a lot of definition to the light. So let's fix that.

The light is flat and typical warm/green FL mix. The light from behind me is a mix of FL and daylight. So I am gonna kill that right away by going to a low ISO, close down my shutter and, let's say, an aperture of f/8. Now my room is pretty black.

Because of battery power, decent output needs and physically separated lights, we'll go with Einsteins and Vagabond Mini Lithiums.

Normally I build fill light first (after controlling the ambient). But this photo will be built on the backlight streaming down the aisles of the server room. So let's start there.

We stuck an Einstein in the back of each aisle (aimed back at us) with a standard reflector and a CTB (blue) gel. That gel eats up some light, so we cranked the power level to -2 stops from full power. This is about 160 watt-seconds on each head.

From just these two lights, we get all of the depth and color we'll need to make this room look even higher tech than it does in the (ambient) flesh. And this backlight gives us something to work against with the key. That light-against-light tension is important.

As it happens, the lights are pretty close to the right exposure right off the bat. I could tweak that at the light(s), or just tweak the aperture or the ISO by a stop or so. (We are in the middle of the lens' aperture range, so no big whup.)

Problems to fix: Still getting a little ambient bleed up top. Let's make sure we are closed down to max sync speed. Also, I want that blue to carry into the ceiling a bit, so let's aim the lights up a tad. Plus, this will be an easy select-and-tone in Photoshop if need be. No worries there.

Now that the environment is taken care of, let's light the subject.

We'll key light him with a gridded dish on a boom up top. A little warming gel will make him pop against the cool backdrop. But on my fill, which will come from the bottom, I want to tie him to the blue environment. So I stuck a white shoot-thru umbrella on the ground in front (another Einstein) and gelled it blue, too.

This establishes a relationship with the blue room environment on the subject itself. The shadows will be blue. There will be some blue highlights coming off of his suit. This is the kind of thing you learn from experimentation (or, at least I do) and from seeing white-filled portraits that just did not read right. Still learning.

So I roughed in the shot with Dave, my assistant for the day. But when we got it pretty close we asked the server room manager to come and stand in for a test. This is the guy who could have kept us out of the room, and it's the right thing to do (for many reasons) to make a quick photo for him:

Photos are a currency. Don't underestimate that. Use them freely as a thank you, an entré, an introduction, whatever. It's the smart thing to do.

I have done this all the way back to the '80's, giving work prints to the firefighters after covering a fire for the paper. I cannot tell you how many times it has come back to me in a good way.

Okay, so now we are down to the fine-tuning. Two problems we'll still want to fix:

1. That splash of bright light in the background at center left can be fixed by moving the camera a couple inches to the right. Much less distracting that way.

2. I like the blue specular (from the fill light) on the rack that is serving as the background for the subject. But I'd like to see it extend to the camera right side of him, too.

It's nothing more than the reflection (or specular) of the blue fill umbrella below. So we'll move that fill light about a foot to the right and the reflection will move as well.

At this point, we let the subject know we are ready when he is. And we truly are.

Williams has been in front of cameras many times before. He has a ready, practiced smile. And fortunately for us that's exactly what we need for this photo. We are selling the county to new potential businesses.

Given that his time was really tight (and that he had to cancel on us due to lack of time before) I make a single frame and tell him, "That's it, we're good!"

And here's the thing. We could have been done. We were totally nailed down at this point. I was glancing at the camera back to make sure he did not blink as I was telling him we were finished. We really were fine after one frame, for the purposes of the assignment.

But the reaction I got gave me two or three frames of a natural smile and expression. Good to have choices. And it lightened the moment, with him knowing we were not going to "just one more" him to death.

In the end, we did about 30 frames in the total of 86 seconds that he was in front of the lens. And we had far more than we needed.

Keep at this long enough, and you'll get people who will tell you they can only give you five minutes. Two things to know about that:

1. If they can give you five minutes, they can give you ten. And whether or not that happens will be determined by their experience in the original five minutes. Make it fun and low-key.

2. If someone tells you they can only give you five minutes, tell them you don't need five minutes. But you will need 15 good seconds. That's a win/win.

And the thing is, it's absolutely true. Just get there early, set up, test, fine-tune and relax during the brief shoot knowing you had it taken care of before it even started.

Next: MarchFourth Marching Band


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