Q&A: Server Room—With Speedlights?

In the comments of last week's server room portrait, reader MeruWarrior (along with several others) asks:

I love the blow-by-blow account. Could this be achieved with just hotshoe flashes?

Short answer: Yes, sort of. But you're gonna have to be willing to "go with the flow" a little with regard to the ambient room light...

Power = Versatility

First off, I went with big lights here because I wanted to be able to dominate the ambient and create my own color palette. This EDA project has come with a lot of restrictions, so the last thing I want to do is impose more of my own. Plus, I knew we'd be working quickly here. So I wanted to be loaded for bear.

Certainly, we could have done it with speedlights. But it would have been a little different. There would be no nuking of the ambient. Instead, in our hypothetical speedlight version, we will be … cooperating with the ambient.

So let's look at it:

You'll remember this daylight WB auto exposure shot from last week. It is where I always start. Get the lay of the land. Look at the ambient. Learn it's shape, light level and color. Here I'm on ISO 200 and daylight WB. Lens is at f/5.6. The camera gives a shutter speed of ¼ second on "A" mode.

As a big light shooter, I am fine with this. It means I can easily walk the shutter speed up to kill ambient. As a speedlight shooter, this would have been my first problem to solve. Because I
will need that ambient light for my photo.

But first, let's look at the light quality. I have mystery meat industrial lighting in the back, and a wall of diffuse (daylight balanced) light coming from behind me. This is something we can work with as a base.

We're looking at a full exposure, with a ¼ second shutter. Not good for shooting people. So let's go to ISO 400, which still looks just fine on my D3. Now, we are up to ⅛ second as a full exposure.

But that's for a full exposure. Instead, I will want to use this ambient light as my fill. So we can underexpose that by, let's say two stops and still be just fine. Bingo, we're up to 1/30th of a sec. That's doable, given our flash will be carrying the key light duties.

And, as we have happily discovered before, "mystery meat" lights can end up looking pretty cool when you play with the exposure. I can't go back and tweak the exposure onsite, so let's crank it down a coupla stops in Photoshop:

This would have been the second photo I would have shot in hypothetical speedlight mode. And this looks pretty cool. I won't have the ability to own the color palette, but this would work fine as a "base" exposure.

Next thing would be to put a couple of ungelled speedlights in the back, just where we put the big lights in the original shoot. The speedlights would define the fronts of the servers in those aisles, and also create a normalized color to them. At ISO 400 and f/5.6, I am guessing ¼ power would have handled it.

The shadow (i.e., ambient-filled) areas would retain the orange look you see above. Fine. Different, but fine. And the daylight color of the strobe backlights would anchor the color a little. Logic to the light.

Now, Light the Guy

Okay, look at the facade of the server that will serve as the background for our hypothetical speedlight-lit guy. It is a specular reflection from the wall of light behind me.

As I dropped my ambient exposure, I would have been watching that tonal level. I would want the dark gray to still separate from black (for nice depth) so I would not drop the ambient exposure past that point.

So now, the wall-o-light becomes our fill light and the specular on the cabinet gives the photo a similar (if not blue) look to what we did with big lights.

So really, all we need here is an umbrella key light floating out over the guy up top in front. I'd use a stand and a volunteer (remember, hypothetically working lean here) to hold it out there. So, no need for a boom.

I'd warm that key up a little—maybe ¼ CTO—to tie him to the warm undertones we have in the ambient in back.

It's a similar photo (if more light balanced and less sledge-hammered) than the big lights version. But totally doable.

Long story short, don't fall into the trap of thinking that having different gear means you automatically can't do something. You just might have to think about it a little differently, and/or maybe finesse it a bit.

But there's almost always a way to do it.


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
Grab your passport: Strobist Destination Workshops