When I completed Strobist as a project in 2021, I promised to check back in when I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to do for traveling photographers what Strobist always tried to do for lighting photographers.

Thanks for giving it a look—and for your comments and feedback.

On Assignment: Hiding Your Key with Fill

I made this photo this past summer, and in revisiting it just learned two pretty important lessons: one a dumb luck success, one a total failure.

Maybe take a moment to guess which is which before opening my psychological medicine cabinet to peek inside…

The Clark Farm

Jim Clark (not pictured) was an institution in Howard County. A lifelong farmer, he championed things like good ecology, land management and stream runoff monitoring long before they were cool. He was an early advocate of the preservation of the traditional farm against the constant tide of real estate development. He was a state senator. He was a freakin' glider pilot behind enemy lines on D-Day.

Impressive guy, and I was very proud to have known him.

I photographed his daughter, Martha, and her daughter, Nora, at Clark's Elioak Farm, where they are carrying on Jim Clark's innovative thinking and have created an agri-tourism business to help to preserve their land.

The photo was for the local economic development authority, who was highlighting them as a forward-thinking business in the Howard County.

What I Got Right

Taking full credit for the happy accident part, even though I had no idea at the time. Why? Because I am a photographer, and that's how we roll.

Looking at this image, I feel like the key light (an umbrella upper camera left) is not calling a lot of attention to itself. And the more I think about it, the more I realize it is because the fill ratio is set pretty tight.

This was by accident, as I do not remember consciously adjusting the fill to be brighter than normal. It's about a stop down by all appearances, and I usually fill to a more contrasty ratio (i.e., 2 or 3 stops down from the key light.)

The fill is a big source. Here is the scene:

Martha and Nora are positioned on the red dots. I am next to the fill on the "X," so the fill will not call attention to itself directionally.

But the fill is definitely hot, compared to normal. And this relatively small drop-off to the shadows helps to pass off the illusion that this is natural light. Not so much to us, because we really look closely. But to the typical viewer, yeah, I think so.

Imagine if this fill light was two and a half stops down. The nose shadows would be more prominent, and your subconscious would more likely be recognizing the key and be asking where it came from. At least, mine would.

So that's something I learned from having done something well, if by accident: tighten your fill ratio when shooting into the sun to hide your key. (Also, I like the sun ray funkiness back there. Need to be willing to do more of that.)

What I Screwed Up

When I did this offers a big clue into my ignorance. It was just as I was starting to realize what was making all of my photos look too lit, and not natural.

Both my key and my fill are white, which is not cool. Also, not warm. And definitely not anything real-looking. This photo would have been so much better if I had been thinking about lighting color.

But what colors to make the lights? And Why?

Right off-hand, and being a safe gel weenie even now, I think I'd want to mimic the sun with the key, as if it was being reflected by something. Maybe a ½ CTO or a Rosco 09 warming gel. Logical, right?

And as for the fill, I think I would want it to appear to be picking up a reflection off of the grass. So, green. Maybe a normal fluorescent window green to start.

And here's the thing: I could have gotten some cool color contrast between the highlights and the key-filled shadows because of the color differences. Maybe even tightened up the fill-to-key ratio and make it look even more natural by leveraging both techniques.

But the important lesson for me is the color. Because more and more lately, I am learning that light is almost never white.

Me light pretty one day.

Next: Cheap, Portable Studio Pt. 1


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
Have a passport? Join me in Hanoi: X-Peditions Location Workshops