On Assignment: Don't Deny the Obvious



We give a lot of attention to light mods around here: big ones, little ones, hard ones, soft ones, umbrellas, soft boxes, grids and the like. But sometimes the best light mod is no light mod at all — especially indoors, with neutral walls.

In that environment, often the smart choice is just to stick your bare speedlights on stands and go.

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This is something I used to do a lot more often as a time-pressed newspaper photographer. Not so much specifically for the quality of light. It was just, well, faster to set up and tear down.

But it is also a way to maximize the apparent size of your light source, hide your flashes when necessary and give yourself the absolute most room to work.


The First One's Free…

As most of you know, bounce flash is sort of the gateway drug to off-camera lighting. It beats the crap out of direct flash and it's easy. You start out with a ceiling or two, and pretty soon you're scoring a white wall. Next thing you know, you're zooming your flash head to make different size light sources and by then it owns you.

Bounce flash from the top of a light stand is an evolution from that. That's because your light source is not tied to your camera position, tilt or orientation. And with multiple light sources the possibilities expand even more.

For the shot above of chef José Andres, done in his home kitchen, I was tagging stills off a video project. They were the primary and I was working around them. So I wanted to be quick, easy setup and unobtrusive.

There was a glass backsplash behind him, so I could not light him from straight on at all. You'd see the light in the reflection. And I wanted light that didn't call attention to itself, too. Just give me some soft illumination and a little separation and I'd be good to go.




So that's exactly what we did. All of these light sources are ungelled, and his walls and ceiling are both white. Any time I get a white-walled room with a white ceiling I at least consider the possibility of bouncing at least one light.

My key light was an LP180, bounced up high into the wall-ceiling juncture over my left shoulder. The room sorta filled itself, given white walls on all sides.

I used two other bounced flashes (another LP180 and an SB-800) as separation lights. One was high off the wall behind José's camera-left shoulder. I guess it was pretty much a mirror image of my key light.




For a hair light I bounced the third speedlight off of the ceiling behind him. The "wall" you see in the back of the frame does not extend to the ceiling. It is more of a room divider unit with a gap between the top and the ceiling. I prefer to think of it as an expensive, custom-built gobo. It was just too convenient, and you can see how I used it in the side-view diagram above.

The hair light is subtle — just needs to separate two similar tones (hair and background) and keep them from merging. This is not, "HEYEVERYBODYLOOKATMYLIGHT" light. It's just designed to do it's job and disappear, much as I was trying to do for myself.


Update: The Bigger Picture

Ed. note: This post was originally written in 2013. This update is from 2020.

Back when I shot this, the main takeaway from me from that day wasn't the photo. It was getting the chance to watch someone who is truly great at what he does at work in his own personal space. (And then get to eat the food, of course...)

But with sufficient time to digest the experience, I'm struck by a more important theme.

It's a given at this point that José Andres is a fantastic chef. But there are a lot of amazing chefs out there who have not accomplished anywhere near what Andres has.

Having followed him in the years since, I'm awed with how he has amplified his effectiveness. I now understand that cooking isn't the thing for Andres. It's the thing that facilitates the bigger thing.

Hardly a week goes by these days that you don't see direct evidence of Andres asking himself, "Okay, here are my skills, here are my abilities, here are my resources. What's the best thing that we can do with this? Where is the need? Who can we help? What value can we create for other people?"

Being a great chef is one thing. Creating a successful restaurant is another. Andres is the former and has clearly figured out the latter repeatedly.

But to see him continue to expand his playing field, from things like hurricane relief in Puerto Rico to coronavirus relief in DC, is as fascinating to me as it is inspiring.

You want to be a great photographer? Look at Andres' approach, but think photography skills instead of cooking. Grow to understand that learning the photo skills isn't the end-all. It is just the thing that gets you into the game.

And the game is asking yourself, every day, what's important to me? What kind of a difference can I make with my present skills?

If there are unmet needs you can fill with your present skills, that's when you push outward. Use those skills not as an end unto themselves, but as a means to an end. Photography isn't an end goal, it's a catalyst.

When you find that your skills are not sufficient to meet the need that you are trying to fill, that's when you turn inward to improve the missing skills.

And soon you'll be in a position where the new skills drive the new results, which in turn dictate the new skills.
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Next: Chasing Light: Actress Margo Seibert




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