UPDATE, MAY 2024: When I wrapped up Strobist in 2021, I promised to check back in whenever I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to be for traveling photographers what Strobist always aspired to be for lighting photographers. If that's you, I hope you'll enjoy it. -DH


On Assignment: Margo Seibert

UPDATE: Adds video interview of Seibert preparing for her Broadway debut in Rocky, at end of post.

Learning to light with flashes can be liberating or it can be a straightjacket. It can open up countless new doors — or it can restrict you to a small, equipment-based bag of tricks.

The key is to not let your new lighting skills displace your other approaches. And even more important, to learn to let your vision cross-pollinate between seeing great ambient and creating great light from scratch.

Case in point is this shoot with actress Margo Seibert, for which I packed all of my strobes but only brought out a single LP180 — and then only after our ambient had deserted us.

Today we'll be tweaking the sun until it's gone. And only then swapping to flash.

I had the good fortune to photograph Margo right after she had won a leading role on a major Broadway production. It hadn't been announced yet, which made it even better — adding a conspiratorial twist to the evening. This was part of my HCAC Rising Star series, and it is always great to see those guys getting their due for their hard work and talent.

The concept was pretty loose. We would work our way through the evening light in a rural setting in western Howard County. She had a few outfits, and the light would change quickly throughout the shoot. Beyond that, we'd be improvising.

I try to go into a shoot with a couple ideas and enough gear to cover my ass. But serendipity and improvisation are playing increasingly bigger roles. There is an organic quality to reacting to what is happening around you that usually will trump any best-laid plans.

Working Through The Light

The sun was pretty low when we started — about 20 mins before sunset — so golden hour would work for us. I had lights with me, but was determined not to pull them out until we needed them. Nature is pretty good at lighting stuff herself. And just as my lit work takes cues from ambient light, the way I approach ambient is increasingly shaped my my experience with creating my own light.

Low afternoon light is both easy and forgiving. So after a few perfunctory head shots in open shade we moved to the side of the barn to take advantage of the raking light. I liked the texture here, and it gave something a designer could drop type into.

That line of thought is anathema to most photographers. But I grew up in a staff shooter environment where the designers were both friends and valued colleagues. Even at age 24, when I was composing photos I was trying to do right by Cindy or Patti or any of the other page designers who would inherit my pictures. It has proved a valuable lesson ever since.

We exhausted that setting (a quick grab, really) before the light left us. So next we worked around to the left to make use of a harder light angle and get a harder-edged photo:

This is more the kind of light I would try to make with strobes. And funny enough, designing that kind of light makes you more sensitive to seeing it when it happens, too.

True, observing light leads to creating better light. But it is also a virtuous cycle both ways: creating light also makes you more observant for different kinds of ambient.

(This is something important enough to where I made it the very last lesson in Lighting 101.)

This is an amazingly different quality of light compared to something shot 20 feet away five minutes ago. It has way more edge, as does Margo in this environment. A little less classically flattering, and a little more kick-your-ass-Quentin-Tarantino.

So we went a little further with that vibe. As the light left the red door behind her, we worked with the last remnants. They were even harder and less revealing, all the more so after we stuck a piece of foam core in between to slap a shadow edge right across her face:

This kind of cut light is very atypical for me, and something I'd like to do more with be it ambient or created. I would probably put more thought into — maybe too much, truth be told — if using flash. The speed at which I am losing this light made me approach it more viscerally and without over-thinking it.

Good? Bad? Dunno. But definitely interesting. And something I want to do more of.

We lost that light almost immediately afterwards. But there was still light out in the field — classic golden light that you never want to waste. And I had been anticipating this light to the point where a little idea had popped into my head earlier in the day.

As a result I had with me a custom light mod made just for this shoot.

So, a quick outfit change for her and we move into the field at the side of the barn. Maybe five more minutes of sun. And it is gorgeous, late-summer light.

First, the photo, as seen up top:

My idea was to do a shoot-thru reflector board with a little custom twist. I wanted to throw that golden backlight right back into her face, but with a little shaping, too.

So I cut a hole in a piece of foam core and shot through it. The foam core was white (nice even reflecting fill) with a crinkled foil strip down the middle (more strip-lighty and glam).

Here is the setup from her view, bearing in mind shot after we lost the light. (I love you guys, but not to the point of wasting a moment of golden light making a BTS pic.)

This is most definitely something I want to do more of. Even to the point of making a bracket to mount the custom shoot-thru reflector right to the camera for better mobility.

(Note: You also can see the red door alcove from above in the left of this photo.)

The top photo was shot with a Nikon D3 and a 50/1.4. On a lark, I decided to throw her a little off-center and use some direct sun in the frame. And I swapped to the Fuji X100s and set it to shoot square images in-camera.

Different lenses, different palettes, way different light. Most important, the D3 is not contending with direct sun.

I love the way the Fuji's 23mm lens flares out. And to be honest I was pretty surprised at how well it held both the sun and Margo's skin. That's a lot of contrast and sharpness for a camera shooting right into the sun.

Earlier this month I got to meet the people who design Fuji's lenses, learning of the amazing amount of thought that goes into the process. They said they try to think "beyond MTF," which means taking much more than just sharpness, color correctness and resolution into account.

To be honest, I don't totally understand it. But I gotta tell you, I'm liking it.

Lit, But Not Lit

So here's the thing. All of the above photos are completely ambient, found light. That said, they are all influenced by my path and experience as a lighting photographer.

It is kind of hard to put your finger on. Maybe something along the lines of learning to cook changing the way you taste food? I dunno. Just is.

But when the sun dropped below the horizon just after the photos above were shot, it was gone for good. My first reaction would have been to turn her around and shoot with the afterglow as an on-camera key. Especially wide open, this can look awesome.

But it seemed a tame follow-up to what we had just shot.

So, another quick outfit change and we walked over to the driveway to make use of the dusk as a back light. And, surprising even to me, only now was I bringing out the first speedlight.

It made for a completely different last look — a cocktail dress and tousled hair against an incongruous rural environment. But it was different than what we had in the can, so that's cool.

No big surprise as far as the light itself: a single, PW'd LumoPro LP180 VAL'd overhead:

It seems pretty safe and one-dimensional, compared to the light Mother Nature had just dished out for us. Which is exactly the point of this post — to not get so caught up in your lighting that you miss the forest for the trees.

Also, to let your lighting experience guide you to use and control your ambient in new and creative ways. Otherwise, what's the point of studying light anyway?

UPDATE: Rocky is preparing to open on Broadway. Very psyched to see Margo getting ready for her star turn:


Next: Follow-Up Q&A: Margo Seibert


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