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SLC-1L-12: A Garden of Ideas

At first glance: a simple, one-light portrait of activist gardener Janssen Evelyn.

Dig deeper: a look at tonal mapping via specular highlights, stretching the range of your modestly powered flash, and how to discover your next project.


My summer project this year was a series of portraits to help mark the 30th anniversary of the Howard County (MD) Conservancy. Humid heat and mosquitoes aside, it was a fantastic way to spend some outdoor time in a COVID-safe environment and help to promote the conservancy at the same time.

As a bonus, I met some fantastic people and have since picked up several new projects as a result. More on that a little later.

The Simple Light

The lighting could hardly be simpler for Evelyn, seen above, an avid gardener who by day works in the executive branch of our local county government. I am using a Godox AD200 in bare bulb mode and fitted with an R08 warming gel. The light is in a 3x4' soft box, and placed very close to Evelyn — right over my left shoulder. It's as close as I can get it without being inside of the frame.

There are a couple of good reasons for that. First, I'm competing with the late evening sun, which is coming in from low camera far right. So I need the punch from the 200ws "magnum" version of a speedlight.

But there's another reason I am in so close. I want a specific quality of light. I am pushing the AD200 through a pretty big (and inefficient) soft box. Because I need those square inches — and close proximity — to create a large, subdued specular highlight.

That specular translates as a lustrous glow on Evelyn's face. Which, combined with the near wide open shooting aperture (f/1.8) creates a smooth palette that belies the small APS-C chip in my Fuji X-Pro2.

Can you see the specular highlight in his face? 

Here, let's zoom in:

Better? (If you still can't see it, try squinting your eyes.)

That's my soft box, reflected symmetrically, smack in the middle of his face. The area around the highlight is also lit, but that is a diffused highlight. This diffused highlight is much closer to the true tonality of Evelyn's face.

The reflected soft box — AKA the specular highlight — is a higher tone that I can lay on top of that diffused highlight to help to pull your eye into the entry point of the photo.

You might notice a smaller, brighter specular on his nose. Same surface texture, same light source, same distance. Why is this brighter?

This is because of the topography of this area of his face. That, along with shadow, is how light reveals form.

The Hand-Off

I mentioned above that my flash is competing with the ambient sunlight. In the end, the competition ended in a tie. Which is to say the exposure values for each of those two light sources are about the same. 

This creates a sort of "hand-off" that occurs as you travel around his face toward camera right that gives a wrapped, sort of 3-D feel. It is not so much cross-lighting as it is frontal light wrapping into side light.

Often the default choice for dealing with flash and sunlight is to tend to want to overpower the sun. This is because our flash usually has the better quality of light. But if the sun is being good to you, you can always let it share the load. Or, as we'll see in a minute, you can also let it get top billing.

Stretching Your Flash

Overpowering full sunlight with a small or modest flash often requires that we use hard light, or move in close, or both. It's just physics and the power limitations that come with easy portability.

But again, if the sunlight is of decent quality, we can always choose to let our flash play second fiddle. This means we get to either move our flash back (for more available range) or power down for a faster recycle.

My sunlight is coming from camera right. So we'll use the sun as our key and drop our flash exposure down to an appropriate level for fill light. This will give us the control that allows us to smooth out our tonal range. 

Like this:

Different balance, different feel. 

Without my fill light, Evelyn's shadow areas would be mostly illegible. Because of the shifted ambient exposure, my garden environment (which, full disclosure, I have lightened up in post in both images) also brightens up.

In this sense, my flash becomes a very controllable fill light. I can alter the quality, quantity or direction.

But I could also use this to stretch out my working range if my light was right at the edge (in terms of distance) of being able to compete with the sun. For instance, I could shoot a small group of people in this light by using one smallish light in a soft box as fill. Since it doesn't have to give me a full exposure, I could work with it further back. Then I could use a harder (and more efficient) second small light as my key to finish the job off.

This is especially helpful to know when using high-speed sync, which can become very inefficient as you walk up the shutter speed range to get that creamy, wide-open aperture.

If you want to retain your full available power from your flash for matching the sun, it's more efficient to use standard (ie, non-HSS) flash and a neutral density filter.

But when living on the edge (ie, shooting in the sun with a small flash) using a light as a soft fill and adding in a hard key is a great solution when needed.

Your Next Project

For so many reasons, always take the time to talk to and learn about the people in front of your camera. The experience of meeting a steady stream of interesting people is perhaps the very best thing about being a photographer. 

For instance, one of the things I learned about Evelyn is that he was once photographed by Sally Mann

Yeah, that Sally Mann. 

Fortunately, I learned this particular tidbit well after the shoot had been completed. Otherwise I would have been mortally intimidated by association. There are some things it is just better not to know when you are photographing someone.

But what I did learn during our shoot was that Janssen lends his gardening chops to the Howard County chapter of the NAACP, where he works with local youth. As someone who sees the value in gardening, he has a program designed to reconnect kids to the land so they can better understand — and elevate the quality of — their food.

Am I interested in helping a program like that with photography if at all possible? Absolutely. Is this the exact technique I used to find the majority self-generated stories over the 20 years I spent as a staff photojournalist? 

Again: absolutely.

If you pay attention, this happens more often than not. In fact, through the process of photographing ten people for the conservancy, I now have half a dozen potential future projects that have stemmed from the conversations we had during our shoots.  

Don't Miss the Big Picture

Yes, this is a lighting site. On one level this is a one-light shoot, warmed up soft box, yada yada. On another level we can talk about where the soft box was positioned exactly as it was, and why. And further, how we can balance (above, equal, or below) our flash with the sunlight.

But much more important than how you design your lighting is: how do you explore your path as a photographer? 

Ideas are far-and-away the most valuable commodities we possess. And like any good gardener, we should always be finding, planting and nurturing our ideas for the next photo project.

This article was published as an entry in the Strobist Lighting Cookbook. New articles and how-to's appear monthly. To receive notifications for new posts, you can follow via email or via Instagram.


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