Crawling Toward the Light

December 16, 2010 

Aside from shooting Atomictown covers, when the unquestionably prominent usage of my photos motivated me to pack up our heavy studio lighting kit, I was often very limited in how I could approach my daily grind portrait shoots. With only a 2-foot off-camera cord to get my strobe off my camera, there are only so many lighting tricks to dig up. For shots involving one or two people, this isn't a big deal, but when you have to get a group shot in tough lighting conditions, it's difficult to walk away with a photo you like.

It's not feasible to lug the studio kit around to every little portrait session in the interest of improving my portraits, however. It's heavy, the lights are supposed to be in our studio and the already beat-up gear isn't really designed to be all that portable in the first place.

On top of the creative constraints of only having one light, there are other headaches too. The length of the cord doesn't let you get the strobe that far off-camera and I either have to hold the flash with my left hand or recruit a living light stand to assist. Doing it myself means it's tough and awkward to get the light on the right side of the camera and it can get heavy holding the camera with one hand. Plus, my strobe likes randomly switching modes and shifting my composition often results in having to tweak my lighting plan. It can be a lot to keep track of.

A voice-activated biological light stand is a huge help, but the length of the cord is still a big factor. Also, people vary in how diligently they point the flash where I requested. Frustrated with feeling like there wasn't much more room left to improve with my one-strobe-and-short-cord skills, I started looking into alternatives. Digging through David Hobby's popular and very informative and reading reviews of some low-cost lighting supplies, I cobbled together a portable kit that would give me three lights and a couple of big 60" umbrellas to modify them, that I could trigger with a radio transmitter for around $800. And, in breaking with the logical policy of not using personal gear for work shoots, I've been working on my proficiency with them for the last couple months.

One of the first chances came when I had to come up with a portrait idea for a story about schools coming up with new policies to deal with technology and the popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites. Our contact and subjects were at Enterprise Middle School in West Richland, where access to Facebook is blocked. I came up with the idea of shooting a moody-looking portrait of the principal and three students that new education reporter Jacques Von Lunen was interviewing for the story. I wanted to light their faces with computer screens in a mostly blacked-out room. The one computer room available had large windows above the computers, however, and the light curtains didn't block out enough light. I used one strobe to pop some light on the principal's face and used computer screens and a cell phone to light the students:

There's a lot of distracting stuff in the background that is bright enough to be obnoxious — most notably the plastic bag sticking out of the girl on the right's head — newbie errors I probably missed as I was working on incorporating my new tools into the shoot. Plus, I was dumb and hadn't come prepared with a tripod, as the depth of field required to get them all reasonable in-focus (a less-than-optimal f/6.3), meant I was hand-holding a shot at 0.4 sec., which is very slow. What I probably should have done was jacked up the brightness on the monitors and moved them a little closer to the girls' faces. That would have knocked down the background a bit more, though I really should have tidied it up before shooting.

Having some extra light came in handy when shooting the Turner family for a story about them adopting four siblings. Their beautiful home featured a large window with some soft light coming in, but with six subjects, I didn't want to jam them all by the window. The extra light helped me balance the exposure a little better and get some light on the parents, who were standing tall and out of the nice window light:

It could use a little more finessing, however, as the kids on the right kind of got blasted by my strobe, messing up the window light, but it's much better than what I would have settled for with my old setup.

I opted to go with more of a conceptual portrait when I arrived at the Abdalla family's Kennewick apartment. The story was about Mohammed Abdalla working on bringing his wife from Sudan so she could help take care of his sons, ages 6 and 5, in the hope of working more and moving into a bigger place for his family. While the apartment was small, his modern place was a far cry from How the Other Half Lives. Instead of a straightforward photograph of them in a place and trying to convey their semi-tight quarters, I figured the young kids would be far more engaged if I let them cut loose during the shoot, aiming to make an image in which the playing boys cramped up the frame, giving the visual appearance of a tight space. They had a nice wall and curtain to work with, so I had them run through a few ideas. My first idea of having them run and jump up at me also included a hint of slow shutter speeds and motion blur, but I was getting some ghostly shots, as discussed in Slow Shutters:

I decided to keep them closer to the couch, simplifying my lighting setup, and the kids were all to happy to goof off:

This shot best accomplished my goal,

but I made sure to get a safe family portrait just in case the bosses hated my idea.

Sydney Langlois' friends were able to help me out and keep me from having to take over the Keewaydin Branch library with light stands for a story about her manga-style drawings being featured in Kennewick's monthly ArtWalk. Her creative makeup and blood-spattered print hair bow fit her darkly themed characters and I used one light to try and get some shadow over her eyes, using a second one to the left to make her eyes pop a bit:

Her personality didn't really fit the dark nature of her work, though, and she often laughed during the shoot, so I went with this shot, which I thought was a nice contrast to moody theme of her art:

My new kit came in most handy when photographing Benton City's Spencer Oland, who started the Generations of Warriors Project, an organization that links veterans from all wars who help each other cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental and emotional scars stemming from combat. The website is a main feature of the project, and I've always struggled to make interesting shots of people with a computer screen. Further complicating the shoot was how small his office was. What you can't see in the shots is the exercise equipment he also keeps in there. I shut off the lights and went for a moody shot with some dramatic light, hoping to negate all the clutter that had nothing to do with the story. Some CD cases reflected the logo and I spilled some light onto a binder featuring the same design to eke a little visual interest from a tough scene. After an attempt that fails with some careless composition on the edge of the frames and an incongruous expression,

and another featuring the same problem, chopping off the edge of the binder and featuring an unflattering angle,

I settled on this pose for the final shot:

I'm starting to get the hang of my new tools, but clearly still have a ways to go. I was happy to be able to slap together something out of nothing at the Oland shoot, but the photo still leaves quite a bit to be desired. There's some unwanted light spilling into the background and I need to make some more DIY light modifiers to give me more control. As a shooter who has always felt most comfortable in trying to make sense of chaotic scenes, I've always struggled in portrait situations where I have total control. I'll keep working at it, though, and here's hoping that in a couple months, I can triumphantly start a blog post by boldly stating that I no longer suck at portraits. Mediocrity, here I come!

A side note:

If you take one of Allegiant Air's cheap direct flights to Los Angeles between now and April 17, be sure to swing by the Annenberg Space for Photography. Their Extreme Exposure exhibit is pretty amazing, and it's free.'s The Big Picture also started its year in pictures series. Check it out if you don't already frequent it.

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