On the Edge

May 20, 2011 

A common type of photo blog post is "In the Bag," which gives gear-heads a glimpse into a working pro's camera bag. The closest I've written is this whiny diatribe about our cache of aging and broken equipment, but the topic is so ubiquitous that Vietnam-based photographer Justin Mott wrote a hilarious post spoofing the blog genre and cool-kid photojournalists' scarf affinity.

What's even more important, though, is a photographer's bag of tricks — the skills and techniques he or she leans on to accomplish a photo. Like the physical tools we spend thousands on, however, learning how to correctly use these tools takes time and a fair amount of screwing up.

Nice even lighting is easy to do, but not very exciting, so I've been working on punching up my portraits by utilizing back and side lighting. These lights can help separate the subject from the background or provide an edgier aesthetic.

That's what I was going for when photographing Nancy Foster-Mills of Richland, a record-holding destroyer of stuff. My plan was to hit her with hard light on each side of her while she smashed boards and bricks for an action portrait. It worked OK when she was in certain positions, like during this unsuccessful brick break,

but cast some weird shadows on her face at other times.

The extra light spilling onto her neck on the shot we ran looks a little weird,

as does her chopped fingertips, but we weren't able to get another great spread of boards,

and when your photo subject is breaking things with her bare hands, you only get so many takes before you cross the line from photographer to sadist (a line many find quite blurred to begin with).

When photographing Dianne Hara for a feature on pysanky, a traditional Ukrainian method of dying Easter eggs, I didn't want my back lights for her. I wanted to use them to highlight the jars of dark dye she uses. Unfortunately, I didn't do a good job of controlling it, as you can see in this outtake:

There's a crazy nonsensical shadow in the mix and uneven weird lighting on the details I wanted to highlight by putting in the foreground. Instead of trying to address the issue, however, I just mixed up my angle to minimize the problem. This didn't fix my terribly awkward pose ideas, though:

I decided to include the mugs for more of a kitchen atmosphere, and I finally settled on this shot.

I wish I would have noticed the glare off her glasses, and that's one downside of not having modeling lights on my go-anywhere light kit.

I find myself doing it more for a chance to practice, though, over-complicating shoots when that kind of lighting isn't really needed. As you can see in this early outtake of Southridge's Jackson twins, it's easy to mess up the lighting ratios and end up with really bad lighting:

And while I like the highlights on Bryce on the right side of the frame we ran,

I knew I had botched that lighting setup enough in past shoots to abandon it for really basic lighting in my CYA shot:

The most notable screw up was when I photographed five gymnasts at Garland's Gymnastics in Kennewick who had qualified for a regional competition. I knew I wanted to overpower the ambient light as much as possible since the background is messy and full of distracting elements, and I wanted to work in the repeating rows of balance beams for the photo. Since some of the girls had dark hair and I knew I'd be working on the edge of how powerful my strobes are, I wanted that rim light to separate them from the background. I stupidly plunked the light down directly behind the gymnasts.

It worked OK for the first setup we did,

though you can see that I could have used either stronger lights or more of them, based on the light falling off on the girls in the back.

But having to compose it so that somebody was always completely blocking the light created problems during our more complicated poses. While having 10-year-old Jaimee Fields leap between beams, for example,

the angle I had to maintain meant that she was blocking her teammates. And while there were a number of ways I could have addressed this, like having the girls in the back row scoot out into a "V" formation or having them do shorter poses, but the easiest would have been to readjust my lighting. You'd think that failure would have at least prompted me to change it for the most complicated setup, but I stuck to my backlighting guns while trying to time a stunt for the portrait. It actually worked OK for this shot,

which I think has the best overall lighting of the bunch, but I was lured into choosing this photo

partly because I felt guilty about making them do so many damn handstands while trying to line everything up. I didn't even do that as well as I would have liked, since there's some bad overlapping between the foreground gymnast's outstretched arm and the handstander on the right. Plus the lighting was really bad on the left handstander, which is why the image quality of her face is so bad. The light placement even managed to bite me during CYA time, after getting a standard pose,

we tried a buddy shot of everybody going arms over shoulders while sitting on the beam. You'd think after all the feats of balance and poise I'd already put them through would have made it easy, but apparently sitting can be tougher than pulling off a handstand,

and it took a few tries to get a shot I knew I probably wouldn't use:

Since getting my light kit, I've also developed a bit of tunnel vision in its use — often forgetting to use the natural lighting as an element. I tried to rectify this with Doug Nordwall for a story about donating harvests from community gardens to the needy — mostly because I wanted to include people using the Keene Walking Trail that run alongside the gardens. I tried not to blow out the brighter, sunlit background and was hoping the ambient light coming into the shaded area I had Nordwall stand in would give him an edge:

I like the light on him, but did a poor job of using my other light to brighten up the patch of garden on his left. I tried a different angle, this time eschewing highlight detail for shadow:

The lighting on him is worse from this angle, so I went with the first setup. Looking back, I think I should I have gone with that first angle, forgot about lighting the ground, been less worried about slightly blowing out the background and just bringing up the dark soil in post-processing, but I'm generally OK with how it turned out. I'm thankful his planter box is that nice red color too, which is another element that helps him stand out while shooting with so much depth of field.

If that last bit sounded too jargony, fear not. If you don't shoot a lot, you don't care or notice such things. All you have to do is look at what some people consider to be good Facebook profile pictures. Blurry, red-eyed images with crazy mirror glare are the norm, as are headshots in weird patchy shadows.

So why even bother? Visual literacy is a skill that some readers have and photo lovers should possess. Just as texts that read, "OMG RU srsly gona c him l8r?" may be acceptable to some, the slightly-better-read demand more sophisticated sentences. The same goes for images. Bumbling my way through figuring out how to use my new tools to incorporate more tricks into my repertoire is just part of the growth I hope will help keep me with work to do.

Web Worthy

Last week's Twitpic TOS situation became more relevant this week as Stephanie Gordon's shuttle photo from her plane went viral via the rights-grabbing photo service. She's also quoted as gleefully giving away the photo to the BBC and some commenters have chided her for missing out on a lucrative opportunity.

Nick Risinger stitched together 37,440 photos for a galactic gigapan that should probably be viewed while listening to Pink Floyd.

The Big Picture has some great shots (as always) from "Buddha's Birthday" as well as the ongoing Libyan conflict.

Photoj BAMF Chip Litherland wrote a nice inspirational post on Scott Kelby's blog about shooting for yourself.

I also just came across this nerdgasmic comparison between the human eye and cameras.

And speaking of nerdgasmic, here's a fun video that gives new meaning to photo shootout.


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