Firefighters. They share, along with cowboys, an innate ability to simply step in front of a camera and become a photograph. Henry, of the Soufriere Fire Department in St. Lucia, has a look, a presence, if you will, that speaks to the camera.
To do this portrait, I made some camera moves before I even put it to my eye. When doing what one might call a “formal” portrait, I’ve always enjoyed a more blocky type of aspect ratio. Don’t know exactly why. It might hark back to film days when I shot a lot of 6×7 and square medium format stuff. In the D4S there is a menu checkoff where you can alter your frame from the standard DSLR view to 5×4, which is what I did here. I also shifted into Monochrome. I still have color in the raw file, but when I shoot B&W, I like to see in B&W. It makes a difference. I rarely shoot in color and then convert it to monochrome later. I try my best to think and see in the palette I am shooting, at the moment of exposure.
One subject? One light, at least to start. (Best to keep it simple and move fast when working with firefighters, as they’re likely to disappear at any moment.)
Here’s where light placement, hence a C-stand, comes in, well, not just handy, but pretty damn essential. Depending on your taste, of course. You can light from the side, or elsewhere. You can light from anyplace you want to try. But, my instincts said, light from overhead, symmetrically, and for this, you gotta extend, or boom the light source.
Which is, in this particular equation, a 24″ white interior Lastolite hotshoe soft box. Handy, simple, all purpose light source. It’s pretty soft and forgiving, but also directional, hence the shadows. It gives Henry a look, for sure. It’s moody, and has attitude. But, pitched from up above, that’s all it gives. You don’t see the eyes.
Want the eyes? That calls for another light, given the attitude of the first light, which I didn’t want to change. I washed a Group B TTL light off the silver reflective sleeve of a Lastolite trip-grip diffuser, placed on the floor, about 8′ in front of the subject. Voila! Eyes.
But, this is a wash of light, it flows upwards towards Henry, and lights not just his eyes, but it puts details into his overall frame and what he is sitting on, which happens to be some sort of air filter we found in the firehouse. It’s nice enough, but not really specific. If you want a light just dedicated to his eyes, best to use something like a gridded or snooted source, something that produces a small, concentrated splash of light that really locates the eyes and not much else.
For the above, there are a couple things you could use. Lastolite makes a gridded, magnetized snoot that is collapsible and cool. It travels well, and the whole kit, with the grids, frame and snoot give you lots of options. The big blow of light behind Henry is the same contraption I had just used to fill the front of him. It’s a speed light bounced into a silver tri-grip. Give a little, get a little, is the rule of location. Other rules abound. Solve one problem, create two more. Murphy’s law. The frequency of the bread falling butter side down is in direct relationship to how expensive the carpeting is. Etc. Location is problem solving, often times. Eliminating the frontal, general fill and going with a very specific source meant I lost a touch of detail in the background. So, I pulled the floor fill rig around to the back of Henry, to light up the rack of bunker gear hanging back there. True to the general pattern of TTL, the camera’s brain rightly perceived that area to be dark and pumped out too much light, as you can see above.
Plugged in minus 2 EV (also tried minus 3) and dialed up the background to a decent, moody level.
We ended up here, with three lights. Group A, overhead, boomed Lastolite 24″ hot shoe soft box. Group B, fill snoot for his face and eyes, running low power, about minus 3 ev. And the background, Group C, a bounce off of a silver reflective surface (the speed light is just laying on it) running in similar toned down fashion, minus 2 or 3.
Here’s the final camera specs. D4S, 1/20th, f5.6, 79-200mm f2.8 zoom, set at 170mm. I have minus three programmed into the camera, but the D4S ignores that command because it is set in manual mode. I did my scout in aperture priority, getting the rough exposure for the scene dialed in, and then flipped the camera into manual to proceed through the making of the shot. I could say I did this because I was showing the class the various modes of the camera and how they interrelate. Or I could just say I made a mistake and forgot to drain out that exposure command. You choose. 🙂
john lockwood says
Good post Joe. Can relate to your comments about shooting in B&W NEF mode. It’s how us old school film guys think. As much as we enjoy nailing it in-camera, I have found that CAPTURE NX2 offers an amazing ability to alter lighting ratios in post. Love to drop a control point onto a shadow area and bring up detail selectively. Have found that saturation needs to be reduced in the area as you increase exposure in shadows. Pretty cool technique.
Cary Spangler says
What metering mode were you in? I have a lot of trouble keeping the background lights at a consistent level in TTL. If I use matrix the background is better but then the key light is harder to control. If I use CW or spot then the background ends up overexposed. I usually end up going manual on the background and stay in spot metering.
Love the fly above the helmet in the last shot…
paul hodgson says
As usual, a fabulous post coupled to wonderful images.
One question though, I thought even in manual mode dialling in -3 ev would affect the flash dropping their power by the same amount.
I’d be really interested to read your take and correcting my thought.
Mark Christopher Holloway says
Good stuff, Joe. Always learn something from you. Thanks for the post and the time you take to educate. Helps us all to be better photographers.
awesome set of instructions. thanks.
Brandt Steinhauser says
Thanks for the TK Joe. Really appreciate you sharing how you work through a shoot.
Charles Gesner says
Thanks Joe! I learn more from you and your books than any where else. I hope to meet you some day. I live in the Denver area. I have progressed from M mode to A mode, D7100 (3rd Nikon). I tell people I am on a 5 year learning journey to doing photography full-time. But, my question is how do you trust A mode so much? My eye in camera, finger on shutter and the readings suggest something different than I actually end up with. How do I increase my learning curve with A mode and the use of 2 to 3 units of flash. The first answer is I know, register for your seminar but in the event I am not able to attend soon, what would be your second answer? You are the best! Charles
John A. says
Love your walk-throughs and how you think of each zone of the image independently. Also, like that you are shooting your B&Ws *in* B&W, I’m going to have to give that a go. I don’t shoot RAW though (shhh, don’t tell anybody) so I’ve always been afraid to make that step. Awesome portrait and thanks for sharing your ideas!
Michael Kolodner says
How do you aim the snoot, in particular (but any of them really) since speedlights don’t have a modeling light? Is it just trial and error with corrections after seeing the shot on the screen?
Joe McNally says
Yep, trial and error. I ask the subject to hold still, close their eyes and then I just flash the unit on its test fire button until it feels right.
Joe McNally says
Very cool. Drop points are helpful for sure. Thanks for sharing that….
Joe McNally says
Experimentation, to me, is the only to get comfortable with TTL. Keep doing it, try to make it go wrong and break and start to identify situations where it will be prone to confusion. You then start to build a rolodex of experience that lets you know when and where you might get into trouble. Other thing is to eliminate variables. Get the frame set. Get the shot done in your head. Ratio the available light scenario to a point you like. Then, and only then, start thinking flash. Good luck!
shaikh imran says
I wish it was vibrant color like yellow or red as the firefighter are !
Great site and Information. In the old days I loved Norman Flash.. Brilliant light quality