So, what do you do when you walk into a modern day, real life version of Geppetto’s workshop? Hopefully, light it reasonably well. Your lighting and your efforts at camera should be energized by the fact of this rare opportunity, one that will not come this way again. And that would be to visit and photograph the workshop of the famed Lambert Puppet Theater in Ireland, with your subject being Liam Lambert, who continues this fabled tradition of puppet theater, handed down to him by his father. What could be more fun with a camera in hand?
First thing, move fast and hopefully smart. Time is limited. Position the camera, and definitely use a tripod. Bleeding some ambient light into this scene will require playing with shutter speeds, potentially, but, more importantly, your frame of reference, what you are seeing through the lens, should remain a constant. Remember one of your missions as a location shooter is to eliminate variables, and the tripod, in this instance a heavy duty Gitzo helps you do that. The camera, a D5 with a 14-24mm f2.8 lens, is at rest. The world you are about to light remains finite and defined.
Start propping, within the limits of your subject’s patience, of course. Liam remained ever calm and agreeable, even as we moved his masterpieces around the shop, hooked them on shelves and generally placed them where he would never put them.
Main light first. In this case a Lastolite Ezybox soft box, the one with the white interior. No silvery, fashion-y, bouncy light needed here. Just simple, smooth, rounded light. That annoying sliver of sunlight crackling full bore through the skylight window, creating a hot zone, a four stop disparity of exposure right across where you want to shoot? Easy fix with a 3×3 diffuser panel, which flags and softens that hard slash of sun. See below.
Then identify the black holes in the picture. Why move all those lovely puppets in there and not see them? Below is a couple snaps that show simple, radio controlled wireless SB-5000 Speedlights, all gelled warm with full CTO gels, popping some light here and there in the background. For instance, the one below is the baby carriage light, which sounds weird, but was quite helpful putting a glimmer on a vintage baby basket behind Liam.
This is where the Justin Clamp, otherwise known as the Manfrotto 175F1, becomes invaluable. You can hang flashes all over the place in discreet fashion. Below is our background wall light, governed smartly with a couple of pieces of gaffer tape. (Super fancy stuff, here!)
All told, we used a total of five flashes, just to splash some light on the background and the various amazing puppets in the picture. None had shapers. We had to move fast and just pull some detail and exposure out of the scene. It is your obligation at the camera to manage foreground, middle ground and background for the enjoyment and elucidation of your viewer. To let something go slack and black in the background of this wonderful environment is to cheat people out of some measure of the special nature of the visit. So however quick you need to move, start throwing some light around. There’s a main light for Liam, a bounce fill for the rack of puppets over his shoulder, a key kicker on the ancient puppets hanging on his shelves to camera left, the aforementioned baby carriage light, and a spritz of warm light on the background. Finals at camera: 1/20th, F5.0, ISO 100.
And then, just when you might have thought, the hell with this lighting crap, I just wanna go shoot a picture and not use five lights with gels and clamps, you can do that, too, with the same radio wireless flashes. Simple light source, a Lastolite octa, camera left. Sea air, Irish sky, one light. Thanks to Sean McCormack for the below BTS shot.
Many thanks to Annie Cahill for shooting the background pix. the IPPA for staging this workshop, and to the Bank of Ireland for supporting the organization and its valuable efforts. And thanks to Ronan Palliser, who did the heavy lifting to put it all together. It was a well deserved pint we had at the conclusion of all the flashing.
Tom Bove says
Amazing work as always.
Karl Shreeves says
Love the shot! The Manfroto clamps are awesome. There are,actuallt 2 versions — one with and one without the flash mount. The one w/out has male and female light stand mounts, so if you already have heads for lightstands, you can reduce your travel kit weight by getting the w/out version.
Love how you matched the wardrobe to the puppets. Unifies the shot wonderfully.
John Keane says
Joe, one of the things I admire about your photography is your ability to explain the complexities of lighting. Another thing is that despite all the complexities (5 lights) your images look naturally lit. In this case like I walked right into Liam’s shop. Thanks for the lessons as always.
aaron bowen says
Joe, great blog post, as always. I love your pictures, but especially your enthusiasm for photography, for people, and for sharing with others.
Question: Other than wanting to demonstrate the D5, or perhaps it being the “camera you had with you at the time,” is there any reason you would choose the D5 over the D810, in this particular situation? I would like a second camera, and I can see how the D5 would be outstanding for a few particular situations (for example, I love photographing rock shows in dimly lit venues), but it seems like, overall, the D810, would still be my go-to choice for portraiture, which is what I do 90% of the time. Anyway, was just wondering if you had any thoughts on the D810 v D5, and why you would choose one over the other. Thanks…
Joe McNally says
Hi Aaron…The D810 would be the camera of choice for this. I didn’t have one with me. So D5 it was. The res of the D810 would be wonderful in this intricate environment. Now, the D5 makes a terrific file, and I’m happy with the camera. But, as you say, for controlled portraiture on location or in the studio, the D810 rocks. D5 is our workhorse. When I go to the Olympics on Monday, I’ll have three with me and will work them really hard. Best, Joe
Not to mention the small but most important workbench light!
Peter Gross says
Absolutely love your picture of Liam and his puppets. As you didn’t use any light shapers on the Speedlights, can you please shed some light on what zoom number you set on the flash heads?
Is incredible the way you see the photo before the shoot!!!!, Great job as usual.
The best for you in Río. Just in case, if you decide to come to Argentina, let us know please.
Joe McNally says
Hi Peter….yeah, to the best of my memory, the bounce to camera right had a dome diffuser on, so it was wide and popped off the ceiling. The “baby carriage” and the puppets hanging over Liam’s right shoulder had zooms of about 85-ish to full blown 200. Likewise the back wall light. In the middle somewhere so the spread was decent and not too spotty looking. Best, Joe
Great lighting and perfect structure of the photo. I like your speed light stand, the spring clamp is very convenient at the narrow place, good idea.
Amit Kumar says
I love your pictures! great blog post. Great lighting and perfect structure of the photo.
Mads Pallesen says
Hi Joe, wonderful post and just love your work! A quick question if you have the time. I’m currently shooting with 35mm 1.4G and 85mm 1.4G combo – mainly people photography in “reportage” kind of style. I’m just an (avid) amateur. Now, I’m considering adding the 58mm 1.4G for it’s unique rendering characteristics and NOCT allure. 🙂 58mm is quite close between 35mm and 85mm, so is this just the gear head talking and should I stick to a “less is more approach” with my current kit? Or could this add extra inspiration adding this lens and have 3 classic focal lengths? The 58mm could work as a one lens solution (just as 35mm) for the “going light” days. Would love to hear your thoughts. Sincerely, Mads
Joe McNally says
Mads…can you email me….i’m in Rio and crazy busy….send me an email if you would…
Mads Pallesen says
Thank you so much, Joe. I will email you straight away… I presume, I should use [email protected] – else let me know, and I will write to another email address. Thanks once again.
Joe McNally in a pub in Ireland, drinking……….lager. Something’s wrong here!