Steve E. Miller Knocks 'em Dead

I worked at newspaper for twenty years, and to be honest I do not think I could have ever sold an idea to shoot dead artists for a fall arts preview package.

My problem, of course, was that I shot for the mainstream media, and not the alternative media. In that world, they come up with the dead artists idea all by themselves and ask you to shoot it.

Which is exactly what happened to photographer Steve E. Miller, who shoots for the San Luis Opisbo (CA) New Times.

Video, how-to and links to more of the series, inside.

The video is a time-lapse, which will let you see the physical progression of the lights. But the lighting ratios are what is key here.

This is an exercise in finely tuned fill light, and you can easily do it without a flash meter. The sheets are white, but Steve wanted them to be muted and textured in the final photo. So the idea is to design that fill light first, expose it properly -- white sheets -- and then dial the aperture down until you get the muted greys that you want on the linens.

Now, it is just a matter of gridding the key light to bring up the "demised" photographer's face. Obviously, you can grid the art on the walls, too, to bring up other areas of interest and better sell that tonal shift in the sheets. But the key to the look of the photo is how far down you take the fill, and you can do that by eye and histogram on the LCD screen without a flash meter.

Just dial down your aperture until your sheets look the way you want after you lay in that fill. Watch the histogram for blocked-up blacks, tho. Then bring up the gridded key light to make the dead guy the right exposure. Again, look at the image onscreen for the light relationships, but mind that histogram to make sure you have something you can work with in post.

I'll bet people were talking about Steve's dead artists spread in SLO for several days. You can see the other images Steve made in his Flickr gallery, and more time-lapse videos here. The paper did a nice piece online, too.

And the most important thing to remember (if you are Steve E. Miller) is that you parlay the success of this "kinda-out-there" project into a green light to do your next (even-more-out-there) project. Just be sure you pull it off, so you keep the good times rolling.

Question, to the other newspaper shooters out there: Could you ever hope to sell a "dead artists" spread in your Fall Arts preview? What would your strategy be to make it happen?

(FWIW, I don't think I could ever have squeezed this one past the Features Ed at The Sun.)


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Blogger Chris said...

Great use of motivated lighting... great playback music - though, I think it sets a funky tempo to what the end result was. :-)

Gotta love the 'liquid creative input' representation at 2:31. :-) Shiner FTW.

Steve did a great job of including everyone involved in the shoot by showing them his progress with the LCD screen. I've noticed people will be more reluctant to the patience game that everyone but the photog experiences during a shoot, and showing how they've assisted is a great motivator/reassuring technique.

Very different subject matter, but thank you for posting!


October 15, 2008 2:26 AM  
Blogger ogalthorpe said...

Hey... I went to college with Steve.

Congrats, Steve on a fine series.

October 15, 2008 3:16 AM  
Anonymous Alexander (Hamburg) said...

Nice one!

Too bad they didn't have that cute morbid bath tub in the picture. Could've looked like The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David...

Looking at this with European eyes, I don't really consider this very much off mainstream. I don't think mainstream magazine readers would be disturbed or anything. Is that so much different in the US?

October 15, 2008 3:16 AM  
Anonymous scott said...

The whole series is great. Thanks for sharing!

October 15, 2008 7:24 AM  
Anonymous hivewasp said...

Of course in the digital age you don't really need a lightmeter... the camera is one; and those histograms give way more information about the captured frame than a lightmeter. But how would you do if all you had available was a medium format camera and no digiback ?

At the rate at which technology advances, stuff like liveview, with real time histograms, high quality/power hotlights, and so on... you'll soon be able to design a scene visually on your computer screen, tethered through wifi, and adjust your generator power from there as well... all you'll need is a few assistants to move the lights... and that if they're not already remote controlled by the computer through servo motors. Imagine 20 years from now?

As for the whole dead artist theme is a morbid,... but hey, Halloween's coming :D

October 15, 2008 7:58 AM  
Blogger Matthew G. Monroe said...

A fantastic photo -- creative, well thought out, excellent execution -- and part of a great series of photos over on Steve's Flickr site.

David, in your write-up about the photo, you talk about how Steve has set a proper exposure using fill light, and then dialed down that exposure to create a more muted gray tone to the bed and sheets. On the other hand, Steve -- in his Flickr posting -- talks about setting a proper exposure with the fill light, and then dialing down the bed and sheets in Photoshop. Obviously, either technique works just fine, but I'm wondering just which technique was actually employed... Perhaps a little bit of both.


October 15, 2008 9:18 AM  
Blogger s.e. miller said...


First of all, thanks to David for presenting this series, it is VERY much appreciated :) You Rock!

Thanks for the positive comments Chris, you are correct about keeping everyone motivated - makes for a much better shoot. The beer is Pacifico though :)

Hi Ogalthorpe! We did go to school together, met at the college radio station KCPR. Not so ironically, I did the death metal show :)

Alexander, it really wasn't too out of the mainstream, but for a newspaper, even an alternative one it was. I think it's all about the presentation location for the idea of being 'out of the mainstream' as obviously horror movies and such are far more, umm, brutal. I do wish sometimes America was a little more open to ideas like Europe though, so you are correct that it is a bit different than the US.

Thanks Scott!

Hivewasp, all I gotta say is POLAROID. It's intereresting today that 'chimping' is so seen like cheating in the photographic process when not but five years ago, any professional photographer (albeit not too many newspaper photogs) would have been shooting polaroids for the same purpose of chimping on an LCD screen. I am sure you are aware, but if not, they even made the backs for 35mm...

Cheer to all, thanks for looking and thanks again to David and Strobist for the opportunity to be seen!


October 15, 2008 10:30 AM  
Blogger David said...


I was not there for Steve's shoot. So he could have arrived at this look from any of a number of different directions. My goal was to give a path to this look in camera, without the benefit of a flashmeter.


October 15, 2008 11:01 AM  
Blogger Drayke Larson said...

I love this! This is similar to a project I've been wanting to accomplish for quite some time but have not been able to due to time and resource constraints. Now that this is out there, I suppose I'll have to wait a little longer in order not to appear to be copycatting! Great look at both lighting, and some creative planning. Thanks for directing us to Steve E. Miller's work!

Drayke Larson

October 15, 2008 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just don't get all this negativity about using or not using a flash meter. To each his own. Some people are happy to chimp while others wouldn't be caught dead without a light meter. What's the big deal? It's the end result that counts. I wonder if people had similar debates 20 years ago when some people had motor drives to advance film while others did not (I couldn't afford one).

October 15, 2008 11:42 AM  
Blogger s.e. miller said...


Both you and David are right :)
You can see in the video where I was shooting initally with the softbox pointed right at the subject, then later I pointed it up toward the ceiling to feather the light down onto the bed. I did adjust the tonality down in photoshop, but as David talks about consistently here, getting a well exposed image in the camera is key.
I could have reproduced the effect that I had in photoshop during the shoot, but the fact of the matter is that making the image darker in postprocessing will keep a high image quality than lightening up the image in post.

October 15, 2008 12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a neophyte question. What is "gridding"?


October 15, 2008 1:59 PM  
Anonymous Rob G. said...

Excellent pictures, the only thing that bothers me is all that dodge and burn in PP. I'm not saying that it shouldn't have been done, it works VERY well, I just mean I would have preferred to see more light work on the set (with greater ratios btween fill and key)instead of that post processing, the original pictures seen on New Times't site are a bit flat to me.
Very nice tough!

October 15, 2008 4:59 PM  
Anonymous Fenix said...

Dear neophyte,

Gridding is the process of limiting the spill of light using a grid--traditionally a honeycomb shaped disk that inserts on the outside of a studio reflector dish. On a soft box they look something like this (here's mine):

David has of course shown us ways to grid speedlights using homemade materials such as black bar straws, cardboard, and chloraplatst.

Take care,

October 15, 2008 6:16 PM  
Anonymous Tuffer said...

At first I thought Steve was balancing the lamp over the artist's head and using that light as key, which was intriguing. But it looks like he used another stobe to mimic the lamp. also interesting and great attention to detail that when he moved the lamp, he also adjusted the strobe so the angle was consistent.

October 16, 2008 5:00 AM  
Blogger Pat Morrissey said...

fantastic post. I doubt very much if I'd have ever found this site myself and these kinds of links are one of the great spin-offs from your blog.
Thanks too to Steve for his insights on how the shots were devised.
Pure dead brilliant as we say in Scotland!

October 16, 2008 8:22 AM  

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