On Assignment: Night Soprano, Pt. 2

Editor's note: This post focuses on the lighting and execution of the night woods photo of Soprano Alexandra Rodrick. The post on developing the concept is here, in Part One.

The lighting diagram for this photo is overlaid on a satellite image of the neighborhood, because the fill light and accent lights are actually two houses away from each other. And one of them is not even outside...

As we mentioned last week, lighting this photo was no different in theory than a lighting a tight head shot. But it was clear we would need some space — and power — to carry even lighting across the woods.


I knew the ambient would be a real-time adjustment as the sunlight faded. The goal was to shoot at f/5.6 at ISO 100, so (assuming we could get that much light) my plan would be to lock the camera down in aperture priority at f/5.6.

That way, we could use the exposure compensation button to dial in the amount of underexposure we wanted for the ambient. Then the shutter speed would ride the ambient down automatically, giving us one less thing to worry about.

I wanted a real nighttime feel here, but there needed to be some detail in the background woods. So we decided on -3 stops for the ambient light and dialed that into the compensation button. (Normally, I would do this manually. But I wanted to concentrate on other parts of the image so I let it ride.)

But the ambient, as always, is a very important component to the photo. Half a stop more ambient, and the background doesn't look like nighttime. Half a stop less and the woods became too dark. And worse, that made them look less natural and more "lit," which I did not want.

Normally, there is a lot more fudge factor in the ambient balance. I was pretty surprised at how fine-tuned this one had to be.


Next we needed to build the light that would fill the key on Alex, and to reach into the woods to tie the foreground the background together. Ideally, I want that one on-axis (or close to it) up a little and a ways behind me.

So we put a Profoto Acute2 1200ws pack in the dining room, (behind me and one floor up) triggered it with a PW +III and fired it at full blast directly at the scene. This flash was CTB'd to cool the light down and mimic, if not slightly exaggerate, the cool evening light.

Here's a shot of the dining room fill light, off and on. I forget which is which. Seriously, this is why you warn the neighbors. It's pretty much gonna look like the X-Files is happening in my dining room. Although, with all of that blue CTB floating around, anyone who saw it would probably think the cops were already on scene.

This light was approximately 60 feet away from the subject. There was no modifier. At that distance, it would not have made much of a difference to soften the light. But it would have eaten more than a stop of power, and we didn't have a stop to give on this pack. It wasn't a full exposure at f/5.6, but that was okay. We only needed this as fill.


Ironically, with the high-power lights we used for fill and accent, the key was done with speedlights. This is only a few feet from Alex, so we didn't need much power. I strapped three SU-4'd SB-800s together and suspended them into a silk Japanese lantern, which I got here for $6.98.

You Lighting in Layers folks already know how much I love these things. They give a beautiful, soft, 360-degree glowing light. Normally I use domes on the flashes inside for a full spread into the lantern. But this time I wanted most of the energy to point down, so we left the flashes bare and zoomed them out to the widest setting. (You also have to put some paper over the bottom hole to avoid raw light coming out.)

Above is a lighting test we did with Ben from a couple of nights before. As you can see, we mounted the fixture to a length of cord which was flung up into the branches above. (We tied the cord to a wrench, which chucks really well.) Two strings gave us the ability to control height and location to some degree.

This is a beautiful and onmi-directional light source. Especially being inside the scene where it radiates light into the frame. (We took the light out in post.) The Chimera version costs several hundred bucks, but it is hard to go wrong for <$10. Ditto the coupla bucks worth of string instead of a huge boom. The speedlights were gelled slightly warm (one of the three flashes was 1/4 CTO'd) to contrast with the cool light all around Alex.

The key light is a little incongruent with the rest of the scene, on purpose. I am trying to create a wider scene which happens to contain Alex — more of a cinematic moment than a tight portrait.


The final light was an accent light, sitting on a neighbor's deck at back-camera-left. It was about 120 feet away from the subject. It was also CTB'd to match the cool-lit woods.

Even with a Profoto Acute2 2400ws pack (every watt-second I had) it was not enough to get f/5.6 at ISO 100. So we had to back off to f/4.5 and adjust the other lights down 2/3 of a stop. That really surprised me. But distance eats light geometrically, and we are a long ways off. Plus, the CTB gel ate a stop, at least.

We triggered this flash with a PW+III, but I am pretty sure we could have slaved it. Come to think of it, I am pretty sure we could have triggered a slaved flash anywhere in Howard County that night.

We also used a little bit of smoke (hard to see, but you miss it when it is not there) in the middle background transition area. That was courtesy Chris, a nearby theater-type. First time for me working with smoke, so there was a learning curve. I learned that less is more when it comes to smoke, unless you are going for a big effect. But I could definitely see the help in post, vs. the no-smoke shots.

Here is an ambient-component shot of the scene without flash. This is the (minus-three stop) ambient floor to the photo, and shows why the photo does not go to pure black even in the back. Of everything in the frame, this is probably the most critical of the light sources.

As for Alex, we told her to just let go and sing. It's not an easy thing to be singing in a patch of neighborhood woods with giant blue lights blasting everywhere. Thankfully, one of our neighbors graciously allowed us to use their deck as a platform — and AC — for the separation light. Good thing, too. We needed both the distance and the juice.

The final image was at 1/10th of a sec at f/4.5 at ISO 100. Here's an over-the-shoulder (full exposure) ambient shot, by Erik Couse...

... follow by our final image again — with flash, under-exposed ambient and the globe removed in post:

We plugged Alex's phone into a stereo on our deck, so she could have accompanying music to which to sing.

Not a bad way to spend a spring evening, with our own private neighborhood concert. And of course with pizza and beer to follow after we struck the set.

Next: Pizza Trattoria


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Blogger Logan365 said...

did you have to deal with shadows cast by the trees by having the lights so far away?

April 16, 2012 9:42 AM  
Blogger Dovelyn Richmond said...

1/10th of a sec at f/4.5 at ISO 100

I would have expected the image to be brighter at these settings or maybe it's the "full exposure" shot that's throwing me off.

April 16, 2012 9:46 AM  
Blogger Chris Aldridge said...

"Not a bad way to spend a spring evening.... "

Def have to agree. That night wrapped up so many of my fav activities, I think I may have been a little beside myself! Really great to see the 360° view of the process from "both" sides of the screen. The scale of the setup was definitely big, but the satellite image really makes the point about the strobe equipment needed and why it got the desired effect.

April 16, 2012 10:31 AM  
Blogger Hugo Carlone Fotografia said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing. Lighting big scenes like this must be challenging. Specially when there are objects (trees) in the way of your lights. Was that a problem at all?

Hugo Carlone

April 16, 2012 10:43 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


That's exactly why we wanted the fill to be as close to on-axis as possible. We had to get it a little off-axis to avoid *my* shadow projecting into the frame, actually.

The plan was that the shadows cast by the front trees would be mostly eaten up by the key light. And it mostly worked.


Yep, that 1/10th f/4.5 ISO 100 setting would give you the "dark" ambient-only frame, above. The shot over my shoulder by Erik was a full ambient exposure, to show you the raw environment and how it was changed by our altered ambient exposure and added lights.


In addition to the comment to Logan, above, I would say that we spent a little bit of time aiming/positioning the rim light. The idea was to have it hitting every tree we wanted, and to have it where no trees blocked other critical trees. (Because that would have created the shadows we would not want.)

April 16, 2012 11:16 AM  
Blogger Kevin B. said...

What was the purpose of putting the fill light in the house? Did you not have a high enough light stand? With regards to the accent light... when you didn't have enough power, why not move the light closer... lets say from 120' to 90?

April 16, 2012 11:49 AM  
Blogger Chris Nicholls said...

Great post. You really know how to get people thinking about lighting. Being half-Japanese, I felt proud to see a Japanese-style lantern shade up there, too! By the way, have you ever used Japanese 'shoji' paper doors as diffusers? Bloody brilliant. Especially for ambient! The way they soften light is just incredible.

April 16, 2012 12:11 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Height, distance, access to power and was the best locations were reasons for the fill locations.

As for the rim, the distance was important to keep it from starting to look too hot in the camera-back-left corner. Plus, the deck gave us an extra 10 feet of height that we really needed at that distance.

Everything is a compromise/tradeoff. In the end, I would rather sacrifice a little DoF to keep the look of the lighting. FWIW, I never thought I would put 2400 watt-seconds of power into a Magnum reflector and and think, "I wish I had more power..."

April 16, 2012 12:46 PM  
Blogger Flavio Martins said...

Wow! You know you've hit the big time when you have to draw lighting diagrams on a satellite photo. I bet the reason you could not get f5.6 out of the rim light was because you were getting some feathering due to THE CURVATURE OF THE EARTH! Seriously though, what a great post about pushing the boundaries of your gear. And a very cool final image too. Well done once again.

PS: Next time I need a little fill light here in Florida I'll just ask you to point that bad boy due south and wait for the signal!

April 16, 2012 1:04 PM  
Blogger Ian Pack said...

You're moving into the realms of movie lighting, I like it. Thanks for sharing this and giving an insight why power can be useful sometimes.

April 16, 2012 1:12 PM  
Blogger Marco de Groot said...

Thanks for the behind the scenes. It really gives me inspiration to use my flashlights more than I do now.

April 16, 2012 1:21 PM  
Blogger MikeScottPhoto said...

I want to live in your neighborhood. Thanks for the informative BTS.

April 16, 2012 1:23 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Stupid question probably, but why did you need the fill?

Was the ambient just not powerful enough to get the look you wanted? I imagine at this time of day, the remaining light would have been pretty omni-directional...

Anyway, great shot. I will probably be ripping this off... err... becoming inspired by this in the near future.

April 16, 2012 1:29 PM  
Blogger Alexander said...

Excellent post, my lighting liege. I have two quick questions. One, did you consciously create or decide not to "fix in post" the highlight on the right side of your center tree? I think I like it, but it "gives away" the use of a vanished light source. Second, did you vignette the edges, or is that on-location falloff? Beautifully done.

April 16, 2012 2:59 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Left it in. This is a theatrical, vs a natural, photo. The idea is as if she is in the woods rather than onstage. But there is an obvious key on her nonetheless. As far as the "vanished" light source, it is more logically a "moved" light source. It looks as if it is happening further up (higher) than it is.

And yep, we vignetted it in post. I anticipated that, to counteract any hot spot issues on the rim (back left) and fill (front).

April 16, 2012 3:09 PM  
Blogger diegonyc said...

Great read DH!

Thanks again for the wealth of info.

April 16, 2012 3:40 PM  
Blogger David A. Harvey said...

Dave I am truly impressed by your forethought and plannin on this one - outstanding vision. My only nit, if you can call it a nit is the accent light - I'm not sure I see its contribution to the shot at all. do you have a shot of the scene with and without the accent? No matter - a great shot by a great phoographer. Kudos!

April 16, 2012 4:12 PM  
Blogger michael anthony murphy said...

excuse the language but GODDAMN!!!

April 16, 2012 6:26 PM  
Blogger Kevin B. said...

Thanks for the additional answers. I really like this photo and how it turned out. My only request now is for you to share how you rigged those speed lights inside the lantern. It's definitely something I'm going to start playing with!

April 16, 2012 8:40 PM  
Blogger Brian Espinosa said...

Thanks for taking the time to put together such an informative and well documented post (as always).

Also... give Ben a high five for me for the great jersey choice in the test photo. :)

April 17, 2012 2:33 AM  
Blogger AJ said...

David! I am speechless. Amazing photo and an even better two part post. Thanks for being a great mentor!

April 17, 2012 3:10 AM  
Blogger Marshall said...

The 360-degree light and that highlight on the right side of the tree definitely contribute to it looking like a "moved" rather than a "deleted" light source.

How'd you strike the set? Chainsaw? Um, no, probably not...

April 18, 2012 12:55 PM  
Blogger SeanP said...

this is such an amazing post. I learned a lot. thanks for sharing

April 18, 2012 6:35 PM  
Blogger Anthony C said...

aMay I please be the first to say what a nice looking woman she is?

Oh, and yeah, great lighting!

April 19, 2012 11:59 AM  
Blogger Andrew McDougall said...

I like the cinematic quality of the image and the setup. It reminds me of Gregory Crewdson's setups but at afraction of the cost. Thanks for sharing.

April 20, 2012 7:33 AM  
Blogger Kristina Jacob said...

I'm so very proud of you for overlaying the diagram on an aerial image. That is the power of GIS ;-)


April 20, 2012 6:18 PM  
Blogger HeroFoto said...

1/10th of a sec at f/4.5 at ISO 100 ???

What was your original exposure before the adjustments?

Cause at those settings even with -3 exp_comp, I ain't getting that image.

Shutter speed controls ambient, and Aperture controls flash. So with that in mind, I setup a similar shot and guess what: at 1/10th @ f/4.5 ISO200 -5 it was still way blown out, nuked to white .. I had to crank up my shutter speed to 1/2000th to even get close to crushing ambient to dark ...

April 22, 2012 3:54 PM  
Blogger Shane said...

Bummer, that place is out of silk lanterns. I wonder if you had anything to do with it?

May 04, 2012 8:30 PM  
Blogger erik said...

David, Wanted to thank you for sharing this portrait last year. It was the base inspiration for what turned into a personal photo project: The Ballet Project www.balletproject.com. I wanted so hard to replicate your photo. I never did but in the process I branched off and found my own vision. So again, thank you for the inspiration.

July 16, 2013 10:48 AM  

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