On Assignment: Dahlia Flute Duo

Whenever possible, I scout not only location but also time of day when planning an outdoor shoot. Especially if that shoot is in the evening.

When does the sun set? Where does the sun set? When is golden light? Where will it come from?

So in this case, the I knew the ideal pop of tree-filtered backlight would happen at about 7:22pm. And at that time we were ready and in place, waiting for the light.

Shame about the sun not showing up.


Plans Are Great

Look, it's always better to have a plan than to not have a plan. You can always ditch your plan. But if serendipity doesn't smile upon you, it's better to have a safety net than not.

That said, I'll quote the great philosopher Mike Tyson, who says, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

In our case the forecast was crap. The clouds came, and just kept building. Halfway into the shoot we knew the sun wasn't coming and were just hoping the rain would hold off long enough to get what we wanted.

Cue the Stand-In

The sun being a no-show, we placed an Einstein mono with a standard head and a Rosco #08 straw gel about fifty feet back into the woods. The #08 gel is like a ¼ CTO, but without as much red component. (And if your warmed flash portraits tend to come out too red, you may wish to swap from a ¼ CTO to an #08 as a fix.)

That warmth is critical to pass this light off as late afternoon sun. As is the considerable distance back to the flash.

On top of that, the flash is pointed up at about a 45-degree angle to disguise the location. Otherwise, the area right in front of the flash would be super-hot, revealing that the light is coming from inside the frame. The fact that the flash is pointed up also helps it to reach further up into the trees, adding depth to the illusion.

It's not perfect, of course. The light would need to 93 million miles away to be perfect. But it's convincing on first pass, and that's what counts.

(Note that the BTS pic was shot later, after a change of clothing.)

In front, I used a simple clamshell light setup, with a speedlight in an umbrella both above and below Melissa and Mary. The umbrella/flash on the ground has been taken off of the compact stand (which is still visible in the foreground) and placed directly on the ground. This gives me the visual room to shoot a nice three-quarter view.

Clamshell is often my go-to light because (a) it's soft and flattering, and (b) you can tweak it from full-on glamour all the way over to light that is there-but-isn't-there. So a setup like this is a great place to start.

Next, Into the Studio

When working quickly, it always helps to have light set up for a different look so you can do a quick-change if needed. So from here, we walked a short distance over to the studio to do singles with a little more of a formal feel.

The light here is very similar. Mostly because it is the same light. I say "short distance" a little tongue-in-cheek as it was more like, "Mary shuffled half a foot to her left…"

Here's our studio:

Unseen, Melissa is holding a $7 30"x40" piece of black foamcore from Staples as a backdrop. I love these as headshot backgrounds because they are matte and have a little bit of pattern to them. Not shiny, not seamless. Just kinda … there.

And super lightweight, too. We just swapped subjects and background holders and took advantage of our in-place speedlight clamshell light as we lost the ambient that we had not really been able to use anyway.

(In the BTS frame above, the back flash is still firing but it does not contribute through the opaque background.)

So we did these looks and a few more in less time than it took the mosquitoes to find us. Which this time of year is a decent accomplishment in itself.

Having a versatile key-and-fill light set up and in place, you can quickly and easily control the background with light—and then swap it out all together.

Next: Poet in a Hallway


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Blogger Victor Paereli said...

@"But it's convincing on first pass, and that's what counts." Sorry David, but it's not. The difference in light temperature is visible, even at first glance. Not that I would do it any better myself.

June 10, 2013 8:14 AM  
Blogger Joe Crocco said...

Great post! Plan "B" worked out very nicely. I like the clever use of the foam core background to transform the scene into a studio environment. Amazing how you achieved two totally different looks with just a minimal change to the set up. Thanks for sharing.

June 10, 2013 8:38 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thanks. I usually now keep a piece in my car. Just too easy to pop out and use to isolate a subject visually. Especially out in the open with the last light of the day. It is variable, but often gorgeous.

June 10, 2013 8:53 AM  
Blogger Simon Hodge Photography said...

Love it. I am planning an engagement shoot in a forest and that has given me good few things to thing about.

June 10, 2013 9:01 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


On the former, for the line you quote I was speaking specifically about the light in the woods. The duo is presumably lit in front of the woods. Or at least that was my intention. I am not trying to hide the fact that they are lit.

As for the latter, that's pretty much a requirement WRT offering critiques on the internet.

June 10, 2013 9:43 AM  
Blogger Doug Gibbons said...

Awesome setup! Looking at your BTS images I was wondering if all flashes were manual setting with PW, or were yow using ITT lighting overall. If manual, what were your power outputs per flash?

June 10, 2013 10:52 AM  
Blogger Alexander said...


I got lost regarding the angle/direction of the bg light. Are you saying it's 45 degree pointing up from the ground?

June 10, 2013 10:57 AM  
Blogger Tim Lingley said...

Awesome post. I will definitely try the Straw gel to reduce some of the orange-red look that I always get from the CTO's.

You should check out Suncalc if you're looking to do any sunset/sunrise shoots. It's pretty brilliant and while it doesn't replace a scouting mission, it can work well in a pinch to tell you where the sun will be relative to any location at any time.

Cheers! A great read as always David!

June 10, 2013 11:08 AM  
Blogger lv pg said...

Looks very authentic. I photograph a lot of youth sports, in rural area and am frequently backed up to the woods. The romantic idea of catching the light through the trees plays havoc with white balance, tint and the hue of the yellow and greens in reality. Greens seem to want to turn yellow. Throw in some "flashed" flesh tones...I tend to use the WB and Tint for the skin; the yellow/green hue sliders for the background. I also bounce fill, from a gold reflector to add some warmth to the skin.
Shot 2- I applaud the ingenuity and frugalness...and understand the constraints of the foamcore size [invest in a fold-up BG...you'll be glad you did], but without light for separation, it looks too flat for my taste.

Great post David. Thanks.

June 10, 2013 11:13 AM  
OpenID borkwarellc said...

If you haven't see it, SunSurveyor http://www.sunsurveyor.com is a neat Android and iOS app that'll show you where the sun is, and what its track is across the sky. It reacts as you move your phone around making it easy to see where it's coming from or going. (disclaimer - this app is written by a friend of mine, and he's a cool dude).

June 10, 2013 11:19 AM  
Blogger KaiserX said...

Once, when I was in band camp....

June 10, 2013 11:38 AM  
Blogger Dawn JP Danko said...

Having just used natural sun back light with strobe key for a session two days ago - it looks almost exactly the same.

In fact, looking at the photo, I was expecting a description on using sun back light - I totally didn't see the fake - at all.

However, I wish I had read this two days ago - because after 3 shots the sun went behind a cloud and took all that pretty glow with it - I never thought of faking the back light!

June 10, 2013 11:42 AM  
Blogger Joe Masucci said...

Outstanding work. My first thought was that you set the shutter speed to capture the natural light coming through the woods and then you lit the talent. Victor might think me a rube, but he has the decency to admit that he couldn't do better.

June 10, 2013 11:43 AM  
Blogger Peter Tran said...

Did you use your Fuji x100s on these shots? They look great!

June 10, 2013 12:06 PM  
Blogger Darrell Noakes said...

Mosquitoes! Aack! Even the mere thought of being swarmed could set subjects on nerve. A small addition to my kit: Thermacell, or as I call it, our magic bubble! It really does work.

June 10, 2013 12:08 PM  
Blogger Chris Stratton said...

@David - awesome creativity and response to changing conditions! Thank you for sharing with us.. and thanks, too for your perseverance in the face of what must appear to be limitless critique, lol. Please - keep up the good work

June 10, 2013 1:46 PM  
Blogger Ron Nabity said...

Nice work. I did something similar in this shot. I placed a 1/2 CTO strobe off to camera-right to simulate late evening sunlight. Key light was a shoot-thru umbrella, camera-left.

June 10, 2013 3:01 PM  
Blogger KT said...

David you probably know this but I find TPE (the photographers ephemeris) more useful than other apps for sun position etc. I changed from landscape to portrait shooter so don't use it quite as much as I'm outdoors less.

I prefer it to other sun tools I tried as it is readable quickly, info on moon including phase and rise/set direction and times not just sun.

IMO the straw gel/angle was good simulation of sun and wouldn't have noticed, I'm pulled toward subjects the closer I look so a glance is all that is needed.

Good enough especially since most viewers aren't photographers who are a bit OTT when it comes to these things that normal folks ignore, I know I am haha.

June 10, 2013 3:44 PM  
Blogger Jan said...

The clamshell has, imho, an unwanted side effect: The double catchlights. Whenever I use clamshell lighting, I alway get rid of the lower catchlight in post processing.

June 10, 2013 5:12 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


The catchlight (of which I rarely care or pay attention) is there because of the light. If you remove it, or part of it, it creates a logical disconnect between the light shaping the face and what you see in the eyes. Which is why I would only mess with it on very rare occasion.

June 10, 2013 5:18 PM  
Blogger Rick McQuinlan said...

Shooting a musician with their instrument? That goes against Musician Photography Laws 101 ;)

Very cool set up, I love portable studio solutions.

June 10, 2013 5:21 PM  
Blogger lv pg said...

catchlight and bokeh -- two photographer's code comments for, "I really have nothing constructive to add, but this should sound like I do..." More than 20 years, as a photographer, and admit to never understanding the emphasis on either. My clients always have one thought, "do I look good?" In the volume portrait market, I work with thousands of individual customers each year. In my career, I have never had one comment on the catchlight or bokeh in their print.
As with other posts I've made, no offense was intended by this post. Just an honest observation based on 20+ years of photography.

June 10, 2013 5:54 PM  
Blogger Dave E. said...

Nice... get a crank, right out of the gate. Efficient!

Hey, David... about that Einstein in the back: Was that bare bulb or did it have the shroud on or...?

June 10, 2013 6:25 PM  
Blogger dave moser said...

nice job with the black fomecore, David. I do something similar, and also have a few sheets of 24x30 colored paper from the art supply store. They make great small backdrops for tight shots.

I find the lighting flattering but think LESS would flatter these women more -- less light on their arms, more of a focused look perhaps -- focused light, i mean.

what do you think?

June 10, 2013 9:16 PM  
Blogger Luiz Gustavo said...

David, I recommend an app called Sunseeker. It shows you the track of the sun on any day you choose at any location on augmented reality. It is really nice to find out where the will be.

June 10, 2013 10:38 PM  
OpenID schultzphotographic.com said...

Very elegant light. It really matches the subjects! It doesn't look boring for it's simplicity! Thanks for sharing.

June 10, 2013 11:40 PM  
Blogger belfox said...

Very good reading as usual, and an interesting mind trick played by a known "sun nuker", creating his own "setting sun".

I kind of join dave moser in his comment about the light on the arm in the tighter shot, it does look like a little hot to me too. I suspect the musician was standing a bit closer to the umbrella on the ground than in the 2-person shot. There may also be a slight green-ish cast reflecting off the grass.

Thanks for the post, and for keeping our minds sharp.

June 11, 2013 3:01 AM  
Blogger RayPlay said...

Nice post thanks, but I always wonder what musicians neatly dressed with shiny instruments are doing in the woods. Besides being photographed that is.

June 11, 2013 3:02 AM  
OpenID crackleflash said...

I don't know how anyone can legitimately challenge the lighting of these girls or the background. I think it is very well done.

June 11, 2013 2:40 PM  
Blogger Charlie Whiskey said...

This is brilliant! I would have never thought of setting up a background light like that. Thanks for the post.

Now all I need is an Einstein mono...

June 12, 2013 11:42 AM  
Blogger Charlie Whiskey said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 12, 2013 11:42 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Mr. H,

Do you ever find the 3:2 ratio too skinny for vertical images? (esp of people)

June 12, 2013 12:59 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yes, all the time. I crop a lot, or shoot with the 4x5 aspect ratio on my D3 sometimes.

June 12, 2013 3:26 PM  
Blogger wraith said...

So, in addition to VALs, are you now going to coin the term Voice-Activated Backdrops (VAB)?

June 12, 2013 3:30 PM  
OpenID Simon said...

David, I’m sure you have some magic stencils simulating sunrays cast through the tree crowns. They are missing on the subjects :)

June 14, 2013 2:03 PM  

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