On Assignment: Margo Seibert

UPDATE: Adds video interview of Seibert preparing for her Broadway debut in Rocky, at end of post.

Learning to light with flashes can be liberating or it can be a straightjacket. It can open up countless new doors — or it can restrict you to a small, equipment-based bag of tricks.

The key is to not let your new lighting skills displace your other approaches. And even more important, to learn to let your vision cross-pollinate between seeing great ambient and creating great light from scratch.

Case in point is this shoot with actress Margo Seibert, for which I packed all of my strobes but only brought out a single LP180 — and then only after our ambient had deserted us.

Today we'll be tweaking the sun until it's gone. And only then swapping to flash.

I had the good fortune to photograph Margo right after she had won a leading role on a major Broadway production. It hadn't been announced yet, which made it even better — adding a conspiratorial twist to the evening. This was part of my HCAC Rising Star series, and it is always great to see those guys getting their due for their hard work and talent.

The concept was pretty loose. We would work our way through the evening light in a rural setting in western Howard County. She had a few outfits, and the light would change quickly throughout the shoot. Beyond that, we'd be improvising.

I try to go into a shoot with a couple ideas and enough gear to cover my ass. But serendipity and improvisation are playing increasingly bigger roles. There is an organic quality to reacting to what is happening around you that usually will trump any best-laid plans.

Working Through The Light

The sun was pretty low when we started — about 20 mins before sunset — so golden hour would work for us. I had lights with me, but was determined not to pull them out until we needed them. Nature is pretty good at lighting stuff herself. And just as my lit work takes cues from ambient light, the way I approach ambient is increasingly shaped my my experience with creating my own light.

Low afternoon light is both easy and forgiving. So after a few perfunctory head shots in open shade we moved to the side of the barn to take advantage of the raking light. I liked the texture here, and it gave something a designer could drop type into.

That line of thought is anathema to most photographers. But I grew up in a staff shooter environment where the designers were both friends and valued colleagues. Even at age 24, when I was composing photos I was trying to do right by Cindy or Patti or any of the other page designers who would inherit my pictures. It has proved a valuable lesson ever since.

We exhausted that setting (a quick grab, really) before the light left us. So next we worked around to the left to make use of a harder light angle and get a harder-edged photo:

This is more the kind of light I would try to make with strobes. And funny enough, designing that kind of light makes you more sensitive to seeing it when it happens, too.

True, observing light leads to creating better light. But it is also a virtuous cycle both ways: creating light also makes you more observant for different kinds of ambient.

(This is something important enough to where I made it the very last lesson in Lighting 101.)

This is an amazingly different quality of light compared to something shot 20 feet away five minutes ago. It has way more edge, as does Margo in this environment. A little less classically flattering, and a little more kick-your-ass-Quentin-Tarantino.

So we went a little further with that vibe. As the light left the red door behind her, we worked with the last remnants. They were even harder and less revealing, all the more so after we stuck a piece of foam core in between to slap a shadow edge right across her face:

This kind of cut light is very atypical for me, and something I'd like to do more with be it ambient or created. I would probably put more thought into — maybe too much, truth be told — if using flash. The speed at which I am losing this light made me approach it more viscerally and without over-thinking it.

Good? Bad? Dunno. But definitely interesting. And something I want to do more of.

We lost that light almost immediately afterwards. But there was still light out in the field — classic golden light that you never want to waste. And I had been anticipating this light to the point where a little idea had popped into my head earlier in the day.

As a result I had with me a custom light mod made just for this shoot.

So, a quick outfit change for her and we move into the field at the side of the barn. Maybe five more minutes of sun. And it is gorgeous, late-summer light.

First, the photo, as seen up top:

My idea was to do a shoot-thru reflector board with a little custom twist. I wanted to throw that golden backlight right back into her face, but with a little shaping, too.

So I cut a hole in a piece of foam core and shot through it. The foam core was white (nice even reflecting fill) with a crinkled foil strip down the middle (more strip-lighty and glam).

Here is the setup from her view, bearing in mind shot after we lost the light. (I love you guys, but not to the point of wasting a moment of golden light making a BTS pic.)

This is most definitely something I want to do more of. Even to the point of making a bracket to mount the custom shoot-thru reflector right to the camera for better mobility.

(Note: You also can see the red door alcove from above in the left of this photo.)

The top photo was shot with a Nikon D3 and a 50/1.4. On a lark, I decided to throw her a little off-center and use some direct sun in the frame. And I swapped to the Fuji X100s and set it to shoot square images in-camera.

Different lenses, different palettes, way different light. Most important, the D3 is not contending with direct sun.

I love the way the Fuji's 23mm lens flares out. And to be honest I was pretty surprised at how well it held both the sun and Margo's skin. That's a lot of contrast and sharpness for a camera shooting right into the sun.

Earlier this month I got to meet the people who design Fuji's lenses, learning of the amazing amount of thought that goes into the process. They said they try to think "beyond MTF," which means taking much more than just sharpness, color correctness and resolution into account.

To be honest, I don't totally understand it. But I gotta tell you, I'm liking it.

Lit, But Not Lit

So here's the thing. All of the above photos are completely ambient, found light. That said, they are all influenced by my path and experience as a lighting photographer.

It is kind of hard to put your finger on. Maybe something along the lines of learning to cook changing the way you taste food? I dunno. Just is.

But when the sun dropped below the horizon just after the photos above were shot, it was gone for good. My first reaction would have been to turn her around and shoot with the afterglow as an on-camera key. Especially wide open, this can look awesome.

But it seemed a tame follow-up to what we had just shot.

So, another quick outfit change and we walked over to the driveway to make use of the dusk as a back light. And, surprising even to me, only now was I bringing out the first speedlight.

It made for a completely different last look — a cocktail dress and tousled hair against an incongruous rural environment. But it was different than what we had in the can, so that's cool.

No big surprise as far as the light itself: a single, PW'd LumoPro LP180 VAL'd overhead:

It seems pretty safe and one-dimensional, compared to the light Mother Nature had just dished out for us. Which is exactly the point of this post — to not get so caught up in your lighting that you miss the forest for the trees.

Also, to let your lighting experience guide you to use and control your ambient in new and creative ways. Otherwise, what's the point of studying light anyway?

UPDATE: Rocky is preparing to open on Broadway. Very psyched to see Margo getting ready for her star turn:


Next: Follow-Up Q&A: Margo Seibert


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Blogger Traian said...

Impressed with so many outfit changes in such a short time...

October 02, 2013 4:58 AM  
Blogger Chappy said...

Amazing stuff as always,

I've tried the ole shoot through reflector thing with white foam core before but never with the silver strip..... another one for the technique bag.

October 02, 2013 6:04 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

Wow! Love that shot. Was hoping you would post on this.

October 02, 2013 7:46 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Hi David,

I'm absolutely amazed by your thought process and the resulting images. That's the one thing that impresses me often: the capacity of ours to grow beyond the current status quo. Thank you David. Johannes.

October 02, 2013 7:47 AM  
Blogger Joe Crocco said...

Great images! Masterful and creative use of natural light. Gonna try out the shoot through reflector for sure. You might want to think about marketing a collapsible version of your creation.

October 02, 2013 8:57 AM  
Blogger MikeScottPhoto said...

Wow, love the opening image (love them all but especially that one). Could you walk us through a couple of other things?

With the sun shining in your face did you need a Hoodman in order to chimp or did you work more by the numbers? How did you meter/check exposure? D3 Histogram/camera meter?

And my last question is about your post production/white balance - how did you process your files to retain that golden hour warmth rather than "fixing" the colors?

Thanks for another outstanding BTS, David.


October 02, 2013 12:35 PM  
Blogger Bradford Ciecko said...

These are by far some of my favorite images you have posted. Best photographer with the best equipment wont always yield the best images. Your talent in front of the lens brought it for this shoot. Just great images.

October 02, 2013 1:29 PM  
Blogger Ben Yoder said...

Thanks for this one. I've just been thinking about my own photography and lighting, and about how I can light a shot fairly well, but they all look lit; I've been thinking about how to either use more natural light again, or to make lit photos that truly blend into the atmosphere of the photo.

This is one more set of images for some inspiration.

October 02, 2013 1:33 PM  
Blogger Ben Yoder said...

Thanks for this one. I've just been thinking about my own photography and lighting, and about how I can light a shot fairly well, but they all look lit; I've been thinking about how to either use more natural light again, or to make lit photos that truly blend into the atmosphere of the photo.

This is one more set of images for some inspiration.

October 02, 2013 1:34 PM  
Blogger Robert Davidson said...

For your sun/flare shot you made with you x100s, I'm assuming you removed your UV filter, or did you leave it on?

October 02, 2013 2:10 PM  
Blogger alexdpx said...

This is really a good lesson, David. I think when I was starting out, I did had that tendency to kill off every ambient light there is in whatever I shoot and go for artificially lighting (or not lighting) everything. But as I mature and gain more experience, I've become more observant of ambient light and use it. If I was shooting before with 3 or 4 lights on location, I find myself shooting now with just 1 or 2, with ambient being the 3rd light.

October 02, 2013 3:42 PM  
Blogger Chip Chockley said...

These are really great. Shooting through the reflector is a cool idea. Something vaguely ring-flashy about it, but completely natural-looking. I don't really dig the overhead umbrella shot though-- makes her look like she's composited into that shot. The light on her is just too incongruous with the rest of the shot.

October 02, 2013 3:59 PM  
Blogger babylon said...

As always Dave, great post! I have a question. On the last photo. Was the street naturally wet or watered down on purpose to be used as a fill and to make it look better?

October 02, 2013 4:18 PM  
Blogger Dylan Alvarez said...

Hey David!

I was just wondering if you could drop a bit more context into this shoot. How many people did you have with you, how did you carry around stuff like the umbrella, PWs, foam core, tape, aluminum foil, etc, especially when this shoot was more spontaneous and improvisational. Why Howard County? How did you do outfit changes on location?

I'd really appreciate it, there are just a couple things I'm trying to wrap my own head around.

Hope to see you in Baltimore soon,

October 02, 2013 4:45 PM  
Blogger Marcus Bailey said...

Great variety in a short space of time! Your roots as a staff shooter always show you're looking for options rather than just bang, that's the shot and walking away. A while ago I experimented with shooting through the middle of a small softbox with no face on it and bouncing the light in a similar way. It gave some nice results and i tweaked it some more by cutting out black and white card to block off different panels.

October 02, 2013 6:04 PM  
Blogger Nathan Johnson said...

Love it. And I'm sure you saw her website featuring your image with the direct sun in it.

Great job.

October 02, 2013 10:11 PM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

The best portrait IMO is the one with the flare. I say that because of what she is communicating in her look. There is more confidence in that shot and less vulnerability IMO. Also the angle of her face, slightly to the left and her chin down create more dimension to her face.
That should go in your book for head shots. Since I shoot actors, I can tell you that agents prefer a naturally lit look. Well done, I think it a superb photography. Thanks David.

October 02, 2013 10:33 PM  
Blogger David Dumais said...

Great post, love the images and that keeping it simple has been the common theme. Thanks!

October 02, 2013 10:54 PM  
OpenID crackleflash said...

The shoot-thru foamcore also lends itself to using gold mylar-type wrapping paper (or balloons) instead of aluminum foil if you wanted to warm things up a bit. Not needed here though, great photos, plenty warm.

October 02, 2013 11:53 PM  
Blogger RayPlay said...

Interesting non flash contemplative post.
The sun is two lights in one: ambient and kicker light. And with a camera that can handle any-speed-sync adding a flash as fill gives you a three light set-up with just one flash. The Fuji X100s does a far better job with directional sunlight then my old D70, which freaks out when spotting the sun.
The overhead brolly without fill doesn't flatter the eyebags.

October 03, 2013 5:51 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Hey all-

Sorry for the slow comment moderation yesterday, as I was in the air coming back from London. More Q's that I expected, both on this page and the FLickr pages for these pics. Keep them coming (if you have them) and I will do a follow-up QA.


October 03, 2013 10:27 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Lids. You have them, I have them. It's just a high light for a little drama.

October 03, 2013 1:12 PM  
Blogger mary henderson said...

Nice light, these show a much more relaxed you. If I do say so myself :-)
What separates this work from the really good stuff in the big time magazines has nothing to do with photography -- put this wonderful woman in some less found-in-my-closet clothes and do her hair and makeup at a higher level and everything would look much more pro. Not pro in a photo way, pro in a big city way. Of course it's not big city... it's Howard County. Well, she's in NYC now, so she'll be the recipient of New York style.
Thanks for posting!

October 03, 2013 7:43 PM  
Blogger jdub said...

I was interested to see the X100S shot that you used in your Fuji presentation make it into this post. I love the example.

I play around with lighting setups quite a bit with several cameras but find my X100 intriguing in an entirely different way. Less equipment, more carefully thought out modifiers and the restraint of the focal length.

The high sync speed and lack of hoops to jump the through make me try things I wouldn't otherwise. I don't regularly get my best shots with the X100 but I find myself playing around more than usual.

BTW, I thought your Fuji presentation was very well done. The family images showed a level of emotion missing from a lot of other nicely composed and exposed family snaps. An expert use of light and a truly candid feel. I guess it helps to have a family who apparently like each other.

October 04, 2013 12:42 AM  
Blogger emily said...

What a great session- love all the variations! I'm so glad this will be fresh in my head for my family session tomorrow!!

October 04, 2013 8:58 AM  
Blogger Elga Walker said...

Thanks for great info. I'm fixing to shoot a engagement photos for my nephew and his fiancé. Time constraints will probably force us to use golden hour light. If it doesn't storm us out tonight

October 04, 2013 1:54 PM  
Blogger Taras said...

Anybody here knows how to move the focus point on x100 manually?

October 04, 2013 2:29 PM  
Blogger Taras said...

Anybody here knows how to move the focus point on x100 manually?

October 04, 2013 2:30 PM  
Blogger Icepick said...

Thanks! I really enjoy how thoughtful and incentive you are in your shooting. It challenges me to continually work to improve my thinking.

October 04, 2013 10:44 PM  
Blogger "Mister Nasty Clamps" said...

Foam core with a bit of tin foil makes for a great reflector, and your use of the combo as a "shoot through reflector" is absolute genius. As an alternative to this setup –– and as something that would give you a HUGE reflective source –– a 4'X8' insulating panel (the kind with the dimpled silvery side) would really work quite well. The panels are inexpensive, can be easily trimmed to just about any size, and it would take all of 30 seconds to cut a "lens hole" through the material.

October 07, 2013 9:47 AM  
Blogger Luthman Photography said...

Could you have shot the first shot (the one where you shot through the reflector) with a ringflash instead?

I'm guessing you could, but would the light quality be different in some way(that I don't understand)?

October 07, 2013 10:13 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Yep, but quality of light would have looked different. This is bigger, is faux-clamshell (WRT to relative over and under quantity) and actually has two different light types happening in there.

October 07, 2013 10:38 AM  
Blogger Photosheep.se said...


Just a quick wondering if you have experinced the Witstro 180 ws?


I am kind of curios of comparisation between speddlites and the Witstro180ws?

October 07, 2013 12:16 PM  
Blogger JAC said...

Great photos - as always.

I wonder, would a circular hole in a circular reflector give a nicer catchlight?


October 10, 2013 3:53 PM  
Blogger Rafael Jimenez said...

Hey David, I'm ashamed to say that I am just now stumbling upon your site in my quest to improve my relationship to light as a photographer.

I love the detailed sharing of information and lighting set ups in this post.

A few questions, how many images did you shoot to come up with these gems? How how long did it take to shoot? Was it pre-planned, I.e. Pre-scouted for sunset time and location or was it fully improvised? Lastly, did you you use an external light meter?

I look forward to spending the fall and winter reading your thousands of posts.

Keep up the great work!


Rafael Jimenez

P.S. You should bring your workshop to NY/NJ

October 12, 2013 8:34 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@LampiManpi (in answer to an unmoderrated comment)-

I won't be changing the blog's design to accommodate you, but try printing it as a PDF if you are having major problems. That reverses tones (and removes the ads.)

October 12, 2013 11:01 AM  
Blogger Nick Fancher said...

Excellent work David. My favorite work you've ever done.

October 15, 2013 12:53 PM  
Blogger Joel Pointer said...

The subject is beautiful and a quick change artist no doubt. The light was beautiful and shoot-thru board was a great idea. Copy it I will. Dave, was that you in the long pants holding the light stand overhead? Thanks for sharing.

October 27, 2013 12:56 AM  
Blogger Thomas McGowan said...

Great great article again, really!!

I was wondering... Did you choose the locations only from the light or also her outfits? I mean every shot is so nice, the outfit matches perfeclty with the background and the light..! Did you decide the outfits she would wear for each shot or was that also impreovisation you were talking about?

February 07, 2014 2:55 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


EVERYTHING was seat-of-the-pants in this shoot. I was following the light and finding the backdrops, Margo was choosing outfits based on those choices. Her sister was doing her hair, as we went.

February 09, 2014 12:26 AM  

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