On Assignment: Night Soprano, Pt. 1

One of my goals over the last year has been to push against the boundaries a little more, both creatively and technically. This portrait of mezzo soprano Alexandra Rodrick is a good example of that, so I thought we'd do a full 360-view with a two-part OA.

Today, we'll pre-think the lighting in theory (as before a shoot). In Part 2, we'll walk through the specifics as it was done.


So here's the final image from the shoot, above. And it's actually pretty close to what was envisioned when we started pre-thinking the shot.

Having photographed several sopranos for the HCAC, I have grown to see opera as an archetypal, earthy and pure art form. And I wanted the photo to reflect that, so we decided to shoot in the woods. Doing so at nighttime would offer more mood and fewer logistical hurdles with the lighting.

These kinds of larger, more three-dimensional environments bring some of their own problems to solve. But the basic lighting principles are exactly the same as working in close and/or 2-D (i.e., person against a flat backdrop). Shooting at this scale at night, I knew the main two concerns would be power and light color.

Beyond that, we would also want to get some light close into the scene itself, to give it a more three-dimensional feel. Plus that would save some power on the key light, because of the small distance involved.

Distance; f/Stop; ISO

Those are your three lighting variables to solve. Choose any two and you can do it with speedlights. But needing the third one means you will need more watt-seconds. And I wanted f/5.6 at ISO 100 at a huge distance.

As it happens, I have spent the last year stalking eBay and Craigslist for good deals on big lights. If you are patient (and willing to let a lot of deals go by) you can sometimes pick up big lights for a song.

Case in point, I bought a used Profoto Acute power pack, two heads, soft boxes, extension cords and a case for $900. From a dentist. As a bonus, that feeling of satisfaction means that every dental procedure I have from here on out will hurt a little less.

Lighting Distance = Depth of Field

To push light evenly across a scene this size means the lights are going to have to be very far away. This is the exact opposite of the way I usually light, bring the strobes in close to get maximum power with a fast, controlled fall-off. Which of course was borne of necessity from using speedlights.

As a rule of thumb, we planned to have the lights about 4-5 times as far away as the width of the field we were trying to evenly illuminate. Thus the need for power.

The lighting distance may seem extravagant. But that evenness of light across the scene is, IMO, what sells it as having a more natural feel.

Next, we drew up a game plan. Whether a headshot or a large scene like this, the approach is always the same: ambient, fill, key, accent. In that order.


Ambient always comes first. It is the feel, the contrast range, the safety net of your photo. Fortunately, ambient is free. You can buy as much as you want just by tweaking your shutter speed. The ambient exposure would carry the background — and thus, the mood and believability of the lit scene.

At twilight, the ambient would be dim and blue, which is great for a couple of reasons. One, twilight would give a sane working aperture as opposed to full sun or night. And the blue would connote nighttime without it being full dark. So we would imitate (exaggerate, really) that in the foreground with gelled fill and accent lights.

Ambient also gives us our shooting window. We can start shooting when the light crosses our sync speed at f/5.6 at ISO 100. Walk the shutter down as the ambient fades. The window closes when you run out of reasonable shutter. With a tripod, we'll call it quits at a speed of one second or so. Figure half an hour, max.


The fill light will give detail, color and a "local floor" to the lit area of the frame. It will also carry the natural color of the background into the foreground, but at a higher level of illumination. The fill exposure will let us control detail in the shadows in the foreground independent of where we decide to place the background illumination level.

So the fill would need to be a big light. It would come from on-axis but from behind the camera. And the further behind the camera it comes from, the further back into the frame it will carry. Plus, it will be gelled sufficient to eat up a stop of power. That's definitely a big light.


The key light, as we said earlier, would be in close. So, ironically in this big-lights scene, the key can be built on speedlights. This is for several reasons, actually. I want it close for softness on Alex's face, so we won't need much power. I want it light and battery powered, since I do not own a 25-foot high monster boom.

So we will literally string this up into the trees and dangle it in front of Alex. We'll take the light out of the frame in post.


Last comes the accent light. In this case, a back-camera-left rim for depth, definition and separation. This would also be gelled, and need to be back even further than the fill.

How far? That's easy: as far as humanly possible while keeping our working aperture. If we can't get both, we'll have to figure out which to cheat. I will be inclined to favor distance, as that buys us even light across the frame.

So this would need to be the most powerful light source, and will still likely be the limiting factor in the scene. Ideally, we can get f/5.6 @ ISO 100 at a sufficient distance. Maybe.

So those are the broad strokes, hopefully to get you pre-thinking the problems that would need to be solved for this photo.

Next up, the full BTS and specifics — including the only time I have ever needed to use Google Maps to make a lighting diagram.

Next: Night Soprano, Pt. 2


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Blogger Mark n Manna said...

Cool post. Your pre-visualization walk-thru is great info. I'm curious about the sppedlights dangling from trees on a string....
Oh....Also happy that someone fnally got a good deal,painlessly from a dentist. :-)

April 12, 2012 8:51 AM  
Blogger Mohaupt Photo said...

Well excited and thought out... This entry alone will make me think more and more about pre-visulization.

Thanks again for all your hard work

April 12, 2012 8:58 AM  
Blogger David Szweduik said...

Great post and reminder of the benefits of thinking/planning out your shot ahead of time! The only thing that would have made that photo even better was a bit of low lying fog rolling across the frame, but we can't have everything I guess!

April 12, 2012 9:47 AM  
Blogger Mr. Doebler said...

David, thanks for letting us behind the scenes of the planning process...showing us how you pre-visualize. You didn't mention pre-visualizing the composition of the photo itself in your post, and it left me wondering whether that was because you were trying to keep the focus of the post on controlling light, or because you did not have as specific an idea for the composition before you arrived on-scene. The reason I ask is because, while the lighting setup you describe is quite noteworthy in its technical achievement, the photo that you included with the post felt empty (especially on the left side)...I was wondering if your decision to light the entire frame evenly was the right decision for the photo you composed. The left side of the image seems flat and monochromatic in comparison to to the right half. Perhaps more falloff and deeper shadows spreading from right to left would have actually enhanced this photo.

April 12, 2012 10:01 AM  
Blogger MichelleA said...

I would have to disagree with Mr. Doebler about the composition. I think it would be far less dynamic of an image if it were darker on the left. Lighting it more evenly gives the image more depth and gives the lovely subject more context in her environment. This is a really beautiful image. Well done, Mr. Hobby.

April 12, 2012 3:40 PM  
Blogger As Seen by Janine said...

David, this photograph is truly brilliant and beautiful. I can't wait for the BTS and specifics! Janine

April 12, 2012 6:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for another great Post David,

Is it me or have you entered a phase of using very cool white balance in your photos? You mentioned that the music seems earthy to you. I'd really like to see this image with the browns of the trees and the earth?

April 12, 2012 7:22 PM  
Blogger Drew Gardner said...

Hey David

All you are missing is the wired animals and smoke.

Nice shot

Hope you and yours are well.



April 13, 2012 4:11 AM  
Blogger michael anthony murphy said...

Awesome! I feel like it has been a while since you posted a real down and dirty post such as this one.

I'm trying to visualize how far off the strobes actually are. Not sure my brain can handle it. It's a bit insane.

Well done.

April 13, 2012 7:56 AM  
Blogger Fred LePiere said...

As far as he speedlights: If a light falls in the forest, will anyone hear it?

April 13, 2012 10:09 AM  
Blogger Ken Gray Photo said...

I was puzzled at first. Like the posts above I had pause when seeing the color balance and cropping. But I couldn't put my finger on it. It was like when I see art at the museum that speaks to me and I don't know why. My style of shooting would have the color balance warmer on the trees and the left side cropped tighter to eliminate the left tree. I tried that at home and it didn't look right. It was useable and that is how I would have presented it to the client, but it didn't feel like David's. So I looked and stared again at the original for several minutes and then it hit me. I couldn't see the forest from the trees, literally. I worked in theatre and opera for many years and there was something pulling me in to David's image. You said " I have grown to see opera as an archetypal, earthy and pure art form " and so placed the scene in the woods. What I now see is an opera stage in the woods. Complete with columns and stagelike lighting. It is a beautiful photograph worthy of a lage frame and hanging in a theatre foyer. It reminds me of my time in opera and I thank you for sharing.

April 13, 2012 12:51 PM  
Blogger Vincen77o said...

Hmmm, this pre-visualisation stuff sounds iffy, like 'Shoot it as everyone expects'. It's a great shot, well thought out, but I wonder if you might have had the singer in a different outfit, or an abstract setting in the same dress, opposite of the norm.
That's just me though, anarchist to the end. Keep it up.

April 13, 2012 3:49 PM  
Blogger Ken Thor White said...

The only problem I have with this photo is the tree behind the woman. It appears to be coming out of her head and shoulders. I would have moved her to her right a shade to clean up the background as best as possible. Otherwise, a great photo with great lighting.

April 13, 2012 4:36 PM  
Blogger Stan P. Cox II said...

That's a beautiful image! I love the colors of the forest contrasted with the subject. I feel like I was there! I can totally see how the lighting was done!

April 13, 2012 8:59 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

not sure if you will get this post being that I'm putting it in kind of late but.....

I can understand the f 5.6 and the appropriate shutter speed but why the ISO so slow at 100 or 200 since the camera gives good pixels at least up to 400-800? A higher ISO would seem to relatively raise the power of the flashes although it would also raise the level of the ambient background allowing one to shoot longer into darker dusk.

So many thing to juggle and balance. Being lazy I like the idea to shoot A priority with the global adjustment and let the camera float the shutter speed. [can you tell I'm reading your blog posts backwards in time?]

May 02, 2012 4:52 AM  

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