Saturday, September 18, 2010

Acts of nature

This is Lexi and Abby. I think it’s a promo-picture some physic-cop drama coming this fall to NBC. Or not. Let me explain…

Next to photography my other hobby is Improv comedy. Every Friday night (for the better part of 17 years) my friends and I do this little show called Friday Nite Improvs. The show starts at 11pm and typically doesn’t end until 1am, at which point we all go and grab a late bite to eat.

On this particular night we rolled into our favorite late-night diner, as we’ve done so many times in the past. Nothing particularly special, almost our weekly routine. After food and much conversation I was feeling tired (the old man that I am), and was the first of our group to leave. As I stepped outside into the brisk fall air, I instantly realized that something had happened while we were inside.

A freakishly dense patch of fog had rolled in on the night. This isn’t something that happenes here much, and it looked (for all practical purposes) as if the apocalypse were coming soon – to a theatre near you.

I got in my car. Sure, this fog was really interesting, but it’s well past 2:30 in the AM; clearly, it was time to call it a night. But as I was driving home I couldn’t help but think about all the things one could do with a camera and this fog. I looked at the clock, and then back at the fog. Oh hell, who am I kidding? Just two blocks from my apartment I stopped the car and turned around, back to the diner.

Let me pause for a moment and talk about my friends. See people, most people, I’m used to them giving me funny looks when I speak. It’s something that I got used to at a very young age. But when I strolled back into the diner and very seriously said “Guys, there is this crazy fog outside. Does anyone want to take pictures?” well, they didn’t even blink. Everyone got up, paid, and got outside; because, after all, we had work to do.

On the chance that this fog would decide to leave as quickly as it had arrived, I didn’t want to go far. Right across the street from the diner was a wide open parking-lot, with a fairly unobstructed view to some street light. That will do nicely, thank you. I grabbed my gear out of the car and stared to set up.

Fog eh? Ok, that means the light we’re looking for has to be volumetric; and the easiest way to do that is back lighting. I set up one speedlight on a stand that I knew I’d place directly behind whoever I was shooting. I quick test told me I was right; putting my friend Zavo in front of the light got me a clean silhouette with nice dramatic light coming from behind. Now I had to get something resembling main light; but nothing that would ruin the effect of the blacklight.

SB800, 1/16th, 70mm focus, as a backlight

I set up a second speedlight in front, with a DIY grid-spot. I love the way grid-spots look, but (especially on speedlights) they are a pain in the ass to aim. Much trial and error later, I’ve got the spot more or less where it needs to be. It was all starting to come together; tho I was starting to wish I had just one more flash to fill in below the face. I guess this is why McNally travels with 32 Nikon SB800s whenever he goes to the grocery store.

SB800, 1/4th (give or take a third), with homemade gridspot.

Once I had something approaching a set up we shot a lot of different combinations of our group. Focusing in next to no light was a problem, but I locked-on to whatever I could and hoped for the best. When we finally put Abby and Lexi together I knew we were getting something fun. I kept screaming “Give me your best ‘Bad Ass’ face!” And they were kind enough to oblige.

They are, the two of them, some of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. But don’t F with them, or they’ll kill you with their mind-powers.

Liz & Katlin

Front flash didn't fire; but, sometimes, even mistakes are good.


  1. Nice shots and thanks for letting us know how it was put together. Nice backstory too.

    What does volumetric lighting mean in this context? Thanks in advance.

    Best regards,

  2. “Volumetric lighting” is a term that (I think) was first used in computer graphics applications that simulated lighting sources. At least that where I first heard it used. Basically it just means being able to “see” the light interacting with the environment. If you’ve ever seen beams of light shining through clouds, or streaming through a window – that’s Volumetric lighting. In this case, I wanted the backlight to “show off” the fog; so I shot positioned it just a little off-axis. The front light is much more on-axis; so the volumetric effect is much less noticable.

    Hope that helps.