Building the Shot

I was recently doing a baby photography session at a friend’s house, and had an idea for a really nice photograph of the baby. I shared the idea with the dad (who was my assistant for the shoot) and he thought it was a good idea. I am not sure he was able to visualize the end result – nor was he able to visualize what the shot would look like until we were pretty far down the “shot setup” process – but he was delighted with the result when we finally got it. The parents had a picture of Jesus on their living room wall; I wanted a picture that signified “Jesus watches over me” – but I didn’t want a sharp picture .. I wanted a blurry background, so I set my aperture at f2.8. I didn’t have a lot of room, I was shooting across width of the room, which was about 10 feet wide.

I was also working against ambient light coming into the room from camera left through a large sliding glass door. It was very shady and overcast outside, so this light had a very bluish cast. So, I decided to overpower the ambient, and use all strobes to light the scene. (As a quick aside – if you are uncomfortable using strobes, or just want to get better, head over to for the low-down and the high-up on how to use strobes with your camera. David Hobby is the guy writing that, and he’s got an online tutorial, a DVD set, a matching flickr forum, and more.)

Here’s a lighting diagram of my concept:


You see the “brick wall” along the background – that’s actually the only option I had for selecting a background for this particular lighting tool. You can find the tool over at Lighting Essentials, a really great site run by Don Giannatti.

I also interchange a white shoot-through umbrella with a softbox, depending on what I’ve got with me that day. For the baby, below, I had a white shoot-through.

We are lighting this shot on two separate planes – the background, and the foreground. With space between them, we can totally control the amount of light on each plane. We can have a very bright background, and a dark foreground. We have have the opposite: a dark background, and a bright foreground. We can also balance the two. In this case, I want the foreground to be slightly brighter than the background.

Ok, so we take the first shot, of just the picture of Jesus in the background. I put a snoot on the back speedlight (a Nikon flash – I shoot with Canon bodies, but my off-camera flashes are Nikon – if they are off-camera, the brand doesn’t matter).

That gave me this:

_mg_2649 That’s not bad, but it’s not quite bright enough. Let’s up the power a stop, from 1/8 to 1/4. That gives us:
_mg_2650 Much better in terms of exposure, but the lighting is a little harsh along the right hand side. I don’t like the hard edge. Let’s back it up a wee bit, and aim it slightly to the right – that way the hard edge is outside of the frame of my photo.
_mg_2651 This is perfect. Nice hazy edge all the way around, still a bit underexposed, but that’s what I want. Now let’s start working on the foreground.
_mg_2652 This is my “model” standing in, so you can see what the shot looks like without any light on the foreground. It’s mostly a silhouette. Now let’s add the foreground light – another speedlight with a white shoot-through umbrella off to camera left.
_mg_2653 That’s actually pretty good – he’s a little “hot” (a bit overexposed) along his forehead, but he’s higher in the picture than my actual subject is going to be. Hmm. We should try this with an actual subject, and see what it looks like. Since the baby was sleeping, and we didn’t want to risk moving the baby until it was absolutely necessary, we found a similar-sized stand-in:
_mg_2654 That actually looks pretty good. Still a bit hot along the forehead of the bear, so I backed up the light a wee bit. I also knew that baby skin reflects differently than bear fur, so I wanted to see what the actual baby looked like before I fussed with it too much.

You’ll notice that the background is a little bit lighter because of spill from the umbrella. That’s fine – I don’t have a lot of room between the subject and the background, so I just have to live with it. If I had more distance between the two, I could control that better.

_mg_2655 Hmm, ok, the forehead is still a bit hot. I guess baby skin and bear fur share some similar photonic properties. Let’s reduce the power of the light. I don’t want to back the light up any more away from the “baby”, because I want the big wraparound effect of that shoot-through umbrella.
_mg_2657 And there we go. Parents were delighted.

A little dodging and burning in Lightroom, and it’s ready to go. (This shot is straight out of camera.)

This recipe – light the background, then work on the foreground, is something I use again and again.

Once you have a lighting recipe, and :

  • you know the basic ratios of front light to back light power (in this case, the back light was at 1/8 power with a snoot, front light was 1/4)
  • what aperture is going to match these for optimum results (remember that aperture controls flash exposure, while shutter speed controls ambient)
  • use a stand-in before picking up the baby. Repeated strobing causes cranky babies. (Ask me how I know this.)

Just follow the recipe, predictable results.

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