Location lighting Part 1


Taxidermist Tim Bovard and  a Sumatran Tiger was lit by one Lumedyne 200 watt/sec flash. The flash triggered by a Quantum radio slave placed on the display case between the Tim and the tiger. The house lights were turned off to remove the clutter in the background. Whatever is not lit, can’t be seen, so there’s no need to remove them from the background. Exposure info: ISO 200 1/200 sec @ f11 using a 28mm lens.

Taxidermist & Sumatran Tiger

There are many schools of thought when it comes to lighting.

If I have a lot of time with my subject, I will take the trouble to actually create the “feel” or ambience by lighting everything.

Just be aware that lighting everything means you have to bring everything and possibly the kitchen sink.museum_curator It’s rare that my subjects have all day to spend with me.

I had about 20 minutes of actual shooting time with taxidermist Tim Bovard at San Bernardino County Museum.

Here’s my Modus Operandi:

  1. Scout the location. Choose an exhibit that is visual. If I pick a lame one, it  dooms my picture. No pressure!
  2. Figure out the viewpoint and the lens.
  3. Take some light readings. Figure out all the technical aspects, aperture, shutter speed, white balance etc.
  4. Walk the subject over, engage them in conversation and start shooting.

I tend to like pictures which are lit, yet has  the “feel” of being untouched by my presence. Sort of like the wilderness credo, “Take nothing and leave nothing behind?” Sorry if that’s lame.

Subtle use of flash

cheap_radio_slave1Using flash is sometimes the only way to capture an image because the existing or ambient light levels are so low.

But do you have to hit your subject over the head with so much light that his retinas are scorched?

It’s more about careful and strategic placement of the flash rather than an abundance of flash units.

It’s about visualizing what happens when there is total internal reflection as in the case of the Sumatran Tiger.

I had a hunch if the background was dark enough, the tiger’s face would be reflected in the glass display.

Needless to say, you need a way to trigger your flash wirelessly.

These days there are many affordable choices out there, see my previous post about those equipment like these cheap radio slaves you can buy on ebay.

Equipment You Might Need

  • One or two flash units
  • Light stands or a way to prop up flash units to give you ability to “aim” your light
  • Wireless trigger for flash units or even long sync cords

What happened to just press this button?

Q “What should I set for an aperture? How about ISO? Or what shutter speed? What lens should I use?

Firstly, those settings are all just numbers. They are unique to each location.

Unless I’m there with you at the scene where you are going to be taking your picture, I can’t possibly give you an answer.

Instead you have make those decisions based on the conditions you find on location.

Survey the scene, establish a suitable viewpoint and choose your weapon (lens).

Meter the scene and establish your shutter speed and aperture taking into consideration these other factors

Focal length of your lens

If you’re using a lens that’s 50mm or longer, expect camera shake will be significant.

If you are fortunate enough to have a VR (Nikon speak for Vibration Reduction) or IS (Canon speak for Image Stabilization)lens, it may help.

I don’t own such a lens, so I’m not qualified to tell you more about it.

Wide angles lenses are better in low light settings sometimes, because they inherently give more depth-of-field.

But they also allow you to handhold lower shutter speeds successfully.

If light levels are low, expect to increase your ISO so that you can hand hold a slower  shutter speed. Otherwise brace against something like a chair or even table to minimize camera shake.

In a pinch, you can set your camera down on something and trip the shutter by the self-timer.

Does your subject have a lot of depth?

In the case of Tim and Sumatran Tiger, there’s some distance between Tim’s face, the back of the tiger and the reflection, so I knew I needed a small aperture for greater depth-of-field.

Motion or camera shake is not a factor because the flash lit the scene entirely.

In my next post, I’ll tackle a different scenario where your shutter speed will be a factor.

It’s a situation where you’ll need to consider more variables to light a scene yet not ruin the “feel.”

It’s really not hard, folks. What did we do when we shot film? We didn’t have the luxury of instant feedback on the back of the LCD monitor. 

These days you can see immediately if it’s going to work.

2 thoughts on “Location lighting Part 1”

  1. ah… thanks Steve. Of course I was thinking about the tension and all. Next time I speak to a group of impressionable students, may I borrow that? I’m kidding of course. I do find it interesting whenever someone articulates what they see in a picture of mine. I appreciate very much your kind words.

  2. Excellent photograph from both a technical and compostional standpoint.

    The tension set up between what appears to be two tigers communicating and yourself as visible observer is really intriguing.

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