Self-Critique: Sound Engineers

Sound Engineers
Nikon D800, 24-70 2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/250 sec.

Every time I do a shoot it’s a chance for me to learn and improve. I definitely learned a valuable lesson while creating this photograph of the Navy Band’s sound engineers. I’m going to get a little in-depth today about the thought process behind this photo, and how it’s easy to become “blind” to the little details. The overriding lesson is: Don’t get so stuck on a concept that it keeps you from realizing the other possibilities in a photo.

When the sound engineers at work asked me to take a group portrait of them on the occasion of their leader’s retirement, I jumped at the chance. They’re a great group of guys and I wanted to give them a cool photo that they could present.

Location was a no-brainer. We used one of the emptier equipment cages and rolled a few boxes in there to create multiple levels for guys to sit or lean on. I already knew that the ambient light in there could be easily overpowered, as I’d want to light the whole scene with flash. I also wanted to use some cool (in color) rim lights on either side to fire through the chain links in the cage.

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A quick iPhone grab of the ambient-lit scene, showing the position of the key light.

I decided on a 45″ reflective umbrella as the key light (I really wanted to use the 60″ but was riding the metro in to work). I knew I’d need lots of power from the key because it would have to positioned relatively far back to provide even illumination across all of the guys’ faces. Because of that power requirement, I used two speedlights, one triggered with a PocketWizard and the other triggered optically. I ended up having to use them on full power to get the depth of field required.

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The exposure after eliminating the ambient and adding flash.

After setting up the key light and the rim lights, I did some testing to get the light levels just right. I wanted to make sure that I had the key light positioned and feathered properly in order to get an even exposure across the entire group. As it was, the guy on camera right was still too bright, because he was closer to the light. I should have had him step back a bit. Lesson #1 learned.

I really should have stopped the light there, but I had one speedlight left. Hmm, that back wall could use a little splash of something. I tried using the light to skim across the bricks back there in various permutations. I wasn’t really liking anything I was doing with that, so I tried it gelled red. After that, I decided to try having it fire directly back at the camera, creating a red separation light around each of the guys.

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Another setup shot showing the position of the red backlight and one of the blue rims.

Mistake: I didn’t test the power with my hand and figured I’d adjust it once the guys showed up for the shoot. The problem here is that, once I started photographing them, I was more concerned with their positions and expressions that I forgot about checking the effect of that red backlight. On the small screen on the back of the camera, it looked okay enough that it wasn’t drawing my attention. Once I got the files on the computer and began working on them, the problem was apparent. My red backlight was way too hot, causing blown-out highlights. Lesson #2 learned.

As I was reviewing the shots on my computer, well after the photoshoot, I realized that it actually would have been much more interesting to have that red light skimming along the ground, behind those boxes. It would have created some interesting shadows and another dimension to the light. Instead, the red backlight was taking the “pop” away from my more subtle (and properly powered) blue rim lights. Lesson #3 learned.

The lessons here can really be summed up into one main point: Be wary of every detail in the picture.

Take your time during the photoshoot. Even if you’re pressed for time, it only takes a few extra seconds to check the exposure on each person’s face. Be critical. Test the relative power levels of all of your lights and how they might affect the exposure. Look for unwanted blown highlights in all of the color channels. Most importantly, look for other opportunities and don’t be afraid to edit yourself. Eliminate a light and see if it makes things better. Sometimes it’s a red backlight, other times it’s the presence of a fill light that might not really be needed.

I hope this is helpful to some of you. It certainly was a learning experience for me! I’d love to hear about your experiences. Share ’em below in the comments.

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