On Assignment: A Guy on a Boat

Every now and then at The Sun, someone from features will come up to a photog and say, "We're looking for something... conceptual."

Translation: We have thought and thought about this story, and we cannot come up with a single idea we can box you into.

What I hear: Try anything you want. We're washing our hands of it.

Which, of course, I like.

On the one hand, you are getting very little direction, which can be iffy. But on the other hand, whatever you do they can't really complain. As long as it is conceptual.

The story is on recently divorced (or separated) guys who have chosen to live on their boats in Baltimore. So I call three of them and schedule to shoot a portrait of each one.

A heads-up from the writer tells me which one will be in the story's lede, so he's the guy that will need to carry the visual weight.

I am gonna take you through the thought process a little on this one. As I said earlier in the "Taming Harsh Sunlight" entry, I like to stack the deck in my favor whenever I can. So I schedule my lede guy to be shot 30 minutes before sunset. If the light is good, I can use the golden light on him. If it is bad, I can use my small strobes easily because the ambient light level will be low.

(Either way, I can strobe him after sunset for a different look.)

Taking a little poetic license on this (hey, they wanted conceptual) I am going to do it in dark, cool tones. These guys have all been through (or are going through) the period of depression that normally follows the breakup of a marriage, so it fits.

The photo at top is done with one Nikon SB-28 strobe, on a stand, with a cardboard snoot to control the beam of the light. The cool blue color is generated by setting the camera's white balance on tungsten, and putting a CTO gel on my flash to balance the light that hits the guy.

Click on the photo up top to see it much bigger, and you will see how crisp the light is when you (a) hard-light from the side, and, (b) have built-in color contrast between your strobe and your ambient.

EDIT: Looking at the big version, it is very splotchy on the continuous tones. This is because I jpegged the heck out of it to save blog storage space on a big version. They do set a limit, and I try to keep the pix as thrifty as possible to allow more stuff to be posted. Sorry 'bout that, and I hope you get the idea anyway.

Here is basically the same photo, without the tungsten/gel scheme:

The exposure (and process to get to it without a flash meter) is my normal deal. Start with a reasonable guess on the power of the flash. (I chose manual, 1/4 power.)

Forget about the ambient exposure for a sec. Using the TFT screen as a guide, I dialed my aperture down until he looked good. This happened to be at f/6.3, which is one of those weird, "between-stops" settings. Whatever.

Now that I have a working aperture, I move the shutter speed around until I get a nice, saturated blue that is fairly close to what I think the newspaper can hold in the reproduction process. The shutter wound up being 1/200th of a second.

We had a storm coming in, so we had to work quickly. This process all happened in about ten minutes.

Squeezing a few more minutes in before the storm, I took advantage of his going in to answer the phone. I told him to stay inside, and took my light stand in there with him. I removed the snoot (but left the CTO gel on) and put a tupperware bowl on the flash head, throwing light in all directions like a bare light bulb.

Same process on the exposure. I forget where it ended up, but you know the drill. This gave the designer a second choice if she didn't like my concept for the lede.

The second guy was shot in boring daylight, all available light. Oh, well. We already had a lede. The third guy was in the same marina as the first, and I didn't really have anything that would give a sense of place, so I was going to shoot him wide.

Turns out, he did not really want to be shot. So I had to scramble for the sense-of-place shot. But it is OK, 'cause we are being conceptual...

I drug out a trick I had been saving up that has nothing to do with light, but I wanted to pass it along anyway.

My wife has what I would call a Ph.D (push here, dummy) digital camera, but it came with some really cool panorama software. It can stitch together several frames to make an ultrawide photo. Turns out, it works on my big D2h files, too.

This is a fine ethical line, IMO. You can do stuff like this (in a features environment at least) but you have an obligation to explain exactly what you did to the readers. Which is what we did.

Here is the panorama-camera-on-the-cheap scene-setter. Click to enlarge it. I like the ability, and will drag it out in the future for other assignments. Always with precise explanation, tho.

Next: Dealing with TV's and CRTs


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