The 21st-Century Geographer

The 21st-Century Geographer

My son John is into maps these days. Really into maps. As in, he’ll spend all day wandering around the world on Apple Maps if I let him. Not that I object, mind you; I have loved playing with maps ever since I can remember, and I have benefited greatly from it. John even got an atlas and a globe for his birthday this year, and a co-worker gave me a couple maps of central Germany that the boys have enjoyed trying to unfold and re-fold. When I needed an idea for John’s birthday portrait, all this mappery got me thinking about Jan Vermeer’s masterpiece from 1669, The Geographer. Let’s look at it, shall we?

The Geographer, by Jan Vermeer

If I’m doing a homage to Vermeer, I need to start with broad window light, and the window must at least be indicated in the frame. Vermeer has more shadow control than I do; he can selectively dodge or burn shadows by choosing where he paints detail. I want my shadows reasonably legible, so I’m going to put a fill light opposite the window, with a gel for a bit of warmth, as if an incandescent lamp were on somewhere across the room.

I decided to go McNally for the key light and tape a queen-size sheet to the outside of the window. Given the size of the light source, I wanted to use two strobes for even illumination, which failed when I found that I didn’t have the right kind of cords to connect all the synchronization terminals together. Some PocketWizards would have been real handy at this juncture, but alas, I didn’t have them.

My next solution was to put my SB-800 in SU-4 mode, which turns the IR receiver into a simple optical slave. I then set up my 60″ Photek Softlighter outside the window, umbrella only (no front scrim), and set the SB-800 to fire into the umbrella, which would then reflect through the window. It provided lovely quality at the expense of quantity; I had to put the SB-800 on full power and bump my camera’s ISO up.

The SB-800 would be triggered by my fill light, an SB-600 attached via sync cords to my camera, shooting at the window through an umbrella. I was working through the noon hour, and everything was fine until about 12:10, when the angle of the sun was just right to interfere with the SB-800’s IR receivers. About 20 minutes later, clouds covered the sun for 30 seconds or so, during which I shot madly and got my photograph. I then shot a second frame with more exposure for the iPad screen and composited the two in post.

Vermeer’s composition emphasizes the face of the central figure, whose expression suggests a sudden flash of insight, something so astounding that he has to grab the book in his left hand to steady himself. I suppose my composition is commentary on all the different ways we can now represent our world: the light-up globe, the iPad, the mass-produced student atlas. John holds a pair of dividers he can use on the map spread out in front of him, but the little smirk on his face asks: with all these other tools, does he really need them?

I wouldn’t say this was a fun picture to take, with all the technical glitches, but it was rewarding.

New Arrival

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled blog with this announcement: your host has a new baby girl, born Monday evening. Her name is Rita.

New Arrival

She’s coming home today, and her older brothers are quite excited, if a bit nervous. I have great confidence that it will all work out:

Brotherly Welcome

Portra 400 – People

I chose Portra 400 for the first roll through my new-to-me F100. I wanted to start with something that has a bit of latitude, and I had read good reports about rating it at 320, or even 200, for more density in the shadows.

Since the literature claims “spectacular skin tones,” I thought I’d test that first off, with my son John in window light:

Johnny Lisa

Those look like pretty darn good skin tones to me, as well as lovely rendering of light and shadow from that window. I should have had John turn his head more towards his right, but he didn’t want to stand still very long. Portra also did a great job with Joey in a relatively dark vehicle interior:

Chorus Boy

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the patience to save a few frames for flash portraits; that’s something I’m going to have to try with the next roll, using my digital body to proof. (Just like peeling a Polaroid, except entirely different.)

Of course, Portra isn’t only good for pictures of people, but that’s a topic for our next post.

Shooting on Velvet

It’s been a little while since I wrote about portraits, and wouldn’t you know, I have a couple recent ones.


I make at least one portrait of my children every year, as close to their birthdays as possible. “As close as possible” was almost three weeks afterward this year for my older son, pictured above, because of paternal inertia. The delay had its benefits, though; I was able to mentally discard several unnecessarily complex ideas in favor of something simple and attractive. A secondary goal was to create something that would look good both in monochrome and color.

We have here a variation on my favorite two-light setup, with a large soft key (the 60″ Photek Softlighter) balanced by a harder separation light, with a pure black background. The separation light is warmed both with a 1/4 CTS gel and by setting flash white balance rather than daylight. The key light’s color is unmodified.

Normally, I use a bare speedlight for separation, but this time I wanted a slightly softer edge to the separation transfer, so I strapped a LumiQuest SoftBox III to the front of my strobe. I’m extremely pleased with the result; so pleased, in fact, that I’m inclined to use the SoftBox in preference to a bare strobe from here on out, unless I absolutely need the harder edge.

Really, Now

My younger son wanted in on the action too, of course. I made things easier for both of them by using gaffer’s tape to mark where they should stand on the floor, something which I’ve never done before but should have been doing all along.

The background is a piece of black velvet curtain which I bought from a local hobby store, attached to and draped over a tall bookshelf. Since it’s supposed to be pure, textureless black, I was able to push the contrast a little harder in these images than I would have otherwise, resulting in a palette of tones I really like. I haven’t shared the monochrome versions in deference to my mother, who prefers color portraits of her grandsons, but the B&W conversion is every bit as pretty as the originals.

Two Portraits

I don’t do nearly as many portraits with added light as I used to, which means I’m not as fluent as I’d like and it takes me longer to set things up when the mood strikes. Part of that is aesthetic, too; I like to change the color of my lights, and finding the right look may take a bit of thought. Here are two relatively recent portraits with added light.

Deadly Cute

I was flabbergasted when my son not only let his face be painted at a carnival, but enjoyed it. A picture had to be taken. By the time we got home, my back yard was in full twilight shade, and I seized upon a warm/cool color contrast for the image. The key light was diffused with a shoot-through umbrella and had its color shifted with a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel. Temperature and mood are inverses of each other, of course: blue is high temperature but “cool” in mood, while orange is low temperature but “warm” in mood. By using the CTO and setting a manual white balance, I could warm the light on my son while shifting the ambient to a pleasing blue, suggestive of the time of day.


For Christmas, my sister-in-law had given my wife a hairstyling device to ease the production of hair buns, and when she tried it out one morning her silhouette screamed “this needs a mantilla.”

Here we see a slight modification of my favorite color portrait look: low-saturation green fill with a hard warm key. As previously discussed, greening up the fill light (1/2 Plusgreen, in this case) prevents the shadowed skin from going magenta, while a warm key (1/4 Color Temperature Straw, a less-red version of CTO) establishes a reference skin tone that is subconsciously applied to the shadow areas as well. In this image, the color combination is also evocative of older color negative film, an appropriate choice for the subject as attired.

I have not yet moved beyond the “bag of tricks” method for controlling color in my portraits. It’s OK for now, but I want to develop more mastery over the medium, so as to let the nature of the subject determine what colors should be used.

Growing Up

Yesterday I could hold him in one arm, with room to spare, and now he’s off to school….

First Day

I had grandiose ideas for this picture involving a warm key, a yellowish rim, and a purple accent on the background (yellow and purple being the school’s colors). That would have required free time to figure out the lights on the night before his first day of school, and all you experienced parents know how well that went. The morning was a little overcast, so the ambient was easy to control, and the 60″ Softlighter made lovely light for a simple full-length portrait. John was extremely cooperative, too; we were done in less than 5 minutes.

Simple is good, especially when your emotions are running riot.

Soft and Smooth

I have long had my eye on the Photek Softlighter, a versatile soft light modifier very often used by David Hobby. My journey into softer light started with a pair of 45″ shoot-through umbrellas, like most of David’s readers, and while they do the job, they lack controllability. To quote the master, “an umbrella spews out light like a frat boy puking at 2:30am after a party.” Conversely, the Softlighter is quite controllable; when using it either as a reflective umbrella or a round softbox, it confines your light to the direction you point it.

It took a while to convert my yearning into acquisition; in July of this year I finally ordered the 60″ Softlighter and tried it out:


I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Softlighter eats less light than my umbrellas. I didn’t measure it, but my rough estimate would be that it has at least a 2/3 stop advantage, which means I get more flash pops and shorter recycle times from one set of batteries. Awesome.


As expected, it’s a superb key light, but it works equally well for on-axis fill, as in this portrait of my wife. I’m glad I picked the 60″ size; the next size larger would be too unwieldy but the next smaller wouldn’t have enough surface area for the broad even light I want.

I still have my old umbrellas, but since getting the Softlighter I haven’t used them once. Whether you use single speedlights, ganged speedlights, or studio strobes, this is a superb modifier, and at $100 for the 60″ version it’s a prodigious value compared to the competition. I highly recommend it.

Spooky Flashes

We live in a neighborhood that’s quite friendly for trick-or-treating, and we have two boys who love dressing up, so Halloween is a big deal in our house. Getting them in their costumes on Halloween night is easy; getting nice pictures is more difficult when excitement, adventure, and candy are beckoning, and it was not until the end of November last year that I could get some costume portraits.

I had a complex three-light idea in mind:

  1. Blue (CTB) fill, either bounced off the ceiling or through an umbrella on-axis.
  2. Snooted ungelled light for the face.
  3. Orange candy basket with a well-diffused light inside (dome + printer paper), as both a compositional element and a neat little accent.

With squirmy kids, the only way to make 2) work was to be my own VAL (Voice-Activated Lightstand), with my camera on a tripod, triggered by a wireless remote.

Johnny The Tank Engine

Leading off we have Thomas Johnny the Tank Engine. John wasn’t really into giving me a good expression that evening. Note how the raw (white) spill from the hole in the top of the pumpkin becomes a little accent on his hat and shoulder. Totally unplanned but quite nice.

Sith In Training

Darth Joey is batting cleanup. To fit the composition he needed to stand on something, so my wife used a black cloth to cover a stepstool. It also served the secondary but essential function of keeping him from wandering all about the room. 🙂 I got many fewer shots of Joey than I did of John, but by way of compensation I got this fabulous expression.

I think my idea here was sound, although I goofed the implementation in two ways. First, I should have kept or used an exposure without one of the boys to composite out the shadow/spill of the snooted face light on the wall and floor behind. Second, the fill light needed to be brighter by about a stop. As it was, I had to use Lightroom’s Shadows slider almost at maximum, which had the unfortunate effect of exaggerating some very bright noisy pixels in the shadows of Joey’s costume. It’s hard to see except at 100%, but it wouldn’t be there if I had gotten the exposure right the first time around. As many wise men have said, never do in post what you can do in camera.

Shoot Your Mom

For Mother’s Day, here’s my mom:

Mom Noir

I was testing a two-strobe setup here: one under the shade of the lamp to my mom’s right, another through an umbrella on-axis. It did not work the way I intended it to, but it turned out better than my original conception, so I’m not going to quibble. It was my mom’s idea to mime a cigarette and look all sophisticated with two stuffed cows on her lap, which created the truest portrait of her I’ve ever seen.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, my wife, and all you who are, even in the most tangential way, mothers to someone.

Color Commentary

Apologies for the one-month-plus delay since last post; July was incredibly hectic. Rather than an omnibus retrospective with too many images to consider at once, let’s talk about lighting for portraits and the control of color.

David Hobby, through his blog, introduced me to Gregory Heisler, whose work I love particularly for its motivated light. Heisler’s light comes in two flavors:

  1. He has visualized his image, and puts the light where it needs to be to create something from…well, nothing.
  2. He observes a scene and calculates where the light must be added to render a good photograph.

Heisler doesn’t just know where to put his lights; he also knows how to control color. Among other things, he rarely shoots a bare flash, an insight which struck Hobby with particular force:

In the example of green fill, Heisler noted that fill light just tended to look too magenta to him, owing to the way skin reacts to fill light that has been pushed into the shadows.

From a color theory, this makes perfect sense. But I would not have been able to visually articulate the magenta cast in the fill, and thus, neither the green solution.

Can’t see the difference? I have two recent pictures of my boys which illustrate the phenomenon exactly. Let’s start with my son Joseph, caught here between moments of inspiration:

Artist At Work

Key light is morning sun coming through a picture window frame right; fill is an on-camera flash bounced from the white (non-color-modifying) ceiling. Look closely at the right side of Joey’s face, which is lit primarily by the bounce fill; there’s a bit of a purplish/magenta tinge there that is not quite natural.

Now compare with this portrait of my son John:


Key light is an SB-600 with a Rosco #08 Pale Gold gel frame right; fill is an SB-800 with a Rosco Plusgreen (30CC green) gel high on-axis, through an umbrella. Note the lack of a magenta cast on the skin shadows. The full Tough Plusgreen gel was actually too much modification for the rest of the image; the shadowed areas of his shirt and pants are just a hair too green, even after I skewed the white balance a little more towards magenta in post. It would have been better to use a 1/2 Plusgreen (15CC green), but I don’t have those yet.

I like the color palette this combination gives me, and I’ll be using it more frequently in future portraits. More importantly, I’m making choices to control the way color is rendered in my photographs rather than leaving it to chance, or to the vagaries of my equipment.