On Assignment: Samantha McEwen

Spring for me usually means two things: allergies and photographing HCAC Rising Stars. The allergies suck, but the HCAC shoots pretty much equalize things.

I sneeze and sniffle (actually not so much this year since I ditched antihistamines for lots of antioxidant-ladened fruit.) But I also get to work with a bunch of creative people. As with the allergies, I experiment and try new things.

This shot of Samantha is done with just one, huge on-axis light. That giant specular is playing all over her skin and the background wall.

Which, believe it or not, is actually flat black.

I know, right? Surprised me, too.

I expected the huge specular to add a nice lustre to her skin. That's why I lit her that way. But bringing the wall up from black to—oddly—a wispy blue was a nice surprise.

This was the first time I had ever shot a portrait with just one huge source on axis, but it won't be the last. Definitely want to experiment more with that.

Coming in very close (as in 100%) on Sam's eye, you can see exactly what her skin is also seeing: a wall of light. Bear in mind, her eye is spherical, so the reflection is like a fisheye lens. The light is an umbrella, being fired through a queen-sized sheet, just a few feet from her skin.

So, let's think about specularity for just a minute. The total energy of light is netted out by the exposure. (If you add more light, close the aperture. Volume reaching the chip remains the same.)

But what is different is the size of the light source and thus the amount of light per square inch of the light source. This is why big light sources give completely different speculars than small sources. The reflection (AKA the specular) is bigger and less intense per square inch.

So let's back off of the on-axis light by a little more than two stops and use it as fill to a top-center key. This will change the character of her skin and, even more, the tone of the wall. (Because the wall tone, which is truly very near black, is in each of these cases being recorded as a specular highlight.)

Same environment. I just added an 60" Softlighter on a C-stand arm over the top of the giant sheet-light. This top light now becomes the key and we drop the "bed sheet light" to be the fill.

So her skin, which still has a giant, creamy specular, looks completely different. In each picture there is a balance between specular and true tonality. The top image, built on the on-axis light, is more specular and the bottom image (exposed for the top-front umbrella) is balanced more toward the true tonality.

Here is the BTS for both photos, remembering only the light firing through the sheet was used for the top image:

Same setting, two very different images. And since our viewpoint has moved for this photo, the specular reflection is still visible to us but in a different location.

Why isn't it more blue? Because it is not a specular of a flash pop but rather the tungsten modeling light.

Next: Tenor Luke Grooms


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OpenID Joe said...

I am amazed at the different look you achieved by adding the second light source to the setup. Both shots have such distinct character and project two completely different looks. To achieve this diversity with only two light sources in a small space is truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing.

June 18, 2012 8:46 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Cahill said...

Wait a sec...I still don't understand why the background is blue. :-/

June 18, 2012 10:45 AM  
Blogger Antares said...

When you say the wall is "flat black" do you mean a deep black, or really flat black. It appears to be a gloss or semi gloss (like skin often is), judging by the reflection of the stool in the wide shot.

I think of flat black as what the stage is painted. There are no speculars there, though it is getting similar light to the stool.

Otherwise, a very interesting post.

June 18, 2012 10:52 AM  
Blogger budrowilson said...

That blue (matte black) wall is something I would have never imagined as happening on its own. Very interesting.

June 18, 2012 10:56 AM  
Blogger notsh said...

Another great post. Thanks for publishing! :)

One question though about the OAs: why did you stop including them into the list in the "On Assignment"-section? There's a couple of OAs that don't show up after "Mathieu Young Moonlighting", and I think it would be great if there was one place for look through all of them.

And, just to reiterate, cool BTS info and fantastic shots, as always! Thank you!

June 18, 2012 11:16 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

As for those asking what kind of black the wall was ... just black. Not glossy or semigloss. Just a flat black.


June 18, 2012 11:21 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

ALSO, FYI: I am mostly out of internet range for a couple of days (in Lake District in the UK) so apologies for slow comment moderation.


June 18, 2012 11:22 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

I would LOVE, for when you do that kind of comparison, if you could put the picture side by side.

Your blog is very narrow and scrolling back and forth isn't optimal to fully appreciate the nuances...

Keep it up!

June 18, 2012 11:55 AM  
Blogger David Shepherd said...

Great Post Mr. Hobby.

I understand the Matte Black shifting to blue. This happens based on the pigments/minerals used to build the Black and the vehicle of the paint. Think of the classical painters making there own colors. A metallic based mineral was used to make the matte black that shifts blue based on the light and the white balance of the shot. David siad that he used a Tungsten modeling light, so the reaction is as such.

What is interesting is the large sheet as the diffused source. Joe McNally always talks about this when lighting large areas with soft light. I almost purchased a super large softbox this weekend and I am glad I didn't. I am going to get some king sized sheets and a stick.

Thanks David!

June 18, 2012 12:02 PM  
Blogger David Shepherd said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

June 18, 2012 12:02 PM  
Blogger Dream Boy Martin Kimeldorf said...

Always good to see Hobby driving outside the lines. Iroincally as he ramps up his gear in size and power I have gone the other way.

Due to a failed knee surgery I hobbled into our last group shoot, on the arms of the models. Didn't really want to shoot. Only brought a camera. A friend had a 16" umbrella which I call a "handkerchief light".

Sitting in a chair I shot new "favorites". What a great lesson in humility and gear...

Just thought I'd add this comment as a counter-point

June 18, 2012 1:13 PM  
OpenID vineetmenon said...

Hi David, Presumably you had much lower power output in your first (top) image than in your bottom image - going by the very shallow DoF. Assuming your ambient level was the same for both images, is there a reason you weren't able to achieve the same wide open aperture with the two light set up? Or was that an aesthetic decision?

Great post!

June 18, 2012 1:21 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

love that top portrait, v appealing

June 18, 2012 1:34 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As usual, great material and explanation, David. Thank you. On allergies, try using a Quercitin complex which is made up of different components of citris fruits, etc. Here is a good product and there are many other natural products available:


June 18, 2012 1:55 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David, Great post and very useful and easy to pull off. Thank you. For your allergies, try a Quercitin complex available in many different brands. It is a combination of componets in vitamin C laden fruits, etc.

June 18, 2012 2:31 PM  
Blogger Berger said...

David got a list of antioxidant-ladened fruit that is working for you? I have a teen that suffers year round and the drugs don't help. Thanks.

June 18, 2012 3:14 PM  
Blogger Leo said...

Surely the background being blue is due to the paint actually being manufactured using blue based pigments rather than the colour of the light being used. This is not uncommon with black ink & paint.

It can't be perfectly flat paint either, it has speculars!

After all if the light was blue the subjects skin would also be blue.

Tungsten should give an orange cast. I imagine the shot would have looked similar if shot with flash as well... unless the blue tone was due to a 2nd light source e.g. windows on a cloudy day...

June 18, 2012 7:49 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


You can drag the photos to your desktop and easily compare.

@Those asking about anit-oxidants, I loaded up on blackberries and blueberries every day. Being as this was just a sample of one season, I cannot say for sure because there could have been other factors. But very promising, and I'll definitely be doing this instead of antihistamines next year.

June 19, 2012 3:49 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


On the OA's, I add them into that catch-all page in batches. Long overdue for a new batch. Will do that upon return to US.


Yep, subjective choice. I went with the shallow DoF for the on-axis light and wall, as I thought it added to the look. And the reverse for the two-light setup.

June 19, 2012 3:56 AM  
Blogger Martin Bihounek said...

actually it´s not so surprising why the wall turns blue. there is no such thing like "black" in the spectrum of light. all what we see as black is in reality a very very very dark blue.
so when there is a special lightsituation like one big lightsource, the dark blue lightens up and became more blue to our eye.

June 19, 2012 5:24 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dh, still a little confused when you speak of true tonality more so with relation to African American skin. So my example would be a very very dark skin person. When you see them in person they appear almost jet black, but when you hit them with flash they appear dark brown to a very light brown complexion in some cases. I mean to the point that they look almost completely different. So, is there dark skin the true tonality and the appearance of brown skin just the specular? Is what I'm saying making any sense? or is my thinking of the true tonality-vs-specular wrong?


June 19, 2012 5:58 AM  
Blogger Michael Bock said...

David, I'm assuming you're not using a speedlight here? I would imaging the umbrella and the sheet probably suck up quite a bit of power, right? Or maybe not, just curious.

Sorry, I just have to laugh at the suppliment comments. I mean, despite the obvious spamming...why eat fruit when you can take a pill! Love that sort of logic.

As far as a list of anti-oxident rich fruits. Here's a little secret advertisers don't like to admitl ALL fruits and vegetables are filled with anti-oxidents!

June 19, 2012 9:11 AM  
Blogger 24x7 Homecare said...

Great post. Thanks for publishing

June 19, 2012 9:30 AM  
Blogger Shanx said...

Hmmm. Couldn't you use top center key but a reflector below subjects face for fill for the same effect? Seems like a lot of effort to go through to produce a similar effect-would appreciate your thoughts.

June 19, 2012 11:00 AM  
Blogger 24x7 Homecare said...

Another great post. Thanks for publishing! :)

June 19, 2012 1:33 PM  
Blogger Mark Fairhurst said...

Off topic, but have an awesome time in The Lakes (my favourite place in the UK).

May your landscape work be as top notch as your portraits, Flashman.

Many thanks for your continuous efforts to inpsire and educate.

June 19, 2012 4:33 PM  
Blogger Mark Fairhurst said...

Have an awesome time in The Lakes; my favourite place in the UK.

May your landscape work be as top-notch as your portraits, Flashman.

Many thanks for your continuous, quality inspiration and education.

June 19, 2012 4:35 PM  
OpenID stephen said...

Hey David,

Great post, as usual. I pretty much was lost with my flash before I stumbled on to your site.

As for allergies, try local honey along with your fruit. The benefits are pretty good:

1- help local beekeepers (a plus)
2- made from the stuff giving you the problems, which helps your immune system fight it off. Think natural booster shot.
3- healthy alternative to corn-syrup based sweeteners (including a lot of nationally sold honey products).

Hope you give it a try. I just picked up some Boston honey the other week and have been sniffle free for about a week.

June 19, 2012 4:38 PM  
Blogger Seth Jacobson said...

Thank you for the great information. This is wonderfully helpful!

June 19, 2012 9:48 PM  
Blogger Steve Loos said...

Interesting post David; love the be sheet idea so simple. Blue is the reflective specular color of that particular black color and flash; will be different for a different black / flash combo correct?

I also eat lots of berry's but also local honey; the bees do a great job of keeping my body adapted to local allergins!

June 20, 2012 9:50 AM  
Blogger Sunshine said...

Hi, a general comment: I enjoy reading your blogs, but the blog pages has a black background and light-gray text, good contrast, but after reading the text for a while my eyes feel tired. I have to take a few breaks before I could finish reading. I guess other people will feel the same. Could you please use different color for background and text? Let will make people stay on your page longer.

June 20, 2012 10:45 AM  
Blogger Robert Davidson said...

After reading your post "With Apologies to Zack Arias… ", I had to run right out and buy an official David Hobby Strobist light diffuser (AKA Walmart bedsheet). The lighting in that post was simply awesome, and I just had you have one of those big diffusers (kinda reminiscent of something Dean Collins might have done.)
I wrote about it in my blog, where I used it for fill light along with my new Saberstrip as key.
I am among the many who are truly indebted to you for the lighting knowledge and training you provide on a regular basis.

June 20, 2012 3:35 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


If you want to see it as black-on-white, hit command P as if to print it. That reverses the format, and will help you.


June 20, 2012 6:04 PM  
Blogger Ulises Amezcua said...

Can we all get your camera settings please? what shutter speed, ISO, Aperture, camera lens?

June 20, 2012 8:59 PM  
Blogger bnewtonphoto said...

It's blue because it's getting a good burst of light from the main. If it were fives as hot as that it would be grey and close to almost white

June 21, 2012 1:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well the wall ain't the color black, since black just ain't a color, black is a place where there is no light, which explains it all.

June 21, 2012 4:01 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Interesting post David. I just have one question: what is the purpose of firing the flash through an umbrella first and then the sheet? Why the double layer of diffusion? why not shoot directly through the sheet?

June 21, 2012 6:36 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

If I have the power to spare (as I did here) I think it helps to spread the light more evenly.

If you experiment, you can learn a lot about a diffuser by looking backwards through it to your light source. Double-diffused looked better.

June 21, 2012 8:30 AM  

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