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Kandra and One Light…

Dec 22

In Lighting at 8:23am

I work with Kelby Media a bunch, and, as I have said before, they are like family. So much so, the intrepid Scriv, their videographer, volunteered his lovely wife Kandra for a shoot we did not too long ago. (Why do guys persist in doing this to their women? Putting them on the spot? What part of “Honey, I don’t like surprises,” can’t we figure out? The phrase, “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation, really. And it’s often uttered, methinks. Might be right up there with, “Thanks for the gift, honey! Got the receipt?”)

Anyway, Scriv talked Kandra into doing some work in the studio. I figured it was a good match, me and Kandra. She teaches kindergarden. She is also one of those very typical photo subjects–not exactly prone to love the camera, not completely certain of what to expect out of the whole process, not really trusting the photog (who the hell is this guy? he’s from New York!), and just, in general, a wonderful, attractive, bundle of anxiety. She kind of walked through the studio door like it was Stargate, you know, and there was this weird universe on the other side, with flashing lights and people assuring her it was all gonna be alright, fun, even.

Fun? Yeah, we all tell our subjects that. Then why are they out there on a big sheet of white paper all by their lonesome like some poor X-ray patient, just about naked on the table, eyeballing some Dr. Frankenstein roentgen machine, looking around for the lead shield, while we huddle behind metal and machinery? Ever think about that when you tell folks this’ll be “fun?”

Anyway, we started simple. One light. That ‘s all we were allowed. Straight flash. Okay, a party picture. Hot shoe, TTL Accurate exposure, shadow on the wall.


I still get giddy when it works, though, which is indicative of how much I get out. Maybe it’s because I grew up with flashes that had all the subtlety of Thor’s hammer and would basically irradiate your subject. As a measure of how long I’ve been doing this, check out the scene at Studio 54, circa 1977-78.

Sly, post the first Rocky.


Liz Taylor….


Making a living on the streets of NY, as a kid with a camera. Geez….I look at where we are now. These pix were manual focus, manual flash, manual f-stops and shutter speeds. Lots and lots of misses, trust me.

Back to Kandra, still ill at ease. Understandably. My first picture did not merit confidence. In terms of light it looked like a close cousin to the pix above. But as I said to her at the time, this will get better. She was clearly unhappy, and did not trust my usual line of patter. (Remember she’s a teacher, so she has a real good BS meter.) Here’s the thing. I was being straight with her. I told her it was looking good, and she just needed to relax. She countered with, basically, you tell that to everyone, so I don’t believe you. I looked at her right back and said, no, if it wasn’t going well, I would call time, re-group, and let you know it wasn’t working, ’cause that’s my job right now. That full frontal veracity seemed to convince her that I wasn’t, you know, completely full of shit.

Next frame…..we start to craft light for what is a terrific face. Again, just one light.


This is one speedlight through a big Tri-grip one stop diffuser, with a little bit of passive fill off the floor, I suspect, it being white. The size of the Tri-grip comes into play here. I generally use the smaller versions for ease of handling, but this was the biggie, the 48 incher. It smooths out the spectral nature of the small flash, and opens the door to some worthwhile portraiture. You can tell the position is above her face and slightly right of camera angle from the fall of the shadow on her camera left cheek, and uh, the fact that the diffuser in in the frame. This part of my approach I don’t recommend.

This is pretty much the set, one light, off the camera, 70-200mm lens, with an SB900 as a commander.



With A clamps, we pinned the monster Tri-grip to an Avenger boom arm to make life easier for Drew, and to enable him to hold a fill board and a fan. I figured Kandra took the leap here, so we were gonna give her the star treatment; hair and makeup, lights, camera, fan, her own trailer, a 3 picture deal, office on the studio lot, the whole nine yards. (Actually, out of all that, I think we maybe gave her about five or six yards.) The addition of a fill board really perked up the light a bit, and of course, the fan gives the windswept look. (All production pix by Erin Nutini.)


Shot this at 5.6. One speedlight and a fill board, TTL. This shoot brought up a couple things in my head. One is, to work inside the box. I know everybody talks about “thinking outside the box,” but in this instance, because we were all about one light, I was inside that one light box. No “27 Speedlight Joe” today. I had one light and a camera. I harked back to the words of legendary photo director and creator of the “Photography at the Summit” workshops, Rich Clarkson. He always admonished photogs who brought too much gear. “When you bring all that stuff, you have no clarity of thought.” He’s right. Sometimes it’s good to not have options. (Jay Maisel offers his own variant of the same theme: “The more gear you take, the less pictures you make.”) You may look down the block and say, whoah, that would look nice with a 600mm, but darn all I’ve got is this 28.” Not necessarily a bad thing. On this day, your eyes see like your 28, and if you work it right, they will see quite clearly.

The other thing is the confidence level of your subject. If you can brew that up somehow, and engage them in the process, and make them feel good about themselves and what they are projecting into the lens, it is so much more than half the battle. All faces have their own particular power, irregardless if they get in front of a camera frequently, occasionally, or not at all. Those folks who run screaming from a camera might actually have the greatest power. It is the photog’s job, out there in the shadows of the set, to unlock that power. Whether it’s with your light, your mood, your manner, or your BS. We have to open that door, and, once open, we then have to return to our subjects that promise we made to them by inviting them into the studio. To take care of them. (Asking someone to come in and do their portrait is an unwritten contract that obligates both parties.) Our subjects venture a great deal. They expose themselves to an unflinching process. They move, smile, and turn. The camera simply stares back. It’s a machine. We have to put a human face on that machine, and our leap of faith, our potential risk, has to be as great as theirs.

Kandra survived.  (Scriv, who volunteered her for this ordeal, survived, too. I knew behind the lens, in addition to making good pictures of Kandra, I held Scriv’s life in my hands:-) She even, I think, had some fun. On another shoot at an old junk yard, once again, we needed subjects. She volunteered herself this time. And this time, she stepped in front of the camera like she owned it. Very cool.


More tk……

56 Responses to “Kandra and One Light…”

Here we go says:

on December 26, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Sometimes it’s good to not have options. thanks for post !

Arpad Daniel Ronaszegi says:

on December 26, 2009 at 9:25 pm

I mostly do architectural photography so this post gave me several ideas how to manage the people/ camera/ photographer dynamics when I do portraits. I like your thought that “all faces have their own particular power”. This seems to suggest the beauty that is amplified by honesty.

Thank you and have a Happy New Year!

Arpad Ronaszegi

Perry Watson says:

on December 27, 2009 at 2:14 am

Great post. I love the way you gently build up the models confidence. I would really like to se more of the junk yard images.

Tom A says:

on December 28, 2009 at 11:31 am

To simply say “great post” would be a slight. There are so many good ideas here it could be a reference book itself. I will zero in on the comment about too much gear (and options) being a distraction. I couldn’t agree more. I am not a pro photog, it’s a hobby. I mostly do computer software. Working with computers, and processes, I have come to the conclusion that, for me at least, automation can lead to dead brain cells. You MUST think for yourself sometimes. By doing so, you become a better problem-solver. You become creative. Ask anyone who has ever worked on a help desk about creativity. Of course, there are times when you should bring every piece of gear you own to a shoot. But not every time.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.


Louis Pang says:

on December 30, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Love how eloquently you described the process of engaging the subject and earning their confidence. Can’t wait to work with you in Malaysia!

Jack Thompson says:

on August 25, 2010 at 6:04 pm

I watched this whole class on Kelby Training. A beautiful model, and joe, once again you have captured her perfectly!

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