A shooting at the Newseum

No, not that kind of shooting.  Just the photo kind.

Last week I shot a two-day conference at the Freedom Forum; it’s essentially the conference center of the Newseum.  I went on a site visit about a month earlier (to see what it would be like to shoot in there), and I came away with a lump in the back of my throat.  Three of the four walls were glass and two-thirds of the ceiling was black.  Oh! and the event was scheduled to run from 8AM – 4PM.  Perfect.

Anybody who has taken very many pictures knows that these high-contrast situations are not fun to deal with. Nevertheless, I agreed to shoot the event, and I was determined to do my best.  After all, I had just written a post about doing something that makes you feel anxious, and this was a frickin’ case study!

-Lessons Learned-

This event was a BIG learning experience for me.  I hope there are others who can benefit from this, whether you’re asked to take pictures at the Newseum or some place similar.  Here’s what worked for me.

Additional lighting is mandatory. Hot shoe flashes simply don’t have enough firepower to fill a room like this.  The above photo was taken with a full power flash bounced off the ceiling.  As you can see, there is almost no detail in the foreground.  I rented two Elinchrom 600Ws monoblocs, and they seemed to be just right.  I considered the 400Ws blocs, but I’m glad I decided to stick with the 600.

Light placement should be carefully considered. Not only do you want to minimize reflections, but more importantly you need to think about how you will sculpt your subject with the light.  It’s not good enough to simply have an evenly exposed image; the light needs to tell a story or at least direct the viewers eye.  Check out my first lighting tutorial to see what I mean about sculpting with light.

You must plan and wait for your shots. I had to decide what I was going to shoot, adjust the lights, and then wait for the right moment.  The direction of my lights determined where I could point my camera.  I couldn’t photograph the speaker and then turnaround and shoot the audience right away.  It’s an interesting combination between event and studio photography.

Monoblocs are bright! REALLY bright.  That’s what I was most concerned about.  I was afraid I would be too distracting even though I warned the organizers about the difficulties of shooting there.  On day two they asked me if I could tone them down, so we met with a compromise: I only used the flashes a few times at the beginning of each person’s speech.  I had already taken a ton of audience shots the day before, so I was not at risk of missing much.

It’s helpful to think of your lights as a Key light and a Fill light.  Differ the intensities of them to avoid even illumination on both sides of your subject.

Use a hot shoe flash (bouncing off the ceiling) if you need to add a little more light to the foreground closest to you.  You can still connect the PocketWizards via the camera’s PC terminal.  This is especially helpful for shots like this one where I wanted to illuminate an audience member and the speaker simultaneously.

I recommend that you soften the light with an umbrella. The light will get harder with distance, but I still prefer the look of a bounce umbrella at 50 feet away in this case.

Crank up the flashes to overpower the tungsten lights of the room, otherwise you’ll have an ugly mix of three different light colors.  I didn’t have any gels for the monoblocs, so I didn’t have much choice over White Balance.  However, by minimizing the effects of the interior lights then I was only battling the colors from two light sources instead of three.  The blocs and the outside light are reasonably close in color temperature, so that made things a tad easier.


First step was to control the ambient light. If you haven’t already guessed, this means I was shooting in Manual.  I used PocketWizards (Plus IIs) to trigger my lights, therefore my shutter speed couldn’t be any faster than 1/250.  An aperture of 5.6 and an ISO of 100 proved sufficient most of the day.  …and by “sufficient” I mean that the sky was bright but it still had some blue in it.

Now that the camera was set, the only thing left to control was the lights.  I adjusted their power and position several times before finding a sweet spot (illustrated below). Even then I would have to reposition them depending on whom/what I was shooting.

The monoblocs require a power outlet, so their mobility is limited.  Fortunately there is no shortage of outlets at the Newseum.  Just be mindful of your extension cords if you need to put your lights near a walkway.  Have some gaffer’s tape handy.

Personally, it took me about an hour and a half before I found a rhythm and started feeling good about the pictures I was shooting.  Most of that first hour and a half was just trial and error. There was a lot of new stuff to familiarize myself with, but once I did I was able to get creative and do my job well.

-At the end of the day…

I’m thrilled with the way the photos turned out!  The Newseum is the most technically challenging location I’ve shot in yet, but I’m very pleased with the end result.  It makes me want to do more off-camera lighting for events.

Also, I really enjoyed working with a different color palette, so to speak.  Most of the events I’ve shot are rich with warm tones, but the glass and daylight at the Newseum naturally shifted the colors to a greenish blue cast.  It’s a very welcomed change for me.

Perhaps most importantly is the fact that my client was impressed.  One of the organizers said, “These are the best photos we’ve ever had at any of our conferences.”  Coming from someone who plans conferences for a living, that comment sure made my day!  =)

Feel free to share your experiences here, particularly if you’ve worked at the Newseum.  I think all of us DC photographers will be better off for it.

Creative Lighting: Understanding Shadows

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

The first thing I did was set up my scene. I found it easiest to work with a small card table in the middle of my room. If you have a blank wall, you can shoot against that as your background; otherwise you’ll need to place something behind your subject to give it a solid black or white background. I used the backside of a poster, taped to a piece of foam-core board (as seen below).

Three-point Lighting setup.

By using a single sheet for the wall and the floor it eliminates the seam where the floor meets the wall. Appropriately enough, this technique is called a “seamless” [background]. (Thanks, Mariano!)

The whole idea of creative lighting is to be able to control the light; therefore I recommend that you shoot at night with all the blinds and doors closed. You don’t want any light leaking onto your subject from another source. Be sure to turn off any computer monitors or other unsuspecting sources of light.

The subject you choose to shoot is quite important. For now, pick something simple. We’ll shoot more exciting objects later, but to start you want a subject that’s not too intricate. I used a wooden model, but you could try a vegetable, Willow Tree figurine, or small toy.

For this first exercise, Understanding Shadows, I recommend that you put your camera on Aperture priority. Initially I tried shooting in Manual, but I quickly found that the exposure values can be quite different simply because of the position of the light. Set your ISO as low as it will go –not Auto. You’re camera is already on a tripod, so you don’t need a fast ISO. Put the focus on Manual too. Your setup won’t be changing so there is no reason for the camera to re-focus each time. Affix a lens hood if you have one. Lastly, take your White Balance off of Auto. I mention more about WB later in this tutorial.

Once you have set up your scene and camera the way you like them, it is very important that you do not move your subject or your camera. The best way to observe the effects of different lighting setups is to keep all other factors equal (namely perspective and composition). By keeping your subject and camera in the exact same position you can scroll through the images on your camera’s LCD screen and easily see the differences from one frame to the next. If your perspective changes, it throws everything off and makes it very difficult to learn from what you’re doing.

The following images were taken using only one light. I put the lamp in a different position each time to give the picture a different feel. To simplify things, I never placed the lamp to the left of the camera.

If you hover your mouse over any image you will see a brief description of the light placement. By the way, if you view the photos as a slideshow you will more easily be able to see the differences from one photo to the next. This is especially helpful when the changes are subtle. Look for “slideshow” links throughout this tutorial.

Side-front. Above. Close.Side-front. Level. CloseSide-back. Level. CloseSide. Low. Medium distance.Side. Low. Close.

Side-front. Above. Medium.Straight on. Light directly above the lens.Straight on. Light directly below lens.Side-front. Above. Very close.Above, pointing down. Slightly front. Close.

Directly above, pointing down. CloseAbove, pointing down. Slightly behind. CloseBehind. Above. Slightly right. Close.Side. Low. Mostly bouncing off floor. Close.Side. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close.

Side. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVFront. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVBehind. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVBehind. Low. Shining on background. No direct light (all bounced). Close. -1EVBehind. Above. Far. Pointed at subject.

Behind. Above. Close. Pointed at subject.Directly above. Close. -1EVMostly above (halo), slightly front. Far. -1EVMostly above (halo), slightly behind. Far. -1EVDirectly behind. Close. -1EV

Above. Far. Shining on background only (no direct light).Directly above. Behind. Close. With pop-up flash.Pop-up flash, only.

Notice how different the photo can feel simply by changing the position of the light. The same wooden model can look like a friendly neighbor saying hi, an angel pointing to Heaven, or a sinister villain ready to attack. The only things I have changed here are the position of the light, and the Exposure Compensation. None of these images have been edited. They all came straight off the camera.

I hope you’re beginning to realize just how much the shadows and lighting can affect the feel of the image. Not only do shadows provide shape and form for the subject, but they direct the audience’s emotional response. A simple change can make a dramatic difference.

Continue to Part II: Revealing Details