Everything out there is our Canvas


David Hobby recently wrote a post about the usefulness of owning your own studio space — or more specifically on the lack of said usefulness. He wasn't talking about the commercial value of such a setup for business purposes, but just as a shooting environment. His argument went that a studio can get old real fast and that it pretty much foregoes the random elements that make location shooting so interesting. He's right.

I shot the two pictures below a few months ago:

See how peaceful that looks? In my studio right? Nope. In the living room of a small apartment in Montreal with about 40 people standing around me, eating snacks and chatting the night away. A party. With small kids running around, awestruck by my giant umbrella and that weird tent a few of them tried to slip into (have you ever seen a Lastolite Hilite? Hard to resist). Seriously, at times I was even shooting through gaps in between people to get the job done!

But it worked. One strobe in the Hilite, another in a 60'' Photek Softlighter (B&H,  Amazon.ca). It ain't rocket science. The fact is, David is absolutely right: it's much easier to set up a simple studio on location than it is to fake a location in studio — hence the gazillion props, backdrops and fake flooring aimed at the portrait studio industry. And wicker baskets for babies... Because of course that's always where you keep babies.

Anyway, I seem to be on a "let's do everything I read about" tangent these days. First it was Robert Boyer's blog getting me to push light in all sorts of ways and now this. In his latest post David demonstrates a location setup replicating a studio using a sheet of white seamless taped to a wall. He's using two Softlighters: the 46" as key overhead and the large 60" as fill on camera axis. This is a setup I love so I thought: let's combine location space with that same lighting and see how we can turn a drab, crappy spot into something useful.

Enter The Staircase.


Nice huh? The kind of location you wouldn't think twice about. Except maybe when running for the bathroom. But the wood's kinda nice and warm so meh... Why not. These by the way are the stairs to the studio, which means I'm doing a 180 from where I'd normally be shooting. And they DO look less crappy in real life — give me some credit.

Alright, some BTS shots below (click to view full size). I'm using strobes instead of speedlights and the key is a medium softbox but the idea is the same as in David's piece. I could've used a 46" Softlighter as well but that Portalite softbox was already mounted. It's partly laziness but I also tend to like the harder light it gives out.

As you can see the softbox is angled as low as it can go on that lightstand without a boom. I'll be sitting on the first step so it's positioned very close and overhead. This will be the key. The fill is the large Softliter and it's positioned behind the camera, about 10 feet away and slightly tilted down.

I'm shooting 1/125 sec, f/16 at ISO 200. The ambient is non-existent so it's all flash, which is what I want in this case. I first test the fill to get my baseline, then the key on its own and finally both lights together. Here's what I get:

Now let's add the amazing subject to the mix. First with key only:


And now with all strobes firing:


On both pictures I've added gradients on each side to focus the subject a bit more and get rid of the walls. Vignetting but less symmetrical. As you can see, the overhead key works perfectly well on its own but it's a very dramatic light. Adding that tiny bit of fill lifts the shadows just enough to change the mood and create dimension. Both are fine in my book and it all depends on what you're trying to achieve. It's always about seasoning to taste: change the ratios between key and fill and the image can become something else entirely. If there's ambient to contend with you have another spice to work into your recipe.

But let's go back to The Staircase for a moment...


Now some tweaks to the resulting images (I'm a sucker for negative space):


Doesn't look like the same place does it?
Do those stairs make the photo? Not necessarily. This same shot could've been produced against white seamless dropped to total black or with a slight halo separating the background. But it adds interest, it suggests a story, creates a setting that a blank wall with a stray beam of light wouldn't offer. A studio is great for control but sometimes it's the unexpected that fuels the visual process. 

So David's point about the possibilities of location shooting is bang on: forget muslin... Everything out there is our canvas.