X100F: Soft Negative Faces

Being a glass half-full kinda guy (well, most of the time), I've always considered the well-known softness of the X100 line (at f2) an asset—part of the camera's personality if you will. We shoot with Dianas and plastic Lensbaby gear for effect, so why not use these similar characteristic when it fits the context? If I need sharpness I just stop down—typically f2.8 is fine. Since the X100F sports the same lens, I thought I'd do a quick session to exploit, even intensify the trait. So 1) all portraits were shot wide open and 2) I doubled-down with the following in-camera settings:

- NR -4
- Sharpness -4
- Highlights -2
- Shadows -2 

I shot JPEG using the Pro Neg Standard simulation, straight to square format. Now, at that aperture and distance my strobes would normally be much too strong—not so with the X100F: I switched on the ND filter AND set my shutter speed to 1/1000s. The high shutter speed had a double effect: killing all ambient (f2 lets in a lot of light) but also further dropping the power output of the strobes (yes, there IS a drop once you get at those synching speeds). All of this only possible thanks to the camera's leaf shutter, obviously. I also used zone focus and eye recognition to move things along. In terms of lighting, I diffused the hell out of an Elinchrom Deep Octa: both baffles plus the deflector. One light, camera left, close to the subject. Images were processed in Lightroom CC.

A few minutes with the kids after school, a very bad imitation of La Castafiore (trust me)...Done :)


Shot with an X100F prototype

The Hard Look | Stacking for Shadows

Fashion trends affect every sphere of our lives and our work is certainly no exception. There's a look in product photography that I'm seeing everywhere these days: hard light against white backgrounds. This particular treatment makes for very crisp, sunny "middle of the afternoon" images with a lot of pop.

But usually while the shadows and edges are very defined, the products retain a softness and roundness in terms of texture that's associated with softer lighting. So how does this work? Well, we can go crazy with light positioning, trying to get that perfect ratio...or we can start thinking in layers. The trick is stacking.


Hard to see but that Deep Octa is directly over the table.

Basically, we use two lights: one for softness and one for shadows. But we don't use them together. Instead we shoot two images—one for each light—that we'll then combine in Photoshop or any other image editor that supports layers and masks. The advantage of this method is the amount of control we gain over which area gets a hard or soft treatment. It's then completely up to us to decide what works best. Let's do a quick case study—faults and all.

For image #1 I've positioned a Deep Octa directly overhead, fairly close to the objects (about two feet). The results are what you'd expect: soft; flat even. If I'm going for this kind of final look, I'll usually just play with the edges of the softbox by simply rotating it forwards or backwards, giving more light to either the front or back of the subject; this is a quick and easy way to create dimension. In this case however, because I'm shooting for stacking, I'm leaving it as even as possible. This is my base image.

For image #2 I'm using a 30º grid on an Elinchrom BXRi strobe, slightly behind and above the subject, camera right. The grid is focusing the beam and I've aimed the strobe directly towards the products. This is the afternoon sun, the "shadow and depth" image.

Both versions are processed for basic exposure, contrast etc in Lightroom. Once that's done I select them, right-click and choose Edit as Layers in Adobe Photoshop CC. This will open Photoshop and create a single PSD or TIFF file containing both images already stacked as layers.


From here it's all rather straightforward: I make sure the"base" image is on top and add a layer mask (Layers>Layer Mask>Reveal All). I select this new mask layer, choose a black paintbrush and start painting in the areas where I want the "shadow" image to appear. There's no recipe for this—it all depends on the image itself and the effect we're looking for. But I usually turn the base layer on and off throughout the process, to visualize what I've added or removed. With a mask we can simply switch to a white paintbrush to go over potential mistakes—it's all non-destructive. Once we're done, all we need to do is hit Save: this new image is added next to the originals in Lightroom where we can add further adjustments if we need to. Eventually, this is what you get:

A few more examples using the exact same technique (final image first; click for stacked versions)::

These are all quick and dirty examples just to give a rough idea.

If at all possible I always prefer getting everything done in one take; but sometimes the laws of physics get in the way. Stacking is a method that can prove useful for all kinds of settings: focus, exposure—anything reality can't manage in a single take. Just like bracketing. I personally never use this outside of commercial work but it's a useful concept to grasp.

Now, if I could just find that Remove All Dust, Fingerprints, Smudges And Scratches button....

Sparks, Dominos & the All-Encompassing Laboratory.


The process of ideation is often graphically depicted by gears; each one applying motion to the next, ad infinitum. It’s a great analogy. It’s how we reason, how our logic works, going from one point to the next, making one connection that in turn affects another; fuelling a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

The creative mind works along those same principles, although it’s often much more chaotic and difficult to control, jumping from A to C to B. It also has qualities of the domino effect, a self-sustaining event that can no longer be stopped once initiated. Inevitable. But unlike dominos (or gears), the end point remains imprecise, a quantic mess of possibilities. That’s the attraction: never really knowing the final destination, never quite certain of the outcome.

The images below are a direct result of Robert Boyer’s latest response to our ongoing winter challenge. But it’s not my reply per se, more like inspired by. I happen to love where Robert went from my shower shoot: instead of replicating the concept, he used the same basic idea to emphasize its opposite. Instead of freezing motion he painted with it. The results are beautiful. And not at all what I expected.

When he posted a BTS shot of his setup I couldn’t help myself. Out came the X-Acto knife and cardboard for a makeshift gobo. I found an old diaphanous scarf and hired my son as model. Again. He’s a good sport but as most of you know, kids whose dads are photographers tend to have a limited threshold for this sort of thing. Hard to blame ’em given our propensity for being slightly shutter crazy; so yeah, time was of the essence (!).

The studio is a cave, so no ambient light to contend with. I used a single gridded strobe (20°) aimed through the gobo. I tried a few different settings but settled on 1/4s f/7.1 at ISO 200. I was going for an extra of painterly.

You’ll notice some of the images show a lot more smearing than others: that’s because in those cases I disabled the remote trigger and shot using just the modeling light (set at max power). Without a flash burst no portion of the image ever freezes beyond the shutter speed. Same settings as before except for bumping the ISO to 500 (to account for the diminished light output).

Robert used rear-curtain sync on his shoot which is obviously the way to go — by flashing at the end of the exposure you create a still that appears after (or on top of) the motion trail caused by the slow shutter speed. But I can’t do that with my current setup. The X-Pro1’s rear-curtain sync mode is only available when using a Fuji flash unit. This probably means I could use something like an EF–X20, dial it all the way down and trigger the big lights optically at rear curtain… I’ll need to look into how much manual control that flash provides (the idea being to use it purely as commander in this case and affect the exposure as little as possible. We’re talking 1/128 power ideally). Syncing front-curtain makes the results much more diffuse and airy since all the blurring occurs after the initial flash burst. It also means you’re much less likely to get a clean shot if that’s what you’re after.

But enough technobabble.

We all need a push at some point, a reason to go further and explore the lesser known territories. This back and forth between Robert and I is forcing me into a laboratory of sorts, the purpose of which is to allow for errors, false starts and possible moments of illumination.

All you ever need is one spark.
A single push on that very first domino.

Shot with the X-Pro1 and Fujinon XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 LM OIS set at 42.5mm. Elinchrom BX500ri with 20º grid.

A challenge. A shower. An odd dude & a leaf shutter.

This one's a little different...

The story goes like this: it's winter, it's sucky, it's boring.  One day I'm reading Robert Boyer's blog and he's just begun posting this great lighting series. So I decide to experiment with some of the ideas — lighting, processing, whatev. Because you know... It's winter and it's sucky, bla, bla, bla.

Along comes Robert — who's also feeling the doldrums despite his aforementioned series — and apparently MY stuff turns out giving HIM a kick in the pants; and so he starts shooting and posting like a madman. I like his stuff, he likes my stuff; I comment on his blog, he comments on mine. It's all good until one day, out of nowhere — and must I say, absolutely unprovoked — he throws this challenge out there: "Take that LaRoque - let’s see what you make next."

Pfff. Dem's fightin' words.

Thing is though, I knew I needed an angle of some sort. Robert is a lighting encyclopedia and his photography is very slick. Beautiful, sultry stuff. And then it dawned on me: I'm going to jump in the shower. Yeah. No way he's attempting THAT.

Ok, to be honest its something I'd been wanting to do for some time; I like the idea of a confined space coupled with the chaotic nature of water and movement. I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to do it without looking too crazy. To pull off what I had in mind I needed to achieve two things: 1) freeze everything as much as possible and 2) make that water look like diamonds. So: high shutter speed + strobes meant leaf shutter: enter the X100. Getting the water to sparkle and give out a 3D look meant backlighting it in some way: enter speedlight. The paint in the bathroom is shiny and I knew I could play with that to create a natural separation from a single light source. Add it all up and I could keep things simple.

Final setup:

  • X100 on tripod set to 1/1000s, f/11 at ISO 200.
  • Elinchrom BX500ri strobe in a medium softbox with the bottom of it just shooting over my head. Placed straight on camera angle.
  • A single bare SB-800 clamped to the shower curtain rod, high camera left. Hugging the wall and aimed over my shoulder.
  • The key strobe triggered via Skyport and the speedlight via good ol' SU-4.

I did a few test shots to make sure the water looked the way I wanted it to and in I went, throwing dignity to the wind.

I took four frames.
Then it dawned on me that my feet were in water, the shower head was spraying willy-nilly, slowly turning the room into a swimming pool — and all of this with a nice big AC powered strobe standing right smack in the middle of it. I had a vision of a Petapixel.com headline in my mind: Darwin Award - Photographer Electrocuted while Shooting Self-Portrait in Shower. Time to stop this nonsense.

I had used an Eye-Fi card so I left everything in place, dried myself and went down to the studio to see the shots. Those four frames are all in this post. I think it worked out pretty well for an intense 3 minutes session. I spent more time trying to cram everything in our small bathroom and setting everything up than firing the camera. But given my predicament, those few minutes were plenty, thank you very much ;)

So now for the question on everyone's mind: was he wearing pants? Ha! I'm not tellin'... Dr Boyer? Paging Dr Boyer?

P.S @RB: I'm quite aware that I'll be completely and utterly toast If you manage to convince one of your beautiful models to hit the shower...

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.