The Gift of Good Light

When you’re lucky, everything goes right during a shoot. Subject, location, exposure and equipment all work together for you. But without good light, none of the rest matters.

I recently had an assignment to photograph Aldon Smith. A native of Kansas City, Aldon went on to play football for Missouri and was drafted in the first round this year by the San Francisco 49ers. My job was to create a series of portraits of him for the San Francisco Chronicle.

It was scheduled for late afternoon on one of the few days that was to be good that week. But I hoped that the light would be better later, so I called and asked him if we could push it back a bit. No problem, we’d shoot at

Nikon D3, using a Lens Baby to create the soft focus effect. One softbox to the right, one hard flash used to the left and behind to separate him from the background.Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

7pm. In addition to what I hoped would be nice evening light, I also planned to set up a background and strobes indoors for some different shots.

It couldn’t have worked out better. The light was great and there was an open area near his home where I could photograph him against the trees and sky. The sun was low, giving me very hard, directional light, and I asked him to wear dark clothes for these shots to emphasize the contrast. I worked mostly at f/2.8 to f/4 using a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens to really limit the depth of field and separate him from the background.

Moving indoors, I’d arrived early and already set up a black backdrop and lights. I used two Nikon SB-800 Speedlights with Honl snoots for side and backlight, and a single SB-900 in a Lightware FourSquare softbox for a front light. After getting the standard portraits done, I decided it was time to have fun.  Aldon was game, so we started with a Lens Baby (limits focus to one very small area in the image plane), tried using just the two SB-800’s to emphasize his muscles, and finally went to the basement to paint him with light  from a small flashlight during ten second exposures.

The shoot went great, but wouldn’t have without two key ingredients. First, Aldon was willing to give me time to work with him, and open to trying different things. And then there was the light – taking advantage of great natural light and having some fun with strobes. With so much emphasis on the technology of photography today, it’s easy to forget that it all starts with good light. Good light and a good subject make photography a joy.

One Nikon Speedlight to each side, snooted to give a narrow beam of light, more power to the right. Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens, ISO 200, f/5.6 at 1/250. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.