Adding a Light to Gain Control of Exposure

As a photographer, you know that to create a striking portrait, you must properly expose your subject. But what about the background? Though the background may seem less important, how it is captured makes all the difference in making your subject stand out from their surroundings. In this video, Joe McNally shows us one way to make a photo’s background work to its benefit:

With Ken Collins–one of the last living pilots of the SR-71 Blackbird plane–as his subject, McNally knew that he had to use the Blackbird in the shot. He had Collins stand boldly on the needle-sharp nose of the plane, with the sun setting and a blue sky behind him. While this would have made a good shot in natural light alone, McNally used an easy lighting trick to make it a great shot.

  • First, he pointed a 1200 Watt/second Profoto Power Pack strobe at his subject, using a long-throw reflector for a powerful beam.
  • Then he added a warming gel to mimic the fading sunlight (it was approaching the golden hour as the shot was taken).
  • This lighting allowed him to stop down his aperture, properly exposing the subject while giving the sky a deeper, darker color, thus adding contrast and interest to the shot.

McNally’s lighting diagram


Final image. Natural lighting alone would give the image a much lighter sky and little contrast.

“The key to it is to use a light up front that doesn’t call attention to itself,” says McNally. This specific method will work great just before sunset, but try experimenting with lighting at other times of day to find new ways to change your background and make your photos more interesting.

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One response to “Adding a Light to Gain Control of Exposure”

  1. chris dowd says:

    Thanks for another simple yet powerful vid on lighting control Joe. I like them because they are well explained, short and address one specific issue and have lighting diagrams to make everything clear.
    Just wondering, since subject was already sunlit, if you could also have bracketed to give you the exposure for the sky without the additional light?

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