In May, I spent a week shooting at Marburg’s School for the Blind. It’s Germany’s only school that offers a high school degree for blind and visually impaired children, along with very specialized courses on how to get by on your own as a blind person.
During my week of shooting in Marburg, I also had the chance to shoot two games of blind soccer, which was one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen in my life so far. On the train ride to Marburg I’d had the idea of making a team portray of the soccer team in a style similar what’s being done with the pros in “regular soccer” for the Nike-style ad campaigns. Think dramatic lighting, macho poses and a 10 on the coolness meter. I had assisted for photographer Christian Kaufmann who is regularly shooting the guys of Munich’s FC Bayern and knew what gear he has at his disposal for occasions like this. (Think 3-5 big studio strobes, generators, big white background seamless and 10k euros worth of miscellaneous stuff, you get the picture…) Obviously, I don’t have equipment like that, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you spend all your time wishing for better equipment you’ll get nowhere in photography. So, as always, you have to make do with the stuff you can scrounge together. So I had to improvise a bit, as well as make some concessions to the fact that I don’t have a set of studio lighting equipment.
#1 Complete soccer team together? First of all, I’m not a big fan of big group shots. (Name me one photographer who is.) Usually at least one person is looking somewhere he shouldn’t be looking or doing something he shouldn’t be doing or wearing something he shouldn’t be wearing, at least not in the front row. Another factor is that lighting a whole group of people in the style I wanted would require considerably more lighting equipment or at least a considerably more talented photographer. So my first decision was to split them up and then layer them in photoshop afterwards.
#2 White background -> no no. It’s just not possible. Sure, I might have found a white wall or a spare bedsheet, but to make something white look white in a photo is a lot harder than it sounds. Normally you’d use two big flashes only to light the background and make it a shining white. And apart from it being really hard to do with the stuff I had with me, it also would make it really hartd to put together in photoshop later.
So what to do? Easy, shoot on black. Black is generally a loot easier to manage when you light your subject only with flash, because all you need for a black background in that case is an aperture of f8 or smaller depending on the ambient light. As long as you’re shooting indoors in a reasonably bad lit room, creating blackness is one of the easiest things in photography.
Why not use a really fast shutter speed instead? Since most 35mm SLRs only offer flash sync speeds of about 1/200th (Nikon D90) or 1/250th (Nikon D3) that’s all you get in terms of shutter speed.
So, once I’ve found myself a nice dark room (dark means dark for a camera, not neccessarily dark for the human eye), I put the camera into manual mode and made “available light” testshots until I get a nice black image.
#3 multiple flashes -> Well, sure, I’d love to, but even after watching every episode of MacGyver, I still can’t turn a piece of gum and a cigarette lighter into an SB 900 flash. So this one’s easy, one flash has to be enough. (At that time, the SB 600 was all I had in terms of speedlights)
#4 Next step is figuring out where to position the light. I set up my flash on a lightstand at somewhere a bit above eye-level and made a few testshots with my girlfriend Annie kindly helping out. The umbrella gave me way too soft light and -even more importantly- too much light scatter, turning my beautiful black background into an ugly grey. Next step bare flash. Pretty dramatic, but still too much light scatter. Here’s where being a somewhat regular Strobist reader and MacGyver fan finally pays off. One look in the trash can and a few swatches of duct tape later, I am the proud owner of a flash snoot for my SB 600. A snoot is a narrow tube that channels the light coming from your speedlight, forming a very tight spot of light. I made mine from old cardboard which I folded into a tube so that I can stick it onto the flash head. Finally I’ve got dramatic lighting and a very tight spotlight on the subjects face with minimal scatter so as not to mess with the black background.
Not much more to do, a couple of testshots for nailing down the approximate exposure and flash settings (write it down!) and it’s off to the game.
Luckily, Marburg’s team won and the guys were all willing to pose for the shots before hitting the showers. Situations like this are where being prepared pays off. Standing in a room with 15 tired and pumped-up guys, you really don’t want to be doing lighting tests.
One thing I was worried about beforehand, was the fact of them being blind. How would you explain to them how a Nike ad looks? Do you think they have a notion of what a “cool” pose looks like? They are blind, they have no use for macho poses. In the end it all worked out perfectly. Every one of them was totally cool with the whole affair and very relaxed about their visual impairment. I had about 2 minutes per person, so I quickly introduced myself, told each of them what I had in mind, quickly made the shots and got the hell out of there before I overstayed my welcome.