Behind the Scenes of Red Letter Artist Shoot


Back in September of 2011 I (Zach) photographed new artist’s Red Letter for their promo packaging and album. We had a blast working with these really young and talented kids and got some cool shots for them. The tough thing about shooting like this, is you have no control of how they further adjust and edit images and how they design around them. :) Today we are going to break down one of the more complicated images and show you how we did it.



This image was hard to pull off and has 3 lights and was a tough location to shoot at. I knew from the weather forecast that the sunset was going to be awesome that night, and there was no way I was going to add the sky in afterward since at the time, that was not my style. I wanted to nail it in-camera with no post-production work. Commercial photographers have it really tough when the label and marketing team wants a specific look and the weather or other factors simply do not permit that, so there are times on shoots like these when you need to add a sky or do some serious photoshop work to get the shot how they want.


For this image, here was the set up, then we can break it down.


As you can see from the ambient light shot, flash was an absolute necessity in order to get the final look that they wanted. Here is what we did:

Step one – Control the ambient light

The first thing I do is determine (from our pre-production meeting) the type of look they want. In this case, they wanted a little more edgy images with lots of contrast. So we first took an ambient meter reading of the sky, and under exposed it by 2 stops. When you do this, we get to a 5 to 1 lighting ratio between their faces (when exposed properly with the main light) and the sky. I keep my light meter set to ISO 100 and my shutter at 1/100th and then take a reading of the sky (the meter will tell me the correct exposure of the sky by giving me a specific f/stop based on my other settings), then adjust my f/stop to 2 stops under that reading. The reason that you should do it that way is that so we have fast acting options once we take the first image and check the results.

Some photographers commented on our Adorama video that we filmed demonstrating a simple off-camera flash technique (in that video we did not explain the reason for adjusting the aperture to get our exposure and leaving the ISO and shutter at this specific fixed rate), that you should properly expose for ambient first with your camera, then add the flash to match it, and then just change the shutter speed to control background light.

The reason we first decide on the overall tone of the image we want (the lighting ratio) then keep the shutter at 1/100th, is that that we can take the first shot, check the histogram, then decide on the fly if we want to further darken the background by upping the shutter speed to 1/200th or brighten the background by slowing it down. If we first just got a correct ambient exposure, then we could only darken the background by 1 stop with our shutter speed which would give us a 3 to 1 lighting ratio, which does NOT give us the desired effect that either we, or the client had in mind. Then, we would have to go up and adjust all the lighting and start over. Not a good plan and definitely NOT fast. :) 

If we want to shoot at a different aperture, there is NO way to do that unless you adjust your ISO (which is very limited), so to change aperture when shooting on manual flash, we use an ND filter to darken the entire image. Once it is darker by however many stops the ND filter darkens it, we can then simply open the aperture to compensate and shoot at that new aperture. We are now going to be using the LEE Filter System to achieve the depth of field we want for manual flash images on real strobes (you can use different apertures on speedlights and some flashes that use hyper-sync and high-speed sync), but those systems pretty much suck if you are interested in any type of consistency). 

So, back to the set up. Now that we have the pre-determined ratio of light which was 5 to 1 lighting, and our background is under-exposed by 2 stops, we now have to add flash to our clients face to match that exposure.


NOTE: You can have the background 1 stop under exposed (3 to 1 lighting), correctly exposed (2 to 1 lighting) or even over-exposed with different processes and lighting tools if that is the look that you like or need.


  • Ambient light reading for correct SKY exposure f/5.6 ISO 100, 1/100th second
  • 5 to 1 lighting ratio with sky is f/11 ISO 100, 1/100th of a second (exactly 2 stops less light coming into my camera than the correct sky exposure)
  • Camera is now set to f/11 ISO 100, 1/100th of a second which gives me a 2 stop under-exposed sky for hyper drama.
  • Flash hitting their faces now needs to read f/11 ISO 100 (shutter speed does not matter at this point since flash power reading is not effected by shutter speed) in order to correctly expose their faces.
 Step Two – Set Main Light

Once we powered the flash up and down and got it to read the above  f/11 ISO 100, we were set with the main light (simple to do at this point). The main light was 40 degrees or so to camera right, then feathered back towards camera left in order to expose all of them evenly (I will talk about feathering lights in another post).

Many times with this much contrast (overpowering the ambient light by 2 or more stops) we typically COULD use a fill light shooting directly at them that is going to fill in the shadow side of their faces and bodies. But we did not have that much gear, so we decided to use the 7 foot parabolic from Westcott which is such a large light source, that it fills some of the shadow side on its own because it is so large. Large light sources have softer shadows and this got us just enough to make it work and not lose detail in the the majority of the shadow side.

NOTE: Main light was pushed through the Westcott 7 Foot Parabolic Umbrella KIT (amazing for weddings and family shots and anything where you need LOTS of light going everywhere! You can also use with speedlights, just watch out for any wind!).


Step 3 – Add the Kicker Lights for effect

I added two mono-lights from Paul C Buff  powered by mini-vagabonds that each had 16×35 inch strip banks from Westcott lighting. They also had 40 degree egg crate grids inside the strip banks which controls the light and makes sure it does not shoot back at my camera and cause flair. These grids are invaluable and without them I would either have to move the lights so far out to not cause flair that I would need way more power than I had, or I would have to flag myself off so my camera could not see those lights which would mean more gear to pull the shot off.

Metering and positioning these lights is actually very easy once we set up the main light. I position them at 45 degree angles to the clients back right and left, raise them up so it could appear that the light was coming from the sky (about 7 feet high or so). Then, I meter them to exactly 1 stop less then the main light exposure. When light is coming at the camera (hitting them from behind and to the right and or left side) and reflecting back to me, the brightness of it is exaggerated by about 1 stop. So if we under-power them by 1 stop, then they will look correctly exposed.

Kicker Light Reading – f/8 because main light was f/11. If the main light was F/5.6, then the kicker lights would be at F/4. Just remember that they need to be a lower number that is 1 stop under (sometimes you can forget which way to go with them when you are working fast!). :)


Now that we are set, I photographed the first image, checked the contrast on my histogram, made any shutter speed adjustments to change the ambient lighting, and shot the 15 or 20 shots before that set up was done.

It is always critical when working with lots of lighting gear, to have great assistants and you can see that we had 3 that day helping set lights, meter and adjust everything.