Why I Hate Fluorescent Lights

On Location Shooting with Jonah Tremblay

This was a tough shoot.  I was pressed for time and the lights were just not working well for me. But man, did I ever learn a lot.  NOTE: If you're looking for a basis of my lighting setups or any information at all pertaining to off-camera flash, have a look over David Hobby's Strobist blog.  In it you'll find an absolute wealth of information regarding lights, gels, modifiers, etc and everything that's possible with them.

Once again, I'm taking a page out of my photographic hero Joe McNally's book and attempting to do something very dramatic with a wide angle portrait.  Jonah was pretty patient and I had some help in the form of my engineering friends to hold lights, reflectors and high spirits.  The thing that I really liked about this shoot was how much I got done in a short period of time.  What I didn't like was how unprepared I was for the dramatic lights.  

When we got there, Jonah had to get ready and put on some gear.  No big deal, this gave me a bit of time to see what would be possible for a shot.  With no other firefighters there, we had free reign of the Musquash Volunteer Fire Department's garage, so I proceeded with an "anything goes" mentality. I knew I had at least one photo I wanted to try (top of the post).  

In the few minutes I got ready, several things became obvious: the firetruck was pretty old and not exactly a full-size monstrosity that I had hoped for, the ceiling was awash with greenish hued fluorescent bulbs and when the flashing lights were on, and finally, we had a time budget.  Well, this is what makes photography fun!

I did the shot I wanted first.  I bit the bullet and used a CTO gel in an Ezybox hotshoe softbox to warm up Jonah's face.  I used a long shutter speed to get lots of light from the firehall into the shot and let the flash "freeze" Jonah in place.  Some props and light positioning later we had a useable shot.  Not too shabby (see the shot at the top of the page).

Moving on, I asked Jonah to give me a relaxed pose near the truck's controls with the jacket off.  Hindsight is 20/20 as always and I would have loved to put some soot on his face to add authenticity.  Didn't have a makeup artist with me so we just went without.  It took us a bit of fiddling to get the light in the right spot, where I didn't have a great big square of white beaming back from the side of the truck.  

Cool, that was quick.  Then Jonah asked about getting a shot with the SUV, which he's expected to drive.  Okay, let's see what we can do.

This is when things got difficult.  I had to light Jonah, his truck and let some of the light from the big truck behind shine through.  I tried wide, including the entire SUV and got nothing good.  I tried using another flash to light up the truck. That worked but I also lit up the gross coloured building behind it.

I just wound up pulling in tight, getting a close-up of Jonah with a part of the SUV in the shot.  Time was getting slim at this point as we had to drive an hour and a half through some dark and foggy New Brunswick highways to get home.  Highways normally populated with moose.

Lessons Learned

Location scouting is now an obvious necessity.  I wish I had known beforehand that I would be dealing with fluorescent lights as it would have saved me some post-processing.  In fact, I could have taken a number of avenues to avoid getting a greenish tinge to my background fill lighting.  
  1. Gel the flash with green: I normally would have done this, but I had another set of fluorescent lights to deal with and didn't want to compound the problem.  Besides, I was already using a warming gel on the flash.
  2. Turn out the lights and just let the fire truck do the ambient lighting: I will try this next time. I know that I would have had focusing problems, but where I was on a tripod using a long exposure time, I could easily have locked in my focus, turned off the lights and gone shutter-happy.  Also, I wouldn't have to do the following option
  3. Selectively remove some green from the photo: this is the option I wound up having to pursue.  It works, but only because I don't have any green on Jonah that's important.
I think the most important lesson I learned however, is that when you do a portrait like this it can really mean something special to the subject and/or their families.