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Mystery Revealed!

Sep 28

In Lighting at 6:06am


First off, many, many thanks to all who pitched ideas and suggestions and diagrams our way. Response was off the charts, and we have had a blast going through stuff here at the studio. As always, it being a photographic dilemma, there were just about as many solutions as there are photogs. Cool thing was that some of the lighting notions are maybe exactly WHAT I COULDA DONE AND THE WAY I SHOULDA LIT IT!

Seriously, there’s lotsa ways of going about this stuff. Many paths to roughly the same end. Reminds me of teaching in a workshop scenario, and coming up on a shooter who is engaged in what I am quite sure is a hopelessly wacked out idea that will result in a train wreck of a picture. Then that person shows up the next day with a picture that not only works but represents something I didn’t see and could never have seen. It’s cool, diverse and a little nutty. Fun, in a word.


Speaking of fun, I really hadda break this stuff into two categories…those who came real close for real, and a whole gaggle of suggestions, commentary and really funny shit submitted by the mildly bent readership of this blog. Just a hoot….my look of astonishment here recorded by Lynda Peckham.

Some samples…..

From Andrew: “It was Professor Plum, in the library, with the candlestick.”

From Dave Cross, The Photoshop Guy: “Nice try Joe….But I think it’s pretty obvious: One flash and the rest is Photoshop:
8 adjustment layers with appropriate masks. Noise filter on TV set istock photo of guy with gun in doorway. Added the grid in the window with the Shape tool. A bit of dodging & burning here and there, and voila!
”       (I’ll get him for that one…..)

Then this from Noodlez: “It`s so obvious- you borrowed a big Profoto-Lighting-pack from your friend Chase Jarvis. Two large Chimera softboxes in the backroom in combination with a fat fogmachine (borrowed from Drew Gardner). One Front-light gridded on the knee, handheld by Zack Arias. A snooted Light towards the pills on the floor with a DIY GRid-Snoot-Umbrella by David Hobby. Here and there you lost some flashlights…In the end you gave the pic to your Retoucher Scott Kelby, who put some red and blue colors allover. Too Easy Man…”

Dan Davies chipped in with: “It’s self evident:

1. Red light outside from 400 firefly’s of the genus “reddus buttus”.
2. Dead woman on bed lit by funeral pyre being burned just off set.
3. Joe’s coke supply being liberally sprinkled inside dummy TV screen by highly trained pet gerbil.
4. Spot on floor apparantly from fallen lamp created by stepping on a satsuma and creating orange eliptical shape
5. Man in door has also stepped on satsuma.
6. Purple ambient lighting created from long exposure mixing red & blue lights on top of police vehicle ready to arrest Joe for murdering the model in order to create realistic picture.

Am I right?”        (Uh, no, Dan, but it was a fun read.)

There was an amazing diagram from Dean Doll:


It doesn’t nail the lighting pattern, but it’s cool.

There was also a suggestion this was just a screen grab from CSI. But the guy who took the cake in this category was definitely Lyndon Smith. His submission was amazingly thoughtful, erudite, well elucidated (forgive me) and great to read, even though it was wrong. He compiled a treatise involving caffeine on the set, the role Tylenol played that night, and the potential use of a turkey carcass as a light stand. He was correct in the color and direction of the lights, but the bedsheet/window covering did him in. For his efforts, he will receive a Lastolite diffuser and a book. Lyndon, send us a note with your address. ([email protected])

Now….drum roll please…..Ended up with four lighting plans that came real close to what the deal was that sultry night in Florida.

From Klam: The lighting plan:
-Camera WB tungsten. shutter dragged.
-Flash with full CTO gel grided above camera aiming downward at female leg.
– bare flash behind camera right aiming towards the wall behind the tv
-Flash with full and half CTO gel outside door flaged so the light is directed towards man chest and head
-Flash with maybe a full and half CTO gel outside down low flagged to give rim light on mans lower body and leg.
-Ambient light provided by fallen lamp.
My other guess would be the outside light was provided by car headlights and flagged so only parts of the man was lite…”

Brett Maxwell posited this: “Clearly there is ambient from the table lamp on the floor and the TV. 2 speedlights in the hall gelled red, one snooted/gridded/zoomed lighting the man’s face and one behind lighting the hall and hall window. Two speedlights gelled blue, one behind the bed and one to camera right aimed at the wall behind the TV. One speedlight high (CTO?) snooted/gridded/zoomed pointing almost straight down on the woman’s right foot.”

David contributed this thought: “Gridded and Cto’d flash above camera and to the right a little pointing on the woman’s legs. Blue Gelled flash way camera right to light the table and its contents. Another Blue gelled flash behind the bed next to the door to seperate the girls legs and the wall. Heavily red gelled flash outside, and maybe another on the guy? Ambient coming from the lamp on the floor and the television in the table.

And, finally, Andrew had this line of attack: “I would’ve red gelled the headlights from a car outside. Flash gelled blue along the right wall.
Flash gelled blue behind the bed. Flash gridded and amber gelled above camera on model’s leg. Flash gelled amber aimed at floor behind the shooter. Incandescent lamp on floor.”

All of the above had most if not all the elements and just missed a detail or two, which is far fewer details than I usually miss when I am in the field and have my eye in the lens. So–good job gang….all four, send us address stuff to our contact slot on the website. Also gang, if there are specifics as to how you want things signed, let us know. Let’s go through the whole deal….

Camera settings are in the file….however, it is shot in cloudy white balance, which is a bit weird, I know. Wanted an intense red, and I knew I could control the blue interior just with heavy gels. And there were no signs to deal with in the distance. It was dark out there in the Florida night. I would only see what I lit. Exterior is lit up with mostly car headlights. Two cars, to be more precise, with heavy red theatrical gels placed over the four headlights. Tried my best to seal the gels in with tape, so there was not a whole lotta white light bleed. There’s an SB900 on the window sill, literally laying against the window, firing up and away in the general direction of the palm tree just by the outside walkway. Another SB unit with a tight grid and a full CTO of warming gel on it is punched towards our perp? detective? in the doorway. That is producing the slight warm highlight on the brim of his hat, a bit on his face and upper shoulders. The intensely warm highlight on the floor is the red gelled headlights, going orange-ish from blown exposure. That one headlight is hitting the linoleum at a bang on angle of incidence angle of reflection to the lens, and thus becomes a real high highlight. Add smoke, and the outside is done.

Inside was pretty apparent to lots of folks. C-stand boomed SB900 overhead the model’s legs, warmed with CTO and gridded with a Honl light shaper. It is firing straight down at her legs and the floor. Camera right has a blue gelled SB unit, washing off the wall behind the TV. It is Justin clamped to the fridge door. Another blue gelled SB unit is hidden by the bed, and is blue gelled, separating the bed and wall. Red highlights on table legs are all from outside. TV is just the static glow. The incandescent bulb is just that, available bulb light. Handy trick here is to plug that lamp into a dimmer which then plugs into the wall. That way, you can just dial in the exposure to the degree you need it.

Triggered the whole shootin’ match with an SU800 unit linked to the camera with two SC-29 cords and screwed on top of a light stand. Placed like that, we had no troubles firing everything TTL wireless. The wireless commander is on a stick to the right of camera and it is bouncing off the blue wall to camera right and thus picking up the SB unit tucked away outside the left hand side of doorway. (Working up a diagram of my own, just haven’t found a big enough napkin yet:-)

The account of the lighting is true. Names of those involved are under sealed indictment and cannot be released at this time. More tk….


Jase Bell says:

on September 28, 2009 at 6:14 am

“I would’ve red gelled the headlights from a car outside. Flash gelled blue along the right wall.”

Not as mad as it seems. I’ve images from a full fashion shoot where the model was lit by the headlights of a coach/bus. Looked stunning as well, you work with what you have on you at the time.

Great follow up article Joe, much appreciated.


Craig Ferguson (@cfimages) says:

on September 28, 2009 at 6:21 am

Thanks for the detailed explanation (and the laughs).

Now watch a whole bunch of similar shots turn up in the Strobist pool on Flickr and on blogs everywhere. :)

Joe says:

on September 28, 2009 at 7:29 am

I’m not buying any of that @#$. It really was Prof. Plum, wasn’t it?!? Confess! CONFESS!!!

Mark says:

on September 28, 2009 at 7:32 am


Marvin Pido says:

on September 28, 2009 at 7:33 am


Congrats to the 4 winners. I couldn’t even imagine how the whole setup was lit (but I dig what Dave Cross said by the way) and those guys almost got it by a whisker. So great job.

Ben says:

on September 28, 2009 at 8:52 am

Rumor has it he even triggered the headlights with the monitor preflash. Magic I tell you.

Jay Mann says:

on September 28, 2009 at 9:22 am

So, you finally had a lighting competition, but you hadda do it while I was on vacation. ‘Guess the Lighting’ is my favourite game and I missed it. ( I live alone in Tripoli, Libya, nuff said)

We, the readers should take the following as a compliment “really funny shit submitted by the mildly bent readership of this blog”. That’s what’s great about the blog, many of us don’t take ourselves too seriously

Anyway, I’ll catch the next one. Looks like a good time was had by all.


John says:

on September 28, 2009 at 9:32 am

This was an awesome idea! My girlfriend and I had a lot of fun dissecting the shot, but what was even more fun was reading some of the other folks’ guesses.

I hope you do another one of these in the future!

Monk says:

on September 28, 2009 at 9:36 am

Very Cool.

Matt Ballard says:

on September 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

Love the really funny shit! Thanks for including.

Great competition!

I always suspected you were sponsored by Budweiser University! :-)


king says:

on September 28, 2009 at 10:23 am

Ben, I’d heard that it was a pocketwizard wired directly into the vehicles’ electrical systems 😉

Dean Doll says:

on September 28, 2009 at 10:53 am

Hehe that was fun. I’d try that again some day. Thanks Joe!

alejandro zayas says:

on September 28, 2009 at 11:14 am

she just committed suicide, myestery revealed

Lyndon Smith says:

on September 28, 2009 at 11:25 am

I’ll enjoy that book & diffuser when I’m serving time in the big house for da murder. Geez – done in by the bed sheet. And da cops didn’t even have to use a black light on it – I confessed!

Seriously, I was hoping my addiction to CSI & Joe McNally books & videos would pay off someday. Thanks Joe!

Erik Dundurs says:

on September 28, 2009 at 12:40 pm

That is exactly what I thought and how I would of set it up too!! :)
Very nice work, like always Joe…..

RBD says:

on September 28, 2009 at 2:02 pm

“…mildly bent…”.
That’s putting it, well, mildly.

John Leonard says:

on September 28, 2009 at 2:29 pm


Please repart the part about firing the whole thing using CLS in TTL for those who doubt the systems ability.


brett maxwell says:

on September 28, 2009 at 4:09 pm

woohoo, awesome! about to go submit my address :)

Gavin Jowitt says:

on September 28, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Brilliant! How long did it take to set-up??

Liza P says:

on September 28, 2009 at 10:46 pm

i love your new self portrait………

Jay Rodriguez says:

on September 28, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Fantastic read!
I especially love the results everyone came up with… very inspiring!

Michelle Knight says:

on September 29, 2009 at 2:40 am

@Ben, Nah, Joe just clicked his fingers and the whole lot including the shutter, just fired and synched. He’s that cool.

The moment Joe’s explanation talked about car lights I knew I was way, way off!

Eli Silva says:

on September 29, 2009 at 8:05 am

Very cool…. thanks for the diagram and the funny story!!!!

Milos Djuric says:

on September 29, 2009 at 8:44 am

thanks for posting that.

Guess the Lighting says:

on August 19, 2010 at 4:29 pm

thanks for a quite entertaining post! If you’re interested in seeing how famous photographers light their images, take a peek at

Matt Lansing says:

on October 29, 2011 at 12:51 pm

That is one of the coolest diagrams I’ve seen. Is that Photoshop work?

Garrett Deane says:

on October 20, 2014 at 11:45 am

It is your colourful blog that brings me a lot of knowledge about living.

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