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Making Window Light

Mar 23

In In The Field, Lighting at 5:08am

So, referring to yesterday’s blog post, definitely not practical to line the Northeast Amtrak corridor with SB units to create window light. I got lucky photographing then Senator Biden with soft light on a cloudy day, and even luckier with the Tri-x in my camera. (No worries about the greenish windows often present on trains shifting my color transparency film over into “aquarium” mode, and making my subject look like Swamp Thing.)

But now, in our digital world,  in a more static situation, it is easy to make window light with speed light.


As I always tell Thomas Wingate, who’s a great friend and an American original, his face belongs on Mount Rushmore. It is the road map to an interesting life, well lived. I not only enjoy photographing him, I enjoy the time we have when we just say cameras be damned, let’s just hang. This has occasionally involved putting the camera down and picking up a beer, or several. While you cannot make a picture with a can of beer, it is potentially an important component in terms of imagining your next picture.


In this instance, Thomas is being lit by 3 SB 900 units, placed outside the smallish window of the jail cell in Eaves Ranch. I viewed the small size of the window as an advantage, actually, as it is easily sealed off with one 3×3 Lastolite skylite panel.When I say sealed, I really mean that. When doing this, it is generally advisable to let no other stray daylight in. Hence the Avenger c-stand with the extension arm. That arm is able to angle the panel right flush to the side of the building. The only light gettin’ in there now is comin’ from the speed lights.


I remain inside with the camera. We ran a couple of SC-29 cords from the hot shoe of the D3X to a commander SB-900, justin clamped to the bars of the other window. You can see it, over there on the right. It is talking to the window lights for me. I put three out there, which may or may not be overkill. If I had just one, it would be working pretty hard, to be sure. So the extra lights, to me, make sense, especially if you want to move with any speed through a set of pictures.


So here’s the beauty of wireless flash. I can stay in the jail cell, talk it out with Thomas, and shift my lens/f-stop combo seamlessly. I went from the 70-200 at F8, used for the above pictures,  to a 200mm at f2 for the snap below. Without going outside to change the lights. Cool beans. Don’t know which version I necessarily like better, but, when you are moving fast, the ability to flip a couple switches and get a distinctly different result, to me, just enhances your versatility as a shooter, maximizes the efficiency of your location time, and can, at least occasionally, endear you to the art director, if such a person is present on the set with you. Clients love it when you can change on a dime. Versatility and flexibility can mean you’ll get called back, which is generally desirable.


And then, just to see the reach of the light, I put the magnificent Mawgie in there. I’m not saying Mawgie is the type of lady who might get arrested on her wedding day, but hey….


A bunch of my favorite folks, a few speed lights, and a jail cell. What more could one ask for? More tk…..

Bo Vejgaard says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:18 am

Hi Joe,

Once again you combine fabulous images with good writing. Giving all of us tricks an ideas, that we can run of an expirement with.

Thanks, it helps me to keep getting better.


Simon Grosset says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:22 am

” can mean you’ll get called back, which is generally desirable.”
Can you give us a few examples of those ‘assignments from hell’ where you really didn’t want to be called back again? You must have had at least one!

Lewis Coward says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:26 am

Hey Joe … what can I say … that last shot is just great. Starting a specific dancer portfolio in the next few days .. certainly given me another direction. Cheers.

joe says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:26 am

i love this set-up. it looks so incredibly natural. like a cross between fergie and jesus.

Richard Hales says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:31 am

As ever, inspirational and informative. If you ever have a couple of spare speedlights you don’t need…

Diego Jose says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:31 am

Very cool! Thanks for sharing. I’ve been waiting for your blog posts, it’s a real pleasure reading them.

Peter Geluk says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:38 am

Love love love posts like this. I was struggling yesterday with my one :-( speedlite, but ideas like these really are worth reading and a big help.

Allthough I find most of my clients don’t have the patience to wait for me to set up lighting like this… shame… anyone else having that problem?


Knut says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:42 am

Cool beans indeed, very inspiring!

Knut says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:43 am

Now off to find a jail cell…

Barbara Thorbjörnsson says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:43 am

What beautiful portrait work! Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge. I continue to look forward to your sharing and to seeing more of your work.

Ludovic says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:47 am

This ranch really is a great source of inspiration. These pictures are awesome !

A question : is there a reason (other than availability) why you didn’t use a single powerful strobe instead of several small ones ?


Rogier says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:51 am

Coupla questions:
– It looks like the three flashes have a diffuser on. Why?
– What is the difference in light between the window without flashes and Lastolite diffuser, and with diffuser and flash? I mean, couldn’t you have shot the same picture with natural light falling through the window, maybe at slightly higher ISO?

Tx for the instructional post. Always love what you write.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

ThomasMN says:

on March 23, 2010 at 6:19 am

Amazing light, as ususal. I guess I have alot to learn 😉

Howard Haby says:

on March 23, 2010 at 8:19 am

Wow, these photos of Thomas are great! Terrific face for a distinct portrait. Excellent work.

Mark says:

on March 23, 2010 at 8:19 am

Just when I thought you were blessed with some natural light…you went and made your own. While Thomas looks right at home (not saying he’s spent time inside an old jail for cattle rustling…) the juxtapostion of the bride and the bars is aweseome.

And @ Simon…Joe might tell you about a few assisgnments he had with a particular pharm company in the early 2000’s…not sure he wanted back with them. But we kept calling! :-)

Drew Gurian says:

on March 23, 2010 at 8:41 am

Hey Ludovic,

A few reasons…even is the setup involved setting up 3 SB’s, to me, that’s still lighter and quicker than a large strobe. More importantly though is the ability to be able to shoot the flashes TTL, and to be able to alter the mood of the light without ever stepping away from the camera (in this case, it would have involved walking outside and around back of the building).

Malinda Hartong says:

on March 23, 2010 at 8:51 am

I love the sneaky master flash out the other window. Brilliant, in your typical goofy way!

Ludovic says:

on March 23, 2010 at 8:54 am

Thanks a lot for your thourough answer.

It’s amazing to see how the versatility of these small strobes now allows them to be a true alternative to bigger hardware, when certain conditions are met. The genius, as always, is knowing when to use what in order to achieve the best results possible in the most efficient way.

As usual, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

Rich Charpentier says:

on March 23, 2010 at 9:00 am


Thanks for another cool post and additional inspiration. Several months ago I was a total speedlite novice. Today I’m a speedlite novice with a bunch of ideas stuck in my head.

I’m a KelbyTraining subscriber and a few months ago I dug into almost all of your courses. Skipped the Nikon specific stuff as I’m a Canon guy (there, I said it). Then I went and read your “Hot Shoe Diaries,” which was even more inspiration.

Now I’m running around bothering people for an afternoon of shooting and figuring out where to mount my wireless gear…..I recently did a fun “window lit” shot in an Airstream through metal blinds for some interesting shadows, with a very patient friend, and the images worked out very well! As a landscape junkie, this is really new to me, and a lot of fun.

Thanks for all that inspiration! It’s been an amazing learning experience!

Renato Costa says:

on March 23, 2010 at 9:11 am

Beautiful Work, Congrats!

I share the same inquires from Rogier.

What is the purpose of the diffusers on flash heads, for this setup ?

Best Regards, Renato.

Ludovic says:

on March 23, 2010 at 9:20 am

Sorry, I meant “thorough”.

Skip Barber says:

on March 23, 2010 at 9:51 am


Another great blog. I can see why you use Thomas repeatedly. He knows the kind of images you are looking for, and you know how to get great images from him. A great match!

Ban_D says:

on March 23, 2010 at 10:00 am

Nice idea – keep the good habit of taking the camera down for a glass of beer sometimes! :-)
Great shots, especially the last one – as usual.

Hans says:

on March 23, 2010 at 10:48 am

Fabulous tip Joe, it’s amazing how those small strobes emulate window light, can’t wait to try the setup. Window light in onze pocket, crazy stuff.

Mike Neale says:

on March 23, 2010 at 10:55 am

Thanks Drew,…very cool info,…behind every great tog is a greater Grip.


Otto Rascon says:

on March 23, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Great post Joe. I love the portraits, especially the one of Mawgie. The set-up is brilliant and the outcome is awesome. Thanks for sharing. Rock on!

Glyn Dewis says:

on March 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Hi Joe,

Thanks for sharing some wonderful photographs along with the set up shots too; gotta love those SB units!!!

2011 is when I plan to be making the trip over from the UK to a Santa Fe Workshop; please tell me you’re holding a course then :o)

All the best to you,

Spencer Leamer says:

on March 23, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Why not just use a small studio strobe instead of 4 hot-shoe strobes…I don’t get it. And why would Joe be using TTL? Isn’t he a professional? What is this world coming to?!

Polgara says:

on March 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Magnificent images!

John Batdorff says:

on March 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Great shots. The stuff you come up with is amazing.

Jane says:

on March 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm

I love the shot of the bride in the jail cell. The light with the speed lights do a great job and the setting is so unusual for a bride but it fits.

Lou Janelle says:

on March 23, 2010 at 7:04 pm

I think you have one over DH. Brilliant!

Virginia Bonesteel says:

on March 23, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Brings back memories of Santa Fe (Thomas and, most of all, Mawgie), arouses yearnings to play with light, and, most of all, inspires.

Thanks, Joe.

K Hemmick says:

on March 23, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I almost lost my freedom once. Now I really cherish freedom. Light in a jail cell represents freedom. Light is freedom. Freedom is light. Unplugged and free, a nice contrast in a jail cell . . . . . .

Justin Van Leeuwen says:

on March 23, 2010 at 10:35 pm

I got the 3×3 skylite for just this reason – still lacking all the grips to get it in position right, so I’m forced to solicit friends and twitterers with promise of beer & breakfast (no particular order).

What’s that handle attached at the back? Looks like a bit of the linchpin in securing against a window like that. I might have answered my own question – the handle doesn’t come with the 3×3… it comes with the 3×6.

*checks wallet*

Beer is still cheaper.

ric woods says:

on March 24, 2010 at 12:37 am

I really enjoy your posts

Klaus says:

on March 24, 2010 at 4:06 am


thanks for sharing your experiences and tipps. Allways a pleasure to read your comments.

Kind Regards from Germany


aleksarus says:

on March 24, 2010 at 4:19 am

simple and obvious solution, why did 3 pieces SB900? 1 is not enough for F8?

Robert Grubba says:

on March 24, 2010 at 9:26 am

Love the shots, beautiful soft light in amazing place, face with character, great controll over exposure, and story neat to read – as allways. The idea of bride… oh my lord. Great!

Cathy says:

on March 24, 2010 at 9:37 am

Great photos as usual. Thank you for actually showing the set up – that is so helpful to see. I’m just starting to get comfortable playing with the speedlights – seeing what you do with them and HOW you set them up – priceless. Thanks!

scott robertson says:

on March 24, 2010 at 10:07 am

Great work, Joe. I’m curious, what power setting were the strobes on? 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, etc,.

Thanks for sharing.

Kaveh Ghobadi says:

on March 24, 2010 at 11:00 am

Nice Idea & Great shots.


Mike says:

on March 24, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Hi Joe:
Awesome shots as always. One Question. . . .
Did you use any gel on the SB’s..?

Edd Carlile says:

on March 24, 2010 at 5:05 pm

C’mon Joe (Jedi Master of light) hitting that window area with 3 SB900’S!!! Surely one with a nice wide zoom would have done you lovely,no?
(But I am a humble padewan….mind me not)

dave.s says:

on March 24, 2010 at 11:43 pm

I love the bridal dress shot, with jail house showing. Any of the cowboy with bars???
D3x seems deep in tones or colors nice.

shawn chamberlin says:

on March 25, 2010 at 1:41 pm

always great reading these posts. i’ve actually began saving the final images, along with the setups to create a lighting scrapbook. great way to reference ideas when i’m trying to come up with ideas for images. i also had a question, if you had strong directional light coming from the side of the building where the speedlights are, could you just throw up the sunbounce to soften the light and use the sun instead of speedlights?


Johan Sopiee says:

on March 29, 2010 at 10:57 am

oh man! i just love the quality of light in these shots. absolutely love it!

Dom Romney says:

on March 29, 2010 at 11:40 am

Why do you use a skylite and flashes over a large softbox??

Radu says:

on March 31, 2010 at 8:13 am

It’s great to see natural light from artificial sources. I think that’s the biggest challenge, creating something that’s accepted as natural.

Great work and thanks for the great info.


Chris says:

on March 31, 2010 at 10:34 pm

A real good piece on light.

Jijan says:

on March 31, 2010 at 11:35 pm

i really love this series… thanks man…

Manolo Roxas says:

on April 1, 2010 at 8:49 pm

You said that you strung together two SC-29 cords together. Can that be really done without additional hardware? I find one SC-29 cord too short at times and just shoot on manual wireless but it takes a lot of trial and error.

Infinity Photo Blog says:

on April 3, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Gorgeous !

Kat says:

on April 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Thanks so much. I learned so much from this!

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