BTS of “Fight for Hope” Photography

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I recently had the pleasure of shooting some photos for a new non-profit foundation called “Fight for Hope,” which uses self-defense training (in addition to counseling) as a method to help women who have experienced violence to regain a sense of hope and personal empowerment.

From a technical standpoint, the photos were quite simple: two lights and a black background. However, the response to them has been so enthusiastic that I thought a little behind-the-scenes explanation might be of interest.

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There were two basic setups: one for the close-up “hand” shots, and one for the medium shots of the standing woman. The primary light source, the “key light” was the same for both. I used a Vivitar 285HV (an $80 speedlight which has become my favorite instrument for off-camera lighting) shining through the diffusion panel from a 6-in-1 illuminator/reflector kit.


Shooting through a diffusion panel is a nice change from the softbox and umbrella setups that you see used generally. Because the light is not only going through the panel, but also bouncing off the walls and ceiling in the room, you don’t have as much control over the light, but you also get a softer quality of light.

For the closeup shots, I didn’t want the shadows on the hand to be too severe, so I used the “sunlight” reflector from the same 6-in-1 illuminator/reflector kit to bounce light back towards the shadow side of the hands.

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For the medium-shots, I wanted the shadows to be more dramatic, so I took the reflector down, and I used another Vivitar 285HV as a backlight. This gave the model a bright edge on the shadow side that “cut her out” of the black background. I still have a bit of noir-ish “lost and found contour,” but the backlight visually supports the dramatic presentation of the subject matter, while making it easier to determine where the model ends and the background begins.


To keep the backlight from shining onto the backdrop, I placed it behind the backdrop, and off to the side. This way, any spill would be absolutely minimal. To keep it from flaring my lens, I set up a piece of black foamcore in a stand, positioned in such a way that it blocked the light from hitting my camera, but still illuminated the model.

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As you can see, the backlight combined with the dark background does highlight flyaway hairs, but since this is supposed to be evocative of self-defense training, I just touched up some of the longer ones and left the rest in the image, since they looked natural.

The real key to this setup is that I kept the model (actually one of the founders of the non-profit) very close to the key light diffusion panel. This accomplished two things: it made for a wonderfully soft, yet directional, quality of light (the closer the subject is to the light source, the softer the light will be), and, because the level of illumination close to the light source was much stronger than the level of illumination hitting the background, it kept the background at an absolutely black exposure. This is what we call “black limbo” – an undifferentiated, textureless darkness. By using this method, I didn’t have to do any touch-up to the background. If I had kept the model closer to the backdrop, the level of illumination would have been much more similar, and I would have had to fix wrinkles and specks of dust on the backdrop.

I really felt good about this shoot (which I did pro bono), and seeing my photos printed out at close to poster-size, and framed on the walls of the Fight for Hope office was very satisfying. It’s nice to know that my work will hopefully help this worthy organization to attract more attention.

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