Dread: That’s the feeling that happens when you know you’re in over your head but you have to perform anyway.

Dread started weighing on me and pulling my stomach into my shoes when I arrived for this photoshoot. I was on assignment with my assistant to several places in rural Utah to photograph people working in their environments. The assignment for this day was the owner of a grocery store.

I’m actually sitting in a grocery store as I write this. It’s a hip store in a ritzy mountain town with a big coffee shop and a large cafe area with big picture windows. Every corner of this grocery is well decorated and lit for effect and the windows shed light through the whole store. The place I’m sitting right now would be an ideal place for portraits.

The place I was shooting that day couldn’t have been less ideal. We were in a town with fewer people than my graduating class in high school, but it was the biggest of the small towns for many miles around. The entire building was made of corrugated steel sheets from the foundation to the rafters. The only window was in the single man-sized door at the very front of the store, and it was half-covered with flyers for the local theater production. The overhead lights were fluorescent tubes of various colors with various frequencies of flicker, and they were nothing like the same color as the lights on the produce. This is the birthplace of dread, a total nightmare for picture-making.

Or, it was a photographer’s dream come true.

Challenge vs. dread

When you’re faced with a situation you’ve never faced before, you can either think about how dreadful it is, or you can embrace the challenge and use it to fuel your creativity.

I needed to make a portrait that would fit well on a billboard. I needed a beautifully lit scene with natural light. What I had was a steel warehouse with no windows — oh, and they were still open for business so I needed to be quick.

Fortunately, remembered a lesson I learned from Tony Corbel about lighting: Light from behind is more efficient than light from the front. When you shine a light glancing off objects toward the camera, it appears much brighter than the same light reflecting off the face of your subject. That’s how I lit an entire grocery store with two speedlights.

Hard lights sparkle

We went to the bakery aisle for two reasons. First, it was the biggest section of the store, and the only place I could get my subject far enough from the shelves to make the shelves out of focus. Secondly, there were lots of shiny wrappers and juice bottles on the shelf that would magnify the power of my little speedlights.

I used one speedlight on my subject’s face with a softbox so it would be flattering on him. My other speedlight went behind on a light stand, but the stand wasn’t tall enough, so my assistant had to hold it up in the air as high as he could. I wanted that light to look like it was coming from clerestory windows at the top of the store.

Because a speedlight is small, it sends out a hard light that reflects off of every surface it hits. That’s why it’s better to make a large light for the face: All the texture in skin reflects the light and casts a shadow and it’s not flattering on skin. But, that reflectiveness makes the background sparkle as the light reflects off every wrinkle in a bag of hot dog buns and off every surface on a bottle of juice. All those reflections make the background look a lot brighter than it actually was. And it ends up looking light there’s some natural light shining into this very dim building.

Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8 Macro lens, f/4, 1/60s, ISO 200.

Lastly, I used a slow shutter speed to allow the room lights to appear brighter, too. The camera was on a tripod so I still got a sharp shot.

Don’t give up

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. When the situation is over your head, don’t give in to dread. That’s the perfect time to put all the things you’ve studied and practiced to work to save the day. I know you can do it.

My client ended up using a different shot for the billboard, but I still ended up with pictures I made in a tough situation, a new skill in my pocket, and a story I’ll always remember.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.