I answered the phone, and it was my buddy, Gary. He said, “Hey, Levi. I’ve got a great idea.” Now, you should know that I’m always up for an adventure, and Gary and I have had a lot of them. This time, he wanted to take over the world of ice skating photography. Oh, boy.

Divide and conquer

The plan was, we’d go to this ice skating competition near Salt Lake and Gary would photograph the skaters on the ice and I’d make portraits in the lobby and we’d sell the parents a combo package and become millionaires. He’d be over there cranking away on the action shots, and I’d be over here hustling to make portraits. Though it’s not the correct use of the phrase “divide and conquer,” it was a great way for us to provide maximum value. Sounds like fun!

Quick and dramatic

These ice skaters come in all ages from two to 72, and they are dressed to the nines in fancy costumes and makeup and they’re all excited to be performing the routines they’ve been practicing for ages.

I wanted to offer portraits that showed off the drama they were performing on the ice. Using a black background makes it easy to make dramatic-looking pictures. One light to the side on black is practically the definition of dramatic.


I also needed to be able to make pictures quickly. Each division had only a few minutes between performances. After awards were given, parents grabbed their kids and hustled out, so I needed to get them in front of my lens quickly and make a photo they couldn’t refuse and do it over and over again.

The setup

A black drape on a backdrop stand and a podium the ice rink let me borrow was all I had for props. The podium was handy for pictures of winners and I also used it to let the skaters sit and pose.

I had just one light, and AlienBee B800 with a 30-inch octobox softbox. Sometimes I added a silver reflector to the side opposite the light (I would never do that now — it’d be a white reflector ;) ).

The key thing is that the light needs to be kind of far away from the subject. The reason is that when the light is close, things a little closer to the light have comparatively more light and appear bright. That means a shoulder ends up brighter than the face, and that’s distracting. Strangely, these ladies skating around in the freezing cold usually have bare shoulders!

The light is about four feet away all the time, and that gives a more even light on the bright side. For drama, it can be above and shining downward, or straight from the side. I favor the look I get with the light to the side and just a little higher than the subject’s eyes.

The camera

Back in 2011 I was using a Nikon D700 and a 28-300mm lens. We did this two years in a row and in 2012 I used a D800 with a 28-300mm lens. (We did become millionaires in 2011, but I blew it all on a 70-200mm lens — kidding! See last week’s column.)

Most of the portraits are made at about 110mm and f/11 at 1/200s with an ISO of 400. Those settings make a black picture if the flash doesn’t fire, which is perfect because then the lighting in the lobby doesn’t affect the picture. And it knocks the parents’ socks off when they see this super dramatic photo made in the lobby with huge windows and lots of light.

With this setup, the only that changes from shot to shot is the subject. The light is the same distance away all the time, so the exposure settings are always the same. That means you can just dial in the setting on your camera in manual mode, adjust the brightness of the flash and go to town. You can’t leave anything to an automatic setting on the camera because the black background makes cameras grumpy and they do a poor job. Just use manual mode and get to work.

Have fun!

This ended up being one of my favorite adventures with Gary. It was a ton of work, and delivering to clients remotely after the show in those days wasn’t simple. We did it twice and moved on to other things — maybe I’ll tell you about the marching band adventures, sometime.

If you can master making portraits on a black background with one light, you’ll have a quick and repeatable setup that you can apply to many instances. It’s a tool I use frequently and my clients appreciate the coolness factor. I think your clients will enjoy it, too.

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