April 5, 2011

portrait session – Steinway pianist

I had the opportunity recently of photographing Robert Wyatt, a pianist affiliated with Steinway, at the Steinway offices in New York. This photo was taken as we were set to leave after the photo session was already done. I was immediately drawn to the symmetry of the architecture and the lavish foyer below. The pose and framing was deliberately centered.

For this lighting setup, I quickly pulled out the Lastolite softbox again, and used it as a single light source. It was all that was needed for a simple portrait here. But earlier on, for the actual photo session with Robert, I used multiple off-camera speedlights and different light modifiers to get portraits with impact …


multiple flash setup, controlled by PocketWizard FlexTT5 units

Here are two of the set-ups, using three (Nikon SB-900) speedlights, each fired by PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceiver (B&H) – all controlled by a FlexTT5 and speedlight on my camera, acting as the master controller.

All flashes were set to manual output. With black surfaces – tuxedo & piano – being so predominant in the final composition of the portraits, TTL flash would’ve just made it more difficult. It had to be manually controlled flash. This is where the new PocketWizards made the shoot so much easier. I could control the power of each flash from the on-camera speedlight (via the on-camera FlexTT5). All without worrying about line-of-sight problems.

The pull-back shot here will explain the lighting set-up.

The light on the right-hand side here is a speedlight, bounced into the large room. This flash was there simply to lift the contrast. By pulling this speedlight’s power up and down, I could open up the shadows. Or not. I had this set as group C, and it was around 1/4 full power for most of the shoot, but I did vary it, taking it down to 1/8th power, and even up to full power for some photos.

The light on the left-hand side is a speedlight in a Lastolite EZYBOX Softbox Kit (24″x24″) (B&H). It was there to create a soft fill-light from the right-hand side.  It was set to around 1/8th power, and at that distance. I controlled this as group B.

I wanted control the spill from my main light. It had to be soft, but still be concentrated on my subject. I wanted less light on my subject’s surroundings, than on my subject himself. An umbrella or a large softbox would’ve given to wide a swathe of light. To control the light, I used a gridded softbox. The softbox still gives soft light, but the grid will more narrowly direct the light.  The specific light modifier here was the Creative Light 1×3′ Recessed Softbox (B&H) with the Creative Light 1×3′ Softgrid (B&H)

Changing the pose, but keeping the lighting setup fairly similar …

The edge of the gridded softbox can be seen in the top right of the frame, and could easily be cloned out. I decided not to, since I feel that small black triangle there helps with the composition, containing the geometric patterns within the frame.

Out of sight here to the right of the camera, is the speedlight that bounced light into the rest of the room to help control the contrast.

I chose to work with speedlights here (instead of the Quantum flashes or Profoto kit), because of how much control the new PocketWizard FlexTT5 allows me. Being able to change the power of each flash from my camera, made the shoot easier … and it makes me look so much more in control and cool in front of a client, when I’m not moving around, hurriedly adjusting my flashes’ individual outputs throughout the session.

more articles about off-camera flash


equipment (or alternatives) used for this photo session

Nikon D3;  Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G ED AF-S (B&H)
Nikon SB-910 Speedlight controlled by PocketWizard FlexTT5 Transceiver & AC3 Controller
or alternately, the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite controlled by Canon ST-E3 Transmitter

Lastolite EZYBOX Softbox Kit (24″x24″) (B&H)
Creative Light 1×3′ Recessed Softbox (B&H);
with the Creative Light 1×3′ Softgrid (B&H)
connected with the Creative Light speedring (B&H)


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{ 27 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Mark April 5, 2011 at 5:00 am

Very informative article – speedlights do the job again!

Neil you said – it makes me look so much more in control and cool in front of a client, when I’m not moving around, hurriedly adjusting my flashes’ individual outputs throughout the session –

Have you ever considered that if you make it look too easy they might not want to pay you so much……!


2 Neil vN April 5, 2011 at 5:02 am

Well, you do want to avoid that wild-eyed look of desperation while setting up. ; )

Neil vN


3 Jazz Guy April 5, 2011 at 8:12 am


What a great implementation of the piano as a prop. I’ve tried to photograph a pianist before as if they were playing the piano and I never liked the way it works out. You either don’t see their hands or you have to shoot a profile from the side

The shot of him bending over the piano from the side is genius!



4 Stephen April 5, 2011 at 8:55 am

HI Neil,
Does that Creative Light softbox come with a speedlight mount? I clicked the link to the B&H listing, and the product doesn’t seem to come with a mount. I guess you were using this as the mount?


5 Neil vN April 5, 2011 at 9:00 am

Stephen, that’s the speedring I used. It’s listed at the end of the article under ‘Equipment Used For This Photo Session’.

Neil vN


6 gt April 5, 2011 at 10:55 am

I guess it would be tacky to put a gelled flash INSIDE a steinway, huh?

Although, I get a feeling that if Joe McNally were around he wouldn’t hesitate ;)

BTW, I think you’ve sold me on the flex/mini thing. It’s pretty ridiculous to have to run around a room powering up and down the whole time.


7 bartosz wegrzyn April 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Neil, do you have any shoots that would show how you manipulate contrast with the flash bounced off the wall?


8 Neil vN April 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Bartosz .. I have other images, but none for which I took notes like I would’ve if this was shot specifically for the blog. So while I have other images, I don’t have specifically comparative images. We’ll have to bookmark this as a topic for a future blog post. [placeholder]

Neil vN


9 Stephen April 5, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Hi Neil,
Oops, silly me. I didn’t read all the way to the end of the article. Reading is fundamental!


10 Jerry April 5, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Great shots. I’m really surprised that you didn’t get more specular highlights on the gold on the piano hinges. Did you do any post work on that? Plus, I’m guessing that you brought apretty good sized ladder for one shot. As usual, the difficult made to look very simple.
You love the flex zone stuff. Can’t all of the same stuff be done with Radio Poppers? Or, maybe can you use some in TTL and some in manual with the Pocketwizards? That’d be cool. Thanks again…


11 Neil vN April 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I did my usual retouching for portraits, and Shine Off (Photoshop plug-in) will reduce some of the sheen. But the use of the gridded softbox is what made all the difference here in controlling the way the light doesn’t spill on the surroundings. You can see it specifically in the horizontal portrait where the interior of the piano is quite subdued in its exposure.

The Radio Poppers would’ve worked like a charm here as well. I just find the PocketWizards easier to set up.

Neil vN


12 bart April 5, 2011 at 1:23 pm

thx Neil, it would be nice to see how to you manipulate the contrast with flash


13 Neil vN April 5, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Bart, here is a follow-up post describing how I controlled the contrast here with the additional light bounced into the room. The technique is the same.

Neil vN


14 Henry Yong April 6, 2011 at 2:19 am

Long time reader but first time poster.

Very informative post (as always)!


15 Bogdan April 6, 2011 at 7:59 am

I finally bit the bullet and got those new PW for myself as well. I actually use an SU-800 on the transceiver on the camera to control the output of the remotes. With the exception of the occasional head scratching glitch, the setup works pretty well.

I should not read this blog anymore …. makes me buy stuff all the time :)




16 Neil vN April 6, 2011 at 8:12 am

Bogdan .. the PocketWizards are temperamental about the sequence in which everything is powered up. It’s Laways top to bottom .. first the flash, then the PW, then the camera. Once I got that routine, instead of random switch-ons, then I had far fewer times where things didn’t respond.

Neil vN


17 Frank April 6, 2011 at 9:38 am

Hi Neil,
could you please tell me what sort of Ezybox Hotshoe plate you use?
The normal Ezybox Hotshoe plate (2414)is a little bit to short ( especially the Rail of the Adapter)for to fit both, the SB 900 and the PW TT5 beneath!? :-(

Great Blog i read every new Post!!

Thx from Germany

Regards Frank


18 Stephen April 6, 2011 at 10:49 am

I can only speak for the U.S., but the “LL LS2414″ plate has been redesigned to fit both a SB-900 and a PocketWizard FlexTT5 unit. The shaft of the softbox ring has been made an inch longer. I had to buy a new “LL LS2414″ part to replace the old part on my Ezybox. which had the shorter shaft.


19 Neil vN April 6, 2011 at 11:02 am

Here is the B&H link to the Lastolite Hotshoe II bracket if anyone would like to order it.

Neil vN


20 Bogdan April 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Yes Neil, you’re right. It took me an afternoon to figure that out. And shutting down has to follow the same order :-). I also find powering the remotes first helps reliability as well. There’s still the occasional glitch here and there, they are not as bulletproof as the old ones yet.
I’ll write about them a bit in my “opinion” blog as well shortly ( after I test how well they work with older flashes, in manual of course)
Thanks for your reply!


21 Martin Beebee April 6, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Great post as always, Neil — thanks!

Quick question: Is there a specific reason you chose to use an on-camera flash to control the power of the remote flashes, as opposed to the PW Zone Controller?


22 Neil vN April 6, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Martin .. I chose to use an SB-900 speedlight on the FlexTT5 instead of the AC3 ZoneController, because the SB-900 gives me the auto-focus assist beam.

Neil vN


23 Bogdan April 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm

But the AF assist is a bit high, right? I wonder if it is a way to “tilt” my SU-800 forward so the pattern goes back where it should be…
Kind of re-aiming the guns on an old WW2 aircraft for convergence :-)


24 Michael April 7, 2011 at 1:00 am

Hi Neil,

How many photos did you end up taking and how many did you use?

Great article once again!


25 Neil vN April 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Michael .. I did about 30 test shots with and without Jessica. I took around 250 images of my client, of which I delivered 100 as unretouched images in a gallery. From these he will pick which he needs.

Neil vN


26 Kathy Marciante Photograhy April 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Beautiful shots! Thanks for the pull back shots. It’s always nice to visually see the set up.


27 Neil vN April 24, 2011 at 4:26 am

To answer Bart’s question (#12), here is a follow-up post about how I controlled the contrast here with the additional light bounced into the room. The technique is the same.

Neil vN


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