My assignment yesterday, for the soon-to-be-launched San Louie Magazine, was to do an full-page portrait of David Yun, the head of Geographic Information Services for the city of San Luis Obispo. David supervises a team of mapmakers who plot everything from bicycle traffic and storm runoff to creating three-dimensional maps of all the buildings downtown. Like most of us, modern cartographers spend far more time at their computers that they do in the field. I was given carte blanche with a few loose guidelines… “think about layering of information, think about layering of the city.” I was given a rough draft of the story that my photo would accompany and David’s contact info.

So, in three parts, I’ll take you through the three different location shoots that we did over the course of three hours. Seems like three is today’s magic number.

How It All Started

There are shoots where you have time to think, scout locations, develop ideas, and plan. This was not one of them. I had a quick phone call with David to set the appointment and then showed up at his office with a backpack full of Speedlites, a couple of stands, two cameras, lenses, and… oh man, I left my tripod at home (30 miles away). I always head to a shoot with the attitude that I can deal with anything. So, I grabbed a larger light stand that I had in my truck and decided that I could jury-rig a camera stand if needed. [As you’ll see in Part Two, this was a total lifesaver.]

You never know what your subject is going to give you — in terms of time, energy, or involvement. So I always ask right up front “how much time do we have?” I always hope that it’s at least 15 minutes. David said “two to three hours.” Cue the Hallelujah Chorus!

I then asked about his ideas for locations that would suggest layering — of information, of the city, etc. It is so important to get your subject’s buy-in to the shoot. Who better to ask about locations than a cartographer? David suggested two spots: a large vintage map at the county courthouse and a tunnel under the downtown plaza through which the San Luis Obispo Creek flows.

Lastly, I asked David about the icons of his trade. I wanted him to have a symbol of modern cartography to help anchor his profession to the scene. “A long time ago,” I said, “a cartographer would have a compass, pen, and parchment. What do you carry today?” David said simply, “my GPS.” So, as we walked down the hall to get his GPS, I’m thinking about how I will frame up some handheld tricorder-looking thingie to make it say “cartography.” Well, to a modern mapmaker, GPS must mean something like “Greatly Pronounced Size” because when David showed me his GPS, all I could think was that my Neptune had just picked up his trident. I had my icon of modern cartography. So off we went to the county courthouse.


Turning Out The Courthouse Lights

The first thing to know about going into a courthouse these days is that it’s like heading through TSA screening, except that you don’t get the critique of your driver’s license photo or the plane ride. So imagine David with his GPS and me with my bulging backpack heading up to the courthouse metal detector. The security guard and sheriff’s deputy did not bat an eyelash. Long story short…they would not let David in because he had a eency-weency pen knife on his key ring. Absolutely nothing was said about the big, spiky electronic thing that was leaning against the wall. So, while David returned the security threat to his office, I chatted up the deputy about how wise he was to get reassigned to courthouse security after realizing that, after years on patrol, he was “getting cranky out on the streets.” Note to self: do not make any sudden movements during the shoot.

To a cartographer, a century-old map is a thing of beauty. To a photographer, who just discovered that it’s behind a huge pane of glass along a well-trafficked atrium walkway underneath big skylights, well let’s just say that I reminded myself that “I can deal with anything on a shoot” and that I had my Speedliter’s combat pack pulling at my shoulders.

Reflections, glare, and passers-by be damned. If you act like you own the place, most people will assume that you do. So I went right to work with the mindset that I was going to have to turn out the courthouse lights. Problem was… there’s no turning out the skylights. Fortunately, I’m a Speedliter and high-speed sync is my friend.

This was a two-light shoot. Here are the details:

• Master 580EX II Speedlite connected to my 5DM2 by an extra-long E-TTL cord so that I could control it from my camera’s LCD. I positioned the Speedlite to create a bit of rim light on David and throw light onto the map.
• Slave 580EX in front is the key light.
• Slave is flagged on left side with a Honl gobo card so that it does not hit the map. Master is flagged on camera-right with same so that it does not hit the camera (when I zoomed in).
• Both Speedlites are turned vertically so that they match the orientation of what I am lighting…I’m lighting David, not the whole scene
• Rather than fight the glare from the back Speedlite, I eventually moved into a spot where it created a halo around David’s head.
• Aperture was selected for the depth-of-field that I wanted (f/8).
• Shutter was selected based on desire to kill the ambient. The hero shot above was 1/800″. A shot fired without the Speedlites came up pure black — proving that I had killed the ambient entirely.
• High speed sync enabled me to shoot at any shutter speed I wanted. Even with the 2.5 stop power hit you take when switching into HSS, the two Speedlites had all the horsepower they needed for this shoot.
• I controlled the Speedlites in E-TTL, which is to say that the camera calculated the flash power and I used Flash Exposure Compensation to increase or decrease it to taste. The hero shot had +2/3 FEC.


More Cartography Adventures To Come

Here’s a peek at the location for Part Two.


15 Responses to Mapping The Cartographer – Part One

  1. Doug Kaye says:

    What a great example of making lemonade from lemons: "glare" becomes "halo".

  2. Alexandria Sehrer says:

    Wonderful, Syl!

  3. brian from nj says:

    Brilliant, Syl…

    Great shot, can't wait to adapt your setup to my own work…

    Brian from NJ.

  4. Melinda says:

    This was really helpful to me, Syl. Thanks so much for showing all the set up pictures and giving detail about your gear and settings. You really transformed the light at that location.

  5. G Van Buren says:

    I can't wait for part 2-could you show us the shot without the speedlites that came up black.

    • Syl Arena says:

      George – By black, in this case, I mean black. No ambient at all. Think of the color of the inside of a shoebox with the lid on, at night with no moon. That black.

  6. Syl… Nice work. Thanks for sharing your process. I love to hear the behind-the-scenes thought process to build a shot. It shows how to work a set and add pieces to control most aspects of the photo.

    Had you considered a light modifier for the main light? I like the hard flash, but wondered if you had the luxury to try a small lightbox, umbrella or a even a stofen? Would that have greatly changed the photo?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Hey Andy – Great questions. I tried the Lastolite EZYbox (24") for one shot. It ate up too much light. Didn't consider a Sto-Fen. It eats up 3 stops of light. WIth the power hit from HSS, bare flash is about the only way to go if just a couple of Speedlites are being used. Also, after years of only creating soft light, my visual pendulum is definitely swinging in the other direction. Say hey to the doctor.

  7. Really a wonderful post – as a Canon "Speedlighter" myself I love seeing how "our" lights are being used. Not to say it can't give everyone else a run for their money, just sometimes you feel a bit slighted when McNally or Hobby go around flashing you with their bare bulbs…

  8. David Clark says:

    Hey, Syl, very educational and totally fascinating post! Great captures, too! I especially like the way you used HSS to eliminate glare on the map-using a polarizer would have given a much flatter look. Can't wait for the book. 🙂

    Was there any particular reason why you had the back (rim) light as master and the front/key light as slave?

    • Syl Arena says:

      David – Thx. for the kudos. No reason that the rim light was the master. It just happened to be the first light that I placed. When I'm working in ratios — and have the time to keep a clear head — I place the master on the left because that's the way the ratio numbers work — A to B — and the master is always a member of Group A. In this case, I was just flying fast as I had three locations to shoot in as many hours.

  9. Kenny Loh says:

    Having recently converted to Canon from Nikon, I've been having a hard time working in ratios with Canon Speedlites. It got so frustrating that I went out and bought a couple of Pocket Wizard TT5 and TT1. Ratios is counter-intuitive and a real pain for me. With the Pocket Wizards, I work totally in manual mode. Much more tolerable. IMHO, the shadows on the floor and on his face was just too distracting. But then again, there were no walls for you to bounce the light.

    • Syl Arena says:


      Ratios are very weird until you get the trick…they are just another way of expressing EV or stops. Every time you double or halve the light, it's a 1-stop change.

      2:1 means A is twice B, so 1 stop difference, 1 x 2 = 2

      4:1 means A is four times as bright as B, so 2 stops difference, 2 x 2 = 4

      8:1 means A is eight times as bright as B, so 3 stops difference, 2 x 2 x 2 = 8

      Master is always a member of Group A.

      Group C is handled as FEC relative to the A:B ratio, which still spins my head. Instead, I just switch the Group C light into E-TTL Manual by holding the Mode button down for 3-seconds after it is switched on as a slave. Then I can dial the power up or down individually while I work the other A:B units in E-TTL.

      As for the bold shadows, it is, of course, a matter of taste. I had many options in my kit to create soft light on location. I intentionally created the raking shadows for the drama and the metaphor. I think there are times for soft light and times for hard light. Certainly, no problems with you not agreeing. Welcome to the world of Canonistas.

  10. Dennis says:


    I agree with Kenny, the dual shadow on the floor drew my eyes straight to it. Maybe something like a Rogue Flashbender on one or both instead of the gobo to get the light to fall off like a softbox but without losing the stops?

    Thanks for sharing the set up, very educational!

  11. sami srour says:

    Was there any way you could have taken the reflections off the map, so you can see details in the map? Other than taking the glass off the map & dis-assembbling the frame!

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