On Assignment: Standing Behind Their Work

20 Oct

Ever see a thriller movie where someone (usually Matt Damon) is talking to the bad CIA guys while they sit in their office even as Damon has them zeroed in from across the street?

That’ll soon be implausible if Dianna and Wayne Wilhelm any say about it. They are building (and retrofitting) government buildings with normal-looking, 1/2″ glass that will stop a metal jacketed 9mm round at point blank range. And within two months, glass of that same thickness will be stopping rounds from high-powered rifles. Really cool stuff.

I was assigned to shoot the Wilhelms for a BizMo cover, and thought I would take advantage of the fact that this new laminated ballistic glass is also optically decent. So I shot them through a piece of glass that already had stopped five 9mm rounds in an earlier demonstration.

Most bullet-resistant (never say bullet proof) glass is thick and wavy. Think of the encased cashier at a high-security bank branch. But this stuff was thin enough (and clear enough) to where you could actually shoot through it with a camera and keep the subject reasonably sharp.

Normally, I prefer SB-800s when shooting indoors and save the Profotos for when I am battling and overpowering sun. But to hold the impact marks in the glass in decent focus, I new I would need a very small aperture. So I brought my big lights to what would normally been a cut-and-dried speedlight portrait.

f/16 and Be There

The process was to set up my lights on a modest power setting, so I could get really fast recycle times. Then I would adjust the ratios and tweak my ISO until I was able to shoot at f/16. On a D3, anything at ISO 800 or below looks pretty much the same to me. So as long as I have DoF, I valued recycle time over marginal grain.

This photo was shot with a Nikkor 35 f/2 AIS, a screaming sharp manual focus wide-angle lens. And even after the optical trip through the half-inch glass, the sharpness was acceptable if not perfect.

I used three light sources. The first was a Profoto head in a large Paul Buff octa, positioned to do two things. First, I wanted it to edge-light the glass shatter marks from a hard angle. You need that lighting angle to get the crack lines to pop. Second, I wanted it to provide a small amount of (near) on-axis fill for Dianna and Wayne.

You can see it just above the glass, in the photo above. This position gets me twice the bang for the buck. I was more concerned with the exposure level of the glass marks than the subject fill level. But by tweaking the position and angle I could get both effects pretty close.

The key light was a boomed Profoto head in a beauty dish, slightly in front of and above the subjects. The dish is silver on the inside (efficient, but specular) so I socked it to turn it into a smallish, diffused light source.

The separation light was a hard-angle kiss on the back wall from a slaved, gridded SB-800 seen at right. The wall was not black before the separation light hit it — it was getting some illumination from the dish and the octa. So the speedlight just created a small gradient to separate the subjects better.

It was a pretty straightforward shot, as far as the lighting goes. Honestly, the hard part was positioning the camera at the exact spot where the subjects’ faces would each appear inside of an intact pieces of glass.

It was harder than it looked. It is a three-dimensional solution, made more complicated by the fact that the subjects are always moving to some degree. I was bobbing and weaving like a boxer behind that glass to constantly compensate for the three variables.

And in the end, I thought it was a little ironic that I was able to do what the bad guys aren’t — shoot both Dianna and Wayne right through a pane of their very special glass.


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