Technically Speaking: Lou Jones And The Challenge Of The Spiral Staircase

This photographer describes how to light and shoot the full length of a spiral staircase, and the people on it, simply but effectively.

Nov 11, 2009
As told to Jack Neubart

The task involved lighting a spiral staircase from top to bottom, all with shoe-mount strobes triggered wirelessly using TTL-flash control.
Photo Credit: © Lou Jones
The task involved lighting a spiral staircase from top to bottom, all with shoe-mount strobes triggered wirelessly using TTL-flash control.
ASSIGNMENT: Create a dynamic shot of an interior for a book entitled Speedlights & Speedlites: Creative Flash Photography at Lightspeed (published by Focal Press/Elsevier, 2009, with co-authors Bob Keenan and Steve Ostrowski).

CHALLENGE: How do we light the spiral staircase from top to bottom wirelessly, using TTL flash control with shoe-mount strobes, while also focusing attention on the people in the shot?

GEAR: Nikon D3 with 17-55mm f/2.8 lens (at 31mm); a mix of Nikon SB-900 and SB-800 shoe-mounts; TTL cable modified by Michael Bass (; Gitzo tripod, with three-way head.

CAST & CREW: Keith McWilliams as first assistant/digital tech; co-author Bob Keenan as second assistant; studio manager Leah Cornwell to oversee production.

EXPOSURE: F/4 at 0.8 sec.

SOLUTION: The real trick was finding the right interior. Luckily, a friend's aunt owned a home here in Boston, which has a multi-level spiral staircase. Only the lower floors were finished and in use, so we knew we'd have to do a little manicuring on the uppermost floors. Also, my digital artist had to retouch the worn carpeting on the stairs. Other than that, it was just a matter of deciding where to place the lights, how to shape them, and how much ambient light to admit into the shot.

Lou Jones
Courtesy of Lou Jones
Since our task was to use Nikon shoe-mounts in wireless TTL mode here (for other shots, we used Canons), we first needed to establish which light would be master and which lights would be slaved to this unit, as well as grouping the lights (A, B, or C) with individual output control for each group. All the lights were assigned to the same channel.

The obvious starting point, as we saw it, was the top [sixth] floor. We needed the lights below to have a fairly clear line of sight with respect to the master strobe, so that they would be triggered properly. So we dangled the master flash from a modified, 15-foot TTL cable attached to the camera and secured it to the railing, from the right-hand corner, where it would remain out of view. The camera was mounted onto a tripod firmly pressed up against the handrail, and overhanging the rail, in the left-hand corner. We kept just a trace of the banister in that corner for added depth. The camera, by the way, was tethered to a laptop.

We then proceeded to the two levels with our couples. On each of these floors we placed one SB-800 inside a small Plume Wafer, which we directed at the couple at a slightly downward angle. These lights were on the left, hidden by the floor above. The light on the third floor belonged to Group C; the one on the fourth, Group B. That's important because we had varying amounts of ambient light streaming in on each level, so we set output accordingly. That translated into minus 1 EV for Group B, minus one-third for Group C. The master flash (an SB-900) was set to plus 1 EV, whereas Group A was left at its default setting (no adjustment). All the flash units were left at their default zoom positions.

The SB-800 (Group A) on the ground floor was bounced into the white ceiling, toward the stairs, so that it filled in the steps, while largely illuminating the floor, simulating light from the chandelier. We also bounced another SB-800 into the ceiling on the second floor (also Group A), with the fifth floor illuminated entirely by available window light. We'd decided not to gobo any lights, or to retouch out the hot areas, since the contrast helped define the wood and give the scene more texture.

We attached our flash units to stands and softboxes with the help of "A" clamps, which avoided any strain on the shoe-mounts. Speaking of strain, you had to be in really good shape to shoot this. We were constantly running up and down, back and forth, to place lights, then reposition them as needed.

Lou Jones,, operates a studio out of Boston and specializes in commercial and fine-art photography, with a strong emphasis on lifestyle and athletics.

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