The Hat Project: Night One

My three-light plan seemed to work when the hat was on a microphone stand, but, as it turns out, people are quite different from microphone stands. "It all went so well in rehearsal!"

Two steps forward, three steps backward. That’s how I felt about my photography skills when I looked at the lighting on my “hat project” images.

I feel like I’ve had some success using multiple off-camera flash units, and I’ve wanted to make some good photos of my hats, so I invited some friends to model the hats for me.

All the elements came together: great models, great hats, and a friend loaned me a third flash unit. I planned to use my SB800 as an umbrella-bounced key light, my SB600 as a gelled background light, and the borrowed SB600 as a shoot-through umbrella fill light.  On paper, it made lots of sense.

I shot some tests, and did not quite like the results. You how they say that doing the same things but expecting different results is a sign of insanity? For some reason, I was so committed to the lighting concept that I refused to significantly alter it, even when I could see that the background and fill lights were too harsh and questionably positioned. Frankly, I think I was too embarrassed to rework the lights while people were waiting and watching.

Great models, great hats, great gear, and no presence of mind. The result? Mediocre images.

The good news? We had a good time and we’re going to try again. I got some nice pictures of my hats. And I got to spend the evening with five beautiful, smart, funny women – four models and my wife, whom you may imagine as a female Atlas, carrying the weight of my neuroses and anxieties on her shoulders.

Next time, I’m going to work slower, with one or two lights only – perhaps I won’t overheat my brain.

Jaye wearing my Akubra Federation IV Deluxe. The key light is on the right, but the fill seems more like a key because her hand blocks the main light. As you can see, however, the background light is too hot and very distracting.

Another oversight: It did not occur to me that my hats might not fit my models. All of my hats were too big for Brook, but she knew exactly what to do! I also learned that a black Stetson hat is hard to light, no matter how many lights you use.

Kara, sporting my Akubra Banjo Paterson. The lighting ratio is not completely wrong, as we do get some three dimensionality, but it's nearly as flat as a run-of-the-mill senior portrait. I also did not realize until we were shooting that I had not conceived a way to show both the tops of the hats and the model's eyes. Tricky business.

Here, Holly models the Akubra Stylemaster. I have better pictures of Holly, who is currently knocking them dead as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, but this was the best shot of the Stylemaster.

Jaye understood better than I did that profile shots would look like mug shots unless she injected a sense of action and movement into them. This is a Stetson that started life as a western hat. I reshaped the crown and trimmed the brim into a hybrid western fedora.

Holly in my Stetson Open Road. Here, we accidentally came much closer to my intended look. Because she turned away from the key light, it became the hat light. I must have turned down the fill and background light because of the way she turned, and I think the ratio is better, but not entirely correct.

My daughter helped me with some test shots, but could not stick around for the shoot.

For reference, this is the sort of lighting ratio I was after. Had I consulted my notes from previous sessions, I would have gotten it.


Filed under Lighting, Portraiture, Professional vs. Amateur

2 responses to “The Hat Project: Night One

  1. Joan (Anderson) Naszady


    Nice work…I am a very amateur photographer myself, and know next to nothing about lighting, but I applaud your work. I know this is about photography, not just hats…but how do you clean them? My husband has a grubby beaver Stetson, and he says he has to send it away.

    • Usually, a good brushing will do most of the work. If there are sweat stains, that’s mostly salt, so if you spritz the hat with distilled water and brush it, that will help too. (Always brush in a counter clockwise direction). But if the hat is really dirty, I take mine to a local western wear store where there are some people with expertise in using naptha and other cleaning agents. BTW, are you Joan from San Miguel Hall back in 1976?

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