David Tejada: Small Strobe Guru

by Lorraine A. DarConte

© All photos David Tejada

David Tejada placed miners just inside the mine shaft and lit their faces with available light behind his shooting position. He used a single Nikon AB-800 light behind the miners that was handheld by his assistant.

July 12, 2013

Denver-based commercial photographer David Tejada is known for his corporate photography (specializing in annual reports and portraits of executives), site photography and his ability to do great things with small strobes. Perhaps his success lies in the fact that he was able to work over the past 30 years in nearly every business sector imaginable—from heavy industry, to healthcare, to hospitality, to finance. And though his career is now very grounded, the path to his current photography niche opened up in a very unlikely place: 30,000 feet above the ground.

Before having a client-base that includes such companies as Merrill Lynch, American Express, Hilton Hotels, General Mills Foods and Ogilvy & Mather, Tejada began as a fine-art photographer. "I was a fan of Ansel Adams and I taught myself the Zone system. Both the artful and scientific sides of the medium fascinated me and for years I did the California thing—silver print, white mat, black frame. But I didn't know I could make a living as a photographer." 

In the meantime, to support himself, Tejada held a number of jobs including that of flight attendant for Continental Airlines. Back in 1977 (when they were still called stewardesses/stewards), he was one of the first male attendants on the job. Tejada carried his camera and portfolio with him while working, and around the holidays would sell fine-art black-and-white prints to his co-workers for Christmas gifts. 

It was on a flight to Texas when Tejada met corporate photography master Joe Baraban—and his life and career path changed forever. He asked Baraban if he'd take a look at his portfolio and, with the blessings of his co-workers, spent the rest of the flight picking the photographer's brain. 

        The key light is a 60-inch shoot-though umbrella with one Nikon SB-800 light fitted with a full cut CTO (Color Temp. Orange), which provides a natural skin tone. The hair light is a single Nikon SB-800 with a grid and two CTO gels (used to get some of the warmth in the final shot).

        Tejada sets his white balance to tungsten in order to shift the daylight in the back of the photo to a pale blue. 

Although Tejada wasn't familiar with Baraban's name, he had, without fully realizing it, seen the Houston-based photographer’s work in Communication Arts magazine. The images featured in the publication were corporate shots that struck Tejada as artfully executed. Long story short, Baraban invited Tejada along on a shoot for a brochure for Shell Oil and later hired him as an assistant. "After 5 days, I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life," says Tejada, who managed to take a few weeks off here and there to work with Baraban. Eventually, Tejada moved to Houston and worked for Baraban for one-and-a-half years. "He was a visual poet. A strong shooter," says Tejada of Baraban. 

Seeing the Light

Until that point, Tejada admits, he'd never worked with strobes or flashes. Today, he's one of the top corporate photographers in the country and a small strobe guru, to boot. "I consider myself to be a generalist, although sometimes I have to do still life," he explains. "I love that because it's not typical of what I photograph." 

For the first few years, Tejada considered himself a "practicing professional." "I was self-taught along with the education I got through Baraban," says Tejada, who believes the most difficult thing about lighting for most people is being able to relay their lighting vision on set. "A beginning photographer has to close their mind to what's there and start seeing their own light. It's a difficult thing to do," he explains. "It comes with practice. When I was shooting film (ISO Kodachrome 25), I needed a lot of power, which negated the existing light. I felt I needed to light the entire scene and have complete control over the light." 

When Tejada switched to digital (in 2000), the lowest ISO at the time was 200, so he had trouble dialing down his power packs to accommodate the ISO. To compensate, he moved his light further from the subject (though he prefers to work close), but that changed the quality of light. "My strobe equipment was dictating my creativity," he laments. "I realized there had to be something smaller with less power I could use. I had a handful of Nikon SBs that I clamped into soft boxes and umbrellas, which solved the problem. That's how I got into small strobes." Strobes, he notes, are also lighter to carry, which is a major plus with today's airline restrictions. Along with his speed lights (Nikon SB 800s), Tejada carries stands and light modifiers such as grids, snoots and barn doors. 

Tejada spends the majority of his time working in corporate environments, meaning he's usually photographing people in bland cubicles, institutionalized buildings or boring offices and meeting rooms. He says the key to a good corporate portrait, which is often shot in a matter of minutes (Tejada is lucky if he gets 15 minutes of a busy executive's time), is to be prepared. "I work with an assistant, always, and use him as a stand-in. All lighting is in place prior to the executive's arrival," states Tejada, who typically shows up approximately two hours beforehand. He begins scouting for backgrounds/locations when he pulls into the company’s parking lot.

        Shot as a lighting demonstration at one of Tejada's workshops, the key light was an SB-800 bounced off a wall in front of the subject (camera right). The kicker light (or rim light) was a single SB-800 with a grid on it, lighting the subject's hair and shoulders. The background was ambient light. 

He's usually looking for an interesting lobby, elevator bank, office, hallway, and/or lighting fixture to work with. Next, he sets up four or five individual portrait settings, all of which are pre-lit and tested on the assistant. "I also make notations on power and camera settings (Nikon D700 and Nikon D800) for each location." As for lenses, Tejada carries a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm and a 70-200 VRII f/2.8. "I like all of them; I use whichever is appropriate for the given scene before me; but I do really like the 16-35mm!" 

Tejada makes sure he learns something about his subject and/or company so when the executive arrives, he'll have a conversation starter. "Then I walk him/her through each location; some are formal, some casual and some are meeting shots. I stand exactly where/how I want him/her to be," says Tejada, who then fixes ties, checks cuffs and acts as a general stylist. "I try a variety of head positions, all the while giving directions, and ripping off about 10 to 15 shots. Then we go down the hall to the next set-up, which will have more dramatic lighting—perhaps a beauty dish. I'm trying to get as many different shots as possible in a short amount of time," reiterates Tejada. "I start with the safe, corporate shot (that the company wants) and then progress to more difficult, dramatic shots." 

        Tejada's key light is a LumiQuest LTp softbox overhead on a boom. The rim lights are barn doors fitted with full cut CTO gels for warmth. 

        The glow over the shoulder is a grid, lighting the green wall behind the subject. 

Corporate clients, notes Tejada, have a tendency to play it safe with lighting. "I can get away with more drama when shooting images for editorial, but I would love to use more dramatic lighting for corporate clients, like I can in workshops." (When not photographing the corporate world, Tejada teaches workshops such as his recent "Small Strobes, Big Results” at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. He’s taught this workshop all over country and for private groups in Milan, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia.) "What I enjoy most about workshops is I get to photograph people that I don't usually shoot (models), and I get to use grids and other modifiers that I typically can't use for corporate clients." 

Lighting Laboratory

According to Tejada, being comfortable with your camera's basic settings—ISO, shutter speed and aperture—is the first step to good flash photography. "I'm manual all the way unless I do an event-type of shoot such as a wedding. The only time I use TTL/auto is if the flash-to-subject is constantly changing; then I let the camera do the thinking for me. But 99 percent of my work is deliberate and set up."

The three most important aspects of light, he continues, are quality, direction and color. He uses his studio as a laboratory where he practices his lighting and crafts and recreates certain types of light. Using portable strobes and remotes allows Tejada the freedom to take chances and work out lighting patterns and solutions. "There's less time to be creative if you have to spend your time setting up power packs, cords, etc. Speed lights are faster," says Tejada. "It's a different mindset—you have to think different and smarter." 

        Tejada used a LumiQuest LTp softbox as a light modifier, and his assistant held a reflector, bouncing light back onto the arms of his subject. 

        Tejada shifted his white balance to tungsten to make daylight appear blue. He then gelled his flash with a full cut CTO, which brought back a natural skin tone to his subject. 

However, you cannot light the entire world with AA batteries, concedes Tejada, who rarely uses more than three speed lights per setup. "Always start with one light and move up from there." Ambient light should be your base light ("it's beautiful, pretty, and easy"); your first strobe will be your key light; your second strobe is the rim or separator light. "The human eye gravitates to the brightest thing in the frame," notes Tejada, "therefore your light should direct the viewer's eye to the area(s) that are most important, such as the subject's face. The biggest misconception people have about strobes is that the light is hard with hard shadows, like the sun. You have to take that light and modify it. My favorite modifier is the bounce technique," he says (see Tejada's Nikon Learn and Explore demo on flash photography).

"Bouncing light off a wall, for instance a section measuring 8 x 8 feet, will produce a wonderful soft light, similar to an umbrella or soft box of that size. I use flash to shape the scene, improve the image, and to guide the viewer's eyes to the part of the image I want them to see. The best way to do all that easily and with confidence," concludes Tejada, "is to try some of these techniques and practice."

For information on upcoming workshops with Tejada, visit Popular Photography's Mentor SeriesJulia Dean Workshops, and Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

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