Tarps: Is there anything they can’t do?

I’ve got a bid out on a photo gig and it looks like it’s going to happen next month, so I’m in planning mode and I had an epiphany tonight.

Here are the details and challenges: I’m going to be on the roof of a three story building, shooting down into a parking lot where about a hundred people will be grouped to form the letter Z (a tie-in with the name of their employer).

I’m hoping to be able to do this shoot late in the afternoon so my group will be facing me with their backs to the low-ish sun. According to the U.S. Navy’s awesome online sun calculator, at 4pm on the day this shoot is roughly scheduled to go down, the sun will be 23º above the horizon. This will provide a nice rim light on the group, and as a bonus it’ll put a nice shadow along the front (camera side) edge of the letter Z. With the light behind everyone, their faces will be in shadow, save what light is bouncing off the side of the building they’ll be facing. But, the building is sort of a brick color with lots of office windows, so I can’t rely on it to bounce enough light to compress the contrast sufficiently and give me the appearance of a controlled two light set-up.

With that in mind, I’ve been trying to decide how I want to bounce sunlight off the side of the building to open up the shadow side of the group and bring some detail into their faces. Originally, I was considered getting a 9ft roll of white seamless paper and letting is hang down over the side of the building. This seemed like a nightmare as I’d need the company’s facilities people to help wrangle this huge piece of paper on what would surely be the windiest day of the year (just because I’m shooting on that day).

This evening I had a flash of inspiration while I was out in the back yard cleaning up dog poop. I have a silver tarp set up as a lean-to, providing some shade for our dog Wiley, and that’s when it hit me: Tarps! They’re perfect. Tarps are already built to be lashed to stuff with their grommeted holes, the edges are already hemmed, they’re durable and they come in all kinds of sizes for relatively little money. I’m looking at a white 16×20 foot tarp on Home Depot’s website for $51. They have that same size in silver, too, if I need/want to go that route. They even have a line of tarps that are silver on one side and black on the other, so you can have a nice lively reflector on one side and a negative fill panel on the other. So cool.

I’ve got a wedding coming up at the end of September where I’ll be working with a somewhat large wedding party in direct late afternoon desert sun, so a white tarp between the sun and the group to act as a huge softbox is just what I’ve been envisioning. I was going to use a white cotton queen-size bed sheet, but the idea of lashing an 8×10 foot tarp to a PVC frame with some ball bungees seems infinitely easier to work with.

Got my project for the week.

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