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David X. Tejada

Great Light in Small Packages


B y Ta m m y C r a v i t


If you don't know what a bungee cord tipped with a small plastic ball, a roll of black aluminum foil and a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight strobe have in common, chances are you haven't met Denver-based commercial photographer David X. Tejada. When you look at the images on Tejada's website, the lighting probably won't be the first thing that catches your eye. In fact, you might at first glance think he works mainly with ambient light. But take another look, and you'll realize that he's elegantly adding light to most of his scenes--and he's doing it with little more than a few Nikon shoe-mount flashes. "For the past year and a half, I've been

trying to shoot only SB-800s if I can," Tejada said. "It's refreshing and challenging traveling with the small guns." His main location lighting kit, carried in a single medium Lightware case, consists of four Nikon SB-800 battery-powered strobes. While most photographers are used to working with these lightweight flashes on the camera's hot shoe, Tejada's strobes rarely occupy that spot. Along with the strobes, he typically carries compact and lightweight Bogen light stands, an assortment of clamps and adapters, various low-tech light modifiers and ball bungees--small loops of bungee cord with plastic balls on one end, which he sometimes uses to mount lights in out-

Left I used a single SB-800 for this shot. I placed the strobe behind the TV set to light the wall and I also placed three sticky battery task lights in the bookshelves to add some interest. The subject's face is lit from the bounce of the lights above the computers. Right The photo was taken for an engineering client of mine. They designed and built the Detroit People Mover in downtown Detroit, MI. My client wanted a photo of their project for an annual report and corporate brochure. I had to wait for the ambient light to reach a level so the lights in the building would show well. I used two SB-800s on a lower level of the parking garage I was shooting from. I fired those strobes using PocketWizards.

of-the-way places. His kit is compact and relatively inexpensive--a four-light version can be assembled


Top Annual report photo along Interstate15 in Ogden, Utah, using three SB-800 strobes. The right side was lit using SB-800 with OmniDome & CTO gel. On the left side, two SB-800s were used; closest to lens, with Omni Dome and CTO gel. The second SB-800 on the left side used to light subject (my assistant) farther back. This strobe also had an CTO gel on the head without the use of the Omni Dome. Bottom This is a photo of two workers in a "dog house" (the control room on the platform of a drilling rig). One SB-800 gelled with a full CTO directed into the dog house to light the subjects and another SB800 placed on the floor with a full CTB aimed at the wall between the subjects.

for less than the cost of a two-head Profoto studio strobe-- but the results he achieves with it are unquestionably highend. Take, for example, his photo of the Detroit People Mover, produced for the engineering firm that built the train (see pg. 107). Tejada took the shot from the roof of a parking garage across the street from the tracks. A pair of SB-800 Speedlights on one of the garage's lower floors, triggered by PocketWizard radio slaves, lit the train as it passed by. Once strobes and the camera were in the right places, patience became the name of the game. "I had to wait for the ambient light to reach a low enough level so the lights in the building would show well," he explains. "I often use more of the existing or ambient light and use my strobes to accent portions of the image." The technique clearly worked well in this case, and the client used the resulting images in their annual report and marketing materials. Or consider a seemingly simple ambient-lit portrait of a business executive sitting by a window on a train (see pg. 110). The clean, warm tones of the photo belie the degree of production that went into the shot. "The day the rail car was available to me, the weather was threatening rain," he explained. "With dark clouds in the sky, I sprayed down the window with water and used a flash with a CTO filter to simulate breaking sunlight." This kind of clean, elegant light is Tejada's stock in trade, and it's a look he's spent most of his 22-year career perfecting. "I would say that I have a graphic style, rooted in good composition," he says. "I want the light to be creditable, flattering or just plain interesting." The lighting design in each of Tejada's images is carefully thought out, and he uses a great deal of seemingly low-tech equipment in his work. Lights are snooted and masked using squares of Cinefoil, a brand of heavy-duty, matte black aluminum foil. Sheets of Fome-Cor and white folding tables are pressed into service as fill cards and reflectors. Tejada even created a ring flash adapter for his strobes using a utility lamp and a piece of heating duct from The Home Depot. Total cost? Less than $20, and just a couple hours of his time. Clearly, this low-cost, low-tech philosophy is working well. Tejada Photography specializes in shooting corporate and annual report images, counts among its clients some of the biggest names in the energy, mining and healthcare industries. Though based in Denver, Tejada shoots for Fortune 500 corporations nationwide. Not bad, for a man whose beginnings as a pro came about as the result of a happy accident.



Top I shot this photo for a utility company's annual report. The day the rail car was available to me, the weather was threatening rain. With dark clouds in the sky, I decided to spray down the window with water and used a Lumedyne flash with a CTO filter in order to simulate breaking sunlight. Bottom A palladium mine in Canada. Shot using one SB-800 shot through a 43-inch umbrella and the shutter dragged for ambient light.

"Back in 1977 I was hired as a flight attendant for Continental Airlines where I worked for almost five years," he explained. "On one of my flights, I met Houston photographer Joe Baraban. That chance meeting changed my life." Tejada, who'd long been interested in photography, quit his job with the airline and moved to Houston, where he worked as an assistant for Baraban, soaking up all the knowledge he could garner. "Up to that



Annual report photo for Corporate Express. We used a small mailroom to create what was to supposed to look like a graphics department. One SB-800 bounced off the ceiling with a CTB gel and one with a grid to highlight products behind subject.

point, I had never been into a studio before or had ever seen strobes," he remembers. But he was a quick and motivated study, and soon branched out on his own. In the two decades since, he's built an impressive track record of success and an equally impressive client list. But the kind of work Tejada does now is vastly different from the studio strobe he learned early in his career. Though he owns a Dyna-Lite pack-and-head strobe system, as well as a battery-powered Lumedyne strobe kit, he uses them very rarely these days. "These larger strobes are heavier

and if I can avoid taking them on assignment with me, I'd rather leave them in the studio," he says. And, he explains, the key to working with small strobes is practice. "You really need to practice with your equipment," he says. "With proper techniques and various light modifiers you can create high-end lighting results." There's no question that the minimalist lighting style Tejada employs requires some forethought. But he relishes the challenge. "I just love solving lighting problems with these smaller units," he explains. "This is

where the fun comes in." In choosing to work primarily with small strobes, Tejada has joined a growing movement toward minimalist lighting techniques. He's a fan and occasional contributor to the Strobist blog and online community (, run by Baltimore photojournalist David Hobby, which boasts more than 29,000 members. "I've been reading Strobist for quite some time," he said, "and I really like the approach he has about lighting." While some photographers in the Strobist and other online forums express concern that using small strobes might create an unprofessional appearance for clients, Tejada says this has never been a concern for him. "The end result is what is important to me and the client," he says. "Client impressions of the gear I choose to shoot with has never been an issue." Tejada isn't shy about sharing what he knows, either. On his blog (linked from his website,, he frequently shares tutorials for photographers interested in adding small strobes to their own repertoires. Among his notable blog posts are a step-by-step tutorial for the do-it-yourself ring flash, as well as a DIY beauty dish design also made from parts from The Home Depot. In March 2009, he'll take his expertise and knowledge on the road, teaching a workshop entitled "Small Strobes, Big Results" for the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. He says his students will learn "how to achieve high-end lighting results from their small, battery-operated strobes." Two sessions are currently scheduled in Denver, with other sessions there and elsewhere to follow. More information about David X. Tejada can be found on his website, www.tejada To learn more about his workshops visit www.smallstrobesbig

Tammy Cravit is a professional photographer, writer and photojournalist based near Santa Barbara, California. She is a member of the Professional Photographers of California, and an Emerging Associate of the American Society of Media Photographers. Tammy can be contacted at [email protected] com or via her website,





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