How He Got the Shot: Ed Masterson’s Light Touch Creates an Evocative Image of the Mythic West


Tech Talk: Ed Masterson made the photograph with a Nikon D800, an AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens, and an SB-900 Speedlight. The settings were 30 seconds, f/16, ISO 100, manual exposure, and Matrix metering.
© Ed Masterson

He lives in a historic California gold-mining town about an hour out of San Diego, so the props for Ed Masterson’s Old West images are easy to come by: a barrel borrowed from a nearby winery, a pistol from a friend’s gun collection, a book from an antique shop, weathered wood from old barns nearby, and so on.

His interest in the Old West? Well, his name is Masterson.

This photograph and others in the series are the result of imaging, lighting, and design skills learned and perfected over years of advertising, commercial, and fine art photography. But with photographs that combine long exposures, flash, and light painting, there’s also a degree of trial-and-error experimentation.

For this image, Masterson turned off all the lights, opened the shutter on his tripod-mounted camera for a timed exposure of 30 seconds, fired a flash mounted in a 20x24 softbox above the scene at full power at 1/1000 second, and then walked onto the set and light-painted selected areas (like the paper scroll, the strap above it, and the lenses of the glasses) with a small LED flashlight.

A sizeable piece of brown cardboard blocked the flash’s full area of light from reaching the right side of the setup, though some spill from the softbox opened up the shadows.

Sometimes he’ll use electrical tape on the lens of the flashlight to direct and tighten the beam’s spread. How long he paints or holds the flashlight’s beam on any element of a scene is part of the learning curve these pictures demand. “These images are never made in one try,” he says.

Masterson’s aim for the image collection is a book and an exhibit. In the meantime he posts the photos to Facebook, sells some prints and makes others for local stores and restaurants.

“But my real motivation,” he says, “is to create, shoot, and have fun with the process.”

You can see a selection of Ed Masterson’s images at