available light photography

using the Profoto B1 portable flash at a wedding

With wedding photography, there are nearly inevitably time-constraints. It is therefore imperative that you, as the wedding photographer, are able to keep everything running as smoothly as possible on your side. Which implies that it is important that you (and your equipment) are adaptable. And it is also hugely important that your gear is easy to set up, and very reliable.

Karissa and Rory’s wedding was the first where I pulled out the Profoto B1 battery powered flash (vendor). I’m even more impressed with it now, than I was when I first tested it for my review: Profoto B1 500 AirTTL battery powered flash.  (And if you’d like to buy my previous AcuteB 600R kit, let me know.)

When using additional lighting, you ideally need a few things from your lights:
power! 
– and yet, a delicateness to the light when necessary.
speed of use is essential.

At 500Ws, the Profoto B1 dumps sunlight-levels of light, but you can pull it down 8 stops, to where the light can be used in subtle ways.

With off-camera flash, I’m mostly working with a specific distance, and then manual flash makes sense. The  Profoto B1 (vendor) offers TTL as well, and this might seem superfluous to some. But it really makes it easier and faster to get to correct exposure. You can do an initial exposure via the TTL mode, and then switch to Manual if your exposure is correct. This gives you the speed of TTL flash, and the consistency of Manual flash.

Here are more images from this wedding, with examples shot with the Profoto B1, as well as other images using various types of light ….

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finding interesting available light & white balance options

It’s always a feel-good moment to discover interesting available light while out on a photo shoot. Something unusual to add a new flavor to a different sequence of images.

While photographing a model with Tilo Gockel and Mike Silberreis (both from Germany on a visit to NYC), we started off with off-camera flash to help with the strong sunlight. (You might remember Tilo from a recent guest article on product photography on a budget.)

Then, while positioning Olena, I saw part of her dress had a patch of bright light on it. Turning around to see where this came from – I expected sun flare from nearby building window – I saw that it was actually the sun reflecting off a traffic sign right next to us. The light that was reflecting off this traffic sign was pretty hard, but had an interesting specularity, yet appeared flattering. So we shot an entire long sequence here, ditching the off-camera flash.

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Using your lens’ bokeh as a design element

In previous articles we could see how a fast 85mm can be used for shallow depth-of-field to shoot nearly anywhere by melting away the background. There’s another aspect to this – the bokeh of the lens. The bokeh is a reference to how the quality of the background blur is rendered by a lens. It can be smooth, or have “jittery” patterns to the edges of objects, and the highlights.

Do note though that bokeh and shallow depth-of-field are not quite the same thing. While the DoF / choice of aperture does affect the appearance of the bokeh of a lens, the shallow depth-of-field look isn’t “bokeh”. Similarly, you can’t do something like “add more bokeh”. Bokeh is the quality of that background blur. It’s mostly an aspect of the lens design.

Now, very often, when a fast prime lens is used wide open, there’s a kind of swirly feel to the background blur – and if you’re aware of this, and find an appropriate background, it can really accentuate the portrait.

The image at the top of Jen & Corby, was shot at f/1.4 and you can see how the background behind them has a distinctive circular swirl to the out of focus high-lights.

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using bounce flash vs. available light vs. using the videographer’s light

The expressive trumpet player in the band at a wedding – a simple portrait of this musician, sweetened with some bounce flash. The light on his face, is by now perhaps predictably, on-camera bounce flash with the black foamie thing.  Looking at the light pattern on his face, you’ll see there was no direct flash of any kind.

camera settings:  1/60 @ f2.8 @ 2000 ISO // TTL flash
Nikon D3; Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II (Amazon);   Nikon SB-910 Speedlight (Amazon)

In comparison, here are a few other images.  One with no flash, so we can see the effect of the bounce flash.  Another image with just available light; and another image where I was able to use the light from the videographer’s camera

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exposure metering: under-exposure / over-exposure vs exposing correctly

When I posted this photograph of Peiwen & Eric’s wedding in Melbourne, Australia, on Facebook, someone asked the question: how much did I over-expose this photo by?

We have to be very clear with our terminology regarding over-exposure and under-exposure. This photograph is not over-exposed. It is exposed correctly! Did my camera’s light-meter jump all the way to the right-hand side? Yes, it surely did. Does it matter? No, it does not. Why not? Because I exposed correctly. Not under, not over, but correctly.

This photograph (which is ambient light only), is exposed correctly … because my subject, the bride, is exposed correctly. This is a key concept – we have to expose correctly for our subjects. Even if you decide to turn your subject into a silhouette, the decision was still very specific about how you wanted to expose for your subject.

If you are a landscape photographer, then most likely your entire scene is your subject. If you are a portrait photographer, then invariably, your subject is what you need to expose for correctly.

However, if you want to balance your subject which is shaded, in relation to a much brighter background, then you’re going to have to use additional lighting to expose correctly for your subject. But working with just the available light, you will invariably aim to expose correctly for your subject.

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window-light baby portrait photos – Liam

Any parent will know that the kiddo has a distinct personality from the moment it is born. For the photographer then, the ideal is to capture some of this personality.

My own take on photographing babies, is that I want to forego all the props and accoutrements associated with baby photography you often see – the hats and such. While the toys are often necessary to keep the child’s attention, I still like to photograph just the baby.

Liam’s parents were close by, getting his attention. I prefer that if anyone calls to him, that they do it right over my shoulder, nearly breathing down my neck. Snapping fingers and pointing where the child should look, never works. If anyone is going to call the baby, and I want the baby to look more or less towards the camera, then the other person needs to be right next to me, hovering right behind me.

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available light portraits – composition and light

Over time I noticed that my style in photographing portraits have gravitated to a specific look where everything is quite simplified – the lighting, the background and the framing of the shot. Whether I use the available light, or video light, or off-camera flash, or even on-camera bounce flash, there’s a certain uncomplicated look. I’d like to think of it as elegant unfussy simplicity.

Analyzing this, it is easy to see there’s a specific method here. It’s a method which helps especially when under pressure. Here, even allowing extra time for the crazy peak-time traffic here in New Jersey, I was still running late for the photo session with Christy. When I arrived, falling back into a familiar rhythm of shooting portraits, allowed me to get images that work, very quickly.

The essential idea is that the light has to be good, and the background has to be complimentary. Then it is a matter of posing our subject, and composing the frame. Invariably then, the starting point is finding that intersect between good light and a good background. And if  you don’t have great available light, then you need to create it with additional lighting.

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a favorite image – before & after (and the how to)

There’s something about this photograph that I really like … aside from Anelisa being one of my favorite models. It is slightly surreal with Anelisa’s apparent levitation. The dress and hat is reminiscent of a 1950’s Fashion, and Anelisa’s mid-air pose is also reminiscent of Philippe Halsman’s iconic jumping images. All that, combined with the sun flaring across her face and the washed-out background, all adds to this wonderfully nostalgic mood.

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embracing serendipity during a photo shoot

I love that word – serendipity. A bit of chance favoring you. When a tiny bit of serendipity comes your way during a photo shoot, you have to be open enough to see it and then run with the idea.

This photo was taken during the mini photography workshop in Denver. Our model, Elizabeth, had dropped a box on her foot the previous day. When Elizabeth wriggled her feet into these high-heels for the photos, she bent over to soothe the arch of her foot. And then … those legs happened! There was something in this pose that really worked. So we went along with this a while. (I didn’t quite want to call this blog post “a happy accident”, since there was actually a minor accident involved for Elizabeth!)

This photo was taken with the Fuji X100s (vendor) using only the available light. By exposing for my subject, the background blew out. But I had to help that effect further with a bit of Photoshop work. The image was further enhanced with RadLab.

With her pose like this, the light reflecting off the ground lit up her face. Another happy accident. We tried different poses with that hand … and it never quite fell into a position where *this* was the best pose. In the end, I really like this image, and how it came together.

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available light photo session in the studio – Elle

During the same photo session with Elle where the aim was for Hollywood Glamor lighting style with video lights, I also wanted to change it up completely with an entirely different look and lighting – an available light photo series in the studio. With so much light flooding into the studio, it was just a matter of positioning Elle into the light. To get away from a blank wall, the background was a backdrop.

And yes, the studio needs more furniture. We’ll revisit this territory with future shoots. But even with such a minimalist setting, the photographs came out surprisingly well.

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