flash photography

flash photography: using a grid with a speedlight

During this photo session with Austin, I wanted to get a spot-light effect on, similar to that of a video light. Now, I have played around with various speedlight grids before, but never liked the result. Speedlite grids generally they concentrate the light to the extent that the direct light from a speedlight, becomes too concentrated and hard. For dramatic light, I really like the look of a video light, with that dramatic quality to the light, and with more defined shadows. I do want that fall-off in the light as the light spreads away from the subject.

As part of my Spinlight 360, I had two grids – white grid and a black grid. Since I didn’t have a video light with me during this session, I tried the white grid on the spur of the moment, to see if the white part of the grid would sufficiently scatter the light to “defocus” the light beam from the speedlight, while the grid itself contained the light.

And here’s the result. I really like it – a look similar to that of video light, but with more power … and with the PocketWizard TT5 on my camera, I could control the output! For this photograph, I also gelled the flash with 1/2 CTS gel to have the flash’s color balance closer to that of the ambient light.

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photography technique: wedding portraits on the beach

I had the great pleasure of photographing Sarah and Antonio’s wedding in Santa Monica, California. For the romantic portrait, we went down to the beach in the late afternoon. With the pier in the background, and with the sun (even at 5pm) still beating down, the photos were going to look vibrant, with that sun-drenched look. Beautiful.

When I posted the photos in an album on Facebook, a number of people asked me about this (and other photos), and how I photographed them. The technique is quite straight-forward, as described in numerous articles on the Tangents blog. With that, instead of just giving the hard numbers of the camera settings, and a few details … I thought it might be better as a challenge to followers of the Tangents blog, to reverse engineer this, and figure out the details. So yes, there’s a little bit of homework involved.

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on-location flash photography – adding backlighting / rim-light

Once you’re comfortable using a single off-camera light-source, such as a softbox (or un-diffused flash), there’s an easy next step to add a little bit of zing to the image. Rim-lighting!

I most often work with just a single softbox when photographing portraits on location. Having the sun behind your subject, creates a natural rim-lighting. This helps separate your subject from the background. It’s not just the shallow depth-of-field that helps create that near-3D effect where your subjects just pops out from the background – rim-lighting from behind also helps bring more attention to your subjects.

The best part – it is really simple to set up and use.

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gelling your flash for the warm light at sunset

Since the light from a speedlight is relatively quite cold, (ie, blue-ish), it can create an unpleasant color cast when you use flash with existing warm ambient light. A typical problem situation would be the Incandescent environment that we often find ourselves in at night. But there are other times when the WB from our speedlights (typically around 5400K) is just too cold (blue) compared to the light we have at sunset. (The Daylight WB preset relates to color of daylight during the middle of the day.) Then we need to do something with our flash to help match those warm hues at sunset. Gelling is the answer.

With this photo session of Lauren and Chris, we were at this breath-taking vantage point overlooking Manhattan. The sun was starting to set and taking on those very warm tones that look so gorgeous. Blue-tinted flash would’ve spoiled this. Since they were in a shaded spot, I had to use additional lighting here. I had to try and make it appear as if they were bathed in the same warm light.

I normally keep 1/2 CTS gel taped to my lens hood, so that I have ready access to gels. The 1/2 CTS is measured for 3700K which would’ve been too warm in this instance. So instead of covering the entire face of the flash-head with the gel, I only partially covered it, by turning the gel sideways. In other words, taping it down vertically instead of horizontally over the flash head … and this was just enough to have the same warm light on the couple, as there was on the city. A much better balance.

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improving a photograph by finessing it in post-processing  (models: Yulia & Anelisa)

While I’m a strong supporter of the idea to get it right in camera (as far as possible), there are times when massaging a photograph in Photoshop, can greatly improve it. And ultimately, it really is the final image that counts.

As a kind of companion piece to the photo of Anelisa jumping, here is a photo taken in the same area with the same kind of strong daylight. In using off-camera lighting here, the look of the photograph is inherently different. When I posted this image on Facebook as a teaser, someone guessed that it took “very expensive reflectors and an army of assistants”. Perhaps that was meant as a tongue-in-cheek comment, since my lighting is quite straight-forward. Or perhaps it does look like an image that could pop out of a Fashion magazine. I’m biased of course .

In deciphering how the photograph came about, let’s look at the straight-out-of-the-camera image …

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online video class: off-camera flash photography

The second video tutorial series in conjunction with Craftsy, is on the topic of: Off-Camera Flash Photography.  Craftsy is a company that produces professional looking online video tutorials, and with their help, we created what is a kind of online workshop. The first class is Portraits with On-Camera Speedlight, and has received great feedback from those who enrolled. This follow-up class is about using Off-Camera Flash and is now available.

The fee for the Off-Camera Flash Photography class is $59.99 but as the instructor, I’m able to offer a 10% discount for everyone who follows Tangents.

The online classroom has a platform where anyone who is subscribed can ask questions. So it is an interactive method, and not just a static video-only class. There is also no time limit on this, so you can watch it anywhere, any time.

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going for that classic look in a photo – lighting & posing  (model: Elizabeth)

When I saw the beautiful architecture of the Court House in Denver, CO, I knew that I wanted to use this as a backdrop for part of the mini photography workshop in Denver. In terms of composition, the imposing pillars and leading lines of the steps would simultaneously make a simple and classic background. Our model, Elizabeth, fortunately had this simple, yet elegant black dress as part of her wardrobe. For me, this photo comes together with the way the model (with her own style and styling), and the chosen location, complements each other.

That’s all a long way to say that I really like this image.

So while “having some kind of idea what you want to do” at the start of a photo session, is always a help, the success of any resulting photographs are most often a result of all the other choices coming together as well – posing, composition and lighting.

The composition is fairly straight-forward. But do notice that I shot slightly upwards towards her, to accentuate her legs. Shooting down would’ve created a strange fore-shortening effect. The focal length on the zoom lens was 38mm – wide-ish. If you’re photographing people with a wide lens, it is best to shoot from belly-button height with the camera – exactly where an old twin-lens reflex camera would’ve been held. This way you’re not shooting down, nor shooting up. So spatial distortion is minimized.

Then there’s also that touch of serendipity – yes, that word again – which brings some unexpected magic. In this image, her shadow was what helped pull the image together. Suddenly it isn’t just soft lighting – now it looks like a bit of sunshine sneaking through a thin layer of clouds. And the image pops!

The specific look to this B&W image was done via a recipe I created in Radlab.

To get that dramatic light on her, we used undiffused off camera flash. In other words – hard direct off-camera speedlight. Since this is a small light source, you have to be very specific in posing your subject. Posing “into the light” usually works best. You have to be careful though not to get weird shadows, but to have the light from the bare flash still be flattering.

The way the shadow fell behind her, was an accidental little bonus. I’ll take it when it comes.

More about the lighting and the camera settings ….

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comparing maximum flash sync speed – 1/250 vs 1/200

A comment that was posted in the photo gear section, asked about the relative merits of 1/250 max flash sync speed, vs 1/200 max flash sync speed.

Hi Neil, thanks again for Tangents, & your books which I refer to a lot. You have a gift in teaching and your passion is contagious. You’re probably my no 1 reference out there amongst the myriad of info now available. That’s why I’d like your opinion on the D600, particularly the 1/200 sync speed factor. I just bought one. Do you think it’s a big issue. Mr Hobby considers major enough to dismiss buying one. I couldn’t bear the thought of processing 36mp images from the D800 & couldn’t afford the D4. I got an ND filter hoping that would make up for it! What do you think about the camera other than that. Thanks again.

My first instinct will always be to go for the camera with the higher flash sync speed. It is especially valuable when working in bright light, to make it easier for a speedlight to match that bright ambient light. But it also helps with a (slightly) shallower depth-of-field when you can take the shutter speed higher.

But just how much of a difference does that 1/3rd stop difference in shutter speed make in the grand scheme of things?

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camera & flash settings: what do you want to achieve?  (model: Ulorin Vex)

In one of the multitude of photography groups on Facebook, I saw a newcomer to off-camera flash say that she bought an Alien-Bee set, but she has no idea what to set it to. My reply was that she needed a light-meter. My thinking is that then she’d know what the specific output of the flash or strobe would be, and then be able to set her camera to it. But then, thinking about it some more, I realized if there is hesitation there or confusion, it is about what specific camera settings (mostly aperture) should be in the first place.

I think this is the baffling part of using off-camera lighting or studio gear on location for the first time – where do you start? What should your camera and flash settings be?

Well, if you shoot on location, your settings are usually decided for you by your available light …

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using a neutral density (ND) filter to control depth of field when using flash

When working in bright sunlight with flash units that can’t go into high-speed flash sync, we have a ceiling in terms of our shutter speed / aperture combination. The shutter speed limitation then would be our maximum flash sync speed. The bright daylight would then imply a small aperture – most likely around f/11

Why f/11 ? The Sunny 16 Rule dictates that in bright sunlight, we’re most likely working at 1/100 @ f/16 @ 100 ISO. This translates into a handy short-cut of: 1/200 @ f/11 @ 100 ISO, where 1/200 is the maximum flash sync speed of many cameras. I use Nikons so my max flash sync speed is 1/250 hence that is where I normally operate when using flash in bright light.

In this bright light, to get to wider apertures for a shallower depth-of-field, we need to cut the amount of light. We can do this with a Neutral Density filter (vendor).

The first concern is usually that the ND filter cuts the flash, but this isn’t a particular problem, since the ND filter cuts flash and ambient light by equal amounts. So if we have 1/200 @ f/11 and then add a 3-stop ND filter, we end up with f/4 which is much wider than f/11 and gives us better control over our DoF. A 3-stop ND filter is usually denoted as an .9 ND filter, where 0.3 is a stop, and hence 0.1 is a third of a stop. A Neutral Density filter that is marked as 3.0 will therefore be a 10-stop ND filter.

As a side comment, please note that shallow depth-of-field is not the same as ‘bokeh‘. With the recent photo shoot with Ulorin Vex, I decided that it might be as good an opportunity as any to see how a Neutral Density filter affects the results.

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