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flash photography tutorial: balancing flash and ambient exposure

This topic – balancing flash and ambient exposure – seems to one that many newer photographers struggle with. The big hurdle seems to be the basic starting point – how do you decide on the exposure for each?

I’d like to explore this topic a bit with this post.  The trigger for this was a question that someone emailed me regarding an image in one of my books on flash photography. Instead of answering the question directly, I thought that a wider answer might be more illuminating. We’re still on that perpetual quest for more aha! moments. So let’s see where we head with this. (I’ll come back to the specific question and answer at the end of this.)

Why do we even want to add flash to our subject? The answer is that with flash we can control the direction and quality of light, and create a more dynamic image.

We don’t necessarily just use flash to avoid camera shake and / or poor exposure in low light. We use flash to create better light on our subject. We can ‘clean up’ the light that falls on our subject. Or to create more dynamic and interesting light. It’s about control. We decide. So where do we start?

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creative portraits on location – allow opportunities to happen

There was an interesting challenge for me during a recent individual photography workshop in NYC – Don (who arranged the workshop), already knew the essentials of lighting techniques, and said what he really wanted was insight into the way that I see a photo before I take it.  How do I know something will work or not. Don was particularly impressed with the series of photos of Anelisa that I shot for the review of the Profoto B2 Flash. The shallow depth-of-field images was a particular draw-card.

Serendipity – I love that word. 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. In effect, you have to be open to opportunity and allow it to happen to you.

There are a number of examples on the Tangents blog where I stumbled on interesting found light, and used it for effect:

These are the kind of opportunities that you need to allow to happen, and not get fixated on the ideas you had in mind. Grab what is happening and work with it. Here is one example from the workshop in NYC:

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recap: flash photography workshop – New Jersey / NJ (2015)

The format of the flash photography workshops that I present, are constantly evolving. Gradual changes as I adapt the program to be fluent. Always with the ideal that anyone who attends will see a marked improvement in their understanding and use of flash, and on-location lighting.

I wanted to give a glimpse again of one of these workshops – in this case an Individual Workshop attended by two photographers, with Adrienne as our model. The tempo of the workshop is nice and relaxed, giving everyone time to shoot and practice, and let it all sink in. There are also hugely funny moments …

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book: On-Camera Flash (2nd ed.) – flash photography demystified

If you think I’ve been quiet on the Tangents blog the past few months … here is the reason why: I’ve been hard at work on the revised edition of On-Camera Flash …  it’s just been announced for a Nov 2015 release date, and is available on pre-order with Amazon. I really am excited about this updated version of the best-selling book!

On-Camera Flash (2nd edition)  – Amazon USA

On-Camera Flash (2nd edition)  – Amazon UK

Based on the best-selling 1st edition, this is more than just a cosmetic overhaul. Combining older material which have been polished and streamlined, with lots of new material and trawling the Tangents blog for the best material.

At 35,000 words (the maximum the publisher would allow me), this is a concise introduction to on-camera flash photography, with the accent on demystifying flash. I concentrated on bounce flash photography for the latter half of the book, since I strongly believe that is where the magic lies with using on-camera flash.

One way in which this book has been radically changed from the first edition, is that it is now more of a work-book. There are several examples where you have to have your camera (and flash) in your hands, to step through the instruction. All the better to make sense of flash photography, and become confident in the use of flash photography.

For those of you who had asked for the images in the video of the review: comparing various light modifiers for on-camera flash – they are in the book!

The cover image was specifically decided on, and shot for this cover. I wanted an image that is striking. It really had to stand out. And it had to be truly illustrative of the beautiful light you can easily create with just your on-camera flash.

Here is how it came about …

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review: Profoto B2 Off-Camera Flash – photo shoot

Over the years I have used a variety of off-camera lights on location shoots and at weddings, and have worked my way up from Dynalite and Quantum flashes (and speedlights), to the Profoto B1. The Profoto B1 (affiliate) has made such a difference for me in the ease of use, the speed of setting up, and the sheer power of 500 W/s of light. I love my B1 flash. For example, here is how I used the Profoto B1 portable flash at a wedding.

Profoto has now released the Profoto B2 250 W/s Air TTL Flash, and it comes as two options:
Profoto B2 Location Kit with two flash heads (affiliate)
Profoto B2 To-Go Kit  with a single head (affiliate)

The Profoto B2 immediately intrigued me for a few reasons. As a quick summary, the B2 offers:
250 W/s power. (Half that of the B1)
High-speed flash sync and
TTL flash exposure metering, as well as a
Freeze Mode where the flash duration is cut down to 1/15,000 sec. at lower power settings.
– It is much lighter and compact than the B1 – but this comes with a few penalties.

Before we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the Profoto B2 vs the B1, I have to mention that every review I’ve read so far, mentioned the B2 as a lower-cost alternative to the Profoto B1. However, I don’t see the Profoto B2 positioned like that – the single-flash unit is about the same price as the B1. So there’s no financial advantage there. Now, by the time you get to the 2-flash head Location kit, then the B2 kit is less expensive than two Profoto B1 heads … but still with certain disadvantages to it.

So really, I don’t think the Profoto B2 was meant to be a lower-cost option to the B1, but was meant to just be a different option to the B1. Just different. You have options. You get to choose what suits your needs best.

To test the Profoto B2, I met up with Anelisa and an assistant in Manhattan, to do a Fashion-styled shoot out on the streets. Exactly the kind of thing where the Profoto B2 is meant to excel – being a portable high-powered flash that offers high-speed flash sync, as well as TTL flash exposure metering.

The behind-the-scenes video clip adds more info about the Profoto B2. It’s a fairly long clip because we decided to keep in a lot of my dialogue with Anelisa as I direct her. That’s something to keep in mind if you work with models – talk to them, and guide them. It really becomes a collaborative effort then.

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portrait photography – allowing influences to inspire your own style

I keep a folder of Inspiration images to which I often add interesting photos shot by other photographers. This serves as an ideas folder. There are hundreds upon hundreds of images. I add to this Inspiration folder, and I also discard images over time as my own style and what I want to work towards, form better shape. I might browse through this and see what sticks in my mind. Sometimes it is the amalgamation of ideas that lead to something new. Even when I try to emulate the style and lighting of an image, there are always distinct differences that lead to new images with a different look for me.

Similarly, the photo above was loosely based on ideas I saw elsewhere … yet, by the time we were done, the  photos from this session didn’t look like the inspiration images. Different model; different lighting; different post-processing; different interpretation and a different photographer.

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in-camera special effects with gobo projection

I still have this old-school preference for effects done in-camera and effects achieved with interesting lighting, over effects achieved nearly entirely through digital manipulation. Absolutely no disrespect to digital artists who create astonishing work. However, my jaw drops when I look at the sheer scale of the work of a photographer like Gregory Crewdson. Naturally then, my hero is Gregory Heisler, who has a true genius for creating diverse work through amazing lighting. So that would be my inclination – how much can I achieve in-camera to create an image that grabs attention. Of course, having a striking looking model helps a lot.

Still exploring the possibilities of projection effects with the Light Blaster (affiliate), a speedlight based projector, I met up with Viktoria in my studio. The Light Blaster has several effects kits, but I still prefer the stronger and starker outlines of the gobo kit over the various gel kits. With previous experiments in the studio, I used the Light Blaster to project patterns on the background, or into smoke. Working with an idea I saw from my friend Josh Lynn, I projected the pattern onto the wall in the studio, and had Viktoria in the mix there somewhere.

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tutorial: focusing modes for your camera

I want to expand the exposure metering tutorials with other basic tutorials on camera settings and photography techniques. It’s been in the works a while now, and here is the tutorial on the focusing modes of your camera. Similar to many of the other tutorial articles on Tangents, I wanted to distill the essential elements, and make it as uncomplicated a topic as I could.

The more I delved into the various AF options and how they work, it became more difficult to generalize it in an accessible but still truthful way. I’d love to hear your feedback.

About the photo above, it was a playful idea based on Milla Jovovich’s character, Leeloo, in Fifth Element. In the one scene she beckons the evil aliens closer with a jiggle of her fingertips. It’s an image that stayed with me – a pivotal scene in this very enjoyable Sci-Fi movie. This is the moment everything tips over into an avalanche of crazy action.

So I posed Anelisa like this during a recent photography workshop, with the express idea of using it in an article on the auto-focus modes. The key idea here is that we don’t allow the camera to decide what we focus on. We have to be deliberate about where the camera should focus.

So check out the tutorial on the focusing modes of your camera.
I’d love to hear your feedback and comments.

Now, the techie details of the photo at the top:

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lingerie photo session – light, lighting & textures  (model: Melanie S.)

This photograph of Melanie, one of my favorite models, is one of a sequence where we played with different lights and lighting styles in the studio. I wanted lighting that was both soft and dramatic. Both feminine and bold. The lighting is the same idea – using a big gridded strip-box / soft-box – as I used in a previous photo session with another model, Anita DeBauch.

The final image above, is the result of my first tentative exploring of using texture layers in Photoshop. I wanted to retain her shadow and other detail in the wall, while enhancing the appeal of the image with a texture layer in PS. I felt that the unadorned photo needed an additional element to elevate it.

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an informal portrait with the 85mm lens – Sarah S.

Like pretty much every photo geek that I know of, I carry a camera with me wherever I go, for my personal photography. Now when the photography isn’t for an actual planned shoot or professional shoot, but just for fun walk-about – then the choice of gear somehow becomes more involved. What lens should I take – wide, normal or tele. Fixed or zoom. The bulk and weight become considerations – you don’t want to schlep around too much gear.

Creativity and motivation quickly dissipate when your back and feet start to hurt from a camera bag that is too heavy. Nowadays the Fuji X100s (affiliate) is my walk-about take-everywhere camera. The 35mm equivalent lens is a good choice for more scenic views. For example, during my visit in 2014 to South Africa, it is the only camera that I took. Here are some of the results from it: hot-air balloon ride

I tend to oscillate in deciding between 2 lenses for my own photography when I am just out exploring.
– 35mm for more scenic views in mind,
– 85mm when I have tighter perspective and portraits in mind.

I have a specific love for the 85mm lens. I believe this is the best lens to change your portrait photography. That short telephoto gives you some compression to your perspective, and the wider aperture allows you to throw pretty much any background out of focus.

When a photographer friend, Sarah Smith, visited New York, I met up with her and we roamed the streets of Manhattan a bit, exploring. With me I had the D700 that I owned at the time, and the 85mm f/1.4 lens on it.

On 42nd Street, there is a McD’s with this brightly lit ceiling to its entrance. Very New York glitz, especially for a fast food place. I knew that shooting up towards it with a tight composition, would make a beautiful background for an impromptu portrait. I asked Sarah to stop, and then asked her to turn her gaze slightly outwards to the light coming from the street side of the Manhattan sidewalk. I carefully framed the image in my camera’s viewfinder, using shallow depth of field. An interesting background, beautiful light and a very photogenic subject with the right lens. Sometimes it’s this easy, and this quick.

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