off-camera flash

lighting and design in photography: (de)-constructing an image

For me, Design in photography relates to the way an image is constructed at the time of shooting. Composition and content. Lighting. Every element which forms part of a successful and eye-catching photograph. Some of the elements in the photograph are pre-visualized, some of it a kind of serendipity that is then expanded on at the time. Some of it might only be understood afterwards in looking at the photograph. My latest book, Lighting and Design for Portrait Photography, looks at exactly that thought-process throughout the 60 chapters in the book.

Several of the articles on Tangents look at that thought-process during a photo-shoot, working towards a successful image. For example:
– progression of an idea in a photo session (cosplayer: Ger Tysk)
– photo-shoot with a model: the progression of an idea  (model: Nicole)

With that idea in mind – the design of a photograph – let’s step through the image at the top.

This photograph of our model Olive, isn’t a composite. It is pretty much SOOC (straight out of camera), aside from removing a car and a few people in the background. Oh, and bumping up the Contrast and nudging the Saturation. And retouching skin. I guess it isn’t really that SOOC at this point. But it isn’t a composite. It was shot like this. The cobble-stones looked like that – aglow.

That lack of shadow adds a sense of mystery. It all looks a bit surreal. The reason why Olive looks like she is floating in the air, is that she was jumping. We did several takes to try and get her at her most relaxed in mid-air. With her feet off the ground, there is no immediate tell-tale shadow behind her. The bright sun on the cobble stones also eliminate her shadow completely. There is also no shadow in front of her, since it is outside of the frame.  So she really looks like she is incongruously suspended in the air.

Now, the lack of shadow wasn’t planned before-hand, but it was most definitely noticed when we started shooting a few test frames. So we continued with the idea.

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on-location headshots and promotional portraits – Jonathan Arons

One of the things I like the most about photography, aside from the cool toys, is that you get to meet interesting people. Characters. People with spark. The challenge is then to capture that and show it in the photographs. A headshots photo session needs to be more than just a mere glimpse of your subject’s personality.

Jonathan Arons, also known as “the trombone dancer”, is a multi-talented actor, singer, dancer and musician, based in New York. Jonathan needed some professonial headshots and some portraits for promotional use. We shot these on location in New York. As you can see, there is a dynamic persona here with a lot of energy! With portraits, the intent is always to show the personality and charm. Even some of the playful spiritedness. All of this added up to make the photo session real fun. That glitter suit though!

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progression of an idea in a photo session – cosplayer, Ger Tysk

For me, there’s always some anxiety before a photo session – especially when you have the opportunity to photograph someone quite unusual and photogenic like Ger Tysk, a cosplayer. (She also creates cosplay outfits for others, and has published a book on Cosplay.) Her latest outfit is Black Widow (from Marvel.) Now, the stressful part before a photo session like this, is that there is the pressure of having a great opportunity, and then having to create a photo series that is worthy of the moment. Even if you don’t quite reach the peak of the Epic scale, you still want to have photos that look inspired and interesting. You know, something worthy of the effort and time and opportunity.

I can pretty much guarantee you now that when you see an interesting or striking photograph that someone created (as opposed to a pure  photojournalistic moment), it’s usually not success on a first try. Very often there is a series of images and attempts before an idea comes together.

I was armed with some serious gear – Nikon D810 (vendor) and Profoto B1 portable studio light (vendor). So really, if there is any limitation here, it would be myself. Everything was in place – a supremely photogenic subject, an interesting location a friend showed me, as well as some serious gear. Now it is up to me, as the photographer to pull something out of this mix that looks stunning. And that is where the pressure comes in. Time to look around, explore ideas and figure something out.

I’m quite proud of the final photograph from this part of the location, but it didn’t just immediately come together. There was a thought-process and various attempts and dead-ends before it looked like yes! this is it!

So I want to step you through parts of this photo session to show how fell into place.

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photographic composition – a few guidelines (but no rules!)

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” – Ansel Adams

For me, if a photograph is intended for an audience, and not just my own records and memories – then its success hinges around impact. Does the photograph make you stop for a few seconds at least to take it in? Then you’re at least in part successful already with the portrait. With portraits so many elements kick in to make a photograph resonate with us: The moment. The expression. Gesture. Movement. Pose and position. Lighting.

In terms of composition, I strongly feel that one should react in an instinctive way. Look at the subject and scene and respond without the mechanical decision-making that all the rules of composition brings into play – the Rule of Thirds, diagonals, mathematical formulae, the Golden Mean, and so on.

Instead, take your time to look at what is actually presented in the viewfinder. Scan the whole frame; look at the sides and corners.

Is everything that you see, everything that you want? Is this the best way that the subject can be represented? Do you need to re-frame or move to another position?

The composition of this photograph of Anelisa can be analyzed in terms of the usual guidelines:
– negative space above her,
– the diagonal line implied by her arms,
– balanced by the S-curve to her pose,
– the vertical line by her body being (approximately) on a line of a third of the frame.

There is also the strong visual dynamic with her face more or less central to the frame, the curve of this industrial chimney structure pulls your eye towards the center.

All these things do appear in analyzing the image after-the-fact. But during the time of taking a sequence of images here, the decison wasn’t step-by-step like that. It was much more that instinctive recognition that, “hey, this looks good!

And, for me, that should be what determines the composition – does it look good, and does it add to the photograph’s impact.

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photography: gelling flash for late afternoon sun (& deep blue skies)

The warm light from the nearly-setting sun, accentuated with gelled flash. Towards the end of the recent photography workshop, we were shooting on the rooftop – the warm tone of the sunlight contrasting beautifully with the blue sky.

To punch it even more, we added gelled flash via an off-camera speedlight in a softbox. We had to gel the speedlight of course, to make sure the blue color balance of the flash didn’t kill the natural light. We used a 1/2 CTS gel here which brought the flash’s WB down to around 3700K. (This photo of our model, Melanie, was taken by Rosario.)

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posing technique – adjusting a pose with incremental changes

I’m not a huge fan of “flow posing” where someone is rigidly posed according to formula. I feel this doesn’t allow as much for personality and individuality as a more organic approach. I much more prefer a low-stress approach where a pose is adjusted, to where it looks good, and looks flattering. This does mean that I have to find that balance between allowing “faults” and finessing a pose. Sometimes it just works better for the flow of a photo session to not micro-adjust to the point where your subject might feel it as criticism.

Memorizing poses from a book or guide is a good starting point, but in practice, you’d still have to finesse body, hands, feet and your subject’s head. You have to look at individual elements and fix and adjust.

With this photo of my friend, Irene, I want to show some of the thought-process. She was kind enough to allow me to post some of the more awkward in-between poses, as we finessed it along the way.

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wedding photography lighting – shooting in partial sunlight & shade

I strongly believe that when you have the ability to control a photo session, that you pick your battles. You don’t have to try and make everything work. Set up portrait shots in light that favors you. Of course, off-camera flash really helps you in being able to pick where you want that light that favors you.

Solid advice that I adhere to, is to not have a person or a group of people half in the sun, half in shade. It’s a recipe for disaster, or a tough battle to fight, lighting wise. But then, slightly amneding Sean Connery’s immortal words in The Untouchables, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun-fight.” When you have enough light to match the sun, then it is possible to pull something out of that challenging situation!

I like using speedlights for additional light, but I also have my Profoto AcuteB2 600R Power Pack (vendor), in the trunk of my car … just in case I need something more than a knife. But really, if the Profoto B1 500 Air (vendor), was available for Nikon, it would be the Profoto B1 that I pull out. 500 Ws of easily portable light!

I really liked this building as a backdrop, but at this time of the day, half the facade was in sun, and half in shade. And this is where having a really powerful flash on location, is very very handy. I can dump sunlight levels of light (through a softbox!) to match the sunlit areas, and match the exposure levels.

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flash freezing the action at slow shutter speeds  (model: Oktavia)

Does flash freeze action when shooting with slow shutter speeds (in low light)?
The answer is … maybe. Perhaps. It depends.

It is difficult giving a definitive answer because it depends on the scenario. In short – if your subject isn’t lit by much available light (with ambient light 4 stops or less than your flash exposure), then flash will freeze the action … if there is no bright background. Probably. But it depends on the type of movement, and how critical you are about image sharpness.

See? We just can’t quite get away from those qualifiers – perhaps / depends / probably. But let’s jump into this and see when flash will freeze the action, and when you’re likely to be succeed.

The photo above, of Oktavia dancing, was shot at  1/10 @ f/2.8 @ 1600 ISO
At 1/10th of a second, the flash did freeze her movement.

You can see the background lights streak as I moved my hand-held camera to try and keep up with her movements. I was trying to hide the flash behind her, but I liked the effect here. You can also see the city lights streak through her arm as she moved.

Let’s quickly look at the pull-back shot to see how the flashes were set up, and then we continue the discussion on whether flash freezes action …

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update: new gear for flash photography workshop

The material covered, and the gear used in the on-location flash photography workshops, are constantly being fine-tuned and adapted with each workshop. With the first workshops (around 2006) centered around bounce flash photography. Over time the workshops expanded from that fairly simple premise, into what is a more comprehensive on-location lighting course.

The past two years there has been a surge in the various brands and types of flash. For example, Canon used to be just the 580 speedlights and wireless system. There’s now the 600EX speedlights with built-in radio transmitters as well. Phottix and Yongnou have become strong contenders in the field of flash photography with their speedlights and wireless systems.

When the workshops were presented across the country and in New York, there was a restriction – I had to travel light, and had to pare down on the gear I could bring. This meant that for the off-camera flash portion of the workshop, I could most easily help the Nikon and Canon shooters, and use their respective wireless control via RadioPoppers.

Now that the workshops are presented at my studio in New Jersey, and with a smaller class, I could make the big step and see if I could accommodate everyone at every workshop, regardless of system. With two models, it does mean doubling up on speedlights and systems. So I had a look around for soft boxes that would allow two speedlights … and still allow access to the speedlight controls from outside.

The Profoto RFi Speedring for dual speedlights (vendor), looked like the best candidate – rugged (which means it is heavy), and it easily allows two speedlights. The two speedlights could be of different size and use different radio systems. I purchased two of these Profoto RFi Speedrings for dual speedlights (vendor), and two of these medium-sized Profoto 1.3′ x 2′ softbox (vendor). This means that with the flash photography workshops, we can accommodate up to 4 different flash systems simultaneously!

We can now more easily help photographers who prefer hardcore strobist manual-only flash, or Phottix or Yongnuo, or either of the two Canon options or Nikon, or Sony, or Pentax. Alternately, we can double up, or have a Nikon and Canon speedlight in each of the two soft boxes. More flexibility.

So if you’ve been considering attending a workshop, but don’t use Nikon or Canon speedlights, we can now easily help you with whatever challenges you have with off-camera flash photography.

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camera & flash settings: photo session with a couple in bright sunlight

Analyzing other photographer’s work to figure out how they got the result, and figure out how to re-create it if you want, is a solid exercise. I do it often. It’s part of expanding your understanding of photography and lighting, and a way of expanding your technique and your repertoire.

The challenge to figure out the camera settings and additional lighting for a sequence of photos from an engagement photo session – reverse engineering an image: photo session with a couple in bright sunlight – had some interesting guess-work, and some good sleuthing.

Let’s have a look at the images posted in the challenge, and then slowly step through the thought-process. Some of these are near-instinctive decisions, but some are done with a quick frown and an “ok, let’s do it this way then”:

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