off-camera flash

photography composition – getting down lower for a better perspective

It’s a bit of a cliche perhaps, seeing a photographer on the ground, laying on his side, or sprawled on the ground. What might look like a strange form of attention-seeking, is actually a very solid way of improving your composition with full-length portraits. The lazy temptation is to just stand there, camera to the eye, and take the photograph. What happens then (usually), is that the photographer is shooting down on the subject. The best advice generally, is to step back for full-length compositions. When you shoot down on someone, especially with a wider angle lens, is that the perspective distortion cause the feet to appear much smaller, and your subject’s head to be disproportionally larger.

With a longer focal length, such as used in this outdoors portrait of Elle, perspective distortion is less of a concern. The lens was zoomed to around 135mm, and that means her head and feet are equidistant to the camera. No distortion. (By the way, this was taken during a photography workshop at my studio.)

However, if you, as the photographer, take the photo just standing at full height, then you are still shooting down, and you’re getting far too much of the ground in the image. The path here behind Elle isn’t awful, and doesn’t distract. But it’s the colors behind her which helps make this image pop, complementing the colors of her clothing.

So let’s look at a series of three images, shot while I was standing up, kneeling down, and finally, laying flat on the ground. Notice how the background changes as my perspective changes.

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flagging your back-lighting flash with the black foamie thing

My favorite on-camera light modifier, the black foamie thing, is of course, nothing more than a very affordable (and flexible) way to flag your flash. This helps control how the light from your on-camera flash spills. (It’s not a flash diffuser!) I also keep one on hand when I use off-camera flash, to flag any direct flash – whether to control it from flaring the lens, or from spilling onto my subject.

When I did the photo session for the review of the Canon 600EX-RT, I had to flag the one speedlight so it didn’t spill on our model. So it has other handy uses other than just for on-camera bounce flash.

During a recent photography workshop at my studio, we photographed Aleona in a freight elevator for that gritty urban look. We added a speedlight behind her to have the rim-light create some separation between her black outfit and the dark silver wall in the back. However, it spilled to the sides, and we had to control the light better …

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review: Profoto B1 off-camera TTL flash – 500 Ws

I’m a bit of a fan of Profoto gear. When I first started looking at the more serious on-location lighting systems, my initial purchase was the Profoto 600R. I was drawn by their reputation for reliability and features such as consistent color balance even when you change power settings. The wide variety of light modifiers, as well as the ease of use and setup also had me favor Profoto, even thought it is the more expensive system on the market. Of course, the sleek elegant look of Profoto gear also counted. As far as lighting gear goes, Profoto even looks sexy.

Profoto just released the Profoto B1 500 AirTTL flash units (vendor). With 500 Ws output, and various features which make them exceptionally suited for on-location work, Profoto really brought something exciting to the market. I believe this is going to kick them onto another level with photo enthusiasts.

Let’s look at some of the spec, and then how the Profoto B1 flashes performed during actual photo sessions.

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on-location lighting for impact – off-camera flash w/ gridded stripbox

With this photo session of Carina and Carolina, (yes, they are twins), I decided to start off with a landmark spot in New York – Staple Street. That bridge walkway between the two buildings, and this surprising alley has somehow become a landmark. Yet, it works. That walkway makes a perfect frame at the top of photographs.With the tall buildings in Manhattan, you usually get brighter areas or sky towards the top, or you get more buildings in the background. But here, you get that neat visual border. Nice!

Shooting on this late Fall day, in the shadows, the colors went muted and cold. The background turns to bluer hues because I decided to use flash for my lighting – and I didn’t want to be bothered with gelling my flashes somehow to match the very cold tones. In this case though, their black tops and blue jeans very much fit the colors and hues here … which makes their faces pop out even more in the final image.

These two photogenic girls are naturals at posing and take direction extremely well – making this one of those shoots the subjects (and setting) really help carry it to give a set of images that are eye-catching.

More about the lighting and the setup:

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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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photographing a vintage motorbike on location, with Profoto lighting gear

I’m getting to meet so many people while photographing interesting subjects for my next book, 60 Portraits, that I was bound to meet some truly interesting characters. John collects vintage … oh, everything. His entire house filled with collectibles – it is like stepping out of a time-machine into a different era. I joked with him that the only two things in his house from the 21st century is his fridge and his dog!

Most impressive in a way, is John’s workshop where he maintains his two vintage era motorbikes and a Model A Ford. The tools in his workshop are all authentic to the era … and they work. The way John describes it, it actually makes sense in the way he maintains  everything with hand-tools and lathes and such.

His one motorbike is from WW1 era, and the other is this 1928 German-built Triumph. The sidecar was made by Hindenburg Metalworks. Yup, the zeppelin guys. John’s friend, Barbara, frequently accompanies him to shows and rallies, and came along for this photo shoot. After all, there is a side-car!

I photographed a few sequences of John and Barbara with this motorbike, using different setups. I liked this dramatic series the most, with the light from behind casting a shadow in front of them. I wanted the light to etch the frame of the motorbike and side-car, without revealing too much detail – I wanted this to be a portrait of John and Barbara. However, I took a number of other images, where the motorbike is better lit. Just to have the variety. Such a unique opportunity doesn’t come along that often, so I had to make sure I got variety in the images.

Now, the techie details about the photograph:
camera settings were 1/250 @ f/14 @ 200 ISO

As always, the pull-back shot to show the lighting setup …

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thoughts on using a beauty dish as a single light source

A beauty dish is one of those light modifiers that sound attractive just by name already. And when photographers start exploring other options than direct off-camera flash and umbrellas or a softbox, a beauty dish is usually one of the first alternate light modifiers that catches attention. Mine too. Right after I bought my first Profoto kit, I purchased a beauty dish for it and started exploring using a beauty dish.

A beauty dish is ideally used at a closer distance for portraits, with the light “focused” on the face, creating a gradient where the light rapidly falls off between the lighter and darker areas – yet looks soft where the light is focused. But there’s more to it than that – a beauty dish is best used with a grid to help control the light. Or used with a sock, but then the beauty dish acts very much like a round softbox, and some of its specific qualities are lost.

Quite a few of the softbox options for speedlights offer a way to create a beauty dish-like effect. An example is the Westcott Rapidbox – 26′ Octa Softbox (vendor), as mentioned in the review: Westcott Rapid Box 26″ Octa Softbox. You can take the front diffuser off and add the Westcott 2030-DP Deflector Plate (vendor), turning it into a beauty dish of sorts. But the same limitations appear.

Looking at the portrait of David above, you’ll notice a semi-circular band of light to the left. This is because, even though the light from the beauty-dish-ified softbox focuses light on him, there is light that spills from the edge of the speedlight. The detail photo of the Westcott RapidBox will explain it better …

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on-location corporate headshots – aiming for efficiency and speed

That’s me, all set up for on-location corporate headshots last week. Five speed light & Softbox set ups, to be placed in a different area each, to efficiently give 5 different looks. My client wanted head-shots of a list of people, with varying backgrounds around their offices. And also with different sets of clothes. We decided that 5 different looks would work best, and give them variety.

I considered the options I had. Two of them amounted to too much disruption:
- dragging one light around, and setting it up every time for each person, or
- setting up in one spot, and then having everyone file past. And then setting up again, and having everyone file past me.

The best and most elegant option immediately seemed to be to  set up lighting in 5 different spots, with pre-determined exposure settings and flash settings … and then walking each person to each spot. This sounds like a mission, until you realize that 3 of the spots were within 20 yards of each other in the main lobby area.

Instead of moving a light-stand around, I would walk up to the already set up light-stand & speedlight, and switch on the radio trigger for that spot. All setting up and testing done before-hand. Fast and efficient. Then, at 30 minute intervals, the next person would join us.

Here is a close-up shot of one of those setups:

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