May 20, 2012

lighting for on-location photo sessions – pick your battles

When doing a photo session with a couple on location, I mix up the lighting often. With some photo sessions I may:
– shoot available light only;
– or I may decide with a photo session to use direct on-camera flash,
with some sequences available light only; or
– with some photo sessions I use off-camera flash with a softbox,
with some sequences just the available light.

Even in varying the way I may use the available light and flash, I still aim to have a consistent look to it all. My specific style has to be apparent. Or perhaps, in the way that I work, my style becomes apparent. The one way that I help make things easier for myself, and remain consistent, is that in working with the available light; or working with the available light and flash (both on-camera and off-camera) … I pick my battles. I don’t try and make *everything* work. Rather, I specifically choose where I pose a couple, or what I have as the background.  All of this in relation to the existing light and my flash.

camera settings for the image at the top:
1/250 @ f/4.5 @ 100 ISO … TTL flash, off-camera

With these photos of Licet and Daniel, taken at different spots in Central Park in New York, my approach was the same – shoot against a background that is back-lit, with parts of it blowing out. Then I use off-camera flash with a softbox to bring the expose of the image up to the correct level. The softbox helps give me studio quality lighting on location, pretty much every where I place the couple.

camera settings for this image:
1/250 @ f/5.6 @ 400 ISO … TTL flash, off-camera

By turning them against the light from the sun, I get some rim-lighting, and I let the TTL flash pick up the exposure. In this photo, parts of her arm is over-exposed, but this doesn’t bother me. It is more important for me to capture their expressions and how they interact with each other. At some level it is even more important for me to keep the flow of the photo session going, rather than micro-adjusting my settings and how they are positioned.

Nikon D4 (B&H); Nikon 70-200mm f2/2.8 VR II (B&H)
Lastolite Hot Shoe EZYBOX Kit (24″x24″) (B&H)
Nikon SB-910 Speedlight controlled by PocketWizard FlexTT5 Transceiver & AC3 Controller
or alternately, the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite controlled by Canon ST-E3 Transmitter

With this image, the compression of the 70-200mm lens at the longest focal length, helped. There were also groups of people in this part of Central Park, but by laying down on the ground and shooting up, and using the long lens, I was able to eliminate distractions and simplify the composition. This way, it looks like they were the only people there.

The long lens and off-camera flash help to give the photographs some snap.

camera settings for this image:
1/250 @ f/4.0 @ 200 ISO … TTL flash, off-camera

For all three preceding images, the exposure metering for the background weren’t too specific. There’s about a 2 stop leeway in terms of what would’ve looked good. So if a test shot looks good, I’m happy. I don’t drive myself nuts trying to meter for a background that has large bright areas. They can blow out.

Then I let the TTL flash take care of the exposure for the couple. TTL flash really helps in making a photo session in various locations move faster.

While looking for interesting backgrounds and good spots for the images, I am very aware of what the available light is like … and if it works, and I don’t need additional light from my flash, then even better.

Here I had Licet and Daniel under the arches at Bethesda Fountain. The available light is coming in from a perfect angle. No need to do anything to the light.

camera settings for this image:
1/250 @ f/4.0 @ 400 ISO … available light only.

Deeper in under the arches, the light is very even. But the light levels are much lower.

camera settings for this image:
1/125 @ f/3.5 @ 1000 ISO … available light only

Posing Licet and Daniel at a 90 degree angle to the direction of the available light, gave more dramatic light. But it did need subtle posing to make the most of it.

The photo above is one of the two images I selected from this sequence. The image below is one of the steps working towards this. I liked the light, but Daniel’s shoulder was blocking the light on Licet’s face. So with that pose, I quietly asked them not to move … don’t change a thing … then I told him to pull his shoulder back by an inch or two. That subtle movement opened the light on her face. Perfect.

camera settings for these images:
1/100 @ f/2.8 @ 1000 ISO … available light only

Nikon D4 (B&H); Nikon 70-200mm f2/2.8 VR II (B&H)

Again, with this image on the steps, I used the longer focal length to eliminate clutter, and simplify my composition.

In posing them, I started by positioning Daniel … and then adding Licet, by having her lean against his leg. I usually start with only one person first, when I pose a couple. Then I add the second person.

In terms of lighting – simplicity again. It’s a Lastolite softbox and a speedlight. I used TTL flash.

camera settings for this image:
1/200 @ f/6.3 @ 800 ISO … TTL flash, off-camera

Nikon D4 (B&H); Nikon 70-200mm f2/2.8 VR II (B&H)
Lastolite Hot Shoe EZYBOX Kit (24″x24″) (B&H)
Nikon SB-910 Speedlight controlled by PocketWizard FlexTT5 Transceiver & AC3 Controller
or alternately, the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite controlled by Canon ST-E3 Transmitter

Here is the pull-back shot, and the photo without flash, just for comparison.

From Central Park, we explored a little bit of the Upper West Side, visiting the areas they know, as a backdrop to their photos.

The main idea here in this article is that, while I look for variety in the images I give a couple, it works in my favor if I keep it fairly simple and consistent in terms of my lighting. The simplicity helps me in working faster. The consistency helps in maintaining my style.

I’m able to keep it all quite consistent, by specifically “choosing my battles”. I don’t try to make everything work. I just make about a dozen setups work, with different angles and poses … and then move forward.

 

More images from this photo session:
Licet & Daniel – Central Park, New York – photo session
– Facebook album: Licet & Daniel – photo session in Central Park

equipment used during this photo session:
Nikon D4 (B&H); Nikon 70-200mm f2/2.8 VR II (B&H)
Lastolite Hot Shoe EZYBOX Kit (24″x24″) (B&H)
Nikon SB-910 Speedlight controlled by PocketWizard FlexTT5 Transceiver & AC3 Controller
or alternately, the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite controlled by Canon ST-E3 Transmitter

 

related articles

top 5 tips on shooting engagement photo sessions
– posing normal, everyday people for portraits
– the next step – going beyond just posing people
– the flow of a photo session
– making your images pop – through choice of lens
why I love TTL flash
“using the available light” is not random
–  photographing in bright sunlight – find the shade!
off-camera flash – bringing sparkle on a rainy day
why I love off-camera lighting
technique – using lens flare for effect

examples of engagement photo sessions

 

 

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{ 24 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Mark Minor May 20, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Thanks Neil . Great articles . I want to ask about the other softbox. The Impact quickbox, looks just like the ezybox and costs less. Are you familiar with it ?

Reply

2 Neil vN May 20, 2012 at 10:28 pm

I actually recently received the Impact 24×24 Quickbox for review purposes, and it looks good. I’ll post a proper review in the next few days.

There is also an Impact 24×24 Quickbox kit available.

Neil vN

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3 Gregory May 20, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Awesome and Stunning photographs! Your photographs have a 3-D effect about them.

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4 Colin Tuff May 21, 2012 at 8:03 am

All this does is make me even more excited about my shoot with you in October!

Great work Neil, as always.

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5 Gary Smith May 21, 2012 at 9:35 am

Wow, Neil. These are great. I find reading your blogs on the actual shoot and how you did these shots including your thought process very informative.

One question about using on camera flash outdoors for fill, do you use any type of diffuser, or do you use bare flash dialled back so it doesn’t over-power?

Many thanks,
Gary

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6 Neil vN May 21, 2012 at 9:41 am

Gary … I most often just use direct on-camera flash for fill-flash when I dial the FEC down. But I’ve started to use the Lastolite 8.6″ softbox with my on-camera flash to soften the light.

Neil vN

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7 Hoang Nguyen May 21, 2012 at 10:11 am

Hi Neil,
Would a shoot-thru umbrella give you the same effect as the softbox? I’m torn between umbrella and softbox and not sure when you would have a preference for an umbrella over the softbox.

Thanks so much.

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8 Neil vN May 21, 2012 at 10:16 am

The difference in the way an umbrella looks compared to a softbox, is marginal. It looks good as long as you diffuse it, and bring the flash off-camera. I find a softbox is easier to handle though, since it is less likely the wind will scoop it.

Neil vN

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9 Theresa Hart May 21, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Lovely, especially the last one. The shallow depth of field and bright background give the impression that they are alone in a city of millions.

I have been thinking about soft box vs umbrella also. In reading reviews of the ezybox, seems many people are unhappy with how the whole thing is difficult to secure on a stand. Any suggestions?

Another question: ISO choice on natural light makes perfect sense to me, but I still get confused about the effect with flash. Can you walk me through your ISO choices with the off camera flash?

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10 Neil vN May 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I haven’t had a problem in securing the softbox to a light-stand. It’s straight-forward enough. The softbox itself can become dislodged if there is wind. But not really an issue yet.

And here is how I choose my ISO settings

Neil vN

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11 Gary Smith May 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Hi Neil,
Many thanks for your reply. I know that I read it in your book but just needed it confirming in case I misunderstood. I was thinking of getting the soft box for the on camera flash but as my wedding photography has me indoors one moment and outdoors the next changing from the soft box to the “black foamy thingie” would be time consuming. And I hope you would never consider replacing the black foamy thingie as it is so great and has made my on camera lighting a joy (unless you have to hold the camera upside-down to do a portrait and bounce the flash to your right.)

As always many thanks for your knowledge and sharing.

Regards,
Gary

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12 Jon May 21, 2012 at 5:10 pm

How much does a permit cost to shoot in CP ?

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13 Neil vN May 21, 2012 at 6:35 pm

The general rule in New York is, if you don’t use a tripod, you don’t need a permit. But I haven’t heard of a photographer being hassled in Central Park itself for using a tripod.

Neil vN

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14 Harry May 21, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Neil, I love your softbox-flash technique. Could you tell me what monopod you are using with your setup? I have a heavy Manfroto that is rather unwieldy for this kind of use.

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15 Neil vN May 21, 2012 at 10:37 pm

I use the Manfrotto 680B monopod, but there are other monopods which might be slightly lighter.

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16 David Deutsch May 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm

Great images as usual Neil.

In the top three photos, it seems you have placed your subjects in such a way that they are being hit in their backs by either dappled or full-on sunlight. Am I correct about this? Do you find this gives better results than framing the shot similarly, but with the subjects positioned so that they are shaded from a direct blast of sunlight to the backside? I ask because I’ve found it difficult to avoid having a rim of blown highlights around subjects’ head and hair (and, depending on how the subjects are positioned, additional parts of the face) when I allow direct sunlight to hit my their backside. If I try to prevent said problem by bringing ambient exposure down (by stopping down a little and applying more flash power to get correct subject exposure), I end up with a background that is too dark. Your thoughts? Thanks for any insight you may offer on your approach to this…

Dave

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17 Neil vN May 23, 2012 at 8:47 pm

David .. that’s the gist of this entire article. I pick my battles. I don’t try to make everything work.

Neil vN

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18 Jan Sook May 24, 2012 at 3:29 am

Hi Neal,
Thanks for a great article. I’m a bit puzzled on the photo with the couple on the stair, why was it shot at ISO 800, f/6.3? Why you didn’t choose to go with bigger aperture and lower ISO. Could you walk me through your thought process?

Jan

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19 Neil vN May 31, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Dan, an ISO setting of 800 isn’t daunting any more. The classic Canon 5D broke that barrier. Now with me using the Nikon D4, an ISO of 800 isn’t a high ISO setting any more. I can now rack up my ISO a bit, to get more depth of field, or be able to use a faster shutter speed.

Neil vN

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20 Tosha September 6, 2012 at 8:46 pm

This is very useful information. I am just starting to learn more about off camera flash and I will put some of these tips to use! Thanks again!

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21 Robert Charles December 23, 2012 at 4:09 am

Dear Neil,

This is a question about depth of field with the pictures in this shoot. How far back are that you are getting both parties in focus at f-stops of 3.5. I see you are using the 70-200 when I’m at 200mm I perhaps an inch of play, are you shooting at a shorter focal length? Are you further than I imagine? Please help I’m running into serious issues when shooting more than one person at 200mm.
Thanks.

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22 Robert Charles December 23, 2012 at 4:15 am

I’m sorry about all the typos in last post.

I was just wondering how at longer focal lengths you still seem to get everything so sharp at wider apertures, like the ones you posted in this post, while I seem to be limited to very shallow depth of fields when racked out to 200mm, even when I open to f11.
How far back are you? where do do you place you focus points?

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23 Neil vN December 29, 2012 at 6:17 am

Robert .. you have to keep in mind that the depth-of-field changes as you move further back from your subject.

If you’re shooting full-length portraits with a 200mm lens, then you have more DoF than if you had worked at closer distances.

Check a DoF calculator and see how this changes with focused distance. There are numerous DoF apps for your smart phone.

With closer portraits, where my subjects aren’t looking directly at the camera, I normally just need to focus on my main subjects eye closest to the camera. Not everything has to be f/11 or f/16 sharp.

Just to make sure you understand apertures and DoF … you “close down” to f/11. Not “open up” to f/11 when you come from a wide aperture.

Neil vN

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24 Baart1980 March 7, 2014 at 11:29 am

Neil,
how do you plan your location ? Do you rely on luck or adapt ?

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