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Archive for the ‘Lighting’ Category

The Game of Ratios

Apr 9

In In The Field, Lighting at 7:43am

I do blogs about all manner of things photographic, but clearly, one subject I return to consistently is the nature and quality of light, both natural light and flash light. This is not unique to me, or this blog. Lotsa folks out there talkin’ bout flash. Big flash, small flash, up close, far away, here, there. What occasionally gets overlooked in the “all flash all the time” conversation is the importance of shutter speed. Now, folks who have been shooting for a while know the ins and outs of shutter speed, to be sure. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve taught a class and come up on a team in the field, trying to shoot inside a factory, and, because the class is about flash, they are using a “flash” shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, rendering the scene as utter darkness. They thus burden themselves with the task of lighting the whole damn factory. With two speed lights. This, I tell them, is not possible. And I say that with the complete certainty of one who has amassed a 30 year history of engaging in utterly Quixotic flash follies, doomed to irretrievably embarrassing failure even before I put my camera to my eye.

My opening comment, when I view a location foray such as I describe above about to go off the rails, is often something along the lines of, “Shutter speed is your friend.”

I shot both of the above for Kelby Training video that came to be titled, Making Pictures in Bad Weather. Trust, me, I didn’t head to Tampa with that title in mind. But it turned out that we were trying to shoot through the tail licks of an offshore hurricane, and hence, we bagged a lot of the locations, and found shelter. That class ended up being one of the most fun classes I’ve taught for the Kelby group. It was a hoot, and was just like being on location for a magazine and needing to get it done ’cause the editor who assigned us doesn’t give a rat’s ass if it’s raining anvils. You have to shoot pictures, and shoot through all manner of shit.

The two pix above were shot in the same tiny bathroom, and these views of that little room have very different feels to them. And the differences do stem from the different qualities of light. But, what enabled the difference was shutter speed.

First pass. Window’s glowing and available light dominates the room. One hot shoe flash employed, on the hot shoe. It’s cranked backwards and flying the light up the wall I’m leaning against. It fills the shadow side of the model, just a little. It’s running at low power, no light shaper, except the stock in trade dome diffuser. It bounces partially off the wall and partially off the ceiling. Adds detail, and that’s about it. It fulfills the classic definition of a fill light: A light you don’t notice until you turn it off.

Below is camera info.

And here is more specific flash info, off Nikon software….

The second shot is darker, moodier. No glowy window, and fairly heavy shadows. Reason for that is I chucked available light, and put a Quadra flash out in the rain, cloaked in a baggie, firing off a radio, with no light shaper. It is about 5 feet from the frosted pane of glass, and it’s just a simple blast of light. The frosted glass becomes my light shaper. And because I don’t let any available light in, all the exposure comes from the flash.

Again, camera info.

No coded flash info here, as it is a third party flash, and doesn’t communicate with the camera. But the Quadra is providing all the light, and is well within its power range and capability.

The flash style, power and direction are truly different, to be sure. But the real difference, to me, in the two shots is a simple shift in shutter speed. The f-stops are quite similar. Shutter speeds aren’t. In the open, window blown away version, the shutter speed is 1/8th, and in the more controlled, moody version, the shutter rang in at 1/250th.

Shifting the shutter enables the game of ratios, which is a game forever played on location. You walk in, and you observe what light already exists. Then you factor how much, or how little, of that light plays into your photo by cranking your way through the shutter speed dial. You can allow the natural light to dominate, and thus making your flash a bit player, a reserve coming off the bench, and not the star. Or you can use the shutter speed to snuff the light entirely, rendering darkness upon the land, which you then replace with custom made flash treatment.

A game we always play. What exists, and, what do we layer over what exists? The flash we bring to location can be an unseen infiltrator, a thief in the night. Or it can be a thundering herd. The thing to remember, always, is that the determining factor in how many flashes (if any at all) we take out of the damn trunk is the existing light, and it’s volume and quality.

As as  location “flash photographer” the most important light you always wrestle with is the ambient light. And when it comes to ambient light, shutter speed is the judge and jury, and your friend.

More tk….

For the technically minded, the gear used above was Nikon D4, 14-24 f2.8, 24-70 f2.8, Sb-900 speed light, and Ranger Quadra.









Amazing Manila…..

Mar 14

In Equipment, Lighting, On Location at 4:46am

When I went to the Philippines earlier this year, my friend and fellow shooter JoJo Mamangun contacted me. Would I like to work with his wife, Kris, a ballerina and Cirque du Soleil dancer? I think I simply wrote back something like, “En route.” As luck would have it, she was rehearsing for the role of Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream for Ballet Philippines. Read the rest of this entry »

And We’re Off!

Jan 2

In Lighting, On Location, Rambling at 10:38am

Hi, and welcome to all for 2013. I hope the whirlwind known as 2012 deposited everyone on the doorstep of this new year in good shape. Mildly frazzled perhaps, but whole of mind, body and spirit, ready to start turning the blank pages of these new twelve months, with all the unknowns and things hoped for. I remain blessed, I feel, in that I start another year with a camera in hand. Three days of shooting this week. Four next. So it goes. It will not always be thus, so I treasure the moments behind the lens with increasing fervor. I joke about the passing of time and frames with my buddy Bill down at the National Geographic. Another year for him living inside the land of the yellow border, indeed, a place where the wild things roam. Me, being a freelance content provider, I’m just the occasional interloper, trouble maker and, dare I say, problem solver. Though it’s completely open to fair questioning as to whether I’ve created more problems than I’ve solved. Best not to dwell on such matters. Read the rest of this entry »

Onstage in Guanajuato

Dec 7

In Lighting, On Location at 11:44am

It’s been a while since I’ve shot anything of the dance world, but being able to work in the Teatro Juarez, a truly magnificent structure in Guanajuato, was so inspirational, we sought out a beautiful dancer to place in its environs. It was a twenty minute shoot, squeezed in during the lunch hour, but very worth the hustle it took to put the pieces together. Again, thanks to the PhotoXperience team in Guanajuato for helping me out.

Read the rest of this entry »


Sep 24

In In The Field, Lighting at 7:10am

Photogs, well, at least certain photogs, are legendary screamers, right? They get upset when things go wrong, and things always go wrong, so stories about on set grouchiness abound. We’ve all, I’m sure, heard about the prima donna shooter, male or female, who explodes on the set when the latte’s not the right temperature, or missing the nutmeg flakes on the hot foam. There are also the divas, the ones who look disdainfully about and tell the crew, “Give me God’s light!” and then retire to the location vehicle for, uh, extra-curricular activities. Then of course there are the unprepared, those who blow a gasket about stuff that should have been fixed and set before the airplane tickets were bought.

You have to pray for patience on most photo shoots and try not to reach, screaming, for the eject handle. One mildly amusing story came years ago from an assistant to a somewhat vociferous, overlarge photog, who got his comeuppance after badgering the location help for days on end. Seems his size made him a bit tippy, and he was in the waves, trying to get an over/under shot, with a housing. You’ve seen these pix, with the camera half out, half in the water. (They’re on the cover of, you know, Field and Stream all the time, with the hapless mackerel straining for the deep, and the triumphant fisherman, rod bowed like hairpin turn on the Pacific Coast Highway, fighting to board him. I always feel bad for the fish, and have consoled myself by figuring it’s gotta be mechanical, ‘cause I can’t figure out for the life of me how they do that stuff.)

Oh, well, back to the waves. This photog insisted to his assistants that they literally lash him to a dock piling to stabilize him and the camera. Which they did. When he finished the shot, he handed the camera up, and waited to be untied. Whereupon his beleaguered assistants waltzed away, down the pier, got themselves drinks with big umbrellas in them, and watched the tide come in. Turtle like, literally pinned to the piling like a butterfly specimen, he had no recourse but to wait to be released at their discretion. He didn’t scream so loudly after that.

I tend not to be a screamer. I suffer the slings and arrows of location photography with relative equanimity. That’s not me giving myself absolution, by the way. I’ve said and done stupid stuff, been a jerk-brained idiot, yelled at people, mostly myself, punched walls, sometimes with my head, literally bloodying myself out of rage and frustration. But, most of the time, I’m pretty calm. The bigger the problem, the calmer I get. Little stuff still can make me nuts. Big stuff, well, figuring that out gets too interesting to get mad about.

I was determined to do a re-shoot of a portrait for a friend I had messed up on. I blew a picture. Big news there, huh? But, you know, it’s not the ones you get that populate your dreams. It’s the ones you miss. Needless to say, my dreams are very full, and colorful. I’m actually glad I don’t remember most of them.

We were on location early on one of those amazing Montana mornings, where the sunrise is a piece of heaven you can actually shoot. Light drenched, with panoramic skies just rolling out an endless carpet of color, it could have made a country boy out of this city kid right then and there, at least momentarily.

Of course, I got shit. If I don’t anchor my frame with a human being, I am frequently lost. So I turned to my friend and fellow photog, Kevin Dobler, who’s a quintessential good guy, and a very fine shooter. This magnificent dawn occurred on the road outside his family’s ranch, which I know is a very special, emotional place for him. I offered to do his picture with the road and sky meeting in vast Montana distance. It was not a good effort. No fault of Kevin. Totally my fault back at the camera. I couldn’t get a feel for the frame, as sometimes happens. I finished bothering him with my clicking, and he was happy enough, but I wasn’t. In my head, as I often do, I made a check mark, looked at the land and the light, and thought, okay, next time I’ll get you.

The next time was about two years later, and I had been chewing on doing this again for a while. (I’m a real water under the bridge kind of guy.) I planned it out in my head. I was going to make a special effort, with an Elinchrom Ranger, a 74’ Octa, c-stand, the whole business. A full blown, big flash, one light character driven portrait of the man and the land.

Drew and I went through a checklist of gear the night before. But the next morning, when Drew, a really good shooter, and a formidably capable first assistant, came to me with that, you know, look, I knew something was awry. Out on that frozen road, he looked at me sheepishly, and said, well, we got the Ranger pack, we just don’t have the Ranger head.

Okay, then, at least we don’t need a sandbag for that big light, ‘cause that’s what that Ranger pack just became! Stay cool, and think. I wanted the big Octa feel of the light, and I wanted to shoot B&W. This particular morning was Montana on mute, not the riot of color of last time. How ‘bout merging big flash and small flash?

I had never put SB units inside the big Octa, but there’s always a first time. We quickly performed impromptu surgery on the guts of the Octa, gaffering, clamping, and otherwise festooning it’s speed ring and ribs with a total of four hot shoe flashes. I did quick math. At full power, they can put out roughly 60 watt seconds. Four would give me a pretty good push of light at max. I couldn’t shoot fast, or much, but, I could shoot. I had a couple SC-29 cords with me, so I could run another light off the camera and actually inside the Octa. That SB unit became both a flash and a commander.

Okay, all lights at manual 1/1 power. No TTL nuance, or letting the little darlings decide things all on their own. I dragged my shutter all the way to 1/20th, and wrangled (hey, I’m shooting in cow country) f13 out of the lights. A mix of ambient and flash to be sure, but with enough declarative flash pop to edge Kevin’s rugged face. I went to monochrome, and a 5:4 aspect ratio on my D3X, and shot with a 24-70, racked to 32 millimeters. I tried long lens but that didn’t work so well. The middle-ish wide angle aspects of this make the road feel like it goes forever, which in Montana, they do. Kevin is the anchor for the frame up front.

What did I lose doing it this way? Well, I lost about 700 or so watt seconds, which limited my flexibility, for sure. At 1/200th of a second (max flash sync speed for Nikon with a third party power pack) with the Ranger at full bore, I could have made that Montana country road look as dark as a Manhattan night club. But that wasn’t my intent. I had to do a more delicate dance with the ratios of ambient to flash, given the limited power supply, but that balance was where I was headed aesthetically, anyway. How do you know when you have the right mix in a situation like this?

You just know. Hate to be inconclusive, but this becomes a matter of taste. A good guideline is often to work your flash up to a value that is one stop over the ambient conditions. Thus when you expose for that flash value, you automatically have subdued the background somewhat. But that is a general, and generally breakable, rule out there in the world. Once you have the frame and the values dialed in, ballpark-wise, it becomes a matter of personal taste, and what is possible technically. Here, I had just enough flash to give the photo a look. And if I told you this was a Ranger head and pack inside that Octa instead of a bunch of ragtag small flashes, you’d believe me, ‘cause the look of that light is definitely smooth, like you would expect out of a 74” source.

Misses don’t have to be forever. Keep a rolodex of failures in your head. (I’ve got an unfortunately large rolodex!) They inform your conduct in the field, always. And sometimes, you can go back and fix ‘em, even just a little. And try to think, not scream.

More tk….