Shadow avoidance

One reason we bounce our flash off the ceiling (behind us) is to avoid those nasty drop shadows, especially the side shadows.

But what if we can’t? If there is no ceiling, perhaps. Or that ceiling is bright red. Or it does not reflect enough light, because it is pitch black. or it is a very high ceiling. What then?

Then we can use many other means, like reflectors. Or off camera flash, with modifiers. Or a ring flash. Or we simply ask the subject to move to where it is possible (d’oh!).

There is one more option, one I have not discussed before: we use a bracket to move the flash away from the camera and keep it above. Like this Cameron V-H Flip bracket (marketed under various names):

It has some pretty good features:

  • It moves the flashes away from the camera, see the extending pole. Up to 28″ above, and this means that there will be less shadow and no red-eye.
  • It keeps the flash(es) directly above the lens, so any remaining shadows will not be side shadows.
  • It can fit two or even three flashes.
  • It swivels, to keep the flash where it is while the camera turns 90 degrees (but note, it turns the wrong way, which is awkward. I would not want to use this bracket for a lot of vertical shots).
  • And unexpectedly, this bracket can use a small umbrella. You’ll look funny, but oh boy, the light you will get!

While bouncing, or off-camera flash with modifiers, is generally still better, this solution can work well:

Best of all, it can hold two (or even three) flashes:

Now we get extra light, plus the light from one flash can almost eliminate the shadow from the other.

That doesn’t look like a “direct flash:” photo, does it? And beauty pictures, with a small modifier, seem another obvious candidate (“butterfly lighting”).

The moral of today’s post: There are many ways to use flash, and there are many ways to use it well. A bracket is one of those ways. Not the be-all and end-all of flash; just one more cool tool that can sometimes lead to fabulous pictures.

 

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A small, important detail

The catch light in someone’s eyes are essential: no catch lights, no portrait. And that catch light needs to be not in the centre, as when you use a pop-up flash (can you spell “deer in the headlights”?), but in the upper left corner, or the upper right corner, of the eye (in the “10 o’clock position” or in the “2 o’clock position”). Like here:

If you do not have a catch light showing in at least one eye, the subject lacks that little “sparkle of life”, and looks strangely lifeless.

Your catch light usually comes from your main light source, whatever it is. And “whatever it is” is important, because it affects the picture.

Take, for instance, a beauty dish, which like an umbrella gives you a circular catch light (albeit with a slight dot in the middle):

A reflected umbrella would be a white circle with a big black blob in the centre (the flash). That looks odd, which is why I prefer to shoot through an umbrella.Whatevery you do, make sure

Or take a softbox, which, like a window when you use available light, results in a square catch light:

The moral is: in portraits, ensure that there is a catch light, that it looks good, and that it is somewhere in the upper half of the eye. Preferably, if you can., in both eyes.

Portraits are fun, and yes, there is a lot to be learned.

 


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Light note

As far as available light goes, you can have dramatic, contrasty light, or dull, even light.

The latter, dull/even cloudy day light here at McDonalds the other day:

But then that dull light turned into dramatic light with a shaft of sunlight:

You want the dramatic light for this kind of scene, I think you will agree!

But for the next example, a photo I just took for a realtor, you need the earlier, even light. You do not want to emphasize a part of the house, you want to light it evenly; in fact you want it expressly without any drama:

The same goes for the child:

He was in the sun, which is bad not just because he squints, but majorly because sunlight is dramatic and has excessive contrast and dark shadows. Just like on the house, you want to avoid that; so we had to use the shoot-through umbrella as as scrim, holding it right in between him and the sun, as well as as a flash umbrella (neat trick, eh?)

So there is no right or wrong about light. it’s not “what is good/bad”; it’s “what suits this photo in question”.

 

Sic transit gloria mundi

Thus passes worldly glory… we are here for a limited time. Hence, make the most of it while you can. And especially, make photos. Or better, have them made, by someone who does it for a living.

This kid’s mom is a very good photographer, and I shot her boy with her yesterday:

(As usual, I used an off camera flash, and the speed was the usual “outdoors starting point” of 1/250 sec at 100 ISO; the aperture needed to match this was f/4.5, which also gave me the blurred background I wanted.)

I often hear “photography is dead”, “from here on, we are all just doing iPhone snapshots”, and so on. But looking at these, do you believe that?

I am sure that there will always be a market for great photos, photos that this young man will treasure when he is my age. An iPhone cannot give you blurred backgrounds, sharp images, lens choices, or the use of flash.

For this image we want a dark background to get saturated colour. That is the 1/250 sec at 100 ISO and f/4.5.

Then for the subject we want a flash: after all, “bright pixels are sharp pixels”.

To be bright enough, the flash was set to half power shooting through an umbrella, so:

A single speedlight is enough in this kind of light. If we had been in the bright sun, the speedlight would have to be very close and/or unmodified.

In any case: please have images like this made, or learn how to make them. After all, you can never travel back in time to do it over again.

Tomorrow, a special technique you can use when you have to shoot a subject in the bright sun.

Manual or TTL?

When making flash pictures, your camera will be on manual mode—I hope so, anyway. It’s the way to go. This means you set ISO, aperture and shutter yourself.

But your flash does not need to be on manual. That is to say, flash power can still be metered and be adjusted by the camera, automatically. We call this “TTL” (Through The Lens metering). And TTL can work even when the camera itself is on manual.

When your flash is in TTL mode, the back looks something like this:

You see TTL, ETTL, TTL-BL, i.e. something containing the letters TTL. This means the flash power is adjusted automatically by the camera. If you are close to something, the flash will fire at low power; if you are far away, a high power flash will be emitted. Magic!

The alternative is that you set the flash power. Manual flash, in other words. Press the MODE button on the back of the flash and set it to Manual:

In the photo above, the flash is set to half power (1/2). It could also be set to full power (100%, or 1/1), or to quarter power (1/4), or one eight power (1/8), one sixteenth (1/16), and so on; or to some level in between.

Try this now. Set your camera to manual mode, 1/40 second, 400 ISO, f/4. Now turn on your flash and set it to manual, and set it to 1/64 power. Using the viewfinder, take a photo. Check the photo: You will probably be hard pressed to see the flash, especially if your subject is far away.

Now set it to full power (1/1, or 100%). Do the same again. Whew, probably a grossly overexposed picture!

But you probably noticed something else. You did not see the flash through the viewfinder. “Did it work?”, you may well have asked. That is because when the flash is on manual, it fires just once, at the power level you set. You do not get the metering pre-flash that it uses when set to TTL mode (a flash at 1/32 power that is used to determine the needed power level). And that preflash is the one you can see through the viewfinder. The actual flash you cannot see!

Now, an exercise.

  1. Find an object to photograph. With the camera set as before, and the flash on MANUAL, find the correct power level for a good picture. Aim the flash straight ahead for this exercise.
  2. Now move 40% farther from the object. E.g. if your original distance was one metre, make it 1.4 metres. Or if you were 4 feet away, make it 5 feet 7 inches (that is 40% farther than 4 feet).
  3. Now find the correct power level for this picture. How much more power did you need? And (an advanced question for mathematicians): why? (Hint: it’s actually 41.4% farther).

Have fun.