Before and After: Why we use light

The following shots of yesterday’s student are a good example of why we use flash to create dramatic portraits outdoors, on a sunny day.

Say you take a snapshot, in automatic mode, of a person on a sunny day around noon. You get this:

A snapshot. Composition is fine, but the person is half overexposed, half underexposed; the sky is washed out. It’s why people say you cannot take photos at mid-day on a sunny day.

But flash comes to the rescue.

  1. Set your aperture, ISO and shutter speed to get a nice darker background. I like dramatic, so in my case this is a very dark background. Dark colour is saturated colour. Start by going to the fastest shutter speed you can use when using a flash (e.g. 1/250th second), then set aperture and ISO to get darkness. (I used manual mode, and set my camera to 200 ISO, f/13 in my case).
  2. Use a flash in a modifier – to “nuke the sun” (overpower sunlight). This needs to be a powerful strobe, or a speedlight very close to the subject. I used a Bowens strobe with a softbox, powered from a Travel Kit battery.
  3. Now meter the flash, using a flash meter (or trial and error). Adjust the strobe until you read the same aperture you just set.

Now you get this:

Isn’t that much better? The subject is now the “bright pixels”. And bright pixels, as you know, are sharp pixels!


Focus: Help is Nigh

When you cannot focus, you cannot take a picture.

And to focus, you need

  1. A subject (lines/contrast)
  2. Enough distance (depending on your lens(
  3. Enough Light

There is often insufficient light. And that can make focusing very difficult.

One thing that can help is your flash. Look at the photographer here, a colleague at a recent shoot:

As you can see on his hand, the flash is emitting some red lines. Those red lines are thre “focus assist” lines. The flash emits these when there is insufficient light. You can even use this function when flash firing is disabled: the flash can be useful in more ways than you thought!



Flash 101 reminder

There are two ways to use flash. Always keep that in mind, because you decide which one it is for any given shot.

2. Flash as the only light source. You would do this in a studio setting.

If you want this, select an aperture-shutter-ISO combination that makes the available light go dark. Like 1/125th second, f/8, 200 ISO:

2: Flash mixed with available light. You would do this at a party.

If you want this, select an aperture-shutter-ISO combination that makes the available light show up too – maybe two stops below normal. Like 400 ISO, 1/40th sec, f/4 (the“Willems 444 rule”):

Simple, once you realize this: the flash is separate from the ambient light. In TTL mode, flash is metered separately.


On the shoulders of giants

When people ask me “how do I learn portraiture and composition”, I always have a simple answer. Study what others have done. In particular, study classical painters. Go to an art museum!

Look at the work of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Velasquez. Or more recently, John Singer Sargent, a genius of portraiture. Or the impressionists. These people knew portraiture, they knew light, they knew composition.

And learn from photographers whose work you like. Avedon, maybe, or any of the other greats. This is the way to learn. Try to figure out exactly why you like certain works.

Another tip: ask yourself “what feeling does my photo represent”. If you do not know, chances are that the image is not optimal.

Using these learning opportunities, chances are that you will improve your work soon.