Replacing the sun

The sun, most photographers would agree, is not the friendliest light. It is like a studio with one direct light:

  • Too contrasty for the camera’s dynamic range to handle dark to light;
  • It throws shadows;
  • It makes smooth surfaces (like, um, skin)  look wrinkly.

So you get this, of Joseph Marranca on Monday at the Mono, Ont venue of the advanced creative light workshops:

Back yard in sunshine, by Michael Willems

Back yard in sunshine

Nice, but it suffers from all the problems of direct sunlight.

When you would rather have this, two seconds later when the sun went behind a big sky-mounted softbox: a cloud.

Back yard in shaded light, by Michael Willems

Back yard in shaded light

Nice and soft. Saturated colours. Smooth.

Now the only problem is that if you want highlights, you don’t get them. Can’t we have both?

Yes. And that is where flash comes in.

In the portrait shot below of Oakville’s mayor, yesterday, I first took away the sun, using a diffuser. And then I added a flash. Off-camera , with a Honl grid and a Honl quarter CTO gel (with my white balance set to flash). Plus a bit of fill flash on the camera.

Oakville's mayor Rob Burton, photo by Michael Willems

Oakville's mayor Rob Burton, June 2010

I think that being in control is better than just relying on too-harsh direct light. Do you agree?

Battery tips

Sunday’s country workshop in Mono, ON prompts me to talk for a moment about batteries.

Background: We used small speedlights Sunday, with simple and effective Honl modifiers and gels. The studio lights and large softboxes stayed packed away.

Tara Elizabeth in the rain, by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth in the rain

In a shot like this, you make the background darker by “nuking the sun”: overpowering the sunlight with flash.

Overpowering the sun takes, um, power.

In general, therefore, you will set your Pocketwizard-powered speedlites to full power. On many shots we have five speedlites firing at full power. Full power gives you not that many flashes – in the order of maybe 100 flashes if you are lucky.

To use flash effectively, then, here are a few practical tips:

  • Turn off the “Auto power down” on your flashes (this is in your flash custom functions).
  • Move the flashes as close as you can to your subject (remember the inverse square law).
  • Allow 3 or more seconds for the flashes to recharge before you shoot again.
  • Occasionally, fire a test flash to verify that  all flashes are still working.
  • Use NiMH rechargeable batteries.
  • Ensure these are “low self discharge” types like Sanyo Eneloop, etc.
  • Carry a lot of spares. Several sets per flash.
  • Before each new shot setup, replace them. So you never run out.
  • Use a “conditioning charger” that can discharge your batteries fully before charging. I have three of the Lacrosse chargers (check Amazon or the web).

And yes, go wild, and use speedlites for creative purposes!

Model Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Model Tara Elizabeth

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Model Tara Elizabeth striking a pose

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth and umbrella

Where's the light?

In the picture I posted the other day of the female runner, did you notice the light? No, really, did you notice the direction of the light?

Here, let me post another one from the same shoot. Straight out of the camera (i.e. this is not the result of photoshopping):

Female runner running down the hill, shot by Michael Willems

Female runner running down the hill

You can see the sun is behind her: look at her shadow.

Normally that would lead to her front being dark. Bad light!

But instead, she is well lit and even has a bright side light on her face. That shapes her face and makes the picture much more interesting than it would otherwise have been.

You may recall, two flashes were used – two simple speedlites (Canon 430EX speedlites, fired by Pocketwizards). One bare, and one, the fill light, with a Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox on it.

Light from “unnatural” directions like this leads to a look that is not natural, but rather, hyper real. A sort of otherworldly look. And as you may have noticed in many of my photos, I believe that that is a good thing to strive for in artistic photos.

Exposing the background correctly is also important – it is darker than your camera would have made it if it has had the final say.

Colour is important here too – I am partial to a combination of red, blue and green; and the pink is close enough to red to make it interesting.

Can you see that the background is a bit blurry? That is becasue I was pannign – following th emodel with the camera as I shot.

(Want to learn more? Well, you can: these are just some of the techniques we teach in our workshops: stay tuned or contact me for more information)

Reiterated Trick

I mentioned this once before as an aside, but it is worth a post: a trick that tells you which flash is casting what light in your images.

Say I am lighting a person (like me) with a flash outside. Nice:

Subject lit with an off-camera flash

Subject lit with an off-camera flash

But how can I be sure this light is from the flash? I mean, is that really all the flash? Or is the subject in the sun? Or in a mix of light?

Solution: put a coloured gel onto the flash. Now you see:

Subject lit with an off-camera gelled flash

Subject lit with an off-camera gelled flash

Ah. So it was the flash! Not only that – you can see exactly where it is -and importantly, where it is not – illuminating the subject.

Useful trick, eh? One more reason to always carry gels along with you.