Monday, April 16, 2007

2 light, wireless flash-fill outdoors

Sometimes it just seems like all the cards are stacked against you.

Last week, for instance. We were going to be doing an outdoor, engagement portrait in a local park.

So far, so good.

About the only time to successfully shoot at this place, is with the nice, early morning light....and facing south, for some subtle backlighting on the foliage and the subjects. Well, as it turns out, the only time we can co-ordinate their schedules is mid-day...and of course it's a really bright, clear day, and just for good measure the wind had kicked up.


And, when setting up these portrait sessions, the clients are informed of a couple clothing recommendations, for a more pleasing result....darker, solid colors, and long sleeves. Not much to ask.

Knowing in advance that we were going to be battling with the direct, splotchy sunlight, in this forest setting, the battery powered umbrella lighting kit was loaded. Along with the wireless, remote transmitters and receivers. At least we'll have a fighting chance.

And, when you're shooting outdoors, non-photographers are always amazed that you need any extra lights....I'm usually greeted with a comment like..."boy, isn't this great. Such a nice sunny day" I used to think the same thing, until the magic of outdoor, fill-flash was properly demonstrated to me by Monte Zucker, in the mid 70's.

So, the first order of business is to select the exact location for the shoot. I like to pick the background first, and then add the subjects in the foreground. This prevents lots of potential problems. It's always possible to change the light on a smaller area which is near the camera. However, trying to adjust the light on a much larger background area is almost impossible.

The image below shows the test shot, establishing how the background would look.

It's a good idea to have someone along to help with the gear. Especially outdoors. A sudden gust of wind can easily blow over one of these top-heavy umbrellas. And a second pair of eyes can sometimes spot potential problems that I may not see. Rattlesnakes and Black Widows, for example.

A good assistant and office manager are necessary for any successful studio operation. And, if you know of someone, please let me know. Meanwhile, I'll keep using my buddy, Mike Meisinger.

For this session, we're using the Metz on-camera flash units, modified slightly, so they can be remotely triggered with an infra-red transmitter. No more cords or cables. We've rigged up a bracket which allows us to attach this contraption, along with the umbrella to a lightweight light stand, and still be extremely mobile.

An overall exposure was established, so the background was exposed properly. White balance was set for the "sunny" pre-set, ISO 100, 5.6 at 1/60th. And, since the couple was standing in the deep shade, they were slightly underexposed.

No Problemo. This is where the flash comes in. Using a hand held flash meter, we simply did a few test pops to achieve a proper balance of ambient and flash. The camera's shutter and aperture didn't get changed since the initial reading was taken, so all that needed to happen was for the flash to equal the ambient light for a split second.

In the 2 images shown below, you'll notice a slight difference in the brightness levels of the background. This is not due to any shutter or aperture changes. Simply, the clouds moving in and out. You can also see some primative, Photoshop work to remove the problematic branch from the area immediately above his head. I'll finish this later....just wanted to show you how distracting that branch was.

Next...a quick change of location, and switch the lighting placement. This series will be tighter. Waist-up, and with a slightly longer focal length on the 28-105mm Tamron zoom.

The umbrella was the main light source, coming in from the side, and a second, smaller flash unit was up high, and behind the couple, to serve as a kick-light to add highlights, and provide separation from the dark background.

And, since there is a tremendous amount of contrast between her dark colored dress, and his white shirt, the extended dynamic range capabilities of the new Fuji S-5 will be put to the test!

The camera remained on the tripod the entire session. This allows freedom to frame-up the shot, and still run back and forth....adjusting the lights, and fixing stray hairs and unruly shirt collars. Still, the best tripod for outdoor shooting is the Manfrotto Neo-Tech....there's nothing else that comes close for quick set up's and break downs...and minor height adjustments are a breeze.

To add some fill light to the shadows, and soften the facial lines, we used a Westcott pop-up reflector. And, on windy days, they can "break wind" ( Can I say that on the internet? ) ...and keep the hair from blowing all over the place.

Well, despite the obstacles...wind, direct sun, mid day lighting conditions, and challenging tones in the clothing, we pulled it off.

Thank God for photogenic subjects.

Now, my next challenge will be actually shooting the wedding. Dark Tux...white gown!
The S-5's capabilities will REALLY be put to the test.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills

The Eastern Sierra is always a safe place to head when you need a break from the hectic pace, and want to get some serious shooting under your belt. And photographing the sunrise from the foothill region, beneath Mount Whitney can be an experience not soon forgotten. I've been here numerous times. In fact, I typically return to almost the exact same places, year after year.....and it's always different. And, since the best shots will be taken facing due west, there's a tremendous change, throughout the year, in the direction of light at sunrise. During mid-june, the sun will rise directly behind you, resulting in very flat, non-descript light on the scene. But come back in the winter, or spring, when the early morning rays eminate from the southeast, and it's very three dimensional and dramatic.

Since the town of Lone Pine is just a couple hundred miles north of LA, it's pretty convenient for me to do this as a spur-of-the-moment excursion.

(image shown flash was used)

These images shown here, were taken about an hour after the explosion of color at sunrise. But, still early enough in the day to capture the warmth and dimension of the great morning light.

My objective now, was to retain the snow capped peaks as the backdrop...and, to find a suitable and still typical foreground to improve the overall look of the image. So often, when shooting these grand scenics, the composition suffers because of a lack in fundamental compositional characteristics. Well, I found what was needed. A really nice group of cacti....which are actually not all that common in this area. Luckily, it was in great shape and situated in a nice location for shooting.

(image shown above...flash off to the warming gel)

Viola! Just what I needed to complete the final image. The only problem was that there was this 20 foot rocky outcropping, just to my left, which was casting a huge shadow completely over my newly discovered foreground.
Damn! The light's changing fast....not much chance I'll find another foreground this nice, in a few minutes, perfectly located in direct sunlight. Not gonna happen!

Well, the only way to make this shot work is to figure out the best way to properly increase the amount of light on the, it's equally bright as the background. And, there's really only one option in this situation. If there had been any direct, bright sunlight in my immediate area, a big silver Westcott reflector would have been the answer. But, with that big hill off to the left, we're in some pretty widespread shade. The only option here was to use a flash to fill in the dark areas. The small, pop-up flash, which is built into the camera didn't have a chance under these conditions. I needed to shoot at a very small aperture to maintain the depth of field required to keep both cactus and mountain sharp. The aperture was set to f/22 to be exact....and the wimpy on-board strobe wasn't even close to being up for this challenge. So, I whipped out my external Metz 54-MZ, which definitely has the power needed....but, attaching the flash to the camera's hot shoe would be the easy solution, but not the correct one. This would result in a very obvious problem with the direction of light. The overall scene is lit very strongly from the left...and now we'd have the cactus being illuminated with a light source eminating from the camera. No way. The result would look contrived...AND there would be another problem with a mis-match in the color temperature between the 2 light sources.

(image shown above....flash with warming gel)

The solution here is to hook up a TTL cord to the flash...this will allow the electronic communication to continue between the camera and flash.....while enabling me to position the flash WAY off to the left, so, the angle of flash jives with the sunlight's. But, we still have that nasty color mis-match. The flash unit is producing light which is the color of sunlight at MID DAY...and the sun, now is actually creating a very warm light over the background. Another pretty simple solution. I simply covered the front surface of the flash with a warming gel ( a Lee 1/2 CTO, to be exact ) ...this is a piece of light orange colored celophane, which added the necessary warmth to the flash, and the color balance was achieved!

The second image of a similar problematic situation was fixed using the same technique. The large, lichen covered rock was lit in a similar fashion.

Off-camera, color corrected, TTL-flash-fill......sounds pretty intimidating. But, once you try it, you'll have another tool in your first aid kit, and the skills required to overcome yet, another challenge.
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