Light the Portrait workshop part two.                                              

 

 

 

The second of my two day off-camera lighting workshop is now over and I am pretty sure I have converted a few more photographers to using off-camera flash indoors and out.

The session we just finished was all outside. I would have been happier with a warm, sunny day that had deep shadows and harsh light, but what we got was a cold, slight overcast day instead. Oh well, at the end of the last session I told everyone (yes, our model too) to come prepared for a cold wet day.  As it was, the rain came at night with a wind that dried things out by morning, so all we had to contend with was a cool October, and fortunately, windless day.

Whether one is shooting under a bright sun or overcast conditions, the goal should be to balance both the ambient and the light from the flash. The subject shouldn’t look like a deer-in-the-headlights and the background shouldn’t be unusually under or over exposed.

I began by discussing TTL flash and how to set up and use high-speed sync. Then progressed to demonstrating manual flash lighting. I will say that TTL is wonderful for fast moving events and high-speed sync allows the photographer amazing control over ambient light.

Our first location was in the middle of a field where I had set up a backdrop and two flashes. The 15X15 foot backdrop was a well-used old painter’s tarp that I had found when sorting through the garbage at a house vacated by some tenants who snuck out during the night to avoid paying rent. A drag for the landlord, but an excellent find for me.

Painted backdrops are expensive, especially if they are large and seamless. However, for budget conscious photographers I suggest purchasing a painter’s cloth from the local hardware store and dying it grey. All those that want to be creative need to do is work on the dyed cloth with some spray paint or a large sponge dipped in paint. Instead of spending the extra cash on a seamless cloth, one just employs the cloning tool on the seams in post-processing.

After using different light modifiers at the backdrop location we moved to the edge of the meadow with it’s colourful background of fall leaves. Then we all carefully climbed down into the deep shadowed creek for some photos. After that our model, Sarah wanted to pose against a discarded Cadillac resting in the field. That Caddy was caked up to its bumper in mud from a spring flood that washed out the bridge and almost damaged the studio. From there we posed our model against an old rail fence and finished with a setup using flash and reflectors in a large open barn.

I know that between the very active day and all the handouts I gave those in attendance everyone was dealing with a bit of information overload. Hopefully they will review their notes and remember how we set up the pictures they have on their memory cards. After a few days and a bit of practice everything will come into focus. Pun intended.

Light the Portrait workshop        

 

 

This past weekend I lead the first day of a workshop titled “Light the Portrait”. My goal during the two sessions was to help photographers understand how to use light, indoors or out, when they photograph people.

Fear-of-Flash has always been a topic of discussion for photographers photographing weddings, and portraits both indoors and out.

American photographer and author of the Strobist.com blog David Hobby said,  “…You hear a photographer say, “I’m a strictly available light photographer, I’m a purist.”  He continues, ” What I hear is, I’m scared of using light so I’m going to do this instead. Well, for me lighting was a way to start to create interesting pictures in a way that I could do it.”

It’s with those words that I began the workshop that would discuss using both studio lights and speed lights. Adding that personally, I always use a flash when I make a portrait of someone inside or outside. I don’t care if the ambient light is bright or dim.

My goal is to not only help photographers gain an understanding of off-camera lighting, but to also convince them that using flash will separate their photography from those that rely on natural or as I prefer calling it, “ambient light”.

The first session was about the big studio lights and accompanying light modifiers like, umbrellas, softboxes and reflectors, to name a few we employed during the day.

Those of us in Kamloops British Columbia are fortunate to have a local portrait studio that is not only large enough for a class, but also is packed with all sorts of lighting equipment, backdrops and change rooms for models. The portrait studio, Versatile Studio, also comes complete with a kitchen and dining area. And there are all sorts of props for posing.  All I needed to do was write up my lesson plan, print some handouts, book the studio, hire a model and show up in time to start leading participants into the exciting world of off-camera lighting.

I enjoy leading; I like that word better than “teaching”. I know to teach “is to show or explain to people how to do something”, but most of those that attend know a lot about photography and have already been shooting portraits for some time. All I need to do is build a bridge for them between what they already know and what I am presenting.  And as I stand with them in the studio/classroom I get watch that quick tightening of shoulders, widening of eyes and smiles when they suddenly get it. When that happens I can’t help but smile too.

Well, the first day is over and, as usual, they tired me out. However, I am already looking forward to next week with those enthusiastic photographers (and our energetic model). I wonder if I should begin next week’s session with the words of legendary filmmaker from the 1920s, D.W. Griffith. “Lights camera action”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Garden photography during the first days of summer          

 

 

 

Last Wednesday was the first day of summer here in Canada and I finally made time to wander our garden for my monthly photo session with the flowers growing there.

I had photographed the garden in May and although there were some early blooming roses and tulips, not much was going on.   However, since then the cool spring days here in the interior of British Columbia lengthened and warmed and the summer heat is coming.   Everything was in bloom and waiting for my first-days-of-summer photographic expedition.

The sky clear with a slight breeze as I walked around in the cool morning.   It was comfortable, but neither worked for me. I was hoping for some clouds and didn’t like the breeze at all, so I waited.

About 2pm slight clouds started gathering and the breeze quieted.  I attached a flash on a lightstand, mounted my 70-180mm macro on my camera and started searching the garden.

It doesn’t matter if I am photographing a person or a flower, I like to use an off-camera flash.   Sure there is nice natural light once in a while, but it is so much easier to control the light with a flash then to hope and wait for the sun to be just right.   Normally I like using an umbrella, but there was that intermittent breeze that didn’t bother my waiting subjects too much, but the tiny gusts could easily blow my flash over with the large umbrella, so I left the umbrella on the porch and instead employed the diffuser that came with the flash.

A flash lets me control the ambient light using the shutter speed and I stop down my aperture to disguise background distraction by under exposing or open up the aperture to reduce depth of field.

I thought about getting in the car and driving over to the pond to check out the geese, or maybe make an attempt at photographing a nearby waterfall that I am sure was loudly crashing into Chase creek. Those are more exciting subjects than flowers, but I promised myself I’d get a good record of the flowers this year. Anyway the afternoon garden and the surrounding neighbourhood was quiet, the plants were patiently waiting, and I was too lazy to go for a drive.

Summer is here and the flower’s bloom won’t last long. The mountains around here have ticks, snakes, and maybe hungry bears (well, probably not hungry bears and I haven’t seen a rattler in years). The water is to high to get good shots of the waterfalls and anyway if one waits another week I expect there will be plenty to photograph on Canada day.  So for now I suggest one more leisurely and safe foray, with camera and flash, into the garden before summer’s heat takes the bloom’n colour away.

Flowers as Portraits   

Easter is about a month away and I expect a few readers will be getting flowers from someone or giving flowers to someone. Those flowers will be a great photo-opp.

A portrait photographer’s studio set-up usually includes a backdrop and lighting equipment. The lighting, from small, or large flash units, is controlled by an array of modifiers that can include reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes. And the backdrop is chosen not so much because it is a flat surface but because it is a background to flatter the subject seated in the foreground.

The lighting illuminates the subject and separates it from that background as well as creates depth and dimensional form.

When producing an outdoor portrait most experienced photographers will begin by placing their subject in front of a neutral background or sometimes erect a backdrop and use either flash, or reflectors, to control the light on their subject and create depth and interest.

However, if I asked those same photographers to make me a good picture of a plant they would likely just kneel down next to some pretty flower and snap the picture with little thought to background or lighting.

After years of doing just that to lazily document some plant that caught my eye, I decided that I wanted more from my images. I realized that it was the shapes and plant forms that drew me to gardens.

During my quest to make my plant and garden photos more than flat, lifeless documents, I discovered the flower photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. His portraits of flowers are always posed and include the kind of dynamic lighting one would expect in photographs of beautiful people. His spectacular and thoughtful compositions of flowers, like orchids and calla lilies, convey moods that to me reveal more with each viewing.

When I photograph people I try to be both creative and flattering with my lighting, remembering that a good portrait should have lasting power. I want future generations to see a portrait of their parent or grandparent and still like it. If one gets too edgy, or trendy, the portrait will not stand the test of time and be discarded when trends change.

I have come to think the same way about photographs of plants. Flowers, of course, are so much easier to photograph than people, especially potted plants. Select a good location, turn the pot until the pose looks good and add light. Plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

Photographing a plant in the garden or in a pot should be more than quickly pointing a camera at that flower in a garden or a windowsill and releasing the shutter.

Put that boring iPhone away, and take the time to make it more than just a repetitive, unimaginative record. Don’t be in a rush; take time to develop a plan, don’t take the lighting for granted, work with it, and above all, be creative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern TTL Flash    

ttl-flash-camera

Attaching a flash to one’s camera has been, and still is, a hot topic of discussion that was going on long before I got serious about photography in the 1970’s.

I remember being confused, well actually, really confused, and read everything I could find trying to understand how a flash attached to my camera’s hotshoe worked, and how adding light from a flash (on and off camera) could be used to enhance my photography.

Early flashes produced a constant amount of light no matter how close the subject was, and over or under exposures were common. The most frequent way of controlling flash power was to use exotic technology like a white handkerchief, a translucent soap holder, or attaching a white bounce card to the flash.

Later technological development included light measuring sensors in the flash that read the light reflected back from the subject and shut off the flash when a predetermined amount was reached.

Then TTL (through-the-lens) flash came along and small computers in the camera controlled the flash. The reflected light was read by the camera, making the lens focal length, the aperture, and the distance all part of the exposure equation.

Today’s hotshoe connected flash is nothing short of amazing, and there is absolute control over the flash.

Subtracting light intended for the subject no longer needs some translucent material placed over the flash head.

Using devices like white cups, and bounce cards with a TTL flash have become all about softening or diffusing the light instead of only reducing it.

The latest flashes easily control power output, and can be comfortably used with wireless off-camera technology. Alternatively, the flash can also be connected by a dedicated cord and still remain off-camera allowing the photographer to point the flash toward the subject at flattering angles without time consuming calculations.

A photographer can, while shooting, easily select the exposure in camera, or dial the flash power output up or down. It is now so simple to reduce or increase the ambient exposure while maintaining or brightening the subject alone for more natural looking photographs than it was with early flash photography.

When I began using a flash many years ago it changed the quality of my photography. It became just like the image change I gained by using different focal length lenses.

I no longer had to rely on ambient light and I began to notice my subjects had more “pop” than those without the flash and I was pleased at being able to fill unflattering shadows coming from overhead lighting and reduce deep shadows caused by sunlight.

The modern speedlight (hotshoe) flash gives a photographer control over the quality of light and using a flash (or several flash units off-camera) when photographing people is more than just brightening up subjects in a darkened room.

 

Photographing a Late Fall Garden   

oregon-grape

thistle-2

thistle

grass

thorns

yellow

I try to wander about in our garden with my camera each and every time the season changes; spring, summer, fall and winter.

I have photographed the changing garden throughout the years and, although it always seems very familiar and comforting, I find myself discovering different ways to capture the life that begins, grows, blossoms and then retreats into sleep. There are times when I have constructed elaborate sets with reflectors to capture and control the light. I have built mini studios much like the controlled indoor setups that portrait photographers are familiar with. I’ve lain in the snow and employed umbrellas on rainy days. However, on this particular day I wanted light, and waited all day for sunlight that seemed reluctant to bring me one day of fall warmth I wanted to photograph before the snow that was predicted in a day or two.

When 3pm rolled around I worried that if I didn’t get something done in the quickly dropping light, other than look out the window, I wouldn’t get any pictures at all.

My camera was waiting with a manual 200mm macro, wireless sender and two light stands with a flash and umbrella mounted on each. However, when I finally walked outside (yep, I already said “quickly dropping light) I realised I was doomed to failure if I relied on taking the time to set up that equipment.

Years ago I was asked to give a lecture to the Abbotsford Photo Arts Club. I won’t go into that long discussion, but the title I chose was, “A problem solving approach to photography”. And I realised that this was the time to move into a problem-solving mode.

I removed the 200mm macro from my camera and replaced it with my wife’s 70-180mm macro. I prefer my old manual lens for close up photography, but that Auto focus zoom macro is really easy to use.

I also put aside the light stands and attached a single flash to an eight-foot TTL flash cord. I could have set things up wireless, but I was going for quick and easy and with the TTL cord I just let the flash hang off my shoulder until I wanted it.

I could have used a high ISO, a wide aperture, and just popped a bit of light for a proper exposure. But a high ISO would increase the ambient light and show the lifeless colours of surrounding foliage. A wide aperture would limit my depth of field, and TTL is fast and easy to light, compose and relight a subject.

I under-exposed my exposure by several stops, and let the dedicated TTL flash (with a diffusor cup) do what it was designed for, to deliver just the right amount of light on my subject.   That gave me a dark background that I could later make completely black by adjusting the contrast in Photoshop.

I didn’t have a lot of time before more clouds moved in making an already dark afternoon even darker, but my portable set-up made things easy and even gave me a moment to pause and watch our three legged, feral cat flee as it ran out from the cover of the shrubbery. Gosh, in spite of the damage to her one back leg, she sure can move.

I had been trying for three days to get some pictures, but unpleasant weather and life in general got in the way. However, with a bit of problem solving and the will to finally get out and do something, a person can end up with a few photographs worth keeping.

 

Home Studio Lighting for Photographers      

Flash Kit 3

I have written about using off-camera flash several times. Nevertheless, with the conversations I had with two separate, aspiring portrait photographers this past week asking my recommendations for setting up a home portrait studio I have decided to revisit that conversation.

In each instance they were troubled by the kinds of lighting equipment other photographers were advising them to purchase.  Both were upset at how much it was going to cost to get large and expensive studio lights other people were suggesting, and complained that they would have to wait until they had the money before a home studio lighting situation could be set up.

With serious searching they might be able to find used studio lights listed on craigslist, or similar online sales, but that will include additional shipping costs. Further, they won’t have experience with the many brands of equipment available, and are taking a chance that the units will arrive in working condition. And, to confuse them even more they will be offered lots of those cheap, and inadequate, Constant Light kits that were purchased by other unsuspecting beginners.

I knew they were both new to portraiture and just want to learn about lighting. My opinion is they don’t really need to go to the bank just yet, and would be better off starting out with smaller, speedlight type flashes. With the money saved by not purchasing the big, studio type lights they can buy a couple of inexpensive light stands, umbrellas, and maybe even add a soft-box, and a backdrop.

Photographers intent on setting up small home studios for portraits and small groups don’t need to go to the expense of the brawny, studio type lights. They can easily, and without much initial cost, set up a studio with what I personally use, and call my “portrait kit”.

I use older hotshoe flashes for my portrait kit, each with it’s own wireless receiver and stand. I can choose a shoot-through umbrella, a reflector umbrella, or a softbox, and much of the time I include a reflector. It is an inexpensive and easily stored or transported “portrait kit” that I would recommend for home studio photographers.

Wireless sender/receivers come in all sorts of inexpensive incarnations, and it is the same with lightstands and flash-to-umbrella mounts. All of this is much less expensive, and a lot easier to store and/or move around than the big studio-type flash units.

I have been using multiple flashes off-camera since the 1980s, and I always choose inexpensive, used units that I can cheaply replace if they get knocked over, or if I wear them out.

Hotshoe type, off-camera speedlights are perfect for the educational process of learning to use flash effectively, and if they are no longer a good fit for one’s creative growth, the choices as to the next step in lighting equipment will be educated decisions instead of emotional.