Photographers – modify the light.

 

For some time I’ve been advising photographers to use a flash when they take pictures of people, whether indoors or out.

I understand that those with a few extra dollars in their pocket can purchase expensive cameras that can capture images in low light using a higher ISO, but using additional light is much more flattering for a human subject.

While sitting by the window in a coffee shop some time ago a friend casually snapped a picture of me using an ISO of 9000. I was impressed at the clarity and colour. Actually, it was a bit too clear and colourful for my old face.  Nevertheless, my comment was, “Nice picture, too bad you didn’t have a reflector”, which brings me to my topic this week – light modifiers.

Readers know what harsh sunlight looks like on our subject’s face in a photo, or have winced at the loss of detail caused by the direct light of a camera-mounted flash.  A flattering photograph isn’t just capturing or adding light, but modifying it’s path to the subject.

Modification might be as simple as bouncing the flash off the ceiling, or a wall. The pop-up flash might work at parties, but using a flash off-camera gives more control and pleasing results.

When outdoors without a flash a reflector is an easy to use light modifier. Place the subject out of the direct sun and direct the sun in a controlled way back to the subject using a reflector. Reflectors come in all sizes, shapes, colours and surfaces. Silver is gives cool cast, gold is warm, and white is neutral. I prefer the compact folding reflectors that fit in my camera bag. Reflectors are great outdoors, and are perfect with a bounce flash in that basement studio.

More and more photographers are using wireless flash. A small flash mounted on a stand can be aimed at the ceiling, a wall, or a reflector, for much nicer light than if pointed directly at the subject.  But the wall, ceiling, and reflector only give a broad indirect light. Yes, it is better than a bare flash, but not very controllable.

My choice is umbrellas, softboxes, and other devices that modify and control the light.  I like bouncing and reflecting light in some conditions. However, those I mentioned give more control as they reshape, restyle, alter, modify, and soften the light from a flash.

Umbrellas come in several types. Choose a shoot through or reflective, large or small. The reflective umbrellas are available with different surfaces – silver, gold, white – each has its own way of changing the light. For example, I like the soft broad light reflective umbrellas give when photographing several people or families.

Many portraitists seem to prefer softboxes. Whereas umbrellas give more control than a flat reflector, a softbox directs and defines light much better than an umbrella. Softboxes also come in many sizes and shapes depending on use – rectangle, square, octagon, etc.  When viewers see that soft shadowed “Rembrandt style” lighting in a portrait, they can safely assume the photographer used a softbox.

For photographers that want more luminosity than umbrellas and softboxes there is the beauty dish. A beauty dish provides a glowing kind of light, very directional, easy to control, and when used with diffuser it has an attractive smooth light.  There are, of course, many modifications to each of those I have mentioned. Again, it depends on how a photographer wants to apply light to a subject.

My set up much of the time is a simple flash above and behind me using either a softbox or an umbrella, with a sidelight bounced off a reflector, and backlight directed at the background with only a small dome diffuser covering it.  That’s one quick, effortless setup that I can easily carry in two small bags – one bag for light stands and light modifiers and one for my flash units, camera and lenses.

That gives me light that is more controllable and attractive than a pop-up or on-camera flash, the sun, or relying on a high ISO.

Photographing the garden in the March snow.     

 

Jo McAavany

Jo McAvany

Jo McAvany

This time last March I wrote about flowers as portraits, and discussed my indoor makeshift studio setup using modifiers like reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes to photograph potted plants.

This year I decided to put my winter boots on and wander out in the sub-zero, snow-laden garden out side my front door to see what interesting features I could discover.

As I have written before, I prefer using flash and the waning March light at 7PM was perfect for my off-camera flash equipped with a shoot-thru umbrella.

I really don’t care what time of year or the weather, I like photographing the plants and flowers in my garden. Shrubbery, weeds, and vegetation in general always make for fun subjects.

Plants are so much easier to photograph than people, plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery, and always are happy to wait for me. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

This time my goal was to photograph anything that caught my eye.

It didn’t matter how the late afternoon light was, because I had my key light with me. Relying on ambient light is so troublesome, and I knew that the only way to give my subjects “pop” and reduce deep shadows caused by sunlight was to use flash.

The slowly dimming light was perfect for my sojourn through the garden. I easily metered the ambient light, then under exposed slightly so the flash would become the main light instead of the late afternoon sun. The soft modified light from a shoot-through umbrella was even across the image with a gradual transition from highlights to mid-tones to shadows.

The snow was deep and more than once it filled my boots as I trod off the packed down path. However, there were lots to things photograph I didn’t care.

Branches and sticks poking out of the snow, shadows along the fence, a rusty old wagon wheel, the red leaves of Oregon grape, weathered boards, dead and dried out flowers, and as the sun sunk below the mountains, a light bulb hanging from the snow cover above my car.

I was enjoying myself so much that I texted my friend (Jo lives down in the valley and across the river from me) and suggested she grab her camera and join me.

We took turns holding the stand mounted flash and finally, when it was to dark to see things and we finished our photographic we went inside to load our images on my computer and warmed up with a glass of red wine as we looked over the pictures we had just taken.

As I have written before, I photograph my garden in every season.    I know there are many photographers that only take pictures of plants when they are in bloom and prefer colourful representations. However, spring, summer, fall, winter, snow, rain, sunny, or overcast, my garden is filled with ever changing subjects that always offer something new.

As always, my advise to photographers that think they must wait for inspiring weather before their next garden safari is, there’s always something to photograph no matter the weather or the season, just get up close and look for the small stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Volunteering your photography and using a flash           

 

This Christmas I volunteered to be a helper and photographer for a neighbourhood community friendship group.

Each year Dale Northcott, owner operator of Northcott’s New and Used, joins other local help organizations to put on a Christmas Meal for anyone in Kamloops that would like a big home cooked meal during Christmas.  This year Northcott asked me if I would take a few pictures of the event.

For those that might wonder about photographing a large room full of people, I’ll remind them that I use flash. I always have a flash attached to my camera when I photograph people close up, indoors or out. However, I never use the ineffective little pop-up flash that is part of the most modern digital cameras and I also don’t just slide a flash on the hotshoe.

I have never liked that bright directional light created by being inches away from the center of the lens. It is harsh and unflattering. The best would be to carry an off-camera flash mounted on a stand, but in crowded circumstances that doesn’t work very well. So the next choice is to have the flash mounted on a bracket that puts the flash up and off camera at least four or five inches.

That flash bracket is my choice. Most of the time it puts the subject’s shadow down and behind them and its slight distance from the lens makes a more flattering light. My Nikon flash comes with a frosted diffusion cup fitted over the flash head that modifies and softens the harsh, direct light of the flash.

I always test my location and try for a balanced light. Fortunately, in this location I was able to adjust the room lights to get plenty of ambient light bouncing off the walls and the ceiling so I wouldn’t get that “deer-in-the-headlights” effect.

I think sometimes photos are of the organizers and volunteers get overlooked, and those were the people I approached as soon as I got to the hall. I am not one of those that nervously says, “Hi my name is so and so, can I please take your picture”?  I walk right up to the person and start talking as if we’ve always been friends. I rarely have to ask questions, because my new friends usually tell me about themselves, their organization and how important the event is. Then all I have to say is, “I gotta get a picture of you, hey grab that bowl or how about you wash some dishes…this is going to be a great picture.” And in this case I also said, “ I’ll be giving the pictures to Dale Northcott so you can get one.”

There was another photographer that knew many of the people sitting down to eat and I let him take their pictures. As I was about to leave he commented that one person asked him to delete their picture. I said, “and of course you did”, and he smiled and said, “yes I did”.

It was a fun event to attend, I liked taking pictures of the volunteers and organizers, and I got in great conversations with people that finished eating. My favourite comment was “did you get enough to eat” and “can I get you more”?

I know there are those that seem to believe their cameras are too valuable to be used for free, and the photographs they make are also too valuable to be given away. In the forty plus years I earned a living in this exciting medium of photography, I have never been one of those people.

My best wishes to readers on this festive season. And I hope everyone has a Happy New Year.

Photos in the alleyways.  

 

 

This past week my friend Jo McAvany asked me if I would be willing to help her with using off-camera flash in daylight. I like controlled studio lighting, but I’ll admit that balancing flash lighting in the bright daylight is much more fun.

She texted me saying she had asked her friend Heather to be our subject. My question was “where do you want to do this”. I think I held my breath at that moment hoping she wouldn’t suggest wandering around in the woods to photograph our young model. If she had I probably would have feigned an attack of the flu or something just to get out of spending a boring day doing what every beginning photographer seems to be doing now days. However, Jo said, “I’d like to go downtown.”   My response was, “Great lets pose your friend in the alleys”.

I am not sure if it was because of the shopkeepers or random artists, but the alleyways in downtown Kamloops are damn colourful. There are murals, wildly painted back entrances and large brightly coloured signs that fill complete walls. One might expect to find trash, discarded store goods and rusting garbage bins. But nope, it was as if someone had said, “Hey, there might be a photographer or two that want photograph our alleys so lets make ‘em nice.”

We went from coloured wall to coloured wall, posing our ever-patient subject in doorways, against brightly decorated enclosures and behind fenced walkways. I think this was Heather’s first time posing for photographers, or at least having two cameras pointed at her. And yes, she had to endure my constant discourse about balancing light, shadows, exposure and off-camera flash.

Sunday was a good choice. Other than the cold breezy November day, it was quite pleasant. Well, except when the wind caught the umbrella that was attached to the flash and stand and sent everything crashing to the ground.

There was no traffic zooming down the ally and other than some fellows sitting out of the wind behind a building and a street cleaning machine quickly scrubbing by, we had the alley to ourselves.

The three of us ambled up and down the alleys. There were so many places that demanded Heather to pose for us in front of. We even tried adding her into one of the large murals that looked like a walkway into an Italian villa. There was a small green door that someone had painted, and both Jo and Heather agreed that it would be like Alice in Wonderland if Heather reached down for the doorknob. We could have spent the day wandering the alleys photographing Heather, but eventually the cold crept in and we decided it was time to finish photo session talking and warming up at a coffee shop.

We had a good day. We discovered a new place where we can do photography and we all worked together to produce some interesting photographs.  Heather is leaving town for a job in the fast paced coastal city of Vancouver, and our photos will surely give her some great memories of the city she has been living in for some time now.

I think Jo and I might invite a few photographers and models to join us another time to do a bit more exploring around the back alleys.

 

 

 

 

 

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”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographing a late summer garden.   

 

I woke up to a wet day.

There was a light shower overnight, not the strong rain everything is dying for here in the southern part of British Columbia, but it did dampen things down the most since those rainy weeks last June. However, any rain is good and if I had better hearing I surely would have heard happy sounds coming from the garden outside my door.

The drizzle ended and as I lazily finished my morning coffee, like any serious photographer, I knew there was an opportunity waiting.

Many photographers that are excited with all the brilliant colours of spring ignore the dry plants at the end of summer. Sure the reds, blues, purples, bright yellows and greens have mostly gone, but there is still an abundance of colours if one just takes a moment to look.

I like photographing the garden. As that well-worn quote attributed to Mark Twain goes, “ I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like”, I admit that I have no memory for plant names, but I like all the flowers, trees and bushes one finds in a garden.

With me, it’s not really the colour as much as it is the shapes. My approach to a spring, summer, fall and winter garden is much the same. I search for the shapes, differing tones and, of course, the light.

My favourite accessory for rainy days is my ring-flash. As I would with any portrait, person or plant, I always use flash. I usually operate my flash off-camera using light stands and light modifiers. Sometimes just holding my flash at arms length works at the end of the day. But after a rain I like the sparkling direct light a ring flash produces.

The ring flash is a flash that fits around the front of a lens instead of on the camera. I prefer keeping the flash at some distance by employing longer focal length macro lenses. My macro lens, a true macro, is a 200mm. That lens keeps me out of the garden ensuring that I don’t step on other plants.

I photographing the garden, spring, summer, fall and winter, calming. Maybe that’s because I am looking into and at the small details of a landscape ignoring the world around me

When my wife and I photographed the garden together her final images were about space, design and how all the bushes and flowers fit together and how the colours interacted. Linda’s visuals discussed the landscape rather than individual flowers. Mine are more intimate. As I wrote, I am always, “looking into…at the details” when I wander our garden.

As with any portrait, I am rarely satisfied with natural light and almost always add light from a flash. And during those hours of low light as the storm slowly drifts away adding a bit of light to makes a normally flat subject come to life.

That garden just outside my door is always waiting. I never ignore it and am always looking to see what it offers.

I found this quote by the famous Canadian nature photographer and writer Freeman Patterson, “Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, you intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”