Outdoors flash photographer’s workshop        

Last August I wrote about setting up an outdoors studio in the meadow on the south side of my home for my friend Joleen McAvany. Readers will remember that Jo wanted to do a “Disney Princess” session with some of her friends.

Jo posted her studio-like photographs from that day online. Her photos were so successful that I decided to offer another how-to workshop.

I limited participation to four interested photographers and Jo easily talked two of her friends into braving the cool October day to be our models.

I like flash and never pass by an opportunity to introduce photographers that normally would only use flash in dimly lighted rooms, to the advantage of employing flash in the daylight.

Jo and I set up both a white canvas backdrop and a painted blue/grey canvas backdrop. I had purchased the painted canvas, but the white canvas was formally a large painters ground cloth spattered with paint that I got for free.

I attached several older 1970 vintage flashes on light stands with umbrellas. All were connected to wireless receivers and I gave a trigger to each photographer.

My lecture was about balancing the light from the flash with the ambient light. The key light (main light) that modeled the features of our ever-patient subjects, Morgan and Cora came from the flashes, not the sun.

Jo gave a posing demo using a 60mm, then a 70-180mm and finally a 400mm lens as she positioned each model in turn. Then after showing everyone how effective the long lenses were, and how easily it is to control the flashes, I positioned each depending on the light.

I then let the attending photographers experiment and learn as I showed them how great their photos could be using flash in the daylight.

Most had seen some of Jo’s “Princess” photos and I reminded them that she had originally asked me, “can I do this out-of-doors and still create flattering studio kind of light portraits?”

Now I have introduced four more photographers to using flash as a creative tool instead of just something that brightens a dimly lighted room or gives a flat light on some subject’s face that is standing in the shade.

I am left wondering if they will start using flash. It is so easy to be lazy and leave the flash at home on a sunny day. However, the resulting photographs where one controls the light and is able to place it to flatter and model a subjects face should be enough to convince any serious photographer.

I would like to think I was successful in convincing those four photographers that adding the light from a flash will make their photographs stand out among photographers that depend on the inconsistent light from the sun.

Note: Photos by Joleen McAvany

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An outdoor studio for photography     

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of weeks ago Jo stopped by to tell me she and 8 friends wanted to do a “Disney Princess” shoot. She came up with that creative idea and posted a call for women that wanted to do modern interpretations of those cartoon characters from the Disney movies.

Her question to me was, “can I do this out-of-doors and still create flattering studio kind of light portraits?”

Absolutely! was my reply. Sure one could go through the expense and trouble of renting a studio, but it’s pretty easy to duplicate the indoor studio type lighting out-of-doors.

Gosh, the movie people have been doing it for years. I jumped at the chance to show Jo how easily it is.

We hadn’t had rain for almost a month so I decided to create an outdoor studio in the meadow on the south side of my home. The “princesses” would be showing up just after noon so I chose a location to set up the backdrop that had shade from several tall fir trees. I also planned to put up a canvas gazebo with a table for the makeup artist to work.

“The best laid plans”.

Actually, those aren’t the words I used as I looked out my bedroom window at the rain the morning of the event. The local weather reporter had suggested there might be some spotty rain in our area, but the pounding deluge outside my window wasn’t what I expected.

However, because of the possibility of rain Jo and I had set up one of my backdrops under my canvas carport the night before.

I got a “good morning I’ll be right over” text from Jo as I sloshed out to set up the lights under the carport. The rain was a hindrance that dampened the yard (and I am sure the spirits of the soon to be princesses) but “Light is Light” and all I had to do was balance my off camera lighting.

The larger backdrop we had set up was for blocking the wind, rain and what limited daylight there was. We then erected a black paper background and I used two lights mounted on stands with umbrellas to model our subjects.

I am sure there are those that would have just upped their camera’s ISO and hoped for the best on that dismal flat day. But I like the modeling, depth and control over a subject’s features a flash adds. Heck, we might as well have been in a dimly lighted room. The ambient light was that good for adding flash.

When Jo’s subjects arrived they turned my house into a makeup and change room. There were costumes and clothing everywhere. I just stayed out of everyone’s way and concerned myself with the outdoor studio except for an occasional quick trip to my kitchen for another coffee.

The rain lightened a bit, but never really stopped all that much. Nevertheless, those excited Princesses were all about creating a modern day reality or personal version of the Disney character they were supposed to be. There was a lot of laughter and running back and forth along the bushy wet path from the carport to the house.

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 to say, ” 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.”

I will add that I have, personally, always felt that photography is a series of problems to be solved, and rain or shine it’s really the goal of flattering portraiture.

I think that many people viewing the pictures Jo took outside on that rainy day will, unless told, think that the portraits were made inside a well-equipped indoor studio. I guess it doesn’t really matter where they posted for their Disney Princess portraits, only that they are good.

In all the commotion I forgot to begin the day with the words of legendary 1920s filmmaker, D.W. Griffith as Jo pointed her camera on that rainy day, “Lights camera action”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Portrait   

The conversation – a Portrait.

For most photographers a portrait is an artistic representation of an individual or individuals, with the goal of capturing some likeness as to who they are.

Famous American photographer, Richard Avedon carried this further when he said, “A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”

Popular American painter Jamie Wyeth wrote, “Everything I paint is a portrait, whatever the subject.”

For years most of the photography I did was portraiture, whether wedding pictures for a family, or private sessions. My opinion is that portraits are pretty narcissistic and because of that, can be much harder to do properly than many other photographic pastimes.

Make a bad landscape and no one will really care, capture a bird flying poorly and it’s no big deal; however if you give someone an unflattering photograph of themself and you have might make an enemy for life.

A portrait can be a representation of anything and doesn’t necessarily need to only be of people. Years ago my wife and I had show dogs and would regularly attend and participate in events in hopes of having the judges select our dog as best from some group; and when we did win, we would walk our dogs to a photography booth set up by a skilled dog portraitist to have a portraits taken that day when they looked so good and performed so well.

As I watched a TV show earlier this week I noticed framed pictures of the owner’s cat hanging on the wall, and I have seen all types of pet portraits in friends’ homes. I suppose a picture of a favourite or special car, motorcycle, boat or even treasured holiday snapshot, might be called a portrait.

I wonder if many photographers might agree with the painter Wyeth’s contention that, “Everything I paint (or photograph) is a portrait, whatever the subject.”

Some time ago I went for a slow drive along the winding roads high above my place in Pritchard hoping to find some cows, horses, or deer to photograph. I wanted head and shoulder compositions (or portraits), not animals in the landscape.

I leisurely drove around, passing lots of roadside deer; cows quietly chewing the cud, and finally stopped near two horses standing very close to a fence. My choice was to compose of portrait of them instead of just a pleasing documentary of two horses in a field. So I mounted a 24-85mm lens on my camera, walked through the wet grass to the fence to take their picture, and worked angle after angle for a portrait.

I suppose the words “artistic representation” and “goal of capturing some likeness” are appropriate when a photographer captures human-like qualities in animal portraits. I wanted a picture that included me, or at least inferred some conversation between the horses about me. My image is, as Avedon said, “….an opinion”.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off-Camera Flash in Daylight  

Whatcha Got?

Perfect lighting

A little to the left

Teamwork

The right light

Ya gotta get wet

Who cares about the water

Lets see

Flash the Cadillac

 

This past weekend I lead another workshop for photographers about using off-camera flash when photographing portraits outside in bright light. As with past lighting workshops my goal was to help participants understand how to use flash in different environments during daylight, and gain techniques that I hoped would help them transform the harsh daylight of outdoor portraits into beautiful light.

I was fortunate to have a great rural location where participants began in the morning photographing our model using a speedlight and a diffusion panel in a bright meadow, then moved to a large, well lit, open barn with two-flash lighting using a shoot-through umbrella and softbox until lunchtime.

After a healthy lunch provided by Versatile Studio we set up by a small tree covered stream, getting both our feet and our model’s feet wet. We finally finished the day photographing the model posing beside an old 1970s Cadillac in a nearby field.

I enjoy guiding serious photographers through their first attempts to use flash as a tool to create better photos, I want them to think of the flash being more than an uncontrollable device perched on top of the camera when it’s too dark in a room to take the photo.

I have been offering off-camera flash courses since the early 1980’s, and still believe they are an important segment of a portrait photographer’s education.

So much has changed in photography, and yet here I am 35 years later, still helping photographers learn how to use off-camera flash. Modern cameras are amazing with sensors that are so much better at capturing light than film was. But just as 30 years ago, serious photographers realize how much more flattering off-camera flash is on someone’s face than just harsh daylight.

Off-camera flash gives a photographer the ability to choose the best direction of light.

There are times when I am forced to photograph a person without using a flash. I think “forced” is the best word, because I will always use flash if I can, and as those that have taken my advice have learned, in most instances using flash for portrait photography indoors or outdoors is better than not using a flash.

Those attending last weekend’s workshop began to get comfortable using flash.

David Hobby, lighting guru and founder of the blog, http://strobist.blogspot.ca, wrote,

“Learning how to light is incremental, creative and fun. There is almost no math involved, nor any difficult technical know-how. In fact, good lighting is less like math and more like cooking. It’s like, you taste the soup and if it needs more salt you add some salt. You’ll see that when we learn to balance a flash with the existing, ambient light.”

“Controlling harsh natural light – one of the most important things to know as a shooter is how to use bad light well. Taking hard, nasty daylight and turning it into beautiful light is actually pretty easy.”