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 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.”

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.

 

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.”

A Photography Excursion In My Own Yard     

Showtime

Rusty Chain

Painted wheel

Lichen

Wagon wheel

Water tank

Window hinge

C.P.R.

 

It seems as though photographers get so hung up on traveling in search of exotic, or inspiring, locations that they forget about what is right out their own door.

I must admit that unless I have decided to take pictures of a colourful plant, or quickly capture a photo of a feral cat looking for handouts, or a deer that has hopped the fence with hungry designs on the spring buds growing in my wife’s garden, I rarely wander our yard with my camera in hand. The items we pass by every day become so familiar and commonplace that we pay little attention to them.

Last Sunday I wondered if the ten lilac bushes I planted late last fall made it through the winter. So I walked along the fence to check for spring growth and sure enough all of the new shrubs made it and I later told my wife that all the lilacs she had shipped all the way from Quebec are doing just fine. Of course with the unusually warm winter we had here in British Columbia one would expect no less.

As I walked around I spied a pile of old chain rusting on a log and realized I might be missing an opportunity for a few pictures if I didn’t get my camera. I admit I am not the most fastidious person when it comes to keeping tidy the two acres of land we live on, and because bits of things interest me I am forever picking up stuff that is apt to spend lots of time resting wherever I place them when I got home. That chain has only been sitting there for a year or two, but there might come a time when I will need that well-rusted length of chain.

So I got out my camera and mounted my wife’s treasured 70-180mm macro, grabbed my flash, and headed out. The Nikon AF 70-180mm is unique. It is the only true macro zoom lens around which allows precise framing without having to change working distance and refocus. And so, yes, that lens is special to Linda.

This photo hunt was to look for those bits and pieces similar to the chain and that’s why I chose that macro lens, so I could get in close or zero in on just a part of what I wanted to photograph.

One of my favourite photographers, Robert Mapplethorpe wrote, “With photography, you zero in; you put a lot of energy into short moments, and then you go on to the next thing.

Those words were perfect for my walk through my spring-like yard. I’d find an object or feature, focus close with the macro lens, zoom in to crop tight, release the shutter a couple times and move on.

Although I can use my flash wireless off-camera, this time I chose to connect it to the camera with a dedicated TTL cord. I decided it would be easier to hold the flash and aim the light from different angles than it would be if I had to keep moving and adjusting a stand. Instead of fussing with a flash mounted on a stand all I did was put the flash in my pocket till I needed it to photograph flaking paint, rust, moss-covered wood and all sorts of things that have found a home in our yard.

I am of the opinion that those photographers that live in a well-kept, tidy yard are missing out on such an opportunity. Just think of how much fun I had on my safari discovering great things of which to take pictures.

Of course there is the possibility that my wife will come up with an altogether different kind of safari once she sees my pictures, one that will be a lot less fun for me.

 

 

Photographing the Winter Garden

Outdoor lighting kit  Clematis

Erigron  Erigron b

Winter blown bullrush

Step Ladder

 

Sunday was one of those “let’s see how many small jobs I can do” days. One would think there is no chance of being bored on a day like that, but I finally decided it was time to relax and sat down with a glass of wine, and enjoyed lunch with my wife and listened to some jazz.

As I made my way from one chore to another I kept looking at the snow in the garden and wondering if there was an opportunity waiting to make a photo or two, but I pushed along thinking “maybe later”.   However, as I started on my second glass of wine I complained that the outside light was gray and flat and that maybe I should just forget it. Could that have been the wine talking, or that I am just lazy?

Ever one to keep me on my toes, my wife, Linda, reminded me of a lecture we once attended by Canadian photographer, and author, Sherman Hines. (I recommend readers check him out) As she remembered Hines had said something like; “there is always something to photograph when the weather is poor, look for the small stuff”. There was the challenge. I left the room to get my camera.

The snow was getting wet on the plus 1 degree C afternoon so I decide to leave my tripod behind and mounted my wife’s 70-180mm AF macro on my camera. That unique, fun to use lens is the only true zoom Micro (macro) lens ever made by Nikon. And I get to borrow it anytime, well, almost anytime.

I got my camera and put together my lighting for what would be an excursion to search out the intimate features poking through the snow in my wife’s garden.

I attached a flash on a stand and chose a shoot-through umbrella. I could have connected a wireless sender and receiver, but I decided to use a TTL camera-to-flash cord that would allow the camera’s computer to direct the flash to provide the correct exposure for the close-up kind of subjects I would be photographing.

Although I had complained about the limited light on the heavy overcast day, I knew it would be perfect for my sojourn through the garden. I could easily meter the ambient light, then under expose slightly so the flash would become the main light instead of the hazy sun. The modified light from a shoot-through umbrella is even across the image with a gradual transition from highlights to midtones to shadows, or a soft light.

I stuck the stand through the snow and easily positioned the flash. And unlike a snowless landscape, the snow kept the stand steady no matter the angle. All I had to do was choose an angle and release the shutter. That particular zoom lens allows for a constant macro at every focal length. It was pretty neat and easy.

I choose to photograph that 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, I find that our garden is filled with ever changing subjects that always offer something new and I expect that Sherman Hines surely would approve. My advise to photographers that think they must wait for inspiring weather before their next garden safari, is to take Mr. Hines’ advice, because there is always something to photograph when the weather is poor, just get up close and look for the small stuff.

I enjoy everyone’s comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

 

 

 

 

 

TTL Flash Photography in my Wife’s Garden

Tulip 1 Blue Muscari Arbis Sempervivum Pennesetum grass - fountain grass

This is beginning to be a busy spring. I expect that isn’t news to those in my area that have spent all day doing yard work the past few days. But for many photographers thoughts kept wandering to, “That could make a good picture.”

I really wanted to do some photography in my wife’s garden. The nights are still cold, but the days have been almost hot, and with that heat the first of her flowers are beginning to bloom. My goal is always to photograph what happens in the garden with the changing seasons.

There is always something in the garden no matter the weather, be it snow, rain, or like today, high clouds. The slight overcast day was perfect for my subjects. Bright sunny days increase the contrast of scenes, making it hard to capture details in the extremes and I wanted to retain what details I could. The diffused daylight reduced the number of f/stops from black to white.

My setup is a 200mm macro lens and depending on my mood and the light, either a ring-flash, a reflector, or as I used this afternoon, a wireless, off-camera flash.  Outdoor portraits, whether of people or flowers, in my opinion, aren’t that interesting when one only relies on illumination from the sun. Flash, on or off-camera, or even a reflector, adds dimension and depth that makes for a much better image.

I mounted my flash on a small 2-foot stand and carried a tiny six-inch tripod if I needed the light to be lower to the ground, and I this time I didn’t use a tripod because the few flowers were close to the ground and I prefer shooting very low level. That means almost every shot is made while lying on the ground.

By the time I could get out to the garden the sun was low and, sometimes, a heavy overcast. Perfect light. All I had to do was put the flash to one side and adjust my shutterspeed to decrease the bright ambient light.  Today’s TTL (through the lens) flash is amazing.  Previous generations recall when the flash/camera sync speed was limiting and we could only use a flash at 1/60th of a second! How did one survive?  Today I moved my shutter between 200th of a second and 8000th of a second. That gave me lots of control over the ambient light and easily allowed me to move my aperture to increase or decrease depth of field. My advice is check your camera’s manual, read about, and set the camera to hi-speed flash sync, if available.

I’ll include a brief explanation of TTL flash. When the shutter is tripped, the light from the flash fires off and hits the subject. Then that light from the flash bounces back to the camera, and a sensor reads it as it builds up exposure. The in-camera computer determines when the light has massed enough light for the correct exposure and turns off the flash.

The photographer controls the flash rather than the flash controlling our photography. With TTL technology the camera’s computer provides the correct exposure regardless of the aperture, or flash-to-subject distance.  TTL technology puts the control of depth-of-field back into the hands of the photographer.

Most of the time I kept my flash on TTL, increasing or decreasing the power depending on how far I positioned the flash from a flower, and only selected manual flash as I began loosing the light.

Books on garden photography recommend morning when everything is fresh, but I didn’t get a chance till late in the afternoon, as I was occupied building a temporary yard for six new chicks. We had an early morning marauder a few months ago, probably a bobcat, reducing my laying hens to two. I now have reinforced the chicken yard and think everybody’s safe now. I’ll give the garden another couple week’s growth and try for that fresh morning (and hopefully some overcast) light.

I’ll repeat what I wrote about garden photography last February, “Just about anytime is good for a dedicated photographer to make photographs. My advice is to be creative, have fun, and don’t worry about failures. Open them up on the computer, learn something from them, then quickly delete.  Of course, some tweaking with PhotoShop always helps and, for those photographers that are like me trying for something different, anytime and any conditions will be just fine.”

I always appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com