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Balancing Act

Balancing Act

If you’ve spent any time on my blog, you’ll know I like shooting on location. I love all the choices I get when it comes to balancing strobes with the available light – juggling all the variables is so much more fun than shooting in a studio where you have complete control over the lighting.

Shooting at night takes that to the extreme. Capturing what little ambient there is can be tricky when your flashes want to nuke everything with light.

I came up against such a situation a couple of weeks ago, so here’s what I did to stop my model, Sarah, from floating in a sea of under exposed blackness.

The image above was taken out by Pendigo Lake at the NEC near Birmingham in pitch darkness. So dark in fact that I had to ask friends to light the area with mobile phones while I set up. Without some artificial light on her, Sarah wouldn’t register at all.

Before the Quadras got powered on though, I found my ambient exposure. If I went straight in with flash, I’d have ended up with a good exposure on Sarah but a dark background. I wanted the coloured lights on the other side of the lake as my background so I left the strobes off for now, slowed my shutter speed and cranked up my ISO. The sweet spot turned out to be 1/20th second, f/4 at ISO 1600. Obviously shooting 1/20th handheld is usually a no no but when using strobe, the very short duration of the flash will freeze anything it hits. Plus, as there was no ambient light falling on her, I knew Sarah was going to be free from any motion blur from camera shake.

Then came the lighting on Sarah: A Westcott 50″ Apollo softbox (review of this coming soon) camera right and a gridded strobe camera right, slightly behind her.

As you have to start somewhere I set both packs to 1/4 power and fired off a test – let’s just say it was a little over exposed! Even at minimum power (25 w/s) on the ‘A channel’ on the packs I was still going to end up with a glowing Sarah if I wanted to keep the detail in background. I could have closed my aperture or lowered my ISO 2 stops to restrict the amount of flash getting in but that would have forced me to go to shutter of 1/5th of a second – slower than I was comfortable hand holding.

So instead I switched my Quadra heads over to the packs “B channel” and dialled all they way down to 8w/s – just enough power to balance the ambient light and produce this set of images.

Pit lane Skyline

Pit lane Skyline

Last weekend saw Trax come to Silverstone and another chance to shoot in the famous Formula 1 pit lane. No planning, no preparation – just a beautiful car and an unlocked garage. Rather that just hitting you with the eye candy, I thought I’d de-construct a few of the shots and tell you what I did to get them.

As always, start simple. At 1/160th (a safe sync speed on the 5DMkII using Elinchrom Skyports) at f/6.3 all ambient light was killed allowing me to add my own light. When shooting a car, you can get away with hard light, so this was lit with bare Quadra’s either side.

With the doors opened, and the car turned around, I exposed for the scene outside (1/160th @ f/8) to give the picture some context, then started adding flash to bring it up to the same level.
I quickly realised this wasn’t going to be very exciting though, so I killed the flash, opened up to f/2.8 and kept slowing the shutter until the car was properly exposed and the bright pit lane blew out. A bit of desaturation and floor clean up in Photoshop yielded this:
Time to move outside and shoot down the pit lane using the sun as a back light. To control to sun, and be able to keep it in the frame I had to stop down to f/16 at 1/160th which meant I had to crank my lights to full power (400WS) and bring them in fairly close.
If I’d had my 18cm reflectors I would have had a bit more leeway and would have been able to shoot wider. You can see here how close I needed the lights.

Then at the suggestion of Chris the owner, we tried a wide, side view as if the car had just driven in  for a pit stop. I knew it was doing to be hard to light, but what the heck! Once again I set my exposure for the ambient light and under exposed by about 1 stop to keep some saturation and detail in the blue sky (1/160th at f/9  this time as the suns not in the frame). Here’s the shot unlit.

And with the same settings but with the flashes firing at full power again. I had to have the lights in a little closer than I wanted meaning I couldn’t quite get the end walls of the garage in shot. I’m rearranging my camera bags this weekend to make sure I always have the 18cm reflectors and some grids with me!

 

Everything in photography is a compromise and working within the limitations imposed by location, subject or gear is all part of the challenge. I’m still happy with the final shot:

And finally, a quick illustration of how a little wink of flash can make all the difference. Its not until you see the lit version that you realise just how much detail was missing from the unlit one.

With and without flash - Animated
Enjoy the final images!
Anatomy of a Location Shoot

Anatomy of a Location Shoot

I’ve known Emma for a few years and while we’ve done a few things at car shows, we have never shot together properly. Last weekend we put that right.

Not only did Emma make the trek up from the Portsmouth but I was lucky enough to have my long suffering assistant/producer/gopher/other-half Helen on hand to help as well as good friend and fellow photographer Darren “Skids” Skidmore to shoot some behind the scenes video and stills. Quite a crew!

So after the obligatory coffee and a snack it was on to location number one. If you follow me on Twitter or like my Facebook page, you’ll know I’ve been out and about location scouting recently so I already had a few versatile spots I knew would work. The First of those was under Valentine Bridge for a little urban portraiture. I exposed for the buildings in the background which left Emma around 2 stops under exposed in the shade of the bridge so a Quadra head and the Deep Octa were brought in for fill.

Midweek this area is bustling with office workers on breaks, especially on such  a beautiful day, but on a Saturday there are just a few passers-by…

…which Emma soon tuned out!

Over zealous security guards are always a concern when working on privately owned land like this so we kept everything hand held.

And no, that wasn’t a comfortable shooting position!

As the gear is already unpacked, I always like to get as many looks as I can while at a location so Emma got changed into another outfit and we turned everything around and shot against the red brick wall behind us.

A completely different look for about 5 minutes work. Note to self – Buy a better belt!

 On to location two – another bridge a few minutes walk up river. Known locally as “the cheese grater”. Admittedly more by luck than judgement, the sun was in the perfect position to light Emma directly and provide its own fill for the shadows by reflecting off the side of the bridge.

With some solid images in the can it was time to move to the far end of Bristol’s floating harbour and the old red brick warehouses on The Cumberland Basin.

Nothing fancy here, just natural, direct sunlight which worked well with the bright graffiti.

A short walk and a swift outfit change later and Emma’s is rocking the American high school kid look on a rusting iron bridge.

This is a fairly busy short cut for dog walkers, joggers and cyclists but it’s quite surprising how respectful people can be when they come across a scene like this. Many were reluctant to walk through the scene, even if I didn’t have the camera to my eye.

Simple lighting on this one again, just a Quadra head with an 18cm reflector to give a sharp fall off of light and draw the viewer to Emma’s face. Such a hard light source wouldn’t work for every subject but Emma has great skin and can carry it off easily.

Just around the corner was another pre-scouted location that I’ve wanted to use before but it’s always been too muddy. I find it easy to fall in to the trap of thinking a good location needs to be large, like an epic view or impressive structure, but this patch of ivy in the middle of an industrial landscape works brilliantly.

As you can see, the Deep Octa came out again for this shot, and again the front diffusion material stayed in the bag – I wanted a slightly more specular light to bring out the shine in the leaves.

We’re were on a mission by this point – we just had one more location and one more look to shoot but the call of a beer and some food was strong! Emma is great at choosing outfits to match locations and as soon as she saw the weeping willow, she pulled yet another dress from her seemingly bottomless suitcase.

Going back to what I was saying earlier about locations, it would have been easy to have turned 90 degrees to the right here and shot with Bristol’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge as a background, but the branches of the willow tree on the river bank made a much more suitable setting for the innocent look we were after. By now it was beer o’clock so we took a break for a few hours.

Up until we trekked out to the banks of the River Severn, the weather had been perfect without a cloud in the sky so we were pretty confident we’d get a beautiful sunset to finish the day off… fail. Epic fail! Just at the last moment clouds bubbled up from nowhere and we were left with this:

Ok, not quite the Ibizan vista I’d envisioned but it’s Severn Beech and you work with what you’ve got! After raving about how good this location was going to be after the previous nights location scouting, I knew I had to pull something out of the bag now I’d dragged everyone down there. The sun had let me down, but what I did have was a willing model, some warmth in the rocks and my own portable sun. So while brave Emma donned her bikini, I set about creating sunset with a Quadra head mounted high on a light stand and a CTO gell. With the cameras white balance on Tungsten and the flash head firing in warm light, the dull grey, post sunset sky turns blue. (I’ve written about this concept before called Working the CTO)

As Emma herself said, “it’s amazing what you can do with a big sweet wrapper”!

With 8 distinct looks in the can, the call of the bar became too strong and we called it a wrap!

Sunday was vampire day! This was the original reason Emma came to Bristol so I had to get something good. Luckily, with Emma in costume and in character that was never in doubt. With the fangs in place and the fake blood flowing I knew I could get theatrical with the lighting. The key again was the Deep Octa as it gives a rapid fall off, lighting just what I wanted it to. I could then play with a few ideas for the background including letting some ambient burn in spookily or go all out Hammer Horror and use a red gelled flash.

I’m just pleased Emma was cleaned up and de-fanged before the PCSO came along to send us on our way!

So there you have it – a behind the scenes look at what a location shoot with me is like. If any photographers reading this would like to work with Emma (and I highly recommend you do!) check out her website and her PureStorm portfolio.

Thanks also to Helen and Darren for being able assistants and taken the behind the scenes photos.

If you have any questions, as always hit the comments.

 

Quadra ECO Ring Flash – First Impressions

Quadra ECO Ring Flash – First Impressions

Focus On Imaging is the biggest photography trade show in the UK – think of it as our version of Photokina or Photo Plus. While it’s not as large, you still get a few product launches there and this year I was particularly interested in The Flash Centre‘s launch of the ECO Ring Flash for the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system. If you have followed my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a big fan of the Quadra pack and head system and I’ve been hankering after a ring flash for quite some time.

I’d looked at the Orbis and Rayflash gadgets that attach to a standard hotshoe flash and bounce the light around a series of light pipes but wasn’t impressed. They seemed a little fragile, are expensive enough to not be an impulse purchase and they eat up a load of power (around 2 stops in fact).

Let’s be generous and say a 580EXII is kicking out about 100w/s at full power. Drop that by 2 stops and you are down to 25w/s – that’s the minimum a Quadra pack can put out on it’s A channel. With such little power, you’re not going to get the prominent halo shadow that’s the signature of a ring flash and working outdoors you will need to work very close to get any effect at all.

The Quadra ECO ring flash, kicking out 400w/s at a few metres away, is a total different proposition. Plenty of power to create that halo shadow and enough to tame bright sunlight at a reasonable working distance. The Fast Show is coming up and I plan on seeing how it copes in daylight then, so stay tuned.

So, first impressions then?

It’s a solidly built bit of kit! The brackets that hold the flash to the camera attach to the tripod mount and are very adjustable to allow for a range of cameras and lenses. There also a tripod mount on the base.

The flash itself is all metal, except for the clear acrylic cover on the front to protect the flash tube. There is also a clip on translucent cover to diffuse the light slightly and hold any gels to may want to add.

The power lead that connects you to the pack is 2m (slightly shorter than the 2.5m leads that come with the Quadra A and S heads) so you can just sling the pack over your shoulder.

With it mounted to a 5D with battery grip and a 25-105mm lens I had no trouble reaching the zoom ring or shutter buttons and while its by no means small, it is lightweight and doesn’t get in the way. I did find the flash illuminated the specks of dust on the front element of my lens at certain focal lengths but that’s more than likely down to me fitting the ring too close to the body.

What’s that? A sample photo you say? Well, OK then! Thanks to Helen for being my guinea pig… again!

Light Painting A Car

Light Painting A Car

I’m lucky enough to have access to what can loosely be called some studio space (a huge empty room, large enough to get a car in that gives me completely control of the ambient light) so last night I tried a little automotive light painting.

So armed with nothing more than a camera, tripod and an Elinchrom Quadra with the modelling light on although any constant light source would do though.

I’d like to say that was all done in camera but it’s not. There are 3 individual shots that have been composited to make that final shot. Firstly, because of their brightness relative to the Quadra’s LED modelling light, I shot the headlights.

Then it was time to light the car. After a few tests with various softboxes I found the most even coverage came from simply walking around the car with just the Quadra head and 18cm reflector. A 13 second exposure at f/8 gave me time to walk fairly slowly around the car. The first shot below is a lap with the light held fairly low to get light onto the doors and the second was as high as I could reach to bounce some light of the car roof.

For this pass (another 13 second exposure) the light was held higher to thrown light onto the roof of the car.

Once in Photoshop, I layered the 3 images in Lighten mode and did a little burning to darken down the walls in the background. I also added and masked a desaturation layer to remove the slight yellow tinge from the fog lights and remove a colour cast from the wheels and floor. The result:

For a first attempt a light painting a car I am pleased, although looking at the final image, I see a few things I’ll look out for next time.