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Amber vs The Bulb

Amber vs The Bulb

In a break from my normal location shooting, I spent a little time at Saracen House studio nera Milton Keynes last weekend. My subject was the very talented Amber Tutton and while it’s virtually impossible to take bad photo of her, I wanted a concept to make me images stand out. So, being known as a bit of lighting guy, I decided to take along a suitable prop: an over-sized, squirrel cage light bulb.

Most images were taken with a gridded beauty dish as key light, flying high halfway between me and Amber with a small softbox at ground level, 2 stops lower, for a little upward fill and to seperate her dark jeans form the black seamless.

While this worked well, as Joe McNally says “Don’t get satisfied with one view, and one good-looking frame! Shoot and move, shoot and move.” Changing your angle an composition is one thing but don’t forget you can change your lighting too. In this case, I shut off the strobes and modelling light, opened up my aperture and cranked my ISO.

Thanks to Andrew at Saracen House for making me feel so welcome, Amber for being awesome and Darren for the introduction.

And for the lighting and photo geeks, a little BTS video:

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.

Sunset Shooting

Sunset Shooting

Sunset is my favourite time to shoot, not just because of the “golden hour” light you get, but because it’s the time adding flash to an image can change it the most. You can take a photo of your subject, under what looks to the naked eye to be pretty dull conditions, and then show them something on the rear screen of your camera that they can’t believe hasn’t taken hours in Photoshop.

It’s all about colour balance: Using a mixture of white balance settings on your camera and coloured gels on your flash will enable you to really bring out colour in the sky, especially useful when you don’t get the apocalyptic, fire and brimstone sunset you were hoping for.

So for this set of images I gelled my main flash (camera left in a beauty dish) with one full and one half cut CTO gels. A CTO gel is a sheet of translucent orange plastic that’s designed to bring your daylight balanced flash up to the same colour temperature as a standard Tungsten light bulb. A “half cut” is a sheet that’s half strength. The “proper” use would be to match your flash to the ambient light, but it’s often used by photographers such as David Hobby (from whom I learnt this tip) to warm up skin tones to flatter your subject. A half or a quarter cut (an even less tinted sheet) on your key light will give your subject a healthy glow.

What if you add a full cut and a half cut to your flash, making it a really warm orange colour? If you don’t change your camera white balance to Tungsten you’ll have an over-tanned subject. You are adding one and a half cuts of orange to the light on your subject, then effectively taking the whole scene down by a full cut but changing your camera’s white balance. Tungsten mode on the camera will bring the full CTO light back to daylight colour temperature (plain white), leaving just the half cut left to gently warm your subject’s skin.

Here’s where it gets good! By setting your white balance to Tungsten you cool the colour temperature of the whole scene down. That brings the very warm light on your subject back to just above normal, but it also cools everything else in the scene. The areas not being lit with your super warm flash, go extra cool. In this case, the grey clouds turn blue.

1.5 cuts of CTO gel, camera on auto white balance
1.5 cuts of CTO gel, camera on auto white balance
1.5 cuts of CTO gel, camera white balance set to Tungsten
Same 1.5 cuts of CTO gel, but now with camera white balance set to Tungsten

So in less words: Light subject with very warm light. Adjust white balance to compensate. Get slightly warmed subject and cool blue background.

Want to take it a notch further? How about adding a second, un-gelled flash as a rim light? Position it directly opposite your main light and, because it’s un-gelled and therefore cooled down by your shift in white balance, it’ll appear to be throwing cool light in from your artificially blue background.

Behind the scenes

The image above was taken early in the shoot, before the sun dipped out of view and before I gelled the main light so there’s no colour shift in the sky, but it does show the layout of the lights. Soon after the sky began turning grey so the CTO gels were called into action. You’ll be able to see when in the slide show below.

Enjoy the behind the scenes video, and as usual if you have any questions, post a comment.
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!
The Marangoni Girls at USC

The Marangoni Girls at USC

Ultimate Street Car is one of the biggest weekenders on the modified car show scene and title sponsor, Marangoni Tyres had the busiest stand at the show. And on their stand they had Jen and Sarah who you may have seen on the blog before along with Torrs. I’d spoken with Sarah in the week leading up to the show and arranged to make a few pictures, but I have learnt that you can’t plan too much at shows like this. It’s a case of seeing what you have to work with and coming up with ideas on the spot.

In this case the idea was pretty clear on arrival. Marangoni were promoting the fact their tyres are available from KwikFit and to the side of the stage was a fully kitted out mobile tyre fitting van. I think you know where I am going with this…

The Van/Studio

If the people running the stand and paying the promo girls are going to let me take their girls away from their main job for a while, I need to try and give some value back. In this case, producing some images emphasising the Marangoni/Kwik Fit connection worked for Chris, the man in charged, and the KwikFit fitters on site.

Five minutes later, the KwikFit guys were tidying the van, I was unpacking my Quadras while the girls wielded lip gloss and hair brushes.

I’d passed the van a few times and had already formed an idea: A CTB (blue) gelled light filling the van, with a CTO (orange) lighting the girls, gridded to stop the spill drowning out the blue. Then by setting the cameras white balance to Tungsten (the same colour temperature as the CTO gelled flash) I brought the girls skin tone back to normal and sent the interior of the van an even deeper shade of blue.

So after a quick explanation of what we were trying to achieve (while Jen warmed up!)…

The Briefing

The Briefing – Phot by Darren Skidmore 

…it was time to test the lights. (The photo above is also a good indication of how different the ambient light was to the light in the final images). I do this one at a time to simplify things, getting one right before moving on to the next. I this case I set my camera about 2 stops below ambient to stop daylight spilling to the van too much and set the power on the blue gelled Quadra in the back of the van. It only needed to be set just above minimum power to get a nice rich blue colour – any higher and the colour got paler.

Background light

That’s a bare Quadra head back there (no reflector) as I wanted light bouncing around in the van to fill in the shadows and the sheet of blue gel is held on with… chewing gum! Finally, before I show you the finished images, a quick shot of the CTO gelled main light positioned outside the van. There is a 30 degree grid spot in the standard reflector to keep it from overpowering the blue interior of the van. This light was moved quite a bit during the shoot to make sure it was aimed correctly and to maintain the flash-to-subject distance as the girls moved about the van.

Shooting Sarah

And finally… the resulting images, the first of which was used in an upcoming Marangoni/KwikFit flyer.