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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
1.5 cuts of CTO gel, 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 gallery at the end of this post

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 be 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 shoot 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 challenege. I’m still happy with the final shot:


Enjoy the final images, and as always, click on any image to see the big, high quality version.

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 it was time to test the lights. 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! Outside the van was a CTO gelled main light with 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.

And finally… the final images, one of which is to be used in an upcoming Marangoni/KwikFit flyer.

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!

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 sat well with the 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.

Death of a Cover Car

Death of a Cover Car

Ash Manton’s Type R Civic has been part of the UK modified car scene for several seasons and keeps coming back with a fresh look each year. It’s current stripped out, carbon clad, airbrushed look has just won it the cover feature in Max Power.

As it’s had the Max photo shoot treatment, I wanted to try something different. Enter Georgia Graham, Ash’s girlfriend, showing that hell really does hath no fury like a woman scorned!

The plan here was to go for a dark and moody look so out came the Quadras again to enable me to stop down far enough at my max sync speed to take the daylight – f/9 at 1/200th did the job. One bare, CTO gelled strobe was positioned camera left adding a rim light to both Georgia and the car to separate them from the dark background and a second strobe, in a 70cm Deep Octa in “beauty dish mode”, as the main light.

Enough talk, on to the pictures!