Saturday, March 29, 2014

Assignment - Balance - Part 1

I am incredibly excited about the Balancing assignment.  It is something completely different than the previous ones and it ups the stakes in a very powerful way.  But before I can get into the assignment I'm compelled to do a brief summary of where we are and what's been learned in the Lighting 102 course.

Where are we?
According to the L102 course there are seven ways to control light:
  1. Varying the position - previously discussed
  2. Varying the Apparent Size of the Light Source - previously discussed
  3. Altering the Relative Intensity (i.e. Balancing) - We are here! 
  4. Restricting Light
  5. Refraction and Reflection
  6. Altering the Color
  7. Time
What's been learned?
I'll keep this list condensed to what has been learned about balancing light.
  1. By altering the aperture we lighten/darken both the ambient and flash exposures (the whole scene)
  2. Altering the shutter speed lighten/darkens only the ambient exposure. Think of flash as instantaneous, it does not care about how long the shutter is open (as long as you are working within the max. sync speed).
  3. To alter the flash-lit area and not the ambient light you have to do a little dance;
                        i.     The ambient light cares about both the aperture and the shutter speed while the flash only cares about the aperture, so to alter the flash and not the ambient you need to adjust the aperture to the desired setting and then compensate the shutter speed the equal and opposite amount.

Simple, right?  Well, maybe an example might help.  Say you were shooting a couple maracas (see below) at f/4 at a shutter speed of 1/25 but the flash is too bright.  You have a couple options.  You could walk over to the flash and manually reduce its power, you could move the flash away from the subject, or you could control it all from inside your camera. 

To control it in-camera you can stop down the aperture, say to f/5.6 (1-stop, 3 clicks on your camera). Now the whole scene darkened so you need to bump up the ambient by slowing down the shutter speed by an equal amount, 1-stop, which in this case would be 1/13.

Photo on the left was taken at 1/25 @ f/4, photo on the right was taken at 1/13 @ f/5.6.  This isn't the best example but you can see that the ambient exposure remains the same in both photos.  The easiest way to tell is by looking at the specular highlights caused by a window in the foreground (the big ones are caused by the flash, but there are smaller ones just to the left it them).  These aren't changing because the ambient exposure is constant.
1/25 @ f/4 = 1/13 @ f/5.6, simple, if try it and practice.  To make it easier sometimes I just count clicks, 3 clicks this way (1-stop, on my camera) means I have to do 3 clicks the other way.  To be honest, I just brought my camera out to make sure I got the stops named correctly.  The absolute numbers don’t really matter all that much to me; the balance between the ambient and flash is what matters.  When I first read that in the L102 course I thought, “Dude, you’re crazy!” but after working through this course I realized that it’s true, and quite liberating.

The Assignment
As I stated above, I am pumped for this assignment.  David Hobby (a.k.a. The Strobist), author of the blog (which includes the Lighting 102 course) has tens of thousands of readers, maybe more, and he aims to mobilize this mass of humanity into an army of well-doers.  The framework of the assignment is simple; photograph someone in mixed ambient/flash light using the techniques that we’ve learned.  The special part, taking inspiration from his friends’ project the Thank You Calendar, is to “produce a photo that makes a difference to someone.”  The Thank You Calendar was a 2008 project to benefit soldiers and veterans in residence at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

To borrow a line from Marty McFly, “Whoa.  This is heavy, Doc.”  Sure, this whole time I’ve been working through this course I’ve been photographing my family or others, even did a Christmas card shoot for my brother and sister-in-law, but making a difference to someone?  I’m sure I have, but that was never the actual goal when I got the camera out of the bag.  The goal typically is to just, “get some good shots”.  I’ve definitely thought of using one of my previous “sessions” as the focus for this assignment but I’ve decided to make this as special as I can.

Recently I’ve been asked to take photos of my friends’ 1-month old baby.  Go big or go home, right?  This family isn’t “special” in any societal “special” way, but they are special to me.  They are a wonderful family that I’ve known for quite some time.  To build on the pressure, I don’t believe that they have done a photo shoot with an actual professional so this will be the baby’s “first photo shoot”.  

Oh dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into!

To explain that last thought a bit you first need to realize that I believe that photos of someone’s children (I don’t have any of my own) and even photos of yourself as a child are pretty important.  Whether they hang in a living room, sit on a desk or lay in an album that hasn’t opened in 20 years, they are special.  They capture a moment in time that you can ever return to (unless of course you are Marty from above).  I have yet to experience a mother looking through an old photo album and not see her shed a tear.  They are powerful, so I’m taking a bit of responsibility into this shoot.  I do not want to be remembered as the guy that ruined this kid’s first shoot.

Secondly, I’m not so much of a “baby” person.  I love being an uncle!  Give me that kid after they are about a year old and we will have a blast, but babies?  I wouldn’t go as far as to call is a phobia but…it’s something.  Toddlers are pretty tough to break.  In all reality they can take a bit more punishment than I can.  I’ve seen kids fall down on their knees and get back up like nothing happened.  If I fell straight down on my knees, unless I was on a trampoline, someone’s gonna have to help me up, that hurts.  But babies, especially before they can hold up their own heads’... I feel like I’m holding a slinky, w-whoa-Whoa.  I always see headlines in my head, “Man who held baby wrong now in custody”, “Study finds that the majority of politicians did not have their heads’ properly supported as babies”.  “…and then my poor meatball, rolled right out the door.”

How about this plan, you hold the baby, I’ll take the photo.

Check back in a week or so to see how things turned out.  Until then remember, you don't get better by leaving the camera in the bag.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

3.1 & 3.2 – Balancing the Sun

If you have been following this blog you may have noticed that there has been an extended delay in new postings.  What began as a brief pause during the end of the year holidays turned into a several month long break.  A once a week pace was becoming far to difficult to maintain and before I could recognize the warning signs I had become burnt-out.  Luckily this break has recharged me and I will continue to log my progress through the Lighting 102 course.  I can however guarantee that it will not be on a post a week pace anymore.

The last post was about balancing flash with indoor ambient light.  In this post I’ll be dealing with balancing flash with the sun outdoors.  Even though I'm moving outdoors, the principals of balancing flash remain the same; modifying the shutter speed affects only the ambient exposure, and modifying the aperture affects both the ambient and flash exposures.  Using a flash in the sunshine is commonly referred to as “fill flash” because the flash is used to fill in the shadowy areas caused by the sun.  For some beginners it might be a strange concept to use a flash in bright sunshine but doing so can make a dramatic difference in your photography.

The Lighting 102 course broke balancing flash with the sun into two separate segments.  The first segment was about balancing flash with twilight and the second was balancing with the full afternoon sun.  While my wife and I were traveling through California we stopped off at a roadside park to try out some “fill flash” techniques.  Since both segments were done on the same day so I had to switch up the order.

1/200, f/6.3, 42mm, speedlite low camera right
(El Matador State Beach)
The first photo, to the right, is my attempt at cross lighting technique during the full afternoon sun.  The sun was high, behind the subject and to the left.  A speedlite was added low and to the right.  The two light sources were set up opposite each other, hence why it is called cross lighting.

Take a look at the subject's left shoulder.  The top of her shoulder is in shadow due to the speedlite's low setup.  If this shot was taken without the speedlite entirely, the left side of the subject's face would also be in shadow.   That isn't to say that it would be "wrong" to do so but that wasn't my intent in this particular photo.  My intent was to have the subject's face entirely exposed and separate her from the background.

Fill flash is also a technique that you can also use with an on-camera flash so you shouldn't feel like you have to do a lighting setup to use it.  Any time that you are shooting a subject with a bright background you should consider using some fill flash.  Using flash on a bright sunny day will ensure that your subject is properly exposed without blowing out the sky in the background.  Blowing out a portion of a photo is when part of the frame is so over-exposed that it becomes pure white and all detail is lost.  Typically this is bad.  Clouds, snow, and white haired dogs are examples of things that are notorious for being easily over-exposed.

The second part of balancing flash with a setting sun or at twilight.  The "problem" with this is that we had some time to kill between mid-afternoon and sunset.  As mentioned in the first photo's caption, it, and all the photo's in this assignment were taken at El Matador State Beach in California.  It's a bit off the beaten track but it was well worth the drive and this is how I ended up spending the afternoon...

The series of photos above really have nothing to due with the L102 course directly but El Matador was so beautiful and I had such a good time that I felt I needed to share them.  There are a few places in the world where I have experienced pure peacefulness; perhaps it was a reaction to the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles or the excitement hangover from the Rose Bowl (Go Green!) but this was one of those places.  I could have stayed here for days.

Soon enough, the sun began to sink into the western horizon and it was time for me to get back to "work".  This wasn't my first time taking photos at sunset but it was my first time trying to do so with a off-camera lighting setup.  I describe the experience as frantic waiting.  With a setting sun the ambient light is constantly changing which adds a very different variable to contend with.  The bonus to the changing light is that you get quite a variety of photos in a very short amount of time.  It took me a while to decide but I finally ended up selecting this photo out of the bunch.
The lighting set up for this shot was very simple.  I attached my flash to a tripod and had it positioned it camera left at about the same height as the subject's face.  

On this trip I was traveling light.  I had my camera, a tripod, and a couple speedlites.  I would have loved to bring my light stands, umbrellas, soft boxes, etc. but for a trip across the country to watch a football game and do some photography on the side, the airlines extra bag fees seemed steep.  In both the daylight and the sunset shots I had a bare speedlite setup on my tripod (bare = no modifiers (umbrella/softbox etc.)).  Typically I try to keep the flash as close as reasonably possible to the subject.  This does two things: 
  1. It makes the apparent light size larger and, 
  2. Due to the inverse square law, it makes the light more powerful.  
I don't go crazy with closeness because nobody likes to have  a flash right up in their grill, but typically the flash is set up closer to the subject than the camera is to the subject.  An added bonus to making the light more powerful is that I can reduce the output of the speedlite.  Instead of having to run the flash at full power, which eats through batteries, increases recovery time, and reduces the life of the flash bulb, I can typically at 1/4-1/8 power or less.

I learned in this photo shoot that taking portraits at sunset is fairly easy to do but incredibly difficult to master.  In my experience, photography takes a lot of practice and this sunset portrait assignment was the toughest so far.  Thank you for continuing to follow my blog and remember that the Lighting 102 course can be found on  Please feel free to use the comments below to ask any questions you may have, tips you'd like to share, and words of encouragement or criticism are always welcome.