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 strobist.com.  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.

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