In this article we’re going to get into the FUN stuff in working with your Speedlights on Location!
Previously we talked about some different types of Flash units, Guide Numbers, and the controls built into most Speedlights. Now we’re going to get into Practical Application.
As you know by now, I’m a big advocate of Manual operation of both camera and lights. I much prefer to be in control of the exposure of my photographs than to relinquish control to a computer devoid of emotion. (Remember, your Digital Camera is really a computer with a lens). After all, Photography is an Art form, and as such it appeals to the emotions. I know what I want as the result of my photographs, but the camera computer only knows one thing: How to make an exposure that equals 18% gray! (I know that may be a completely foreign concept to you, but trust me on this for now, and I’ll talk about it more later.)
Especially in creating photographs for Portraits are the emotional and creative elements of high importance. So I don’t want to leave leave the exposure decisions to the Program or Auto mode of my camera!
To the point…Outdoors on the beach in Hawaii, I want the beauty of the blue sky to be apparent in the photograph! On a recent photography session there was this huge outcropping of dark lava rock on a section of the beach, and we wanted to use it for one of the settings. Imagine the Drama of the huge, black lava rocks against the azure blue sky, and with my family group dressed in white shirts posed on and against the lava! Gorgeous! Right?
In order for the sky to be the beautiful blue that it was that afternoon, I wold have to make the exposure right for the sky! Here’s the result….The sky is perfect, but not exactly what I had in mind for the portrait… Now going back to the 18% gray concept…You can see that about 1/3 of the frame here is brightly lit…That is, the sky and the portion of the white shirts that are being hit by the sunlight. But the other 2/3s of the scene is really dark by comparison. So taking the whole scene and averaging the light reflectance to equal 18% gray over all is what the camera computer would create for the exposure. And that would look something like…
So now you can see the people, and most of the lava rocks, but the sky is completely “blown out”, that is way over exposed so it looks white. And the faces of half of the group, especially the 3 boys on top of the lava are over exposed, and the lighting is just not good.
So here’s where adding light via Speedlights really makes a huge improvement in the look and appeal of the photograph. Now I have the look that I envisioned, but no way would the camera computer come up with this combination of exposures!
I’ll walk you through what I did here… First I set the exposure for the sky. At ISO 100, that was F/9 at 1/250th of a second. Then I set my main light, a Nikon SB900 at Full power, with the “zoom” set to 35mm and positioned the light about 6′ to my left and 10′ from the front of the group. I positioned my “fill” light, a Nikon SB600 right next to me on my right, at 1/2 power and with the “zoom” set to 35mm also. (For a smaller group that isn’t spread out so much, I would typically set the “zoom” on my main light to 50mm.) This power ratio equals a 3 to 1 contrast in the lights and results in nice shadowing or “modeling” of light on the faces, which brings out the 3 dimensional quality of the faces and has a very “natural” look.
(I just want to point out that this image was not the best one of this group, and that I have done nothing to this in the way of adjustments or post production. This image is straight out of the camera. Also I do have the permission of my client to use these photographs in this lesson, and these first photographs from the session were made specifically for this lesson.)
I know from previously having made the measurements, that in combination, with my SB900 at Full power and my SB600 at Half power, both lights at 10″ from the subjects, I get a good exposure at F/9. Your flash units may produce more or less light, so it’s important to test and measure the results with a flash meter. If you don’t have a flash meter, you will have to experiment. But in order to get a nice blue sky in your photographs, you have to adjust the exposure for the sky.
Whatever the background is, if you want the background to look the way you see it in the photographs, you have to set the camera exposure for the background. To do that, simply look through the viewfinder, zoom into your background, and set the F/stop and shutter speed combination to what brings the in camera exposure meter to the neutral position. Your in camera meter will look similar to this example and should appear at the bottom of your viewfinder when you depress the shutter release button half way. If the indicator is on the + side of neutral, the current setting will OVER expose the photograph. If the indicator is on the – side of neutral, the current setting will UNDER expose the photograph.
So when using Flash to light your subject and you want the background to come out the way it looks to your eye, first expose for the background, then set the flash units to the power that will give the SAME exposure for the subject.
Any questions? Feel free to post them along with any comments below. It’s very satisfying to create beautiful photographs with the results you envision, and it’s quite simple to do when using your Speedlights on location!
Your Photo Coach