Flash, Camera, Action

Some images are so obviously set up that there is little point in trying to make them seem otherwise. This job was all about a teacher who was in training for the London Marathon and was timed so that the pictures would be shot ready for the story to appear just two days before the event.

The photograph was commissioned by a picture editor who knew the area well, so I had to sure that the location featured in the final image.

Late afternoon is one of my favourite times of day for shooting photographs so I was pleased that the job was booked for about an hour or so before sunset, but less pleased to find out that I wouldn’t be able to make use of that sunset because the teacher had another engagement to make by then.

I picked him up from the school where he works as a modern languages teacher, and by the time I got there he was already changed into his training kit. We drove the mile or so to the shingle beach and I started out shooting some long lens pictures of him running along the crest of the shingle bank. (more…)


The Light Inside

In a very similar vein to last month’s technique page I am going to talk about this portrait of a school head teacher that required a fair bit of messing around to get it right. It seems to me sometimes that the further you get the flash away from the camera, the more interesting the result!

This picture was shot as part of a set about the work of the headteacher of a very small school in rural Cambridgeshire. Her duties are many and various so as well as being the head, she is also a full time class teacher and general fixer. To add to her workload, the school is also being rebuilt and this metal shack doubles as the school office.

When I arrived at the school, the weather was sunny and she was teaching a class so I shot a lot of “fly on the wall” pictures of her teaching and of the kids doing their work. Playtime came and went and I shot more pictures of her interacting with the children, this time at play. What I didn’t have was anything of her role as an administrator and leader so we went to the office to see what we could do.

My instinct was to shoot some of the head with the secretary, so I tried all sorts of ways of doing so but the cramped space just made making good pictures extremely difficult. Then it started to rain so I went outside the room to grab a lighting case that was starting to get wet and as I turned I noticed the possibility for this composition.

Sometimes you just have to take advantage of chance so while she was happy to remain in the warm and dry I got my bags inside (out of sight of course) and positioned a Lumedyne head on a Manfrotto stand with a Wein high sensitivity slave inside the room at an angle of about seventy degrees from the axis of the lens. This was a bit wider than I would have liked, but the flash had to be inside the building to make the picture work and that dictated my angle. (more…)


Picking Out Details With Flash

I get a sore throat telling people that flash isn’t just a way of lighting the whole scene. It can, if used properly, pick out a small detail and give it real emphasis. Studio photographers and cinematographers have always known this, so it’s time that us little guys adopt the technique for ourselves. Taking a flash unit off of the camera for the first time is both a frightening and a liberating experience. When that little cartoon lightbulb goes on just above your head you instantly become a better photographer. You might not use the technique, but you know about it and therefore have it as part of your arsenal.
This job was on a sunny but cold beautiful January day. The light levels were pretty high, but the shadows were deep and plentiful. Once anyone was behind anything they were in the dark. Ordinary fill flash would have bleached out the concrete dinosaur’s jaw and thrown an awful shadow accross the restorer’s face.

The exposure for the general scene was a healthy 1/180th of a second at f5.6 on 200 ISO. The face of the restorer in the shadow was four stops down at 1/45th at f2.8 and the inside of the dinosaur’s mouth was nearly as bad.

That kind of exposure difference makes for poor images. This gives the photographer two options…change the composition so that everything is in sunshine or to balance the the background with the important shadow detail using flash. (more…)


Flash Fall Off

It is regularly the case that the simplest looking image actually requires a lot of thought, mental arithmetic and good old fashioned compromise. This picture has a number of compromises.

I have talked before about using light to make a scene look as if it hasn’t been lit. Achieving a look where the whole scene looks natural in a large room is difficult unless you have five or six lights unless you think laterally.

Direct flash presents all sorts of flash fall off problems. The formula goes something like this:

The amount of light reaching a subject will halve if the flash to subject distance increases by a factor of 1.4x
If there are two subjects in the image and one of them is double the distance from the light source then the further one will be two stops underexposed if the first is correctly exposed.
Sounds complicated? It isn’t. There are some things in the theory of photography, and more specifically in the theory of photographic lighting that need practical examples to make sense.

Hopefully this makes sense, the distance from the camera to the subject doesn’t make any difference. It’s the flash to subject distance that is all important, so as you can see in this example double the distance/quarter the light. (more…)


North Light

For just over a year I have been writing these “how to do it” columns about the use of flash in my daily news photography. This time the picture I want to talk about was shot with good old fashioned available light. Not only that it was shot using what artists and early photographers loved for their studios – North light.

Sometimes even I think that there isn’t enough time to set up lights. This was a launch event for an English stately home and it’s education programme for children. There were actors playing the parts of major figures in the history of the building and dozens of children were there to enjoy themselves.
Lots of little people running around means that setting your gear up is difficult, the presence of other photographers makes it harder still.

I decided that this actress was the picture and managed to get her in the room without children for a very short time. The weather outside as bright enough, but it was raining steadily and the light coming through the window was really nice. (more…)


Recreating The Scene

I am often asked to photograph dance and drama. This time it was an early rehearsal for a piece involving Japanese dancers that was taking place in a messy rehearsal room. I decided to watch what they were doing and make notes of the best scenes to re-create with decent lighting. I think that still counts as news photography….

Life is usually easier when you are dealing with professionals and that is often true with actors and dancers. The group of four dancers that I was working with were really happy for me to watch them and were a little relieved when I offered them the chance to pose the photographs as their rehearsals were at such an early stage that they felt it would make them more comfortable to do so.

I watched them working for about fifteen minutes and used my digital camera as a notebook, photographing small scenes that we could then set up and light properly. The dancers quickly forgot that I was there and with the images being purely a form of notation I shot at 1600 ISO from the back of the room.

When they reached a suitable break I got them and the director together and we looked through the various quick images that I had shot on the LCD screen. I explained to them what I liked and disliked about the various positions and we settled on three scenes to photograph. (more…)


Deliberately Hard Shadows

When most people take their first steps with using lights they try to make the photographs shadowless. The ability to do this is very useful, but sometimes it’s far better to place your own shadows exactly where you want them.

Some subjects need to be given a distinct treatment. This portrait of an award winning student was crying out for an unusual image and it was obvious that he would do pretty much anything I asked. The college where he had been studying plastering was a large space divided up into small rooms that the students then practiced their craft in. It was dark and dull coloured with no reflective surfaces so it was pretty much an ideal location for me to work in (apart from the dust).

I quickly spotted a whole series of arches and windows that would serve as a perfect frame to the photograph and set a Lumedyne light up inside the small room.The beauty of working with battery powered kit is that you don’t have to find power points, which were few and far between in the workshop area.I first tried to shoot with a softbox on the flash unit, but the dull colours and the subjects plain T-shirt made it a pretty boring shot so I decided to shoot without any form of light modifier and removed the softbox in order to get the hard shadow.

The flash exposure was f5.6 at 200 ISO with the softbox in place, but this leapt to f13 with just the metal reflector in place. There was so little available light that everything not lit by the flash was in total darkness. This effect was perfect for the shot. (more…)


Adding To The Ambient

It’s quite often the case that the available light looks great, but that there just isn’t enough of it. The trick here is to use flash to supplement the ambient light without replacing it. When you have the headmaster of one of the world’s oldest and grandest schools it isn’t difficult to choose a location in which to make his portrait.

After a very quick stroll around the fourteenth century buildings we settled on this well worn flight of steps to shoot the pictures. There was no sunlight on the scene, what light there was had been reflected from a nearby pale stone building so it was nicely diffused whilst still directional. Unfortunately this gave a 200 ISO light reading of 1/45th of a second at f2.8. This is simply not enough to guarantee sharp images so I decided to supplement that small level of ambient light with flash.

The available light was coming from my left so I decided that a softbox would best replicate the quality of light that was there. I have a two foot (60cm) x three foot (90cm) Chimera softbox so I fitted it to a Lumedyne head and placed it on a lighting stand about six feet to the subject’s right at about 20 degrees above his eye level. (more…)


Shooting Through Glass

Having glass or any reflective surface in a photograph normally strikes fear into the heart of most photographers. This portrait has at least ten panes of glass in shot, but careful lighting and liberal use of the LCD screen on my digital camera made the glass nearly invisible.

The scientist featured in this portrait is an eminent professor of Biology at the University of Sheffield. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of the United Kingdom, it’s a good four hour drive from central London so I had plenty of time to make plans of how the shoot would go in my head.
I had been briefed that there was a museum at the University and that the professor was it’s senior curator in his spare time. Museums = glass cases = trouble. The portrait was part of a series of about fourteen that had to have two shots.

The first had to match one another and the second (this one) had to be very different from one another. There were few places around the campus that offered an interesting environment so I decided that once the simple shot was over I would try the museum. (more…)


Shadows, Sunshine and Flash

This is going over old ground somewhat, but I think that given a second and third example of techniques discussed before and combined here you start to get a deeper understanding of how various techniques can be intertwined.

The brief for this photograph was simple: A portrait of a School’s nursing sister who specializes in bereavement with children who are not clients of hers and cannot be identified.
The original idea was to have the nursing sister standing absolutely still and have the children running around and therefore blurred. Unfortunately the weather got in the way and harsh direct sunshine made shutter speeds long enough to achieve a blur virtually impossible.

Another case of “the best laid planned of mice and men….” The school playground was southeast facing, with a big area of shadow covering a large part of it. Fairly quickly I decided that the children would need to be in silhouette and the options for the light background were the concrete surface of the playground and the deep blue sky. (more…)