Using a Small Flash

Sometimes you have no other option than to get your flash unit out of it’s hot shoe and make it perform like a studio style strobe. Whether it’s the Canon 550ex, the Nikon SB28DX or another make altogether there are some simple steps you can take to produce cultured and interesting images.

The telephone message goes something like this: “Meet this guy, not sure of his name yet at Euston railway station and take him somewhere to shoot a nice portrait. We’ll probably only use a mugshot, so don’t go mad.” The second message wasn’t a lot better, but I was well on my way to one of Europe’s busiest rail stations to meet the man with no name who was to meet me by platform six. The third call said “His name is Molyneux, he’s about fifty and he’s there now”. I jumped out of the car (having parked it legally) and with camera bag in hand I ran to meet my man. Knowing the area well I planned to drag him back to a small park, via the car to grab lights, and shoot some outdoor portraits in the evening sunshine.

Having found him a lot more easily than I had bargained for I then discovered that he was shortly to catch a train and had to be interviewed in the mean time. This gave me about ten minutes to shoot the pictures and no way of getting back to the car to gather kit, oh! and it was about to rain.

The sky was still blue just outside the station concourse and the buildings gave us an area of shade so I decided to go with a similar idea to the “shooting from the shade” technique explained a few months ago. (more…)


Changing Your Plans

When you have just spent three hours driving to a job going over what the picture editor and the designer said to you about the pictures that were required it is inevitable that you start to make some plans. This job was certainly such an occasion.

Blue skies accompanied me all the way and I was planning to light the shot against a wonderful sky.I arrived in plenty of time and as the young musicians gathered and put their costumes on I sat drinking coffee. I then watched as the sky turned from blue to grey to black in the space of seconds and the rain started to fall. Those plans hatched in the car had to be changed. Quickly.

The room set aside for the photographs to be shot in was large enough but full of tables and with very cluttered walls. In this kind of situation there are only two options: a) cry and go home, or b) make the most of the surroundings.

The floor was a messy carpet and the ceiling was pretty even and plain white. If in doubt, get up high and shoot down or get down low and shoot upwards. I decided to try both. (more…)


Different Styles

The way that an image is destined to be used dictates how you shoot it. This example talks about the difference in approach to shooting what is essentially the same subject, but for two different uses. I went to this southwest London school to shoot a “fly on the wall” documentary article about a music project to fill a couple of pages in a tabloid sized magazine.

The journalist commissioned to write about the project arrived well before me because I had been delayed shooting an urgent news job. By the time I arrived the workshops with three professional musicians and the composer of the piece they were working on were well under way. I had a quick word with the writer and got on with shooting the pictures. I hadn’t missed anything that wasn’t going to happen again so I relaxed and worked on shooting images that I knew would fit into the style of those pages.

Some of the photographs were lit with Lumedyne lights, but most were either available light (400 ISO) or used one or more Canon 550ex speedlites triggered with a Canon ST-E2 transmitter. Within the two hours remaining I had completely covered the project, it’s key personnel and I was really confident that I had filled my brief so I went home to edit the pictures. I sent twelve images back to the picture desk by dial up ISDN connection. (more…)


The Interview Portrait

The “Interview Portrait” is one of the most difficult tasks that I am asked to undertake. Of course it’s easy enough to just turn up and shoot a picture, but actually making a proper portrait is a really difficult task. This portrait was frame 64 out of 73, frames 1- 30 were the safe shots and 31 – 73 were far more experimental.

The beauty of the interview portrait is that you know that as long as the subject and the journalist are talking you can carry on shooting. You normally have fixed amount of time so you can plan a strategy. Mine tends to be to divide the time up and shoot safe, tight, softly lit photographs for the first ten minutes or so. During this time you get to know where the eye contact is going to be, how likely the subject is to use extravagant hand gestures and how tolerant they are to flash.

If at all possible the photographer should seat everyone involved to give themself as many options to move around and get different angles, to get the right background and to be able to light the picture. The huge plate glass window behind him dictated many of the angles but the drama of the sky makes that a worthwhile compromise.

Once the safe images were “in the can” I decided that the light needed to be a lot more dramatic and that the buildings outside the window needed to be used. He was having genuine eye contact with the the reporter so I decided that the light should be coming from that angle. (more…)


Flash and Blur 2

This classroom shot was made for a story about inner city schools performing well academically. It needed to stand out from other school images and the light in the room was poor. There were also a dozen adults in the room – all of whom I needed to keep from my picture.

The light in the room was very poor. At 400 ISO the exposure was 1/45th at f2.8 so there needed to be some flash in there somewhere. The space was a little limited so I decided to light the child with a Canon 550ex speedlite on a small Manfrotto stand.

The flash had a Sto-fen Omni Bounce on it, powered by a Quantum Turbo battery pack which I triggered with a Canon ST-E2 transmitter. The beauty of this flash set up is that you can cut the power right down and work with relatively wide apertures – working with TTL flash if you want to, or manually like I chose to do. (more…)


Adding Atmosphere With Colour

This colourfully lit picture goes with a story about inner city crime and mugging. The boy in question worked on a report about youth as the victims in the area he lives in. I wanted the picture to have athmosphere, and there is nothing like a bit of coloured light for adding some. In lighting the background it is important to place the background light so that the viewer doesn’t notice where the colour is coming from.

A lot of school buildings in London date back into the nineteenth century, and many of them have areas of austere brickwork which make wonderful locations for portraits.

The image is very simply lit with a single Lumedyne head on the subject at an angle of 90° from the axis of the lens diffused with it’s reflector cover. The flash was about twelve inches above his eyeline. The second Lumedyne head had a red effects filter over the refelector and it was placed behind the wall that the boy was leaning against. (more…)


Outside a Barn at Night

Arriving at the job is usually the best times to start having ideas about locations for a portrait. Buildings often have features that lend themselves to use in a photograph, and the grounds can be just as inspirational.

When I arrived at the Suffolk farmhouse of journalist and author Simon Barnes, he and his wife were busy chasing one of their horses around the yard. By the time the mare was back in one of the stables it was all but dark, but I had seen just how wonderful the other stable looked lit by the 60 watt bulb inside it.

This image called for the mixing of available light and fifty joules of Lumedyne flash. The flash head had it’s diffuser cap over the standard reflector at an angle of 60° from the lens axis and at a height of about six inches above Simon’s eye level. I had to use the flash a lot lower than I would have done because I wanted him to keep his hat on and the if the flash had been higher his face would have been in shadow from it’s wide rim.

Cut down to it’s minumum 50 joules at a distance of seven feet the flash reading on 200 ISO was still f6.7, which was a lot more than I would have liked. At f6.7 the inside of the stable needed an exposure of about 1/3rd of a second, and the sky needed 1/2 of a second to get some detail in the lighter areas. The discrepency between the two exposure requirements was only half a stop, so I went with the longer exposure because a little over exposure inside the stable would be fine. (more…)


Shooting From The Shade

My love of lighting photographs outdoors has made me into an observer of the work of other photographers. If I see a shot that I like I spend time working out how it was done, and if that shot was lit I am even more interested

Many glossy magazines use images lit outdoors and my knowledge of photography has convinced me that those photographers carry around “portable shade”. The subjects are always immaculately lit, and perfectly balanced with the background.
I have developed my own version of this technique which I call “not portable shade” or “NPS” for short. The only difference between my technique and that employed by expensive photographers and their army of assistants is that I find some shade that is already there and build my photograph around it. (more…)


Reflections In a Table

When you arrive at a location to shoot a portrait you have to keep up a converstaion with your subject (or someone who works for them) while deciding how and where to shoot the picture.

When I arrived at the impressive offices of this computer company we quickly agreed to shoot the job in a conference room to avoid my having to go through security. When we got into the room it was full of furniture so I cleared one end and quickly spotted the possibility of using the highly polished table to some effect.

Reflections of one sort or another often give a real element of interest to a picture. The sky mirrored in the lake has long been a staple of the landscape photographer and the mirror has featured in glamour images since Fox Talbot’s time. Polished wood is a great surface for reflections because you get a very different version of the subject.

This shot was the final try to shoot something exciting at the job. I hade been playing with far harsher lighting and hand positions before settling on this very simple composition. (more…)



There are many reasons for using a silhouette, and the most common is to preserve the anonymity of the subject. The identity of children is something we are often asked to keep secret – especially if that child has been in trouble with the authorities. This one was done purely for artistic effect…

After well over an hour of trying to shoot a strong lead picture I decided to set this photograph up with one of the young people on this summer school. The hall had a cream coloured background cloth, so I used an orange gel to give it real impact.

1. I started by positioning the drum near the edge of the stage, trying to get as much distance between the girl and the canvas backdrop as possible. I was shooting at the 200mm end of the zoom, which on a DCS520 is equivalent to 320mm.

2. The next thing to do was place the Lumedyne flash head behind the drum on the floor pointing up at the background, with a high sensitivity slave cell to trigger it. I put a piece of orange gel between the reflector and the diffuser cap and set the pack to 100 joules. The kind of gel used in this case is known as an “effects” gel which gives a visually pleasing colour rather than the kind of colour correction gel used for balancing daylight and tungsten. (more…)