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Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Photographers don't get sick!


It's early December 2011 when I get a phone call from TGO magazine to see if I'm free on Friday. It's Wednesday now so it's short notice but yes I'm free and of course I'd love to help, I'm freelance after all and freelance's never turn work away! Actually I'm feeling under the weather (man flu?) but I'm sure I'll be fine. It seems that TGO's roving reporters/editors are on a mission to walk from pub to pub in the Lakes (nice work if you can get it) and we need some photos for the feature.

Friday: Rain, gale force winds, driving hail above 1800ft. And the man-flu has turned really nasty. But I'm out the door early and driving the 40-odd miles over to Wasdale Head with hill walking kit and cameras. We meet up in the car park and being pals from long association head up into the gale, catching up on the outdoor gossip. But, man I'm feeling grim...

No time for complaining though because somehow I've got to turn this outing into a set of stunning photographs. It's not going to be easy. First I call a halt at the river crossing below Black Sail Pass. The beck is flowing fast but there's large stepping stones and a view down Mosedale over towards Yewbarrow that ought to make a decent backdrop, if the light would just break through for a few seconds.

My first reaction is to grab one of my flash guns, a Nikon SB28, stick it into a waterproof Aquapac bag that I carry (it's clear on one side and frosted on the other and waterproof to a couple of meters) and attach an RF trigger (cheap one from ebay). The idea will be to push some light at my models and keep the background scenery a little darker, try and create some ambience out of nothing and see if I can get the sky to stay within exposure range. I haven't brought a lightstand or a tripod with me to save weight so the flash is going to have be at ground level. I stick it behind a rock and aim it roughly where it needs to go.

So the flash is low down, camera right and pointing up. Not ideal really but we'll see how it works out. I use a diffuser dome on the flash to soften it a bit and zoom the head back to 24mm, which will give me a decent spread of not-too-hard light, I hope.

The flash has a 1/2 CTO gel on to warm it up a bit, vital when the winter light is as cold as this. I keep a CTO on my flash pretty much all the time these days when I'm outside, I like the extra warmth it gives and I don't always like the look of the very white flash you get when using an unfiltered flashgun in ambient light.

OK, the flash is in position so it's time to figure out some settings. First thing to do is make a test shot without flash, see what the ambient is doing. Turns out being 1/160th @ f8. I'm OK with that because I know I need some dof with this shot. It's wide angle with a close subject-to-camera distance to fill the frame, so dof will be short'ish.

Trouble is, I want the background to be a bit underexposed to keep the sky detail and that means having use f11 or less because I'm stuck with the shutter speed. That's going to push the flash a bit but not to worry, it's a great little unit, the SB28, plenty of power and very reliable, that's why I use it off-camera.

I know the shutter speed is going to 1/160th 'cos that's the fastest speed these crappy Rf triggers will sync at. Even though the D700 will go to 1/250th or higher in High Speed Sync, anything above 1/160th normally leaves a shutter shadow with cheap triggers - what a pain!

Why is it important to have a high sync speed then? Well, flash is not bothered by shutter speed except in terms sync'ing. Only aperture and iso control flash exposure. A wide aperture means less flash required. Less flash required is good because it means your flash can recharge faster, can go further by pushing up the power ('cos there be lots to spare) and is less stress on the flash tube. And you get a wide aperture in ambient light by using a faster shutter speed. So - dialing in the max sync speed is a given - and that's why I hate the rubbish 1/160th sync speed these cheap triggers give you.

Remind me why we need to reduce the ambient exposure? That's so the flash has something to contrast with! There's no point in using flash to try and create some nice contrast and mood and atmosphere if you can't see the flash against a bright ambient background. And toning down the ambient background allows me to keep the sky detail which I think is really important.

Anyway, we did all this and the shot was OK but we still had a way to go so I packed the gear away and plodded on. I was, by this time feeling very short of breath, queasy and in imminent danger of throwing up - whatever bug I had was making its' presence felt - but hey, we're professionals here, the show goes on! The still-functioning part of my senses kept scanning for possible locations and finally, the scramble up the back of Kirkfell revealed a nice view down Ennerdale and the Buttermere fells. Time for some more action. Out came the flash again but this time I used my handy human-based Mobile Light Stand to hold it and point it where-ever I demanded. People get used to me doing this.

I found a natural "stage" for my subject to walk over, framed the shot, shouted at the MLS to point the flash and got on with it. Again the idea was to use a fairly low ambient exposure to keep the sky detail and then "reveal" the walker out of the darkness with the flash. I shot on manual mode with the shutter pegged at 1/160th (the fastest sync speed), the flash at about 1/4 power on manual and the f-stop at f8 - but in my weakened state I made a mistake.

I forgot to switch the iso from Auto iso to Manual. The camera ramped it up to 1250! On a D700 that's no problem - the quality is great. But if I had used 400 iso I could have opened the aperture to f5, which have dropped the flash power to maybe 1/16th power - less flash power, faster recycling, less stress. But then again, f5 would have given me less depth of field which might have been a problem when trying keep that landscape background. Hmmm, maybe that was a fortunate oversight after all.

Here's the original shot out of the camera (below) and then the edited version once I'd put it through my standard processing in Lightroom.





The fact that I had enough light difference between the flashed subject and the ambient background meant that it was easy to just tweak the exposure down a little and bring up the contrast. I added a bit of overall vibrance and a touch of extra red, orange and yellow plus a bit of Lightroom's great ND Grad tool on the sky to give it bit more punch. Trust me, without flash, this would be a non-starter!

The next photo-opportunity would be over the summit, standing in the teeth of a bitter, freezing gale and stinging hail - oh this is such an easy job! OK, OK start thinking creative thoughts...
What did I learn from all this? Two things; First I need to invest in some proper triggers, Pocket Wizard, here I come. Cheap triggers have done their job, they've got me using flash off-camera, any place, any where, but now I'm just frustrated by how limiting they are. I want full iTTL HSS reliability where-ever and when-ever.

And second, I need to remember to turn off the auto iso when using flash. I spent time trying to figure why I wasn't getting the exposure settings I was expecting in my poor, weakened state! I never spotted the Auto iso flashing at me. Although I use Auto iso all the time without flash, and love it, it fights you when you want to use off-camera flash and put the camera in manual mode. Because it only takes into account the ambient exposure it ramps up all the time while you are dialing in smaller and smaller f-stops trying to reduce the ambient exposure! Dohhh!

If you would like to add any comments or questions, please feel free...I'll do my best to provide answers as and when I can.