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Friday, 27 April 2012

Spring Sail Now On! Part 1.

Sailing is one of my interests. So is walking. I like mountains and I like water. That's why I live in the Lake District. I grew up next to the sea and one of my earliest memories is riding out a storm in my father's home-built dinghy at age 5 or so.


TGO is a walking magazine that's not afraid to get it's feet wet and likes to embrace a bit of variety now and then. So I was very happy to get a call inviting me to shoot a two-day feature with assistant editor Carey Davies, who on this occasion would be tackling Lakeland's most popular ridge scramble, Striding Edge on Helvellyn, to be followed by a sailing lesson on Ullswater. Not on the same day, I should add.

Hooray! I get to play on the hill and muck about on the water. Perfect. Two-day commissions from leisure magazines in the UK are not common I can tell you. Budgets are tight and getting tighter. Getting magazines to spend proper money on quality content is not as easy as you might think. So my first thoughts were very much about raising the bar here to produce some really good images that would encourage the publisher to do more of this kind of thing.

My approach was going to be to treat it like commercial brochure shoot with full-on lighting and styling. Styling sounds a bit 'fashionista" doesn't it? What I mean is that I wasn't going to take the chance on Carey's wardrobe - I was going to be all pro-active and go get something "contemporary" and stylish for him to wear. I feel a call to contacts in the industry coming on...Oh yes, within 10 minutes I have secured a Lowe Alpine jacket in a suitably eye-catching tone of bright blue which will ensure our hero looks good when he strikes an heroic pose on the Edge.

Gear-wise I was going to have to choose carefully because I had to carry all this stuff up and around Helvellyn without giving myself a hernia. The bare D700 stripped of it's grip would go with the 18-35mm Nikkor ED and the 70-300 f3.5/56 ED VRll which is pin sharp and light-weight. Then I would pack an SB600 flash with Pocket Wizards. I use the Mini TT1/Flex TT5 system with the AC3 controller which I've only recently acquired - and absolutely love! Can't say enough good things about this system. Super-reliable, accurate, controllable off-camera flash anywhere and everywhere. 

Having this system has been a game-changer for me. I now have SB800/SB600 speedlights with full iTTL remote capability all the way up to 1/8000 with FP high speed sync, which has allowed me to add creative flash to just about any situation I like. The creative possibilities and the ability to light subjects properly no matter what the weather/ambient light combo are like, without having to grapple with complex exposure calculations, unreliable RF triggers or sensors not seeing master flashes and so on is a revelation.

Mind you, now that I've got this ability to light properly, I find myself fussing over how to best use it; What umbrella/soft box/modifier combo should I take? Which lighting stand will be best? How much will all this stuff weigh - can I carry it? Will my complete umbrella lighting rig disappear over the hill at the first gust of wind! 

I've invested in one of those super-compact, light-weight light Manfrotto Nano lightstands that are all the rage and I have to say, it is good. So - Nano stand, super-clamp, shoot-through brolly, 5-in-1 reflector, Pony clamp, PW's, CTO's, diffuser domes, Filter pack (ND Grads, Polarizer and Big Stopper), mini ball/socket to turn the Nano into a "tripod" if needed - and I'm good to go.

The day out on Striding Edge turned out to be a "scorcher" - no really, it was one of those unseasonably hot ones we had back in March. We sweated our way up the hill and there's me having got us a swanky new mountain jacket from LA to shoot for the pix! 

I was determined to use it so I called a halt when a suitable location turned up and demanded that Carey put it on. 

He looked doubtful - even more so when I started pulling out light stands and umbrellas and flashguns and stuff. I assured him it would be worth it despite his protests about not being a proper model and how this wasn't a fashion shoot! 

"Trust me" I said. So he did. I chose the location very carefully for the shadows. By putting Carey in the dark shadow created by the embankment on the right, I would have a reasonable chance creating a nice tonal contrast between him and the background. The idea is to place him in a dark area and then light him out of it, so you get a light-dark-light  effect - in other words, contrast.

The strong sunlight on his face was gong to provide the key light, my flash would provide the fill to illuminate the jacket and separate him from the dark shadow - which it does. So this shot had an SB600 with PW Flex TT5 and shoot-through umbrella just out of shot, camera left and was shot on the 18-35mm at 24mm, 1/250th at f14 at 200ISO. 

Without the flash, Carey would have looked very dark on his camera-left side, but with flash it all balances out nicely. The flash was set to TTL and I dialed in about -0.7 or 2/3rds of a stop minus flash so as not to over-light it. I prefer if the flash is not at all obvious. 

I generally place the flash stand diagonally opposite the ambient sunlight to create a sort of cross-lit affect, with the sun coming in front and right and the flash hitting back left. With a simple set-up like this it's easy to create nicely lit, good looking images anywhere. 

We did a similar thing a bit further on, beside a little tarn. In this case there was no shadow  area available and the sun was strong and creating a harsh light from the camera left side.

Harsh light means hard, dark  shadows of course. If I under-expose the ambient daylight a bit  I'll get a dramatic look that gives me the chance to make sure the sky and clouds are well exposed and not washed out. The right (shadow) side of Carey will be very dark and dense but that's where the flash will be, putting light back in. So in this shot, the flash stand is camera right, just out of shot, with the shoot-through umbrella at head height and a warm-up 1/4 CTO gel fixed on. Again, I used the wide 18-35mm Nikkor at  18mm, 1/250th second, f11 at 200ISO - but couldn't persuade the over-heated model to wear the mountain jacket! Good job his "base layer" looks OK.

We used the same basic working method right around the Striding Edge/Swirrel Edge circuit despite the ribald comments from other scramblers who dodged and weaved around my lighting set-ups on the narrow arete - well, as I told Carey, sometimes you have to suffer for my art.


Here's a "compare and contrast" before and after look at one of the set-ups we did on the ridge. Notice how the flash lifts and lights the shadows?

In the top shot, without flash Carey's face disappears into hard shadow and looks too hidden. In order to get some kind of detail into his face I need to open up the aperture a bit so the sky and background go a little lighter, the colour gets washed out of the jacket and sky and the whole thing looks bad.

But in this bottom shot, because I'm going to add some fill flash to light Carey up, I can afford to reduce aperture a bit and slightly under-expose the sky and background. This will add saturation and detail and then the flash will lift him out of the slightly dark background...

OK, it's a hassle to carry and set up lighting kit in this kind of environment but it's definitely worth it. Tomorrow's sailing shoot on the other hand would present some rather different challenges. You can't just plonk a lightstand down where-ever you like in the middle of the lake!

At the end of a hard day out on the hill I headed home to think through what my strategy would be. One thing's for sure, it would involve flash somehow. Tune in next week to find out what happened...