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Monday, 28 January 2013

Run out of time

This weekend, the weekend of January 26th/27th 2013, has been remarkable for weather. On Friday evening it started snowing, so much so that people were stranded in their cars, unable to get home, with roads closed and all the rest of it. This should be a great opportunity to grab some winter sports images but there's a problem.

The weather report for the weekend was quite clear. On Saturday we would have a period of bright sun deteriorating through the afternoon as a rapid thaw and deep atlantic low moved in from the west to bring very wet and very windy weather overnight. By Sunday all this snow would be gone.  Now, like most of us, I have a life; a life outside of being a photographer, a life that involves family, domestic responsibilities and fixing the plumbing. So I have to structure my time to take account of all the other stuff going on and try to juggle a work/life balance that still results in creative output, which I have to slot into the gaps that I have.

When I staggered out of bed on Saturday morning to behold a world transformed by sunshine, blue sky and snow, my first thoughts might well have been of hillwalking, winter landscapes, ice climbing or ski-mountaineering, but my 9 year old son wanted to go skiing in the park - what are you going to do? We went to the park of course.

I hadn't completely given up on the idea of a winter image however. I sent a text to my pal Steve Crook, a talented photographer in his own right, but more importantly for me, a willing volunteer for some of my schemes. I planned for a winter running shot in the late afternoon gloom before the rain came. I picked Steve up from his place at 3pm and headed for a local venue and already the weather was turning.

Part of the mission here was to fine tune some of my outdoor flash gear because I'm trying to sort out a system that is lightweight and compact enough to take on the mountain. It's difficult to know what to take when your aims are to produce the most creative images you can - you don't want to leave anything behind in case it proves vital - but you just can't carry that much weight on the hill. But more than that, I was looking for a better quality of light. I'm aware that often the flash we use on mountain shoots suffer from lack of decent light modifiers - umbrella, softbox or panel or whatever - because we don't take enough gear with us and the result is often hard, straight flash, with hard-edged shadows, hotspots, abrupt highlight/shadow transitions and harsh-white light colour.

I've learned to address some of these issues; I always take a shoot-thru brolly with me even though sometimes it's too windy to use it, all my flash guns have 1/4 grade CTO gels permantly fixed on board, along with diffuser domes. And I've been using lightweight nano stands to keep the weight down. But I've discovered a big problem - traditional lightstand designs just don't work on steep mountainsides! They are designed to sit on flat surfaces, not rocky slopes. So I'm out to see if I can adapt a tripod to do the job of a lightstand. Tripods are much more flexible and can deal with mountainsides.

The problem with tripods is they don't normally go high enough to put a light overhead. I wanted to try and solve that problem by adapting a boom-arm from an old lightstand and putting that on the tripod, which was a Manfrotto 190 model. The next issue was the umbrella-in-the-wind drama and I was hoping to solve that one by swapping a brolly for a diffuser panel, which I hoped would be more flexible, less prone to wind and maybe also give a more natural, graduated light on the subjects. I didn't really know if this would work but I needed to try it and find out. So off we went.

Any thoughts I might have had about a nice sunset quality of light were hopelessly over optimistic. It was universally grey. The normal response to this is to dial in that tungsten balance thing and add CTO to the flash - the blue/orange look we've all become used to seeing. So that was my starting point for this picture. I quickly spotted the tree as an anchor for the shot and it had a little rocky ridge running down to it along which Steve could jog.

I started out putting up the tripod, extending the boom arm and hanging a diffuser panel on the end of it using one of those Justin clamps. Then I put an SB800 on a Pocket Wizard, added CTO's and zoomed the head a bit (maybe to 50 - 70mm). Tested it. Disaster! I got no discernable flash on Steve even though I had the flash power turned up to full and the f stop was open to 5.6. I couldn't figure it out, except maybe that diffuser panel was eating up more light than I had expected. So I moved the flash closer to the panel, removed the diffuser dome and tried again. It was better now. But I had lots of light spilling onto the ground which I didn't like at all - it looked like a car headlight was on. I tried to kill that by taking the black cover of the panel and clipping it to the lower half of the panel. It definately helped but wasn't a total cure. And then it started raining. And it was getting dark.

By this time I was getting a bit frustrated. My light wasn't working well, I was trying to shoot a decent running shot and keep the by-now persistant rain off the camera and then the PW's battery failed in the cold so I had to switch out the PW's and go to Nikon CLS instead (which worked). I think Steve had pretty cold feet by now and I'd sort of lost my motivation. Time to retreat and lick wounds I think.

Back in the office when I finally downloaded the shots into Lightroom and had a good look at the mess I'd created. I was unsurprised to find that mostly I had failed badly. The shot at the head of this post is the best that I could salvage and actually has some things I like. I think the tree works well and I like the lighting hitting the branches as they do. In fact I think I'll revisit this location and try the shot again but meantime, what did I learn? Well, the tripod/boom is definately the way to go for me. It works really well on rough ground and is really stable - but it's a commitment to carry it on the hill and I'll have to see how that goes. The diffuser panel idea didn't work for me here, I think I'll stick with a shoot-thru and hope the wind doesn't shred it. But I'm sure that getting the light up on a boom is the way to go and I'm going to keep going with that. And just in case you're thinking the shot doesn't look too bad, above is the file right out of the camera, before I dragged it through Lightroom!