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In this 13 minute video, I talk about three different reasons to modify Speedlites:

  • Increase the apparent size to create soft light
  • Limit the direction of the light to guide the viewer’s eye
  • Change the color of the flash to blend it in with another light source or to make it stand out for creative effect

I also put my favorite Speedlite modifiers into action in a series of headshots of my favorite mensch and fellow Peachpit author Gabriel Biderman— author of Night Photography: From Snapshots To Great Shots. To see a kit with the small mods and gels that I used click here. Also, here’s the link to the Impact Quickbox that I used in the video.

Thanks to all my friends at B&H Photo for making this video possible.

 
Thomas Wingate Eaves Movie Ranch

Fig. 1—Thomas and Jesse James in the saloon at Eaves Movie Ranch south of Santa Fe. Click through for a high-res version. 1/80″, f/8, ISO 800. Canon 5D Mark III, 24–105mm F/4L IS.

While teaching my ‘Crafting Dramatic Light’ workshop in Santa Fe last week, I had the good fortune to return to Eaves Movie Ranch with my class. Built in the 1960s for the filming of ‘The Cheyenne Social Club‘ (starring Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Jones), Eaves continues to operate as a town-sized set for western movies and TV shows. Earlier this summer, ‘Jane Got A Gun‘—starring Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor—shot at Eaves.

If my photo above of Thomas Wingate, the head honcho at Eaves, looks familiar, it’s because Thomas has been photographed by every visitor to Eaves over many years. One of my favorite Thomas pix is this all-American shot by McNally—who introduced me to Thomas in 2008.

Shooting Speedlites In A Studio Softbox

Although I am known for my work with Speedlites, I shot large strobes for a couple of decades before exploring the world of small flash. While I do not miss the weight of studio lights—especially the power packs—I do miss using the wide range of modifiers that I assembled over the years (most of which are still stored in my garage). For this shoot, I used the  LumoPro LP739 Double Flash Bracket to fire a pair of Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites into a Chimera softbox.

I love Chimera softboxes. I can’t explain how they create an extra bit of magic in their shaping of light and shadow, but I believe that they do. So, to be able to use Chimera softboxes with Speedlites is a valuable technique.

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Fig. 2—Left: The Chimera softbox sealed up and ready to shoot. Right: The LumoPro  LP739 Double Flash Bracket holds two Canon Speedlites.

The LumoPro Double Flash Bracket is pro-grade tool. It features a speed ring with 10 sockets to accommodate many different configurations of softboxes. I have tried other ways to connect Speedlites to studio boxes and keep coming back to the LumoPro bracket. [Note: through July 19, 2014 use promo code LP5 to save $8 on the bracket and LPSHIP to get free shipping from MPEX.]

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Fig. 3—The Manfrotto 026 Swivel Adapter is my favorite way to connect the LumoPro bracket to a lightstand.

To connect the LumoPro bracket to a lightstand, I use the trusty Manfrotto 026 Swivel Adapter. Click through on Fig. 3 above and you’ll see how I angle the adapter at 90º to connect it to the LumoPro bracket. This allows me to keep the weight balanced over the stand while tilting the softbox.

Sorting Out The Ambient Light

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Fig. 4—The difference between the sunlight outside and the shadows in the saloon was too great for my camera. As you can see here, there are no details in either the highlights or the shadows. 1/30″, f/4.5, ISO 1250.

When shooting flash for location portraits, my first step is always to study how my camera wants to capture the ambient light. No surprise, as shown in Fig. 4 above, the difference between the sunlit street outside and the interior of the saloon was too great for my camera. There are no details in either the highlights or the shadows.

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Fig. 5—With my camera in Manual mode, I set the exposure so that it would capture that ambient light outside as I wanted it to appear. 1/80″ f/5.6, ISO 800

So, before I turn on the Speedlites, I adjust my camera’s shutter speed (in Manual mode) so that the ambient light appears as I want it to (Fig. 5). The advantage of running the camera manually is that, once the ambient light is managed, the exposure will remain consistent as I change my composition—especially important when shooting in dim interiors like the saloon at Eaves.

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Fig. 6—The softbox case a pool of light on the floor, leaving the walls of the saloon dim.

Only after my ambient light is managed, do I turn on my flash. In Fig. 6, you can see the beautiful pool of light created by the Chimera softbox. To balance the light on Thomas with the ambient light, I adjusted the flash power via the LCD on my camera—one of the greatest features of Canon’s Speedlite system.

Sorting Out The Perspective

When shooting environmental portraits, there is the question of how to balance the visual relationship between the subject and the environment. In Fig. 7 below, I shot my Canon 24–105mm F/4L at 24 mm. Note how Thomas dominates the foreground and how the saloon door / windows are minimized. In Fig. 8, I zoomed the lens to 45mm—the focal length I needed to frame Thomas between the door and the window. To accommodate the longer focal length, I had to nearly double the distance between Thomas and me. For the horizontal shots, I prefer to more natural perspective. For the vertical portrait (Fig. 9), I don’t mind how the wide-angle pushes Thomas into the foreground.

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Fig. 7—shot at 24mm—Thomas dominates the foreground.

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Fig. 8—shot at 45mm—Thomas fits more naturally into the geometry of the saloon door and windows.

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Fig. 9—With a 24mm lens, Thomas looms large against the background—helpful in this vertical composition.

For more information on my ‘Crafting Dramatic Light’ workshop in Santa Fe, click here. For information on my upcoming ‘Canon Speedlites Demysitified’ workshop in Maine, click here.

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Fig. 1 – This dramatic light for this shot was made by firing a gelled Speedlite through a louvered window blind.

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Fig. 2 – Our set was a interior space with wood paneling and large windows. The sky outside was heavily overcast.

There are two keys to creating golden hour light with a Speedlite or strobe—gel your flash to create golden light and position it to create long, angled shadows. Both are easy to do with off-camera flash.

The first step—creating golden light—actually begins by underexposing the ambient light in the scene. As you can see below in the middle panel of Fig. 3, I pulled three stops of ambient light out by increasing my shutter speed two stops and closing the aperture down one stop. Pulling the ambient down to near black is critical. Essentially you are establishing the tone of the shadows that will fall between the slashes of golden light created by your flash.

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Fig. 3 – This tryptic shows how I developed the lighting in three steps: (left) the ambient windowlight as metered by the camera, (middle) the ambient light after I dimmed it by three stops, and (right) the golden hour light I created with my gelled Speedlite. Click to see a high-res version.

My go-to gel for creating golden hour light is the CTO (Color Temperature Orange). CTO comes in several densities–called “cuts.” For this shoot, I gelled with a full-cut of CTO. When I’m trying to blend in fill-flash at sunset with real golden hour light, I’ll start with a half-cut of CTO and then change to a full-cut as the sun drops to the horizon. If you want to warm up your general flash shots just a bit without making it obvious, try a quarter- or eighth-cut CTO.

My favorite gels for Speedlites are made by Honl Photo. They are oversized—which means that I can slap them on and rip them off in a split-second—very handy when the sun is crashing into the horizon and you need to change gels. The Honl Filter Sampler Kit provides a good range of CTO cuts along with other colors that you can use for dramatic effect. You will also need a fuzzy cinch strap to wrap around the head of your Speedlite so that the Honl gels have something to grab onto.

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Fig. 4 - CTO (Color Temperature Orange) is a great gel for creating the look of golden hour with flash.

The position of the flash outside the window is what creates the long, angled shadows. If you can, position your flash at least 15′ / 5m away from the window. In this shoot, we did not have that much space. The telltale sign is my slashes of light change angle slightly as they go down the wall. Had the light stand been twice the distance to the window than it was, this would not have been an issue.

Also, remember that golden hour light is created when the sun is close to the horizon. This imposes two additional requirements. First, you have to shoot hard light. Putting a big softbox up against the window does not create believable, hard-edged shadows on the wall. Nor does putting the flash in the same room–without an intermediary gobo to create window-like shadows. Second, the angle of the light needs to be rather flat. We know intuitively that sunlight is warmest (most golden) when the sun is close to the horizon. For this shoot, I had to dance between pushing the Speedlite up high enough to drop the shadows at an interesting angle and making my golden hour light look believable.

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Fig. 5 - Notice how the flash was set too high for the window. This happened when we pushed the stand in to reposition the bottom edge of illumination on the carpet and did not angle the Speedlite down more steeply. No worries. The Speedlite had more than enough power to get the job done.

There are several ways to trigger your flash for this type of shoot. I used the Canon’s new radio-enabled Speedlite system (600EX-RT Speedlite and ST-E3-RT Transmitter) and controlled the whole system from the LCD on my camera. Simple radio triggers would have also worked–but I would have had to run to the Speedlite each time I wanted to adjust the power. This can be a huge hassle if your light stand is outside the building and the door is some distance away. Another option would have been to use an extra-long ETTL/ITTL cord to run a master Speedlite to the inside of the window and let it fire the instructions outside to the slaved Speedlite.

Working Towards The Real Hero Shots

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Fig. 6 - My hero shots were made in the last 20 frames, out of nearly 160 shots.

Even when you start with a solid idea, it takes a while a while to find the weaknesses and then work through them. As you will see below in Fig. 7, my original idea was to paint Katie with a dynamic pattern of light and shadow. This seemed interesting at first. I then decided that she became lost in the shot.

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Fig. 7 -My original idea–frame Katie in the pattern of light and shadow. To my eye, she became lost in the shot.

So I explored a series of lower and lower camera positions (Figs. 8 and 9). I went from standing, to sitting, and then to putting the camera on the floor. If you peek at the Lightroom gallery above, you will see that I explored a camera position by shooting several frames before I moved on. Sometimes my hero (best) shots are at the end of the shoot and sometimes I pass them by and only discover them after the shoot is over. Shooting several frames at each step helps insure that I’ll have that magic combination of expression, gesture, and nuance when the camera is in the optimal position.

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Fig. 8 - By sitting on the floor, I was able to make Katie appear taller in the frame. This move went in the right direction, but I continued to think that she was lost in the shot.

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Fig. 9 - By putting the camera on the floor, I was able to move Katie’s head and shoulders entirely above the light pattern. This seemed great at first. I then changed my mind and decided that she was now too tall in the frame.

Ultimately, I found the optimal spot for the camera (Fig. 10)—neither too high nor too low—so that the diagonals created by my Speedlite enhanced (rather than concealed) Katie’s strength and beauty. I especially like how the diagonal edge at the top becomes a leading line that runs through her face.

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Fig. 10 - I decided that the strongest visual was to have the diagonal of the wall shadow run right behind Katie’s face. I think that this is a delicate balance–she is wrapped in the light, but not lost in it.

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Fig. 11 – Once I found the right camera position–neither too high nor too low–I then focused on creating my hero shot as both a horizontal and vertical frame. You’ll find that you spend 95% of the shoot getting the details worked out and the remaining 5% making the great shots.

Want a bit of hands-on experience with this type of photography? This shoot was done during my Flash Photography workshop at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography last week. I have two other workshops this summer: Crafting Dramaitic Light With Small Strobes at Santa Fe Workshops and Canon Speedlites Demystified at Maine Media Workshops. I hope to see you out there, somewhere.

 
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Left: Windowlight. Right: Windowlight + fill flash from a 60: white umbrella. Click the photo to see a high-res version.

Rocky Mountain School of Photography is hosting me this week as the instructor of their summer Flash Photography workshop (info here). We’ve been shooting for the past two days in Missoula’s old Macy’s department store. The space is a photographer’s dream come true: two floors, high ceilings, huge windows, and walls covered with a wide array of colors and textures collected through the decades.

As beautiful as windowlight is, windowlight by itself is not always beauty light. Compare the two photos above. The shot on the left is windowlight alone. The shot on the right is windowlight plus fill flash from a 60″ white umbrella. Can you see how the addition of the fill flash conceals facial shadows and smooths the skin?

I’ve long said that light shows us the subject and that shadows reveal its depth and texture. When you want to conceal texture, add enough fill light to balance the ambient light.

Speedlite mode is a critical choice in a shoot like this. In this case, because the distance between my model and the flash was not changing, I set the Speedlite mode to Manual and dialed the flash power to 1/8 for the first test shot. After a couple more test shots, I had the flash power balanced the with ambient light and I shot away. Manual mode allowed me to change my composition without worrying about the flash power changing. Had I set the Speedlite to ETTL mode, the flash power would have gone up and down as I filled the frame with more or less of the model’s black sweater. Then I’d have to stop and fiddle with my lighting. In Manual mode, once my flash power was balanced with the ambient light, I was able to concentrate on my model–which allowed her to relax and let her beauty shine through.

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Missoula’s old Macy’s store provided huge spaces and plenty of windowlight during the workshop at Rocky Mountain School of Photography.

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I just finished my first year as the full-time art+photography teacher at Mission Prep here in San Luis Obispo. Many would think, after nine months of wrangling teens, that it’s time for me to take a break. To the contrary, I’m busier now than I’ve been in a long while. Put another way, when it comes to summer jobs, I have many.

First up is the complete revision of my Speedliter’s Handbook–the second edition of which will be published next fall by Peachpit Press. In addition to the inclusion of the new radio-enabled 600EX-RT Speedlite system, I am updating all of my workflows and my gear recommendations based on the insights I’ve gained since the original Handbook was published four years ago. You can bet that I’ll be beta-testing a lot of the new content as posts here on PixSylated. Grab a free email subscription if you want to keep up with with these posts.

Second up, I’m heading back to school this summer–as a student. Specifically, I’m starting work on my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree–a dream that I’ve held onto for many, many years. This means that I’ll be in Boston twice a year for the next two years to attend residencies in the Visual Arts MFA program at Lesley University. Between those summer and winter residencies, I’ll be creating entirely new bodies of personal work back here in California.

Other Random Bytes

Random-DPS-White-Adams-Arena

^ As an emerging photographer, eons ago, my three beacons were Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, and Minor White. I am truly humbled (and still think unworthy) to be included with Adams and White in a recent article on Digital-Photography-School.com. In it, author/photographer Adam Welch shares his insights on the photographic ideas gleaned from the writings of Adams, White, and yours truly. As I said, I’m humbled. It’s a good read, with or without yours truly. If you’ve never cruised DPS, you will find the site to be a treasure trove of great info.

Syl-Arena-Instagram

Instagram continues to grow on me. I started posting pix into my Instagram gallery a couple of months ago as a way to create pix for the sake of creating pix (which I wrote about here). Of late, I’ve been sharing abstracts from my kitchen. If you’re not aware, Instagram recently released Version 6 — which adds tremendous control to the processing of images. Instagram v6 has now become my go-to image processor among many photo apps on my iPhone (beating out Luminance, VCSOcam, Camera Awesome, Camera+, etc.). You can read about the new v6 release here on TechCrunch. Instagram as my #1 mobile image processor…who would have guessed?

Best-softboxes-for-Speedlites

My two favorite softboxes for Speedlites are the Apollo Orb and the Apollo Medium by F.J. Westcott. If you are not familiar with the Apollo boxes, they fold up like an umbrella–which makes them super-easy to carry and quick to set up. The Speedlite (or Speedlites) mount on the inside and fire backwards into shiny, silver fabric–which spreads the light out beautifully. For a limited time, B&H has a great kit on sale for $228.90. The kit contains both the Apollo Orb and the Apollo Medium, two 8′ light stands, two swivel brackets, and a carrying case. Click here to read how much I loved the Orb when it was introduced three years ago. This amazing deal won’t last long.

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^ My sensei, Joe McNally, has just released Volume Two to his Language of Light video. When it comes to lighting, Joe has provided me with more more insights and bits of inspiration than any other photographer. Sure, Joe shoots Nikon. Sure, you need a decoder ring at times (for instance, ITTL in Nikonian = ETTL in Canonista). When my lighting needs a creative recharge, I pull up Joe’s portfolio for the Nth time and take a slow cruise through. If you cannot spend time with Joe at a workshop, his Language of Light is the next best thing. Volume 1 and Volume 2 are specially priced for Father’s Day. Check out the details about his new release here on Joe’s blog.

canon-summer-2014-lens-rebates

^ Canon has their summer rebate program in full swing through July 5. (Handy isn’t it that Father’s Day is coming up!) Click here to get the details about the 45 lenses and 4 Speedlites (including the 600EX-RT) that currently have rebates. Some of the rebates are mail-in, others are instantly reduced from the price online.

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In addition to the new book and MFA, I have three workshops scheduled during this crazy-busy summer. This Friday, I depart for Missoula, Montana to teach my first-ever Flash Photography workshop with Rocky Mountain Workshops. Don’t fret if you did not get into this one. In early July, I’ll return for my third summer with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops to teach my Crafting Dramatic Light With Small Strobes workshop. Then, towards the end of August, I’ll head all the way across the continent to teach my Canon Speedlites Demystified workshop at Maine Media.

I hope to see you out there somewhere. Keep looking at the light and thinking about the shadows!

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Fig. 1–Shot during the Peter Read Miller Sports Photography Workshop in Denver. A pair of Speedlites working in high-speed sync provide essential fill flash for these fast-action cycling shots. Canon 5D Mk III, 17-40mm F/4L at 17mm, 1/500″, f/8, ISO 100. Two 600EX-RT Speedlites triggered by ST-E3-RT Transmitter.

High-speed action in broad daylight requires high-speed fill flash.  High-speed in this case means two things: the fast shutter speeds enabled by Speedlites in high-speed sync AND speeding up the flash recycling time by using an external power pack to recharge the Speedlites.

I’ve covered high-speed sync (HSS) many times on PixSylated. [For an introduction to HSS, check out this Simple Truths article.] The short version is that HSS changes the way the Speedlite fires. HSS enables the use of shutter speeds faster than the camera’s sync speed—1/250″ on most DSLRs.

The downside to HSS is that turning the Speedlite into a near-continuous light source (even for a fraction of a second) consumes a bunch of power. My tests have shown that HSS consumes 2.5 stops of light—which is the equivalent of turning a Speedlite’s maximum output from full-power down to 1/6 power. For fill flash, this power loss is not a big issue. It’s only when you are shooting day-for-night that you need to overcome the HSS hit by using an arsenal of Speedlites (like I did here).

To stop the motion of the cyclists speeding downhill, I had to shoot at 1/500″ or faster. The flash sync speed for my 5D Mk III is 1/200″. So, in order to have fill flash at this shutter speed, I had to activate HSS on my Speedlites–which requires one button push. Then, by stacking a couple of Speedlites, I was able to recover a bit of the HSS power loss (not all of it, but enough to extend the effective range of the fill light).

Other advantages of stacking Speedlites (whether using HSS or not) include:

  • each Speedlite fires at lower power, so they recycle faster
  • if one flash goes down during the shoot, you can keep shooting
  • there are no double shadows (which is an issue when shooting multi-flash brackets, check out the wall shadows in this example shot)

My Stacked Speedlite Rig

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Fig. 2–A pair of Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites bound together with a Velcro strap. The external power cords on the sides are connected to the Bolt Cyclone DR PP-400DR Dual Port Battery Pack.

I’ve tried lots of ways to stack Speedlites over the years—gaffer’s tape, bungie cords, belts, etc. By far, the most reliable system (in terms of strength and ease) uses fat straps like these 1″ x 18″ Velcro straps on Amazon. One strap easily cinches the heads together in just a couple of seconds. The key is to use a strap that has a plastic loop sewn into one end. You gain a good bit of leverage by passing the strap through the loop and then pulling it back on itself to secure it. Just wrapping a strap around and around the heads is not enough. The strap has to pull back on itself to be truly tight around the Speedlites.

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Fig. 3–My stacked Speedlite rig provided a wide field of fill light. I controlled the entire system from the LCD on the back of my camera—via the ST-E3-RT Transmitter in my camera’s hotshoe.

The Bolt Cyclone PP-400DR Dual Outlet Power Pack is the other vital part of my stacked Speedlite rig. This pro-grade, lithium-ion pack cuts my Speedlite recycle time to the bare minimum. With two outlets, I am able to power both Speedlites from a single pack. If your budget is more limited, you could use a Bolt CBP-C1 battery pack and 8 AA batteries on each Speedlite. However, everything on the PP-400DR is more robust, from the size of the power cords to the size of the battery. Regardless of whether you shoot Canon, Nikon, or Sony, there are Bolt cables made for your gear. Additionally, with this cool USB adapter, you can recharge your phone or power a wide range of electronics devices in the field.

Bolt DP PP-400DR Dual Outlet Power Pack

Fig. 4–The Bolt Cyclone PP-400DR runs on a 4500mAh lithium-ion battery and provides external power to two Speedlites. An optional USB adapter allows the battery to be used with a wide range of electronic devices, like cell phones and tablets.

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The Look of High-Speed Fill Flash

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Fig. 5–The subtle look of fill flash—the photo still looks like it was lit by the sun. The fill flash allows us to see important shadow details (like a sponsor name on the side of a jersey).

 In today’s digital era, it is always worthwhile to ask whether it’s better to light during the shoot or back home on your computer. The right answer, for me, is to light during the shoot.  Fig. 5, above, is lit with fill flash from the stacked Speedlite rig shown above. As you can see, the fill flash blends naturally with the sunlight and allows us to see into the shadows. This shot looks like the sunlight we see on location. Fig. 6, below, is virtually the same shot without any fill flash. By comparison, the natural light-only shot is so contrasty that it looks unnatural.

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Fig. 6–Without fill flash the shadows are too dark and the details are lost.

So, can we create the look of fill flash on a computer? I am a huge fan of the Shadows slider in Lightroom. It provides magic when just a bit of additional “light” is needed in the shadows. However, lifting shadows in Lightroom is no replacement for fill flash. As you can see in Fig. 7, below, even pulling the Shadows slider to +100% does not look as natural as the fill flash in Fig. 5—the muscles and clothing lack the definition of the fill flash shot. To my way of thinking, it is always better to light on location so as to maximize the options for fine-tuning the shot in post.

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Fig. 7–This is about as good as it gets without fill flash. Here, I reworked Fig. 6 by moving the Shadows slider in Lightroom to +100%. Still, this shot lacks the vibrant lighting that fill flash provides.

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Learn These Lighting Techniques

I have two lighting workshops this summer that cover these techniques.

The photos for this article were shot during a lighting demo I did this spring at the Peter Read Miller Sports Photography Workshop in Denver. Peter holds several workshops around the country each year. Check out his site for more information.

 

HeySyl.com, my question and answer blog officially launched over the holiday weekend. You can check out the list of inaugural topics below. If you see a resemblance between the HeySyl logo and the PixSylated logo, it is no coincidence. I created HeySyl.com as a repository of answers to reader questions. PixSylated.com will continue to present original content and resources that I find valuable.

If you would like to get the new HeySyl Q&A posts delivered by email, grab a free subscription here. If you already subscribe to PixSylated and you want the new Q&A delivered as well, you will need update your subscription preferences.

Click here to submit a question to HeySyl.

HeySyl’s First Questions—A Baker’s Dozen

1. New Edition of Speedliter’s Handbook & 600EX-RT System

2. Preventing Light Spill From A Beauty Dish

3. High-Speed Sync With 7D

4. PocketWizard FlexTT5 Still A Viable Option?

5. Better Ways To Learn Speedliting

6. Lighting Mixed Skin Tones

7. Event Photography & ETTL Flash

8. Beauty Dish For Speedlites

9. New Speedliter’s Handbook & Nikonians

10. 600EX-RT Speedlite Not Communicating With ST-E3-RT Transmitter

11. Speedlite Fires Intermittently on PocketWizard Cord

12. Yongnuo Flash Quality

13. Speedliting a Crawling Grandchild

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I just launched a new feature on PixSylated. “Hey Syl” is a convenient way to send in questions about lighting and imagemaking.

The most interesting questions will be posted along with my answers on the Hey Syl page. When the Q&A builds up enough content, it will be sorted and arranged as a FAQ.

Why am I seeking questions? Three reasons:

  1. I receive question daily anyway. This new system makes it easier for readers to ask. It also means that the questions will no longer get lost in the flood of other emails that come in daily.
  2. In the past when a good question comes in and I provide a detailed answer, I often think that a whole lot of people probably want that answer too, especially if it pertains to a specific camera or Speedlite. So, now the answers will be posted online and eventually the Q&A will be searchable.
  3. I recently started work on the second edition of the Speedliter’s Handbook–which will be published next autumn. So, this is a great way for me to learn what Speedliters want to know about lighting and how to work their gear.

Have a question? Click here.

 

 

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We photographers add loads of tension to our lives. We work so hard to perfect our craft, but continue to think that we are not good enough yet. We stress over not having the right gear. We find all kinds of reasons to not shoot and to not share our photos.

Most of us, who are serious about creating great images, remember a time when making photographs was fun, spontaneous, and easy. Yet, we get all tangled up and photography becomes a stressor rather than a release.

I wrote years ago that I take mental photos all the time (LIDLIPS #36 here). I’d see something interesting and say “Snap.” Now, I reach for my iPhone and take that snap. I try to do this at least once a day–stop my life for a moment and make a photo for the joy of making the photo.

These pix don’t have to relate to anything. They are not part of a series. Many of them are not even “good.” That does not matter. What does matter is that when I’m inspired by or drawn to something I see, I stop and shoot. It’s so easy to decide not to shoot for a million reasons. It’s so easy to decide to shoot as well.

I’ve been posting these snaps on Instagram for the past six weeks. I avoided the Instagram craze for a long time. Now, I find it’s a convenient way to stay connected to the playfullness that brought me into photography way back when.

Syl Arena on Instagram.

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Natural light photographers often advocate placing your subject in open shade. When compared to the harsh shadows of midday sun, the benefit of open shade is that the shadows are very soft because the light comes at your subject from a wide range of angles across the dome of the sky. The downside to open shade is that the low contrast of the light (the difference between the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows) creates an image that lacks texture and depth. Fortunately, a single Speedlite can add a lot of magic to the shot.

Fig. 1 -- Ambient light only.

Fig. 1 — Ambient light only (open shade on the north side of a cliff).

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Fig. 2–Ambient + Flash, the same exact exposure with the addition of a Speedlite at camera right.

 Shadows reveal depth and texture. Compare the two shots above. Figure 1 was shot in the open shade on the north side of a cliff. Figure 2 is the same exposure with the addition of a Speedlite set very close to the rock wall and zoomed very tight.  The pop of flash is the only difference between the two shots. Note how the shadows of the rock in Figure 2 allow you to see the texture of the surface. (See this article for more insight on using Zoom as a creative tool.)

Shadows also create a sense of time. Note also how the angles of the shadows in Figure 2 suggest that the sun is low in the sky. We know instinctively that long, raking shadows mean the sun is close to the horizon. Since there are no well-defined shadows in the Ambient-only shot, there is no sense of time.

Color also plays a key role in perceiving the time of day. When the sun is near the horizon, our atmosphere warms the light. In contrast, open shade is very cool (bluish) because the rays of sunlight literally bounce off the dome of the sky on their way to the subject. You can see the cool cast of open shade in Figs. 3 and 4, below. Both images were made with my camera’s white balance set to Daylight.

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Fig. 3–The original Flash+Ambient capture before warming the white balance in Lightroom.

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Fig. 4 — The original Ambient-only capture before warming the white balance in Lightroom.

To mimic the effect of late afternoon sun, I shifted the Color Temperature slider (Fig. 5) in Lightroom from the camera’s white balance setting of 5200K to 9500K. Compare Figure 3 to Figure 2  and Figure 4 to Figure 1 to see the effect of this color shift.

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Fig. 5 — The Basic settings panel in Ligthroom’s Develop module.

Are you wondering why I did not use a CTO (amber-colored) gel on my Speedlite to shift the color of the flash? If I had, then there would be an unnatural difference between the cool ambient light and my flash. Without the CTO gel, I was able to lift the ambient and flash together with a simple move of the Color Temperature slider.

So, how big of a difference can one Speedlite make? Figure 6 below is my best effort in Lightroom at optimizing the Ambient-only shot to match the overall luminance of the Ambient+Flash shot. I’ve dropped Figure 2, the Ambient+Flash shot, back in below so that you can make a close comparison. Feel free to leave your thoughts on the differences as a comment.

Fig. 5 -- Ambient light corrected to maximize luminance.

Fig. 6 — Ambient-only (Fig. 1) optimized in Lightroom so that luminance is similar to Ambient+Flash shot.

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Fig. 2 (again) — Ambient + Flash, with white balance shifted in Lightroom.

 These shots were made as part of a demo that I did recently at Peter Read Miller’s sports photography workshop in Denver. For more information on Peter’s workshops, click here.