To say that I had a great week teaching in Maine would be an understatement. The 14 students in my ‘Canon Speedlites Demystified’ class at Maine Media Workshops were great. The lobster-everything was great. The pace of Maine was great — about as laid back as Paso Robles, so I fit right it.

Seven Speedlites, a 60″ Umbrella, and a Fast Dude

On Wednesday afternoon the class headed to Lake Megunticook for two shoots: high-speed sync in full sun and a dusk shoot. MMW has legions of models—all seem to be young, bright, and energetic (maybe it’s the lobster?). So, as the students were wrapping up their dusk shoot, I casually asked Dillan “can you run fast enough to make it look like you’re running on water?” I wasn’t surprised when he replied that he used to run track in school. So, to push the idea, I asked if he could hurdle a couple of big rocks that were submerged in the lake. A short while later I had my favorite shot of the week and one of the best shots I made all year. [Click on the pic above to see a high-res version.]

Picking The Right Exposure — For The Ambient Light

1/15", f/5.6, ISO 160

1/15", f/16, ISO 160

The tricky thing about pointing the camera into the western sky after sunset is that the circuits want to capture more light than you see. In Aperture-Priority (Av), the camera’s programming wants to record the world as a shade of medium-grey. So it exposes the image to a point that we describe it as being over-exposed. Remember that the camera has no idea what is in front of the lens. Nor does it have any idea about your visual intent as the photographer. The solution? Switch your camera into Manual (M) and set the shutter and aperture yourself. To darken the sky, I reduced the exposure by 3-stops through the aperture so that the sky fit my vision.

Picking The Right Exposure — For the Action

With the exposure manually dialed in for the ambient (1/15″, f/16, ISO 160), I asked Dillan to take his first jump. It quickly became apparent that my relatively slow shutter speed allowed too much motion blur and what I call “ambient leak”–which you can see in the pic below. Ambient leak happens when the background bleeds through portions of a subject that’s primarily lit with flash. See the highlights of the lake bleeding through Dillan’s ankle? My solution was to make offsetting 3-stop moves in both shutter and aperture. I moved the shutter from 1/15″ to 1/125” and the aperture from f/16 to f/5.6. The ambient remained the same and the motion blur was reduced greatly.

1/15", f/16, ISO 160

1/125", f/5.6, ISO 160

So what happens to the flash power after the aperture change? If you peek at the block of pix just below, you will see that the second flash pic of Dillan (top row, second from right) is blown out. When I opened my aperture from f/16 to f/5.6, I effectively increased my flash power by 3-stops. Why did the ambient remain the same and the flash apparently increase? When the flash fires, it’s on for a brief fraction of a second. So the shutter has no effect on the flash (as long as you’re not exceeding the camera’s sync speed). At 1/15″ the amount of flash flying through the shutter is the same as the amount at 1/125″. The aperture, on the other hand, affects both the amount of ambient and flash flying through the lens. When I opened my lens by three stops, the flash appeared to be 3-stops faster. (Had I been firing in ETTL, the camera would have adjusted for this. But I wanted consistency from frame to frame, so I had my Speedlites in Manual mode.) The solution was to reduce the power of my Speedlites by three stops–1/1 > 1/2 > 1/4 > 1/8.

The hidden benefit of firing at 1/8 power rather than full power is that the flash duration is much shorter at the lower power setting. Since all the light hitting Dillan came from the Speedlites, the faster blast of light had the visual effect of increasing the shutter from 1/800″ to 1/2500″. This is the reason that Dillan and the water drops appear much sharper at the wider aperture than they do at a smaller aperture — the wider aperture required less flash power which shortened the flash duration greatly.

Anatomy of the Shoot

The shoot lasted for a whopping seven jumps. After nailing the hero shot at the third jump, I asked Dillan to fly a few more times. As fate would have it, I either fired too early or too late. I could not get another well-timed shot of the jump. Did I miss them because I relaxed too much? Or was I too tense because I wanted to push the bar even higher? Frankly, I don’t remember. But, there’s always a point where you have to decide that you have it or you don’t. Either way, you’re probably done.

The Lighting Rig & Flash Trigger

Why seven Speedlites? Because I couldn’t find my second IDC Triple Threat in the bottom of my bag…otherwise it would have been ten Speedlites. The simple truth is that Canon USA sent 25 Speedlites up to the workshop for student use. I just could not pass up the opportunity to demonstrate gang lighting (my name for firing a bunch of Speedlites as if they were one light). So I loaded four Speedlites onto the Lightware FourSquare–a rugged block of aluminum designed to hold onto four Speedlites, an umbrella, and a light stand. The IDC Triple Threat is a smaller block of aluminum machined to hold three Speedlites and slip over the shaft of an umbrella.

One of the Speedlites was attached to a 33′ ETTL cord and controlled from the LCD of my camera as a master. The other six Speedlites were set as slaves and took their instructions on flash power, mode, etc. from the master. The entire gang was fired into a 60″ silver umbrella atop a sturdy Manfrotto stand set in the lake.

For consistency of flash output, I fired the system in Manual rather than ETTL. If you’re familiar with my workflow, you know that I use Manual mode when the flash-to-subject distance is fixed and ETTL when the flash-to-subject distance is dynamic. Even though Dillan was running, I chose Manual because I knew that he’d be jumping in the same spot every time.

Seven 580EX IIs: four in the Lightware FourSquare, three in the IDC Triple Threat

At the edge of Megunticook Lake

Speedliting Workshops and Seminars This Fall

I have a busy fall planned. I hope to see you somewhere along the way.

Speedliter’s Intensive — Los Angeles Oct 8

Speedliter’s Intensive — San Francisco Oct 1-2

Intermediate / Advanced Speedliting — Paso Robles Oct 17-21

FotoWeekend — Dubai Nov 16-19



8 Responses to Flashing In Maine: Seven Speedlites, a 60″ Umbrella, and a Fast Dude

  1. Gregg Mack says:

    Great stuff, Syl! I really appreciate you decribing the entire set-up and the process you went through to dial in the exposure. I read your book (twice!) and that made it very easy to follow this posting. Thanks!

  2. Paul says:

    I guess the answer to the question 'why do it this way?' would be 'Because I can!' But for mere mortals like me the investment of seven or even the ten 580s' you planned on using could have purchased a more robust pro strobe equivalent light source. As an excercise, brilliant (pardon the pun) but as a real world solution – how many people would use this method?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Paul — You raise a fair question…why shoot with so many Speedlites? For me, it was “because they were there.” Canon sent 25 Speedlites to the workshop for student use. (Thx Canon!) A more practical reason might also be “because they were there.” It’s not uncommon for a group of photographers to have several Speedlites among them when they gather to shoot. So, I hope, some will see the potential of using many Speedlites together rather than feel like they have to go out and rent or buy a strobe system to create big light. That said, if one has a big strobe system and doesn’t mind carrying it out into the lake, then that’s certainly an option as well. I think of the options as two different wrenches that will turn the same bolt.

      • Paul says:

        Thanks for taking time to reply, with a large number of people working together I can see the possibility of pooling resources as a valid reason to work this way. Always intersting to read your articles Syl.

  3. J.C. says:

    This was one of those weeks that I love my job – thanks for a great week. See you in the fall hopefully.

  4. Ivan Boden says:

    Love this shot!! I have a few friends who have 580EXII's. Between us, we can do this, but it would take some planning. Not the most convenient, but certainly worth attempting to do some time. The high-speed sync results are so cool.

  5. Great article, can I now justify buying 4 more speedlites as I really want to try more off camera lighting at weddings.

    Many Thanks

  6. […] students last summer here. Also, you can read about a seven-light shoot I did during the workshop here.   If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing […]

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