There are a lot of photographers who say sincerely, “I don’t need to use flash, I just turn the ISO up.” To these legions, I say “crappy light at ISO one million is still crappy light.” My second location shoot with cartographer David Yun is a good example of where I’m coming from.
[To read about the first location, click here.]
The amazing thing about human vision is that we can be outside in brilliant sunlight one minute and then walk into a tunnel and see details in the shadows the next minute. Such was the case for the tunnel through which the San Luis Obispo Creek flows underneath SLO’s downtown plaza. This was the location that David suggested when I shared the vision of my art director at San Louie Magazine. She wanted a shot of David in a location that showed the layering of the city as a metaphor for the the layering of information that is at the heart of modern cartography. As soon as we walked in, I understood why David drug me down there — the tunnel was 20′ tall, 40′ wide and meandered for several hundred feet underneath a series of art galleries and restaurants. It was dark enough at noon that I could hear bats flying. Just my kind of location for a bit of Speedliting.
Buck Rogers has his ray gun. Dick Tracy has his radio wrist watch. Some day we photographers will have cameras that can record the full range of light that we can see. Until then, the shot above is how the 5D Mark II recorded the ambient light inside the tunnel. Regardless of the ISO, today’s camera technology falls far short of the mark. So, I stand by my disparaging statement about ambient-only photographers.
I’m A Photographer, Not A Retoucher…Usually
I’m a photographer who shoots with the end in mind. I’d much rather take the time during a shoot to set things up right than to have to fix something in Photoshop later. Still, there are times where a round of Photoshop is necessary. So here’s a secret — the hero shot that opened this story — the shot that was selected by the magazine — is a quick composite of two shots. It took me about 10 minutes in Photoshop to sort this out. An experienced retoucher/Photoshopper could have done it in two minutes. Let’s take a look at the steps.
To create interesting light, you have to create interesting shadows. You’ve heard me say that a thousand times if you’ve been following my adventures for any period of time. So the shot above is close to the shot I wanted to create — a portrait of David holding the trident of modern cartography (his GPS). This is bare Speedlite. I tipped the 580EX II on it’s side so that the head aligned with David. I zoomed the tube to 105mm to create the silhouette on the wall. The light stand is out in the creek, about 15′ from David. I love almost everything about this shot — except the way that the camera failed to record the detail in the shadows. There is no sense of the space. If this was the only shot you saw, you might not even figure out that David was standing next to flowing water.
“SAAF – Shutter Ambient, Aperture Flash” — say that 1,000 times. To get more ambient light into a flash photograph, you use a longer shutter speed. You don’t open the aperture because that let’s in more flash as well. I anticipated that the camera would not see into the shadows. So I shot a series of shots over a wide range of exposures. The only difference between the two shots just above is the shutter speed — 1/25″ vs. 1/6″. That’s a two stop difference. As you can see in the second (brighter) photo, the detail in the steel beams is more apparent. There is also a greater sense of the cavernous quality of the tunnel in the background. Yet, the lighting on David lacks drama. You don’t know where to look because you are looking everywhere.
Sometimes you have to light and sometimes you have to Photoshop. My solution was to merge the best parts of the two photographs. I did this by layering the light one on top of the dark one and then creating a layer mask. You can see the portion of the light image that I used below.
In case you’re wondering why not just jack up the Fill Light slider in Lightroom? Take a look at the dark, dramatic shot with a big fill light move. It just sucks the drama out of the flash in the same way that changing the shutter speed did. Could I have applied local corrections in Lightroom rather than layer in Photoshop? Sure. Probably. But LR does not export to CMYK — the color space used by magazines and catalogs — so I had to head into PS anyway.
The cartography adventure will continue. This was the second location during our three hour shoot. In the final installment, we head out into the brilliant noon sun, where I use — oh my goodness, really? — my Speedlite parked right in the hotshoe. Yes, I’m talking about on-camera flash.
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