I seem to have found myself writing a few posts about how to take particular types of photos lately. I don’t think that’s necessarily because I feel I have a vast amount of photographic wisdom to share. I’m a hack photographer, and am neither professional (as judged by the paucity of my photo sales) nor a teacher- though I am happy to share what little bits of knowledge I pick up along the way as I feel my way through the art-form. Mostly I think I write these things for myself so I can remember as I learn. After all, one of the joys of photography is pushing limits and trying new things.
I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I aspire to be able to take really nice natural portraits. Candid, intimate portraits that capture a mood or a fleeting expression are my favourite, but it’s a challenge for me not just from the technical side (which is learnable) but also from the point of view of connecting with your subject, which is a vastly different discipline. None the less, since buying myself an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens, I’ve been spending more time taking photos of people where I can, and hopefully learning.
Even more challenging is flash photography. I’ve never done a photography course, so save what I learn from reading the odd tutorial or a bit of advice from a flickr friend, I’m basically self-taught. Flash adds a whole new dimension to the skills and knowledge I already have, and it’s a bit of a learning-curve. But the other night, out with friends Mads and Pam in the Yarra Valley, we decided to do a bit of a photo session in the backlight of a setting sun. I’m generally a natural-light kind of guy. Shooting against the light means that the camera will (if left to itself) expose for the far-brighter background and darken the foreground into shadow. Using flash is the only way to counteract this unless you want to wash out all colour from the background (which will usually not be possible anyway as the light from behind will be so strong).
I am certainly not comfortable with flash portraiture. It couples two fields that are still very new for me. Luckily I had two willing, gracious and fun-loving friends who were happy to alternatively goof off and listen to my periodic instructions as I worked the 5D. I should point out that as with all my shots, I shoot fully manual, which means I chose the aperture, shutter-speed and ISO, rather than let the camera decide the levels for me. I find this a much more effective way of getting the shots I want.
The basics of flash are pretty simple. A flash of light obeys basic principles of physics. It travels in a straight line. And it obeys an inverse-square law relating to its intensity- that is, double the distance (x2) from the flash means that the light’s intensity is one quarter (1/4 or 1/2(2) ) what it was at the first point. If I could insert diagrams at this point, I would, because it’s a lot easier to understand diagramattically than verbally.
As always, the exposure of a shot is governed by the balance of shutter speed and aperture, with ISO now thrown into the mix (but in the case of this shoot we’ll ignore it). What’s really crucial to understand about flash photography is that the flash takes place so quickly (in the order of 1/10,000th of a second) that no matter what you do with your shutter speed, it’s not going to have any discernable impact on how the flash affects your picture. If your shot has too much flash at 1/100th of a second, changing your shutter speed to 1/2000th of a second will not darken the flash effect (but, crucially, it will darken anything not affected by the flash, like the background).
Thus controlling flash on a subject comes down to changes in the aperture value. And also, as per the above-mentioned comment about laws of physics, the distance of the subject from the flashgun when it’s fired. So to get the desired light intensity from the flash on a subject, you open or close your aperture to let more or less light in, or you can move closer to or further back from your subject (or a balance of the two). You can then add your shutter-speed into the mix to define how light or dark you want the non-flash-lit elements of the shot (e.g. the background).
For the shoot with Mads and Pam, I wanted the girls lit by flash, but I wanted to capture the beautiful red hues in the sunset sky behind them. I should point out that this was a real outdoor shoot- although the halo the flash sometimes causes makes the girls look superimposed onto the background, they’re standing outside on a hillside in the valley. I should also point out that there’s nothing subtle about my flash photography. I’m using a single flashgun mounted into the hotshoe on my camera. I’m not a strobist, and I wasn’t even using any bounce techniques. Because really, I’m just finding my way.
And because this is new to me, to start with things were pretty trial-and-error. In the spirit of learning, I’m going to do something that I don’t usually do, which is share some of the out-takes from the shoot- which, incidentally, are straight from the camera and haven’t been in any way touched-up in post-processing. Be kind. In this first shot, you can see that the flash is far too fierce and is bouncing off the girls’ faces, making them glow white and washing out features. So either my aperture was too wide, or I was too close. The background is okay so I probably wouldn’t need to touch the shutter-speed up too much.
This next shot I had backed right up. Mads and Pam were doing a bit of a dance routine in front of the sunset and I had both stepped back a little and had stopped the camera right down to about f/11 which cut out almost all of the flash. They’re still lit, but very dimly, and they’re just not standing out in the darkness.
This last shot (and probably my favourite of the shoot) the light is nicely balanced. I’ve got the distance and aperture values balanced about where I want them, and the background is underexposed with a high shutter-speed value to capture the rich red tones in the sky following the sunset, while there’s enough light on the two girls to see them, but not so much that their features are bleached out. It’s a nice combination (I think) of a lovely subject (the girls) both communicating with the camera, standing out against the colours of the sky, and I was really happy with how it came together.
I should point out that having nice equipment is a beautiul thing. As well as my Canon EOS 5D, which is a dream to work with, the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is a gorgeous, gorgeous portrait lens- close and intimate, with a wonderful depth of field when you need it, and incredible optical sharpness. Vying with my ultra-wide 16-35 as lens-of-the-moment right now.
And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t give a big thanks to both Mads and Pam with putting up with my antics… you guys were a hoot to shoot! Looking forward to the next time. 🙂
A few more fun ones we got that night: