So far we’ve focused on a lot of theory – how to talk about light, how to see light, and how learning to solve problems with flash is a great way of improving your photography generally. We’ve also reverse-engineered the light in a scene, and then tested our theory to try to recreate similar lighting. So far, not so practical. Having then done an obligatory “gear” post to answer often-asked questions about what flashes/triggers/modifiers etc, it’s time to now shift gears and move from the theoretical to the practical. Starting today is a series that will run regularly here showing the how (and the why) of the creation of a real world photo – mostly wedding photos because that’s mostly what I do – with enough detail to facilitate you recreating the shot should you so wish*.
The shot at the top of this post is from a December wedding. It was taken on a very stormy dark wet and windy day and while we did briefly get a couple of outdoor photos, it was one of those days where most of the photos were taken inside. I knew pretty early in the day we weren’t going to get outside later in the evening for a night portrait, but I did want to deliver the couple something different from the rest of the photos. I needed to do it quickly, though, and also the venue was pretty busy with guests and wasn’t offering a whole load of obvious options for somewhere to get such a photo.
In a situation like that, the thing to do is scout. Walk around the venue, looking for interesting light (or indeed interesting lack of light), textures, geometries or compositions. I found a few of these at once in the marquee where the dinner was going to take place.
Here’s a straight up “room shot” that is standard fare for a wedding photographer – a wide angle overview of the room before guests arrive in for dinner. To the eye the lighting in the room was warm – largely coming from the strips of lights above the canopy which were a “warm white” (with a splash of purple from uplighters at the side of the space). I’ve white-balanced this shot to convey that warm feel and enhance the colour contrast between the ambient light and the purple accent lights on the chairs and tables in the left half of the frame.
If you look closely you’ll notice a small stage at the far end of the room, in front of a blank “wall” of neutral coloured material. Seeing that was key to the photo at the top of this post that resulted. The stage allowed me elevate the couple beyond the clutter of the table settings and table numbers and so on. The blankness of the wall allows me to splash light on it where I want and have it look clean, and the neutral colour allows me easily make that light any colour I want – in this case I want to contrast the warmth of the strip lights with a cool backlight. All of these elements are essential for the simple silhouette that I want to create.
Test shots without the couple
Having identified my location, and before I brought the couple out for the photo, I needed to establish my composition, and indeed my exposure. And in both of these, I’m figuring them out with out any flash being used.
Here’s the sequence of test shots right up to the final photo:
The first seven photos in this sequence are the test shots without any flash. The next four are the shots with flash taken once I had the couple with me. And the final shot is the unedited RAW file that became the final image. Let’s talk through them.
Frames 1 and 2: Figure out the ambient exposure
Because I shoot with an electronic viewfinder that allows me preview the exposure as I make adjustments to shutter speed, aperture or ISO without taking a whole load of test shots or having to meter in a particular way, I was able to tie down the ambient exposure pretty quickly. I want a largely black frame, except for the strip lights above the marquee. So I’m exposing for just allowing that light in. Frame 1 underexposes a little too much. Frame 2 opens things up a stop in exposure terms, to let in twice as much light. The black still stays black, but those ceiling lights register as I want them to.
A note here about the sequence of aperture v shutter speed v ISO when setting your ambient exposure, because I see so many photographers do this either randomly, or wrong. It needs thought. In almost all cases you want to set your shutter speed first, and usually you want to set it at the maximum sync speed of your camera. Why? Because it gives you the greatest chance of needing the least flash power in your shot. I’ll address sync speed in great detail in a future post, but for now if it means nothing to you all you need to do is google “max sync speed” and your camera make, and you’ll find the magic number. Remember it. Even if you don’t know what it means, knowing what shutter speed your camera syncs to is important. In my case, it’s 1/250th of a second. So that’s what I set first. Next I set my aperture to f/2.8 – I wanted it fairly wide open to blur the foreground, but not the fully wide open f/1.4 that my lens of choice could do because I did have an inkling that I might want to try the same shot with a longer lens also, and that lens only stops down to f/2 (as it turns out I didn’t, but it’s good to keep the option of swapping lenses and not having to change anything else). I know that both lenses are nicely sharp at f/2.8 rather than wide open, also, so all of that combined to choose my aperture for me, really.
With two of the three variables set, the third is easy – the ISO becomes what it needs to be. BUT, if I ends up being too high, I’ll go back through the sequence, opening up my aperture first, and then reducing my shutter speed, until I hit limits in either (for aperture, less depth of field than I want (or can have from the lens; for shutter speed, slower than I can hand-hold). In this shot, I am lucky and can set my ISO to 160 which is the base ISO for my camera. Frame 1, therefore, was 1/250s, f/2.8 at ISO 160. But that was actually a bit dark, so I ended up opening up the shutter speed to 1/125s for frame 2 (everything else stays unchanged) knowing I could easily hand hold at that, and knowing that I was going to need very little flash power.
Those two frames, believe it or not, are the hard work of this shot. Once I have the ambient exposure set, and set there for the right reasons, the rest is easy.
Frames 3 and 4: Figure out composition
These really are the same shot, as I tend to double-tap the shutter all the time. All I’ve done here is reframe from a centred composition of frames 1 and 2, to an off-centre composition to give me a diagonal flow of the strip lights.
Frames 5, 6 and 7: Figure out white balance
Colour is hugely important for me in my flash-lit shots, and while by shooting RAW I can adjust the camera white balance after the fact, in order to be able to “see” the final shot, I want to get this right in camera. Knowing in my head I was going to use a blue backlight here for the silhouette, and know that room looked warm to the eye, I wanted to ensure it looked warm in-camera too so shifted my white balance to daylight. The warm white lights, therefore, register as warm. I’ll gel my flash later to contrast with those. You can see the clear difference between shots 4 and 5. Note also that I’m still tweaking my composition by moving closer to/further away from one of those strips of light.
Once I shoot frame 7, I am happy with exposure and composition and it’s time to get my couple.
The EXIF data tells me the time between the first test shot and the last – total time: 51 seconds.
The shoot with the couple
Let’s look again at the contact sheet:
So 15 minutes after frame 7, I have the couple with me (we detoured for some other photos first) and it’s time to finish the shot. That means posing them, and lighting the background for the silhouette. I actually do both at once, by showing them how to face each other (a silhouette must have clear features to work, so I get them to be side on to me, facing each other) and also showing the groom where to point the flash that he will hold in his right hand. I could put it on a light stand, but by having him hold it its much easier for me to adjust it.
Frame 8: First flash exposure and zoom check
Where do you start with flash power? I always start in the middle. So I set it to 1/16 (having put on my blue gel) and that becomes frame 8. I’ve zoomed it out to 24mm also to give a wide spread of light on that background, which they are about 5-6 feet from (so not that far, hence the wide zoom). Turns out that 1/16th power is a bit high for what I want… I want that blue nicely saturated. Also the direction of the flash is slightly off. Let’s tweak both.
Frames 9, 10, 11: Refine exposure and angle of the flash
I drop down eventually to 1/32 power. And through some confusion of “my left or your left” I get the flash positioning correct. And with one final adjustment of where the groom is pointing that flash (“no, I mean your left – towards the sea”), we get to frame 12
Frame 12: And we’re done
One last frame and the pose is good, light is good, composition is good, and focus is good (always check the focus!).
The EXIF tells me the time from frame 8 to frame 12 – i.e the time for which the couple have stood there – is 55 seconds. So all told this shot, literally, took under two minutes. 106 seconds to be exact.
The really nice thing about this setup is that it is portable. In a pinch at another venue with a blank wall and some cool ceiling lights I can deploy this technique and get the couple a shot they’ll almost certainly love. Remember to, to their eye, the whole time, they’re seeing the room as per my straight location shot above. So when I show them this shot, they are blown away:
In fact, here’s a very similar setup from a different wedding, the only difference being the lights are a bit funkier, and I’ve held an iPhone under the lens to give me a cool reflection. In all other aspects, though, everything is the same:
That type of one-flash silhouette is about as simple as it gets with off camera flash. And while in some ways it’s a trick shot, it also helps to reinforce the basics that will apply to even the most complex of lighting setups. In coming posts I’ll jump to the other end of the scale with some quite complicated lighting setups, but up next I apply a relatively simple lighting setup to a relatively tricky situation.
*Before you simply cut and paste what’s happening in any of these posts, I do recommend that you keep in mind my advice previously that you’ll be better served in the long run by being able to solve problems with flash yourself for your own setups rather than resorting to “go to” techniques you blindly deploy time and again without much regard as to whether they are appropriate for the location you are in.