Controlling the uncontrollable

I’ve often thought that a wedding photographer needs to be a bit of a jack of all trades – over the course of the day you may be called on to capture images which could be classified as architectural, documentary, commercial, landscape, macro, fine art, event, and of course portraiture. As such, a wedding photographer needs to be fairly adaptable, and able to adjust to any situation. With experience comes the ability to deal with the unexpected, and to bring some control to uncontrollable situations. One of the benefits of learning how to light is that it gives you a particularly useful tool in your bag to help to do just this. The photograph above is an example of controlling the uncontrollable, primarily by the use of light. So let’s break it down.

It’s hard to get a better example of A Shot In The Dark than the photograph above, captured well after sunset in what, essentially, was an area devoid of light.  The bride and groom had made me aware earlier that there were going to be fire dancers, and the plan was for them to start at 10.30pm.  I was able to make contact with the fire dancers as soon as they arrived on site, and quickly established the two most important pieces of information they could convey to me – where exactly would they be during the demo, and how long would it last. The first answer (at the back of the hotel on a patch of tarmac) told me where and, to some extent, how to set up my lights – the second answer (15-20 minutes) told me that I’d have some time to get to grips with the ever-changing levels of ambient light that would be cast from the flames themselves.

Knowing, therefore, where everything would happen, and how long it would take, I set about thinking about how to light it.  The other piece of information I had was that all the guests would be kept on the hotel side of the demonstration – for safety reasons they wouldn’t be all around the fire dancers, but would be in an arc on one side. I knew I would want photographs of guest reactions (and, indeed the bride and groom’s reactions, who would likely stand in amongst the guests) so I decided to cross light the area where they would be by placing two flashes behind where the fire dancers would be, pointing back towards the guests.  The flash at camera left would light the guests at camera right, and vice versa.  Here’s a pull back shot showing where I put the flashes:

To be clear, the flashes are the to bright lights you see – one blue, one orange – in the middle for the frame.  There are three street lights too but they weren’t strong enough or close enough to light the area – I guess what I was doing was placing my own equivalent street lights.  You’ll notice also they’re a reasonable distance from the guests – the further back they are, the more even the light will be across the guests.  In the interest of an even spread of light they are also zoomed out to about 35mm.

Why one blue and one orange?  A few reasons.  Firstly I hardly ever use an ungelled flash these days, because nothing screams “this photos is lit” quite like a pure white flash firing in an environment where the ambient light wouldn’t be pure white.  Secondly, I like to add a bit of colour contrast to my shots if I can, so knowing I’m going to gel the lights, I’ll often gel at least one of them differently to the others.  And thirdly, I intended for one of these lights to be a rim light for the fire dancer, and the other to be a fill light for the guests, for many of the shots.  Indeed the photo up top is putting them to just that use – here it is again:

There’s another variable – which one is blue and which one is orange? Well that relates to the last point – the orange one would be that which was most likely to light the guests, and the blue was the one most likely to be the backlight.  And all of that was dictated by which side the bride and groom stood at.  You can see in the frame above they’re at the side being lit by the orange-gelled flash.

Here you can see how effective those two bare flashes are at lighting the guests on each side, in fact:

Above: Camera-right guests, lit by the camera left orange-gelled flash
Above: Camera left guests, lit by the camera right flash gelled blue (also serving as a rim light for the drummer)

So that was the light placement.  And in some ways that’s the easy bit.  The tricky bit is balancing that light with the only significant ambient light in the frame – the ever changing flames.  To understand how I dealt with the, it’s worth stepping back to an earlier test shot before I even had my exposure figured out:

This frame is only lit by the flames of the torch that the dancer is holding.  I used this frame to gauge an initial base exposure – this particular frame was 1/125s, f/2.8, ISO 1600.  I felt that was a tad dark and was already shooting with a lens that would go to f/2.8 at its widest – I could either bump the ISO or slow down the shutter speed – I chose the former as I wanted to have some leeway on the shutter speed for reasons I’ll explain momentarily. So this next shot was 1/125s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, and you can see there’s a bit more legibility, and a better sky.  I’ve also started to turn on my flashes here, though the final power settings weren’t locked in yet:

Pretty quickly after this I fine tuned my flash power, bumping the blue flash up a stop and a bit, and was happy with how the scene was being lit by me.  All that remained was for the fire dancers to do their bit, and for me to meet them in the middle with the afore-mentioned shutter speed.

In a situation like this, it’s actually shutter speed that becomes a really important control.  I don’t want to be juggling too many variables once the demonstration starts, and my best way of ensuring that’s viable is to lock in as much of my exposure as I can before the action gets under way.  So for every shot that follows I’ll be at f/2.8, ISO 3200 and my flash powers ended up at about 1/16th power.  That leaves me just two things to figure out as I shoot: framing, and shutter speed. And the really nice thing about shutter speed, of course, is that the flash exposure will be totally unaffected by it, so really here it becomes my volume control for the flames.  If I want to amplify the light from those frames, I use a slower shutter speed, and if I want to darken it, I use a faster shutter speed. Simples!

That’s why I didn’t set my starting shutter speed to be 1/250th of a second, by the way.  Because my camera’s sync speed is 1/250th of a second, by starting with a 1/125th of a second shutter speed I had lee way to go either direction without having to think about max sync speed or relying on high speed sync (a trick to fire your flash with faster shutter speeds, but one that uses up lots of power).

As it turned out, more often than not I wanted to amplify those flames with a slower shutter speed – this shot was 1/80th of a second:

[As an aside, you can see here the merit of gelling the flashes – there’s a nice contrast on the ground and even between one side of the dancer and the other, but the orange gel on the guests makes it feel like they’re being lit by the flames.  But they’re not.]

When the flames got bright, things went the other way – this next shot was 1/200th of a second (and could have been 1/250th, probably).  You can see that here even the hotel is picking up some light from my flash, and the blue flash gives that ice subtle kicker light on the smoke to the left of the fire dancer:

In many ways, the challenges faced here are similar to those faced when shooting fireworks – and the approach is the same… set an ambient exposure with some wriggle room on shutter speed,  place your flash (or flashes) and adjust accordingly, such that you don’t need to tinker with those again – and when the action starts, leave yourself only to focus on framing, focusing (arguably the trickiest part actually), and shutter speed.  Hope the guests come good with their reactions, work the scene from a range of angles (but never with the flashes behind you) and all going well you’ll get a series of shots that will capture the action and the reactions to it.

Isn’t it amazing, too, how much you can get out of two bare speed lights?  Simple light for a dynamic situation.