Problem solving with flash

Most photographers start their relationship with flash photography by sticking a flash onto the top of the camera, switching it to TTL (automatic) mode, and hoping it just does its thing.  Often it does its thing quite well.  But what if you want to move beyond that?  There are two routes you can take from there in my experience – one path involves a realisation that that there’s a need to understand how flash works, and to learn how to take control of it for practical purposes of creating nice light when the available light is bad.  The other path involves embracing the ability of flash photography to enhance your creativity.  You might think that most people would progress from the former (understanding how to control flash for practical purposes) to the latter (using flash for creative purposes), but I believe for many it’s actually the other way around.

Let’s do a hypothetical exercise, which puts you in a situation where you can’t use on camera bounced flash (you’re outside perhaps, or inside but with no walls/ceilings close enough, or maybe you’re not physically in the same room as your subjects).

Now think about these different scenarios:

  • The quantity of light is very low.  Like, really low. It’s hard to even see your camera settings.  What do you do? Bump up the ISO?  Open up your aperture?  Drop your shutter speed and ask your subject to stay still? All of the above?
  • The quantity of light is ok but it’s coming from the wrong direction. What do you do? Ask them to reposition themselves to better light?  Not take the photo?  Take the photo and reckon only photographers see that light can have a wrong direction?
  • The quantity and direction of light is ok, but there’s way too much contrast between the highlights and shadows for instance. What do you do? Ask them to reposition themselves to better light?  Not take the photo? Post-process the hell out of the file with Lightroom to lift the shadows and control the highlights?  Expose just for the highlights and deem it the “creative” thing to do?
  • The quantity, direction and quality of light are all ok, but the colour is not great.  There are green fluorescent lights and super white LED ceiling lights and a table lamp that looks a bit orange. What do you do?  Set white balance to give the best compromise?  Shoot RAW so that you can fix the white balance later? Turn off some of the lights? Deliver it as a black & white image?
  • You’re suddenly and unexpectedly tasked with doing a group shot of a few friends just before dinner at a January wedding.  A few friends turns out to be 45 people, and the only place that can fit them near the function room has very uneven light. What do you do? Expose for the average light and hope you that the gradient tool and brush tools come to your rescue?  Ask everyone to come on a 5 minute trek to the garden outside into open shade and promise them you’ll be quick before they freeze? Ask the bride can you split the group into a few different shots?

These are very real world scenarios and I’ve faced all of them.  And I’ve used every one of those “solutions” at some point. With varying degrees of success.  If those solutions are the full scope of what you’ve done, or would do, you may be a photographer that knows about flash to a point, and uses it to the limit of your knowledge for drinks receptions or night time portraits but nothing else. If so, you’re missing out on a whole other side to flash photography.

I say that because flash, and specifically off camera flash, is a potential solution for each of those problems.  And in the last two years I’ve started to use flash as a possible solution for all these.  This is what I mean by understanding how to control of flash for practical purposes.

Essentially, this is about problem solving with flash.

And, to me, that’s the holy grail – especially so if you can use it to solve problems in a quick and efficient manner without a big song and dance that needs a lot of cooperation from clients, or takes too much time, or is too hit and miss.

The shot at the top of this post is a good example of what I’m talking about.  We were in a pub in Galway, and some punters kindly cleared the snug for the bride, groom and bridal party to have a quick drink before we headed for the reception.  I was excited by the photo opportunities, but the light was problematic. It was dark in there, and while I started with shots at ISO 1600, f/1.4, 1/100s, I really didn’t want to shoot everything at that exposure.  Also I really wanted a photograph from outside the snug, to give it some context.  So having got the safe shots in the bag with the available light (and I always recommend getting the safe shots in the bag first), I started to work on a shot from the main area of the bar.

I switched to a 35mm lens, and stopped down to f/4 thinking some context from the main area of the bar would be good.  That change from f/1.4 to f/4 brought me from 1/100s to 1/15s exposure.  Hmmm.  Also, it looked terrible. Here are four outtakes that show you that terrible shot, and the path to fixing it using flash.

These shots are numbered 1 to 4, so let’s talk through them:

  • Shot 1 (taken at 15:31:10) is that pull back shot. The big issue with it (apart from the 1/15s exposure which has it being blurry) is that my subjects get lost because people in the bar are more lit than they are.  A few of years ago I might have thought I can do something with this photo in Photoshop by masking out the area in the snug and darkening everything else, and it’d be better, perhaps, but that’s not a fix.
  • Shot 2 (taken at 15:31:28) is an attempted fix – move closer, but try to keep the context of the main bar still. Doesn’t fix my exposure settings and that slow shutter speed, but perhaps I could open back up the aperture a bit. The woman in red at the bottom right is a distraction. And the shot is still a bit, well, meh!
  • Shot 3 (taken at 15:31:35) is a pre-cursor to shot 4. I’ve decided now to put a flash in the snug. I want to figure out how the available light will look at my desired exposure once I turn on the flash. So I dial in an exposure of 1/60s, f/2, ISO 400. And it’s underexposed, as you would expect. I’m not concerned with the snug here though – I’m concerned with the bits outside the snug. I want it to be legible, but not dominant. And it is.
  • Shot 4 (taken at 15:32:15) is my second test shot having now put a flash in the snug. Even though it’s a test, I delivered it in the final set of images also. Same exposure as the previous photo, but with the flash turned on and the power set accordingly. How do you set the power accordingly? You pick a power level in the middle, take a test, and increase or decrease it accordingly. Not rocket science, and the more you do it, the closer your initial guess will be. Here I got it right on the second attempt.

A few minutes later it was time for us to move on to the hotel so I asked the bride and groom to hang back, have a chat, and maybe clink the glasses, and with absolutely nothing else changing from what I had setup earlier, and no other intervention by me, I took a sequence of shots from the main bar.  By now it was 15:43, and these 10 shots are the full sequence, captured over a minute and a half:

You can see the two shots I delivered (marked with 5 stars), including the one at the top of this post.  The other shots are straight out of camera, so notice how little I had to edit those shots I delivered.  Slight WB tweak, straighten things, and slight exposure tweak.  For the final shot I bumped the flash power ever so slightly (I could do this remotely from the camera).

I actually don’t really mean this post to be about the specific lighting of this shot, but here’s the lighting diagram anyway because I’m sure some of you will wonder.

Here is the takeaway from this post though.  It was possible to use a single bare flash, without even a light stand (I just sat it on a shelf in the snug and bounced it up to the ceiling) to fix a lighting problem with a shot I had envisaged.  It was possible to do so quickly, without ever disturbing the couple.  And it was possible to do so with virtually zero post-processing required. Hands up who has a single bare flash in their camera bag.

Hands up who has encountered lighting challenges like this.

Hands up who thinks, actually, that’s a pretty easy way of solving the problem.