Pushing the limits

Some shots make you work more than others, and some shots make your gear work more than others. The photo at the top of this post, taken at Fiona and Liam’s wedding in The Millhouse in Slane, is an example of a shot that made both me and my gear work at our hardest. So much so, in fact, that as I brought Fiona and Liam out for the shot I remember being clear with them that “this may not work” and I genuinely meant it. I had a backup plan if it didn’t work, but I also knew if it did work, it would be worth all the effort.

But why was it so hard to do? Well, very simply, I was working right at the limits of what my gear could achieve. There were two reasons for this – time, and distance.

The Midsummer Problem

This wedding took place on the 30th of June, with a sunset in that location on that day at precisely 10pm at night. I took the shot with Fiona and Liam at 9.49pm, so much more A Shot In The Dusk than A Shot In The Dark, but I actually worked on the setup of it from 9.15pm when it was actually a lot brighter – the light falls off quickly in that last half an hour before sunset.

The reason this matters is that is that it tips the scales much more in favour of the ambient light (already present from, in this case, the setting sun) versus the added light (that from my flashes), when really I want to have the opposite be the case – I want the added light to make the image pop with the ambient light largely under-exposed. Because there’s still quite a bit of ambient light, in order to under expose it I need to work at a low ISO – ISO 200 in this case – and that effectively means my flashes are going to have less impact on the scene overall than if I could work at a higher ISO. In winter, this shot would be much easier to do. 10 minutes before sunset in summer, it’s more difficult, because I’ll need more flash power (and I only have a finite amount of flash power) or to move the flashes closer to the things I want to light. Which brings me neatly to the second problem…

Small, far away

There are actually three distinct challenges related to distance. Firstly, and perhaps most frustratingly as I set up and indeed executed the shot, was the challenge of how far away from my flashes (and the subjects) I needed to be. This is quite an expansive scene and I shot it on an 85 mm lens because I had to shoot it from a bridge further along the water and I struggled to have the flashes trigger at that distance. Indeed, early on in the setup I swapped out my trigger for one that I hoped had more transmitter power. The distance I was from the flashes also meant during setup I had to walk back and forth quite a bit, so I certainly got my steps up for this photo!

The second aspect of the distance issue is that, to light big buildings with small flashes, you simply have to place them far away so that the light falls off evenly. But, at a low ISO due to the ambient light, you’re already asking a lot of the flashes to register light on the buildings without then also wanting to put them far away for even fall off. So in a sense there were two conflicting requirements. But the need for even light won out, and once I established that if I put all but one of the flashes to full power, and was patient enough to wait for them to recycle between shots, I could just about have enough light fall on the buildings to make it work.

And the final aspect of the distance issue is that, once I have the bride and groom in place for the actual photo, I can’t easily communicate with them. I solved this by talking them through what I needed them to do, and also guiding them on a sequence of poses that they could cycle through each time the saw the flashes fire (which gave them a visual cue that I had taken a photo). Indeed having a pair of walkie-talkies would have been useful for this photo to allow for some communication between me and them.

The setup

It’s worth pointing out that I ended up needing a lot of test shots and setup shots for this. In fact, here’s the full unedited contact sheet showing every shot I took – all 104 of them – from my very first test to the very last shot. You can see that the first time I have Fiona and Liam out is shot #82.

I’m not going to talk through all 104 shots, obviously, but I did pull out some key frames that help show how the final shot is lit.

Test shot #1 and #2

Before I even started I knew this would be a silhouette – the blank white triangular wall to the right of the mill was perfect for that, and it would also be an easier pose to coordinate from a distance than a shot where the subjects were themselves lit. So the first two shots are me just testing the spread of light from a flash with a Magsphere and a blue gel on it. You might think I added the blue gel for shot #2 but it’s there for both. All that’s different is that between the two I switched my white balance on the camera from Auto (which, it turns out, does a good job of turning the blue to a neutral grey, as I guess it should) to Daylight, which would make the blue gel actually look blue. For every subsequent shot, may camera stayed in Daylight white balance. I shoot in RAW, so I could have changed it in the edit, but I find it makes the testing much easier when I can see the colours I’m creating via my gelled flashes, and that’s most easily done by using daylight white balance to match the daylight-equivalent light from an unglued flash.

Test shot #3, #4 and #7

Because I was going to be taking the final shot from so far away, I had to tweak my approach to setting and testing my flash power, angles and distances. In all cases when I set up a flash, I took my test shot from the position of that flash. I had an idea how the light would look from my final vantage point but needed to be sure that it was well directed (and throwing enough light) at source, if you like. I could change the flash power remotely – though as mentioned pretty much all bar the silhouette flash ended up at full power – but I couldn’t change where the light was falling, so I needed to get this right for each light at a time. Shots #3, #4 and #7 are all checking the light on what will be the camera left buildings in the final frame. And with a large body of water between the flashes and the buildings I was confined on where I could place them. In fact, in shot #8 you can see those flashes firing from the right hand side of the frame.

Test shot #5 and #6

When it came to the mill building itself, I knew early on I wanted to light it in three sections, and that I wanted to use colour to distinguish those sections. I used the centre section (gelled orange) to divide the building into three, and shot #5 is me checking how that light is spreading across that part of the building.

The blue of the silhouette light (chosen, incidentally, to feel “right” at dusk) was matched by a blue light on the left hand side of the mill – this flash is low and facing up, and as far back from the building as I can get it while trying to maintain line of sight to my shooting position (so that the flash had the optimal chance of actually seeing the radio signal from my trigger). Shot #6 is a test of all of that.

Test shot #8

This is the “let’s put it all together” shot, where I retreat to the vantage point for my final composition and see what all those lights look like together. This wasn’t a first time thing and I definitely had to return to some of the flashes and tweak their placement at least once, but by the time I got to this particular test shot, I knew I could go fetch my subjects.

Test shot #9

The first photo with my subjects, and much like placing my flashes earlier for the building, here I’m simply checking if I can get a silhouette and am also guiding them on the pose. You’ll notice that even with the flash behind them, there’s light on the camera side of them and that is that ambient light I talked about above. The sun is literally behind my back in this photo, and while it’s dipped behind trees, it’s throwing enough indirect light to register in my exposure. At this point, though, I’m committed, and with flashes at full power, my camera at its lowest ISO and its fastest shutter speed, I can’t close down my exposure any more so I would have to deal with the residual light on the subjects in the edit.

The final photo

If you look at the full contact sheet with all 104 photos above, you’ll see that before I went and took the final shot, I did one last tweak and check of one of the remote flashes and then I went to capture the final shot. I took 16 exposures in total from the bridge, and in 9 of the 16 all flashes fired. I told you I was at the limits of the technology. Thankfully 9 was enough and there was no need to composite in the final frame, where the lights and the pose all came together.

Fiona & Liam at The Millhouse, Slane

You can slide above to see the unlit and lit photos (not perfectly aligned, because the unlit photo was from a test shot for my composition long before I took the final photo) and hopefully now you can start to see how each flash plays a role. The final photo has 6 flashes – 3 on the main mill building (including the one creating the silhouette) – all gelled, two of them CTB (blue), one CTO (orange) – and 3 on the buildings at camera left: one on the chimney (CTO), one on the building below (CTO) and one purple for a bit of colour contrast on the building nearest the camera.

By the way, if you haven’t already, do check out other Slide To Light photos to reverse engineer the lighting on other shots like this.