Shot in 106 Seconds

The shot above is from a December wedding.  It was taken on a very stormy dark 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. As a slight complication, the main part of the venue where the drinks reception was taking place 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 all at once in the marquee where the dinner was due to take place.

Location, location, location…

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.

Testing… 1, 2, 3.

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.

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 it’s much easier for me to adjust it – I just need to ask him to move it up, down, left, right etc.

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 <em>is</em> 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:

Job done!

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.