Strobes (flashes) are the DVR of Photography

July 30, 2014  •  Leave a Comment
Strobes (also known as flashes) are the DVR of Photography?  I hear you thinking, "Huh? He can't be talking about a Digital Video Recorder."  Oh but I am!  Ok, so how the heck does a strobe equate to a DVR?  They don't record anything, the camera does that...  Hopefully by the end of this you'll get my reasoning and want to give this a try!  
 
I went out the other day after work to shoot at the Wilamette River with the lovely Ashlee Funk.  Since this was the middle of summer, the sun was still about 25 degrees above the horizon and very bright with very little to no cloud cover.
 
We met along the river under a bridge.  I knew I'd want to use the shade of the bridge to my advantage.  But, first I asked the model to stand directly in the sun.  I exposed the image for her skin on the light side.  You'll notice that she can't really pose without squinting and the far side of her face falls sharply into shadow.  
 

Direct Sun:

ISO100 - 1/200sec - f/4

 
If you're a natural light only photographer and you don't have any access to shade at your location this is a tough situation.  You could try and use Nikon's Active D-Lighting or Canon's Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO).  I'll admit that I'm not as familiar with Canon's ALO but I do know that it's much more conservative than Nikon's ADL.  Even ADL would have a hard time with this lighting scenario.  

Another idea would be to try and spin her to put the sun behind her but that puts me out into the middle of the river or trying to wade across to the other shore.   You're still going to have a hard time in that situation without strobes.  You'll either have to over-expose the background or shoot a silhouette.
 
Another idea would be to use a diffusion panel and create more diffused shade to even out the light on either side of her face.  This would work well but requires that you have an assistant.  

Yet another solution would be to wait until later in the day when the sun is less harsh.  You'd be able to capture some great golden hour images.  But that could be hours away, who wants to wait? 
 
So the next thing I went for was some shade.  Had I not planned for the shade from the bridge in advance there were larger shrubs along the shore that provided some shade.  However you want to be careful about trying to keep the shade on faces even not dappled. 

Ok so next I asked her to move down river just a tiny bit further so she was under the shade of the bridge.  This isn't the same shade as you'd get from a diffusion panel.  This is a much darker less diffused shade than that.  I took a shot with a little brighter exposure and changed my aperture for a little more depth of field.
 

Subject in Shade:

ISO 800 - 1/160sec - f/7.1

 
So the exposure data looks way different but let's do the math (it'll be simple I promise):
f/4 to f/7.1 = minus 1.7 stops.   
1/200sec to 1/160sec = plus 0.3 stops   
ISO 100 to ISO 800 = plus 3 stops 
 
So: 3 + 0.3 - 1.7 = +1.6 stops
 
If that didn't make sense to you send me an email via the contact page and we'll talk about it.  
 
Based on this, we would expect the second image to be 1.6 stops brighter than the first.  Look closely at the grass on the far shore and it's pretty clear that the second image is brighter.  
 
Even though this image is brighter than the first, the model is still quite dark.  You really have to look closely to see detail in her face.  You might also find that your eye wandered through the background first because it was the brightest part of the image.  We don't want that at all!  We want you to be captured by the model's beauty and we want to try and keep your eye focused on her as much as possible.
 
To achieve this, I kept the camera settings the same and placed a strobe on the shore about 20 feet away.  The strobe is a Paul C. Buff Einstein with an 11" Long Throw Reflector at about 1/8 power.  You could also use a direct fired speed light, but you may have to place the light a bit closer.  Just remember: electronics and water don't mix well.  Choose carefully! 
 

Adding Flash:

ISO 800 - 1/160sec - f/7.1
 
 
Here you see a final shot (straight out of camera with no edits).  The strobe is camera right.  It has been positioned to mimic the direction and the quality of the sunlight but focused on her rather than the surroundings.  There is a slight light fall off on her right cheek (similar to the image shot in direct sun) but because the 11" light 20 feet away creates a larger circle than the sun, the light wraps around her face in a more flattering manner.  I like how this shadowed side of her face adds dimensionality.  Later in the shoot I darkened things a bit to get more saturation in the colors of the background and to deepen these shadows even a bit more.
 
ISO 400 - 1/200sec - f/7.1
 
I dropped the ISO a stop and increased the shutter speed by a third of a stop.  So this is pretty much the same exposure brightness as the first image where she was standing in direct sunlight.  This last image has had the white balance warmed a touch, a bump in contrast, and the vibrancy has been cut a little.  This is the point where I usually start editing from after doing the RAW processing.  Hopefully you agree tha this is a more flattering look than the previous examples.

So how does all this relate a flash to a DVR?  I got a DVR because I didn't want to be beholden to the network schedule.  The DVR records the shows I want to watch and I watch them in my own time.  Strobes allow me to shoot when the sun doesn't quite want to give me the quality of light I need.  I get to make the look I want even if the sun is working somewhat against me.  There are so many other things that strobes allow but this is just one of those wonderful things that flash photography brings to you.  Rather than a natural light photographer I consider myself an available light photographer and I tend to pretty much always have strobes available to me. ;)  In future entries I'll talk more about ways to mix the light from a strobe with sunlight for all sorts of great effects.
 

But strobes are too expensive and heavy

 
If after reading all this you're still wondering what to do without going to strobes, the next best thing is to get a partner, friend or assistant and a reflector.  You can then bounce some of the sun into the shady spot to create a similar effect.  You also can tailor the light by using a white, silver, or gold reflector (gels and modifiers will allow the same thing with strobes).  Don't want to go to a reflector?  Your next best bet is to shoot in the shade and to do your best to keep your subject and background in shade.  If you're not able to accomplish that then the best you can do is expose for your subject and let the background go a little over exposed.  Using a narrow depth of field and keeping that over exposed area out of focus can help to draw the eye back to the most important part of your image.
 
I hope this gives you some ideas to solve problems you've run into in the past.  I would love to hear from you if this has helped you or inspired you in any way.

 


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