I often get asked ‘How do you do that?’ when I show someone a picture with off camera flash, and of course I am more than happy to oblige as I love to talk camera geekery. I have always been keen on off camera flash, I have practiced it a little bit at home, but I don’t claim I’m a guru on the subject, I just love to have fun with different photographic techniques. In this article I’ll talk about the vision I had for the photograph, the trial and error, the equipment and technique as well as the retouching on a series of images I took with the awesome Nicole and Billy. More after the jump (Click on the title).

The Vision: I aim to visualise in my mind a photograph before I even press the shutter button, with no vision, you don’t have a direction to go in (how I’m going to frame it, what do I want the subject to look like versus the background etc). I knew from interacting with Nicole and seeing some photo samples she sent me, she liked moody skies, good image detail/contrast with a certain edgy feel, so I decided I wanted to go for a hard light for defined shadows and an underexposed ambient light to make the subjects pop in the frame. I know from experience, to deliberately underexpose the ambient light I speed up my shutter speed to darken the areas that are not affected by the flash’s exposure, so in all the ambient ended up being around 1 and 2/3rd stops under. this I knew would darken the sky nicely and give me nice detail in the sky instead of a slab of white. All of the images you see here are either shot with a 50mm f1.4 prime lens or my trusty Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 at 17mm (see photo at top). These focal lengths are multiplied 1.6x to get the actual focal length in 35mm film/sensor terms due to me using an APS-C sized sensor in my camera. I chose shorter focal lengths as I wanted the portraits to be environmental to show where the couple got engaged. To them the photo relives a very memorable time in their lives.

Difficult shooting conditions? I worked around it.

In this photograph you can get an idea of what was happening at the time of the shoot as well as how the ambient light is behaving and how I exposed for it (1/100th second @f4, ISO100). The area out the front of Luna Park in St Kilda was buzzing with people; families, tourists and nearby theatre foot traffic. I knew the only way to make this shot work was to get down low and exclude the crowd from the frame, which also gave me a better ability to include the front of Luna Park with my selected lens.

I had my camera set to ISO100 to get the cleanest possible file, I selected f4 as the aperture, which I chose for two reasons: One is make sure I was in the good ‘sharpness zone’ of the lens, because I knew the lens wasn’t its sharpest wide open at f2.8 and beyond f11 and two, it gave me sufficient depth of focus/field (D.O.F) to keep the subjects sharp. I knew at the 17mm focal length, I’d have a good D.O.F anyway. You can see the background is ever so slightly out of focus, which is OK by me as it is still recognisable. Remember it is not the hero of the shot.

The Equipment and Technique: Speed was the essence here being on location with clients, I didn’t want them to get bored while my assistant Travis and I setup the lights and gauged exposure,so I opted for automatic ETTL by using a 10M ETTL extension cord from Flash Zebra. I setup two Canon 580EX II Speedlights on a bracket with one set to Master (that was connected to the camera via the cord) and the other was set to Slave which triggers optically. Initially I set each flash to High Speed Sync because I was using shutter speeds faster than the max sync speed of 1/250th of a second, but the final shots did end up under that speed, maximising the flash’s efficiency.  I also attached a full CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) gel to each flash to get a warm colour to the light and I used the Tungsten Manual White Balance to make the rest of the image go cool.

Straight out of camera image with the flash position in frame

Here you can see the straight out of camera (SOOC) image taken at 1/80th second @f3.5, ISO100 which is getting into the slower shutter speeds because by this time of the afternoon it was getting dark. The two flashes are visible in the top left of frame and only about 6ft from the subjects, so not too far away I ran out of output power and by not making the shadows too harsh. I used two flashes simply for more power and faster recycle times. You can also see here compared to the image at the top the difference the retouching has given the image. 90% of the image was edited in Adobe Lightroom 3 because it has most of the tools I need. Photoshop was only used to selectively darken and lighten areas as well as sharpen the photograph. I warmed up the image further with the White Balance slider and this made the background almost neutral as well as introducing a great deal of contrast with the various contrast controls you have available in Lightroom. Many of the techniques I use is explained in a previous article I did for a wedding portrait.

The Trial and Error: When I work with flash, I often start without the light even turned on. This gives me a good idea of how the ambient light is going to record and then I decide how I will use flash to build up the light in the picture (unless I am deliberately removing the ambient altogether). Below is the first image in the sequence I used flash in, which is about 2 or so stops under exposed when I metered for the sky. Later I decided this was too dramatic and I closed down to about 1 and a bit stops under proper exposure. the

With no flash to check how the ambient light exposes

Next I introduce the flash and I look at how the shadows were falling on Nicole and Billy, whilst also checking for lighting output to see if I need to add exposure compensation or not to the flash. I will also mention again the blue cast comes from the low colour temperature setting of Tungsten White Balance.

Nicole and Billy being patient while I set my exposure

The compositional elements I was looking for in this particular sequence above is the couple is somewhat framed by the palm trees, which gives an indication of location and a bit of the roller coaster track of Luna Park locks down the context. One element i did battle with was the giant light pole, so I made sure it wasn’t sticking out of someone’s head!

The final edited image alongside a misfire to indicate the light difference

There you have it, another one of the final images that made the cut. Here you can see the difference (with some similar white balance settings) the flash makes to separate the subject from the background. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment here on the blog or on my Facebook page. I’d love to hear some feedback for improvements I can do for future articles. But general praise will be great for my ego too!

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