Speed Light Photography – part 1
First things first, apologies for the gap in blog entries – I’ve been a bit “in absentia” of late for one reason or another. I’ve got a few gear reviews to do between now and the end of the year, video tutorial ideas and requests are crawling out of the woodwork, and my ability to organise myself has become something of a crumbling edifice!
I blame the wife myself………………..
But I’ve come to the conclusion that for one reason or another I’ve become somewhat pigeon-holed as a wildlife/natural history photographer – going under the moniker of Wildlife in Pixels it’s hardly a big surprise is it..
But I cut my photographic teeth on studio product/pack shot and still life work – I loved it then and I still do. And there’s NOTHING that teaches you more about light than studio work – it pays dividends in all aspects of photography, wildlife and landscape work are no exception. Understanding how light behaves, when it’ll look good and when it’ll look like a bag of spanners is what helps capture mood and atmosphere in a shot.
The interaction between light and subject is what makes a great image, and I do wish photographers would understand this – sadly most don’t.
To this end I’ve begun to teach workshops that try to give those attending a flavor of the basic concepts of light by introducing them to the idea of using their speed lights to produce images they can do 365 days a year cum rain or shine – high speed flash, and simple product still life.
Both styles demand a high level of attention to detail in the way the light produced by the speed lights bends and wraps around the subject. Full-blown studio lights have the benefit of modelling lights so that you can see this before you take the shot, but using speed lights means you have to imagine what the light is doing, so it’s level of difficulty begins high, but decreases with practical experience.
A basic 4 light setup with speed lights can produce some really soft and moody lighting with ease.
This Black Label shot went a bit bonkers in the final stages with the addition of smoke, but it gives you an idea of the subtlety of lighting that can be achieved with speed lights.
As for the setup, here’s a shot before I introduced the glass….
Simple setup for the Black Label shot – note the well-appointed studio!
…featuring that most valuable of studio photographers tools, the Voice Activated Light Stand..!
Four SB800’s in all, the one on the right is running at 1/2 power and is fitted with an Interfit Strobies softbox and is double diffused using a Calumet 42″ frame (available here) and white diffuser – this constitutes the main light.
Just look at the size of the diffused disc on the face of that 42″ frame – all that from a poxy 2″x1″ flash head in less than 16″ – epic!
The SB800 on the left, fitted with another softbox is turned down to 1/64th power, and is there solely to illuminate the label where it wraps around the left edge of the bottle, and to get a second neck highlight. Although their is light emanating from it, its greatest effect is that of “bouncing” light from the right hand source back in to the bottle.
The V.A.L.S. is fitted with a third speed light that has a diffused snoot – note the expensive diffusion material and the highly engineered attachment method – kitchen towel and rubber band! The sole purpose of this tiny soft light is to just help pull out the left side of the bottle cap from the intensely dark background towards the top of the shot.
The 4th SB800 is fitted with a 30 degree honeycomb and a “tits ‘n ass”; or TNA2 to be more correct; filter just to give a subtle warm graduation to the background.
Speaking of the background, this is a roll of high grade tracing paper – one of the most versatile materials any studio has, both as a front lit or back lit background, or as a diffusion material – just brilliant stuff, second only to Translum plastic, and a shed-load cheaper.
At the other end of the speed light photography spectrum is the most enjoyable and fascinating pastime of high speed liquid motion photography – a posh way of saying “making a mess”!
It doesn’t have to be too messy – just don’t do it on your best Axminster!
By utilising the IGBT (Isolated Gate Bipolar Transistor) circuitry given to us in speed lights we can deploy the very fast tube burn times, or flash durations, obtained at lower output power settings to our advantage.
Simple shots of water, both dyed and clear can produce some stunning captures:
Streams of water captured back lit against a white background illuminated by two speed lights.
The background for this shot (above) is an A1 sized sheet of white foam board illuminated by a pair of SB910s. The internal reflector angle is set to 35mm and the two speed lights are placed on stands about three feet from the background, just out of shot left and right, and aimed pretty much at the center of the board to facilitate a fairly even spread of light.
The power output settings for both speed lights is set to 1/16th which gives us 1/10,000th of a second flash duration.
Switching to tracing paper as a back lit background immediately puts us at a disadvantage in that it’ll cut the amount of light we see at the camera. But a back lit background always looks just that little bit better as it makes your lighting more easy to shape and control.
Doubling the speed light count behind the trace background to 4 now gives us the power in terms of guide number equal to your average studio light – but with full IGBT advantages.
Working a little closer to the background than we were with the white board/reflected light method we can very easily generate a smooth white field of 255RGB which will make our liquid splash shots really punchy:
Working about 3 feet from a translucent background illuminated by 4 SB800’s gives us a much flatter white background, especially when deploying a 150mm or 180mm macro lens.
Shot with a 180mm macro lens at ISO 260 and f16 we have bags of depth of field on this shot.
Using 4x SB800s we can dial in the correct background exposure using the flash output power and camera ISO – we want a background that’s just on the verge of “blinkies”. If we over expose too much for the background the light will wrap around the liquid edges too much, washing out the contrast and flaring – that’s something that muppet on Adorama TV doesn’t tell you!
Take a few shots holding the glass by the rim gives us a clean foot to the glass, so we can now go and make a nice composite in Photoshop:
Composite of a couple of splash shots and a couple of “clean foot” images….
Happy sodding Valentines day for next year everyone……..yuck, but it’ll sell all day bloomin’ long!
A while ago I posted an entry on this blog about doing splash shots using a method I call “long flash short shutter” HERE.
All the shots on this entry have been taken using the “short flash long shutter” method.
This latter method is the more versatile one of the two because it has a more effective “motion freezing” power; the former method being speed-limited by the 1/8000th shutter speed – and it’s more costly on batteries!
BUT………there’s always one of those isn’t there…?
Short flash long shutter utilises the maximum X-synch speed or the camera. This is the fastest speed we can use where the sensor is FULLY open, and it’s most commonly 1/250th sec.
Sussed the massive potential pitfall yet?
That’s right – AMBIENT LIGHT.
If any ambient light reaches the sensor during our 1/250th sec exposure time then WE WILL GET MOTION BLUR that will visually amount to the same sort of effect as slow synch, sharp image with under exposed blur trails.
So we need to make sure that the ambient light is low enough to render a totally black frame.
The “long flash short shutter” method works well in conditions of high ambient provided that the action can be frozen in 1/8000th sec. If your camera only does 1/4000th sec then the method becomes somewhat less useful.
Freezing action depends on a number of things:
- 1. Is the subject falling under gravity or rising against it?
- 2. How far away is the subject?
A body falling under gravity is doing around 10mph after it’s fallen 2 feet from a dead start, and a car doing 100mph looks a lot slower when it’s 200 yards down the road than it does when it’s 20 yards away.
Similarly, if we have a cascade of liquid falling under gravity through the frame of our camera and (to avoid the jug or pouring vessel) the liquid has fallen 6 inches when it enters the top of the frame, and 30 inches when it vacates the bottom of the frame; we have to take a few things into consideration.
- The liquid is faster at the bottom of the frame than at the top – think Angel Falls – the water pulls itself apart (that’s why the images can look so amazing).
- If we shoot close with a short lens the speed differential across the frame will be the same BUT the overall speed will be a little more apparent than if we shoot with a longer lens from further away.
An SB910 has a 1/16th power output duration of 1/10000th sec and an SB800 1/10,900th at the same output setting (OEM-quoted values). With a 70mm lens close up this can make a subtle difference in image sharpness, but fit a 180mm and move further away from the subject to maintain composition, and the difference is non-existent.
If you are throwing liquid upwards against gravity, then it’s slowing down, and will eventually stop before falling back under the effects of gravity – quite often, 1/8000th is sufficient to freeze this sort of motion.
Both “long shutter short flash” and “short shutter long flash” are valid methods, each with their own pluses and minuses; but the method I always recommend people start with is the former “long shutter” method – it’s easier!
When a shot features a glass remember one thing – drinking glasses were invented by a race of photographer-hating beings! Glasses transmit, reflect and refract light through a full 360 degrees and you can really end up chasing your tail trying to find the source of an errant reflection if you don’t go about lighting it in the correct manner.
And if you put liquid in it then things can get a whole lot worse!
I’ll be doing some very specific workshops with Calumet in the near future that will be all about lighting glass and metal, gloss and matte surfaces, so keep your eye open if this sort of thing interests you – IT SHOULD ‘cos it’ll make you a better photographer….!
The simplest “proper” glass lighting method is what we call “bright field illumination” and guess what – that’s the method used in all the above liquid shots.
Glass Photography – Bright Field & Dark Field illumination.
In the image above, I’ve photographed the same glass using the two ancient and venerable methods of glass photography – one is easy, the other a total pain in the ass; guess which is which!
I’m not going to go into this in detail here, that’ll be in a later post; but BRIGHT FIELD defines the outline of the glass with DARK lines, and DARK FIELD defines the glass white lines of WHITE or highlight.
If you guessed DARK FIELD is the pain the bum then you were right – you will see bits of your “studio” reflected in the glass you didn’t even know existed unless you get this absolutely spot on and 100% correct.
The nice thing about studio-style photography is that you have thinking time, without pressure from working with people, animals or weather and a constantly moving sun. You can start to work up a shot and then leave it over night, when you come back the next day and click the shutter everything is as you left it – unless you’ve had burglars.
You do develop a habit of needing more “grips” gear – you’ve NEVER got the right bit! But then again it’s far cheaper than the bad habit of tripod accumulation like my friend Malc is afflicted with!
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