Some conditions are better than others when it comes to photography. In mid-day sun, open shade is your friend. In your studio, or a portrait situation, you have all of your lighting gear at your disposal for crafting a gorgeous photo. Night time land scape photography offers you the ability to take long exposure, giving your sensor all the time needed to soak in what available light there is. However, there are times where you’ll be presented with a situation where all of the fail-safes have been removed. Every crutch has been kicked out from under you and you’re left on the floor wondering, “How do I get back up and take an actual photo that’s worth the effort?”
That was my issue yesterday when I was asked to shoot a live band performance for some friends. It’s a venue that I’ve shot at before, and I remembered it really wasn’t a great place for photos. First off, it’s cluttered and the stage is small. There’s no place to swing your lens where you won’t catch some sort of unflattering background element bleeding into your pictures. That told me right away that I would be shooting tight. No fisheye, or 24-70mm here. I would be shooting long all night, 70-200mm and I would be focusing on individual performances to tell the story.
Next, because I knew the light was limited (read: non-existent) I would have to bring some of my own lighting solutions to help me out if I wanted to shoot anything other than frames of pitch black. The venue, while not too small, is usually packed to rafters, or drop ceiling as the case may be, so I also had to pack mobile and take equipment that wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. I choose an on camera speedlite (600ex) and a second flash on a small stand (430exII) with a Rogue Flashbender modifier.
I’d use the on camera flash as a bounce light. I could take just the one speedlite and point it directly at the subjects but we all know what that looks like – mugshots. Add to that the fact that people sweat on stage and they would look like mugshots taken after a high speed chase – not a good choice, so bounce flash it is. I’d use the flash on the stand in many different ways; I’d use it as a fill, a kicker, back light, rim light – pretty much anyway I could to squeeze out a good looking photo.
When I arrived to the venue any small hopes that I had left for the shoot were quickly thrown out of the window. The stage light, which I were told were, “Totally awesome, man.”, were turned in such a way that they only lit the audience. THE AUDIENCE! I don’t know who made that decision but it wasn’t me. There’s was nothing I could do about it either. The lights were so bulky, their foot print so huge, that moving them was completely unrealistic.
So, now I literally have no light pointed at the stage, my speedlites were going to be doing all the work. This also forced me to make an important decision about the artistic direction of the shoot. My first thought was I could slip out the back without anyone noticing me and just go home where I could make up a story about a falcon stealing my gear earlier in the day, but these guys were my friend and they were relying on me to take some photos. Also, the story was pretty lame and I am sure almost no one would believe me. So I soldiered on and came up with a realistic solution.
My final plan was to portray motion. I’d use my speedlites to stop the action, but then I would drag the shutter (slang for using a slow shutter speed) to let the action trail through the frame. One great side effect of a packed house means that people would be using cell phones to shoot their own videos. And since it was so dark, all of those cell phones would most likely have their little LED lights blazing, and that’s exactly what happened. Those little LEDs gave me just enough ambient light to let me use the slower shutter speeds and actually capture some movement. You can see in the photo here just how this works. The on-camera flash (zoomed to 200mm and pointed straight up at the ceiling) freezes the action on the right side of the photograph, while the ambient-only lit left side of the photo makes motion trails as the musician plays. The final effect is pretty cool and gives the viewer the sense of what the subject is doing in the frame. Here, with D.J. Kob, we can see that his arms are all over the place during his performance. Note the thin orange outline of light around his face and arms – that’s my other speedlite on a stand with a full cut CTO gel positioned right behind him to help him pop out of an otherwise black background.
The last hurdle was focusing. We’ve all come so reliant on auto-focus that it can really throw you off your game when no-light conditions render it useless. There are some tricks you can use to manually focus. First tip is simple – shoot a lot more frames. Without auto focus your chance of getting a razor sharp picture drops through the floor, so shoot a lot and hope for the best. The next tip is to look for small reflections on your subject that you can manually focus off of. Glints in eyes, sweat on foreheads, jewelry. Anything that catches light is your friend. Just focus on those objects, turn the focus ring until you can see that they are sharp and start shooting. It’s all you can do. If done right, you’ll have a set of compelling, artistic photographs that tell a story and convey motion.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Portrait, Wedding and Advertising Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.
I‘ve always been a studio strobe kind of guy. My feeling was that studio strobes offered me more flexibility. It gave me more power output when I needed it, it gave me better coverage when I needed and I felt, since they have external battery packs, that I could put them anywhere I would ever need to. It also seems like the best light shaping modifiers were always available for the larger lights. These, among other reasons, always made me feel like if I was going to drop a wad (<-super technical term) of cash on a lighting system that it would be safer spending it on a larger studio strobe. Basically, I thought I had all my bases covered.
But over the past few years I found that when I was setting up my lighting schemes I would often relegate my studio strobes to background tasks, like lighting the environment or using them as large light washes to bring up ambiance a stop or so. Meanwhile, my old, smaller 430ex and 285HV flashes were being used as focused key lights and kickers. Without realizing it I was relying on my smaller flashes for a lot of my precision work. As time progressed I started to use them more in the field and not long after that came an awareness that I had actually been limiting myself by relying so heavily on studio strobes in a lot of situations.
Studio strobes have their use, and that use is big light. When I say big light, I mean any situation where either coverage or sheer energy is needed. When I was working on my project for the Akron Canton Regional Foodbank, where I was often shooting in the noon-day sun, I needed their large power output to reign in the ambient sun so I could put more flattering light on my subjects.
But noon-day photo shoots don’t happen that often. The Foodbank job was very run-and-gun, but usually when you’re contracted to take photos you have a lot more control of your shooting schedule and thus you can take your portraits in more forgiving situations. It’s in these controlled situations where a set of speedlites can easily provide you with the power and flexibility that you need.
Where Can You Use Speedlites?
Pretty much anywhere you could use any other type of light except for maybe the scenario I mentioned above (and even then a large bank of speedlites can do the job, as illustrated by Joe McNally). There are unique properties shared by all speedlites that make them a good, defacto go-to choice for photographs. Their full-featured; even a ‘simple’ speedlite like the vivitar 285HV Zoom Thyristor (who comes up with these names!?) has all the basic control that the more expensive speedlites offer. Another bonus is the size – these things are small. I can fit 3 or 4 of these speedlites into my camera bag and still have room for my two main cameras, gels, extra lenses, wireless triggers, and batteries.
Anyway, if you’ve used speedlites before none of this is news to you, and so this brings me to the point of this post: Canon’s newest speedlite, the 600ex-rt which I recently purchased.
No ceremonial unboxing for this light. I got it in the mail at 12, and by 1 o’clock I had it pressed into service. In case you’re unable to read between the lines here, that’s a testament to just how easy it is to use this speedlite. I was able to put it on my camera and start shooting, full featured right away, without having to read the 40,000 page manual that comes with it. I had an event I was contracted to shoot. It took place in a large outdoor venue and this meant my main issue was controlling the ambient light from the sun. Most of the event took place under a large, unwalled tent. The ceilings of the tent were anywhere between 12 and 40 feet tall. I found I was able to point the 600ex straight up, zoomed to 200mm at full power and fill the entire tent with soft, flattering light. More than that, I was able to slave my older 430ex II to the 600ex and use it as a kicker to give the event photos an aesthetic more usually found in wedding photos. Where event photos are usually flat, and rather mugshot/driver’s license looking, I was able to use the 600ex to take the quality light and thus the quality of the photos up to a much more professional level.
A little about the flash itself. It’s larger than it’s predecessor, nearly half again the size of the 430ex II. But that extra size means it’s more powerful and versatile. The back of the flash has a lot more in common with the 530ex II that it does with the stripped down 430ex II. However, users of either of these older flashes will still be able to pick up the new 600ex and put it to use without any frustration. The controls are laid out logically. The buttons feel responsive when you interact with them. With the old 430ex II, it often felt like you had to press the buttons nearly through the front of the flash in order to to get it to register, not so with the 600ex. Button presses are easy and precise. The dial is also very reactive, although it is a little hard to turn if your fingers are sweaty or wet during humid days.
Switching from ETTL to Manual (the two modes I use exclusively) is as easy as pressing the larger MODE button twice. Other modes included are Multi, for action/sports shots, and EXT.A and EXT.M for in flash metering.
Turning your 600ex into a master for group flash control is just as easy. Simply press the Wireless/Linked Shooting button to cycle through the modes that best fit your situation. The 600ex-rt has a radio transmitter built in (thus the ‘rt’ in 600ex-rt) for use with other 600ex-rts. Because I only have one 600ex-rt at the moment, I used the optical slave mode to control my 430ex II. From the menu you can control all of the functions of your master 600ex as well as the functions for your slaved speedlite, such as exposure compensation. While radio transmission would be the go-to option if you have multiple 600exs, the optical method worked fantastically, blowing away my expectation. When I had the 600ex pointing straight up into the ceiling, it was still able to control the 430ex II which was often all of the way across the room – some 40 to 60 feet away.
The 600ex II also comes with a nice plastic gel holder, although the flash only comes with tungsten balanced gels, no florescent gels – hrmmmm. I also noticed that the flash seems to have two little electric “eyes” under the area where the gels snap on – these are used to transmit color correction information to your camera based on the gel you are currently using. How cool is that?! No more dialing in kelvin numbers to get white balance!
In an effort to keep a long post from getting longer let me just sum this up by saying if you are a studio strobe purist, like I was, take a chance on a speedlite like the 600ex. You’ll find it has its uses in the studio and that it’s indispensable in the field.
Key Features Summary
- Easy to use right out of the box
- Great power output
- Intuitive, if not a little clumsy at times, LCD interface
- Good button and dial response
- Slightly large, but very sturdy
- Great master/slave functionality
- Gel system with built in color correction technology
- Optical and Radio Transmission master/slave modes
- Flash zoom up to 200mm
- Power range from 1/128 to 1/1
- Produces a beautiful throw of light
- Works just as good as a studio strobe in many situations.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Portrait and Wedding Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.
In addition to working as a writer, his work appearing in commercial campaigns and local news papers, Brian Lisik also enjoys his time on stage as a prolific musician. Brian’s music is heartfelt and melodic, appealing to many types of audiences while dodging categorization.
When we talked about working on a photo campaign for an upcoming project we both knew the photos had to be just as unique. Brian lived near a location, an old auto repair shop, that was just dripping with visual personality. When he recommended that we might want to shoot there, we raced over to scout it out. It didn’t take long to realize that this was a gold mine for photographs. It was so great, in fact, that it served as a backdrop for another local artist’s photos I had taken.
With permission from the owner of the repair shop, we arrived on a Saturday around 6pm, ready to take pictures. Because it was the end of spring when we took these pictures, that meant that the sun was still high in the sky, even around 6pm. After snapping a few frames and reviewing our work we realized the location needed a little more drama from the lights to help bring the location to life.
I was shooting Brian with a large 5 foot octa acting as his key light. We decided to try to keep things simple and add a second light. I really wanted to add some color to the light as well and our final decision was put a full cut of CTO onto an unmodified speed light. Unmodified meant the light would be small and harsh, and the CTO gel would give it a warm glow.
We got everything in place, reset ourselves and started snapping a few frames. Instantly we knew we had nailed it. The single, extra light with it’s orange gel was giving the photos the unmistakable sense of sunset, and that little detail made the difference. We would spend the next 2 hours on location taking pictures against many backdrops; cars, an old wall made up of tire rims, and an old office door.
Normally as the sun gets lower in the sky, photographers will push their subject into it, using it as a beautiful backlight. Because we were getting such great results out of our own little artificial sun we made the choice to avoid the actual sun and continue to use our flash as both main, and artificial sun/kicker. Because the speed light was so easy to move around it gave us a lot more flexibility to set the scene however we wanted it and I think the photos speak for themselves as to it’s effectiveness.
Due of the nature of the project, I can’t share our favorite photos until they are released with the project itself, but keep an eye on the site and I’ll start posting photos as the roll-out begins.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Portrait, Advertising and Wedding Photographer based in Canton, Ohio.
Here in Canton, we have have a great park known as Water Works Park. The park is actually a chain of parks including Stadium Park, McKinley Memorial Park and City Field Park in addition to the aforementioned Water Works Park. Through this park chain there are a multitude of locations for photography. Some areas are great for fitness photography, some are great for high school senior photos and some are perfect for bridal and engagement photo shoots. The landscape of the park changes dramatically along it’s length so you should never be left wanting for a change of scenery. Along side the park runs the Nimishillen Creek, which is actually classified as a river. This sheet of running water can also serve as a backdrop for photos shot near its banks.
One of my favorite places to shoot is in an area known as the Garden Center & Children’s Garden. This area is filled with trees and all types of wonderful flowering flora, changing dramatically depending on which season you visit. A small creek runs through the gardens off to the side through a series of stone walled water falls. This is another great area to shoot along. This side of the garden also offers a lot of shade to help photographers who have a shoot scheduled in the mid-day sun.
Brides can be photographed in both the Garden Center and the Children’s Garden easily from almost any angle, although you do have to be careful in some areas since the background can be cluttered with structures. With some careful planning you should be able to work around this easily.
For Business or High-School Senior portraits there is a wonderful trail that winds alongside another smaller creek on the western edge of the park. One of my favorite places here is a small waterfall with steps where you can take both standing and sitting portraits against an interesting backdrop of either water or trees. If you get there at just the right time (around 7:30-8:30 pm in the spring/summer) you can actually catch the suns light peeking through the arches of the waterfall’s bridge. The McKinley Monument, only 100 yards or so west of this point, also serves as a strong backdrop for those moments when your photo may need to convey strength or longevity. Try placing your subject’s back to the monument and shoot down the wall towards them with a shallow depth of field.
Because the park winds around with the river you should be able to move to a new location to effectively change the sun’s impact on your subject. Evenings after 5pm are best since the morning day sun rises over a row of houses instead of the trees that line the western side of the park.
Photographers in larger cities often have a ton of go-to locations for photography while those of us in slightly smaller cities really need to dig deep to find of those over looked gems. While Water Works Park is no secret, it’s not used nearly enough, in my opinion, as a backdrop in photos. In an upcoming article I’ll talk about how photogs in smaller cities can scout out promising locations that offer both easy access and unique looks.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Wedding, High-School Senior Portrait and Advertising Photographer based in Canton, Ohio.
Earlier this week I added a new piece of gear to my already hefty camera bag – the Aputre Trigmaster Plus II 2.4G. Up until now, I haven’t had a lot of uses for good, reliable wireless triggers. For my studio lights I’d usually lay out a long sync cord attached to a separate power adjuster. When I used my speedlites I had to rely on some very cheap, and actually very unreliable, wireless triggers. But recently, I’ve been working on shoots that are larger in physical scale, and that increased distance meant it was time to find a trigger that would be reliable at greater range.
If you search the photography forums you’ll see that most photogs will recommend the PocketWizard brand time and time again – and for good reason, I should add. They didn’t earn that loyalty through shoddy quality. But PocketWizards can be a bit on the (very) expensive side and as the number of lights in your photographic arsenal grows so will your need for triggers. This is why I decided to give the Aputure brand of triggers a go. The reviews for these things so far have been pretty stellar and even though I’ve only had the chance to use them on one shoot so far I certainly got the feeling that these are every ounce as professional as their more pricey counterparts.
Like the PocketWizards they do cool things such as channel selection so you can run your triggers near other photogs without interference. You can also set triggers to zones, so you can fire only specific strobes individually or all at once (useful at things like weddings where you may have several flashes set up in an area and only want to target specific sections of a room). The advertised range is fantastic as well – up to 500m, although I haven’t truly tested it any anywhere near that limit. They feel sturdy and hefty too, and in no way cheap. The only downside I have found so far is the styling. While PocketWizards tend to look like next generation stealth aircraft, the Trigmaster Plus II looks like it comes from a pre-Chernobyl era.
Oh, and then there’s the price. These things are less than half the price of their rivals. For that you’re getting nearly all same features and build quality for half the cost. Feel free to compare the prices on Amazon when you get the chance.
A Custom Brush for all Your Photoshop Skin Retouching Needs
Retouching is an important part of any portrait, whether it’s a wedding, engagement, or high school senior’s photo. Most people are used to the airbrush technique, and since in the early days of photo retouching an artist would use an actual airbrush to do this, it’s no wonder why people still use the default airbrush tool in Photoshop today to pretty much the same effect.
Photoshop is great in the respect that you can use your own custom brush in addition to it’s default airbrush preset. I made my own custom brush, using a more organic pattern, to achieve much better results. This brush is great on any type of face, or body part as it replicates the random nature of skin, such as pores and other surface textures. The trick when retouching is being careful not to smooth your subject’s skin out to the point where they look flat and plastic. Using a textured brush like this allows you keep the skin looking real while gently painting away imperfections. Also keep in mind that some imperfections, especially in men, are defining features and should be only diminished in strength rather than removed completely.
You can download the file HERE and then load the brush within Photoshop under the brush menu.
Shooting Portraits on Location at A-1 Auto Repair.
Every now and then you get an amazing lead on a good location to photograph portraits. More often than not that location is something like a beautiful historic mansion, or a wonderful farm landscape or any other number of amazing, but slightly cliché backdrops. However, sometimes that location is something completely different than pretty much anything else out there.
Such was the case when a friend of mine suggested A-1 Auto Repair in Canton, Ohio. When another friend of mine, Chase the Matrix, needed some photos for his promo material I knew this new location would be perfect. Set against the farmed hills west of Canton proper, A-1 Auto Repair is an old-fashioned type of a place. A land that time forgot, but refuses to let go of. When you first pull up you’ll notice a long wall made entirely of old rims and hubcaps, and trust me when I say that would be enough to make this place cool. But it gets better. In front of the fence are several vintage, rusty cars. Again, perfect backdrop for portraits that need to be a little different in look and style.
Behind the fence is an entire, over grown junkyard. Old rusted cars with trees growing through them. Old rusted appliances, old rusted oil cans – old rusted everything! Everywhere you turn your lens there’s an amazing landscape of rusted Americana. Okay, okay, I know rusted cars can be a cliché photo backdrop as well, but not if the location is more than just that, and A-1 Auto is filled with portrait photography possibilities in all 360 degrees.
Now, I should mention, I’ve never shot here before nor had I ever even seen this place with my own eyes until the day we rolled up there for the shoot. That’s pretty risky, especially when you don’t know how the owners will react to you strolling up with a camera and some lights, asking if you can be on their property for an hour. Luckily, the owner and employees were as nice as you could ask for in people. They graciously let us have the run of the place and we did our best to make sure we just didn’t get in the way of their business.
Over all it turned out to be a great place for a portrait session that needed a little extra edge to it. It could even be a great place for some adventurous wedding photography too with the right bride and groom.
People love to shoot at sunrise and sunset, and why not? It’s a beautiful time of the day where the sun is doing all of the hard work for you. That low horizon light is flattering in almost all cases and will often remove the need for external flashes completely.
There are times, however, when you can’t escape the mid-day sun, and that harsh, overhead light, can be anything but flattering to your subjects. This was the case when I was recently asked to take a series of portraits for the Akron/Canton Regional Food Bank. The job was to take photos of the clients and volunteers of the food bank, and because the area food banks often hand food out in the late mornings I was constantly faced with shooting with the noon-day sun in the sky. In cases such as this, it’s strongly recommended that you use some sort of a fill light, and if you do it right your photo will be beautifully exposed with your background and subjects left looking amazing.
The way I approach this problem is fairly simple. The sun will almost always be at some sort of angle to you, even in the middle of summer at high noon. The trick is to find that small difference in angle and then put your subject’s backs to it. In this way, you are using the sun as sort of a huge, nuclear rim light. You’re also keeping the sun out of their eyes, which helps reduce squinting.
The next trick is exposure. Since your using an external light source to expose your subject correctly, you need to set your camera to expose for the background. Here I like to use the magic -1 to -2 ev trick. Darkening the background in this way will both saturate the colors of the background and make your subjects pop.
All that’s left now is positioning and dialing in your light’s power. This part is where you can get creative, but generally I like to use a fairly large light source (I use an umbrella/octobox similar to this on location with my AlienBee’s 800) with it positioned directly in front of, or just to the side of my subjects. Light power is set to generally equal neutral exposure on the subjects, although more or less power can be used to add drama.