Classroom lighting: From dark to fabulous with two speed lights

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Kindergartener Kylie Maxwell, 5, uses a literacy application on a tablet during class, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. For the second year in a row, Westview Elementary School, has been named named a School of Distinction by the state superintendent. Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW

My adventures in off-camera lighting has allowed me to push some of my traditional photojournalism boundaries. The hard-core photojournalist in me of a few years-ago would never of attempted to light a daily general newspaper assignment. The rare times I used a speed light would have been for a quick one-light formal portrait of a subject.

While my personal investment in my own wireless strobe kits has allowed me to stretch my creative vision in my daily photojournalism, it has not been without some teeth gnashing by some fellow photographers and management. That is ok with me.  Fifteen-years-ago, I did the same thing with video storytelling. Few photojournalists at newspapers were doing video. When I went all-in, it freaked out many of my fellow photojournalists who had no interest in doing something different. No matter. I embraced the video wave and now, if you work as a newspaper photojournalist, you are expected to have the skills to shoot and edit video stories. I am beginning to see the same trend in off-camera lighting happening at newspapers.

In this photo, I had an assignment to make a picture at Westview Elementary after it had been named a School of Distinction by the state superintendent. After arriving at the school, the principal gave the reporter and myself a tour of classrooms.  When I came to this kindergarten class and saw the kids with their tablets working, I knew that is what I wanted to shoot. Problem was, the classroom’s light sucked big time. The kids were off in a dark corner of the room doing their work.

I had my portable light kit bag and one light stand. I quietly set up a Godox 860II strobe with a two-foot octabox camera right. For a second light, I used another Godox strobe with a Magmod grid attached aimed at the back of the girl camera left. Because I didn’t have a second light stand, I had the reporter (human light stand)  hold the speed light. I shot in TTL mode which gave me this beautiful exposure.

I love the look of the lighting in this shot. The light is crisp, but not hard. Highlights abound and shadows are softened.

The key here is that I did not set this scene up. I never asked to kids to move. I just shot what was there. The problem I faced when I turned this photo in, is that it looked too clean, almost like an ad for iPads. Too corporate, not enough editorial some would say. I kind of agree, but should  an adherence to the traditions of available light documentary photography keep me from adding some light to a dark corner of a room?

I feel caught between the hard ethics of photojournalism and the draw of new technology that with just a bit more effort, can make a boring photograph more engaging for the viewer. I figure it will all all iron itself out as more photojournalists add wireless strobes to their kits. Some in my photo department  have now embraced shooting  their own location portraits with Godox speedlights. Resistance is futile I guess.

Why shoot a portrait of somebody in crappy light when you came make them look good with off-camera strobes?  Can the same be said for newspaper daily assignments? Let me know in the comments below how you feel.

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Two strobes and a tree

For this portrait, Joel, age 7, wanted to be photographed in this tree. He climbed up and struck this pose naturally. I told him not to move as I placed my key light on camera left. This strobe, a Profoto B2 with a Westcott 3 -foot Rapidbox Switch attached, provided  broad soft light on the subject. Behind Joel, I had his father hold a Profoto B1 above his head. The wireless monolight had a Magnum OCF reflector with a warming gel attached. This edged the tree and Joel in warm light that mimicked golden hour.

 

DSC_9457ddTo get my exposure, I shot one frame of Joel’s face in TTL, ( through-the-lens auto metering) then switched the Profoto Air Remote over to manual and fine-tuned the exposure. Even though I recently bought a Sekonic flash meter, I struggle finding a need for it on location shoots like this.

Settings: Nikon D5 with a Nikkor 50 f/1.8 lens; iso 125; 1/320/sec. at f/2 White balance set to 5400 Kelvin

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Editorial portrait with harder light

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Morton Alexander, a Mill Canyon resident near Davenport, Wash., is worried that a natural spring that runs through his property could become polluted if a farm above the canyon is allowed to spread biosolids on their fields. Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW

In this editorial portrait I had a few challenges to overcome. One was the background, which was in full sunlight. The other was the subject was in shade. Were talking a five stop ratio or more. I didn’t want to do a complicated lighting set up here, so I chose my Godox AD200 paired with my Westcott 26-inch beauty dish positioned camera right. If you read my last post about the editorial portrait of the woman with the horse, I said I wished I had more sparkle in the face. On that photo, I used the panel diffusion on the beauty dish. For this photo I took it off. The silver interior gave me a harder light, which gave shape to my subject’s face.

I shot in TTL mode with high-speed sync enabled. I found I needed to bump my flash exposure up a stop to balance the light better with the background. I made that adjustment right from my Godox X1n trigger atop my Nikon D5 camera.

My final camera settings were 1/2500 of a second shutter, F/4 at ISO 200.

I love how the strobe brought out the colors of the old truck and sky. I hardly had to do any adjustment in the Photoshop.

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Location lighting breakdown: Editorial environmental portrait

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Dr. Suzan Entwistle’s surgical career ending in 2013 from a hand injury she sustained when she was thrown from a horse. She now uses her medical training to help several families who have questions about recent autopsies performed by the Spokane County Medical Examiners Office. Her late husband, Dr. John Marshall, was found, Jan. 26, 2016, dead in the Spokane River. His death remains a mystery. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

Editorial portraits are always a challenge for me. I want to show my subject in their natural environment, but at the same time, capture personality that reveals.  I normally get my photo assignments on the day of the shoot. It includes where and when to meet a subject with a few added sentences about what the reporter is writing about. Over thirty years of doing this type of environmental portrait for my newspaper, I’ve gotten pretty good at assessing the environment, lighting and subject to quickly to pull together a decent photo in a short amount of time.

On this assignment, I photographed Dr. Suzan Entwistle, a former surgeon who lost the use of her hand for doing surgery because of a horse riding accident. She now uses her medical training to help several families who have questions about recent autopsies performed by the Spokane County Medical Examiners Office. Her late husband, Dr. John Marshall, was found, Jan. 26, 2016, dead in the Spokane River.

Arriving  Entwistle’s rural home, I checked the interior for a possible portrait location and found nothing visually interesting. But the horses in the corral near the house did intrigue me. At first, I was not sure doing a portrait with a horse fit the story until Entwistle told me she lost the use of her hand for doing surgery after a riding accident. The horses and their connection to Entwistle’s story allowed me to bring two visual elements together to make a compelling portrait.

My challenge was the ambient lighting. It was super soft, but in a weird way. Local forest fires had inundated our county with smoke. In order to give the light some sharpness, I grabbed my Godox light bag and Westcott Rapid Box 26-inch beauty dish from my car. I set up a Godox AD200 strobe with the beauty dish as my key light on camera right. I made some test shots all in TTL (through the lens metering) mode. I got the harder light I was looking for, and a nice Rembrandt triangle on Suzan’s shadow side of her face. The photo still felt a bit flat to me. I grabbed a Godox 860II from the bag and set it to trigger wirelessly. I handed the speedlight, with no modifier, to Entwistle’s daughter (human light stands are the best) and told her to point it at the back of  her mother’s head and shoulders. It was also set to fire in TTL mode, which  gave me a subtle exposure pop to the face and side of the horse. I also wanted to bring the ambient light down about a stop so I kicked the lights into high-speed sync mode. My final camera settings were ISO 250, f/4 at 1250th of a sec. shutter speed.

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We chased other horses around the corral, but it was this frame that I felt captured the pain, loss and hope I needed to illustrate the story (Read it here.)

Takeaways:

The lighting is not as dramatic as I wanted. I think if I had taken the diffuser off the beauty dish I would have gotten a bit more sparkle in the light.

This photo almost doesn’t look lit to the untrained eye. But look at the horse’s eye and you can see the two light sources.

The one thing I loved about using my Godox speedlights  for this shoot is there were no cords to drag through the corral dust, dirt and manure. I would had liked to have used my new Profoto B2’s, but I changed my mind quickly after seeing where I was going to set up at.

The shoot went pretty smooth, but I kept making pictures until I felt I had a good selection. Just remember, as you edit your take, you are looking for that one frame that says it all–body language, light, color, and moment.