Balance ambient and strobe for impact lighting

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Over the past week, Sarah Edwards, on left, and Ava Barany have created a nature art installation in the form of a rock-path infinity spiral as well as a at large snake sculpture made from the old chucks of concrete found on site. The artwork is located just below the parking lot of Polly Judd Park on Spokane’s South Hill. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

For a story on two women who created a rock-spiral labyrinth, I was faced with a large area to photograph under harsh 1 p.m sunlight. This was going to need a ton of strobe light to overpower the ambient sun. Anticipating this, I had my Profoto B1 wireless strobes with Magnum reflectors ready to go in my car.

I set up the strobes with reflectors attached just outside the rock spiral camera right and set them to full power on manual. But before I shot with the strobes, I set my camera on manual and came up with an exposure of the scene that was about two stops underexposed, but still preserved the highlights on subject from sun shining on them from behind. My ambient exposure setting at this point is F/8, 1/400th of a second shutter at ISO 100.

Now to add the strobe light. I fired off a frame on my Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera and the strobe light was too hot. From my on-camera Profoto Air Remote trigger, I adjusted the strobe power down until I had the perfect balance of ambient and strobe.

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Without adding off-camera strobe light in this shot, the contrast of the harsh sun from behind the subjects and shadows on their faces would be too great. If I expose for the shadows, the highlights would blow out. Expose for the highlights and the faces would go dark. Adding off-camera strobe light balanced out the harsh, high contrast ambient light, giving the shot a warmer, pleasing dramatic look. Look closely too at the pleasing side-lit light pattern on the subject faces. That would have never happened if with out the off-camera strobes.

 

Sportrait: A balance of ambient and strobe

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Troy Johnston, has been Gonzaga’s most consistent hitter this season, batting .327 with nine homers and 44 RBI. Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW

For this Sportrait, I only had a few minutes to figure out a location in the Gonzaga University baseball stadium and set up my lighting. Seeing the stairs leading up the the sky, I figured I could make it work. The stairs were mostly in shadow, which is a good starting point for adding strobe. When shooting a portrait in bright sunlight, I always look for a shadowy spot to add my own light. It makes it easier to balance the strobe light with the ambient.

For the lighting set up, I placed a Profoto B1 wireless strobe paired with a Westcott 36-inch Octabox on camera left. Knowing the big octa would give me nice soft light, I added a kicker light aimed at Troy’s shoulders from above, which added some contrast and gave Troy some separation from the stairs. Sunlight from behind also added dimension by highlighting the edges of the steps.

When Troy arrived fresh from baseball practice, I was ready for him. We played around with different poses and settled on this one with the bat over his shoulders.

I set the strobes on TTL and true to Profoto’s  good name, nailed the key light exposure with just a minor adjustment to the Air Remote’s exposure control on top of my camera. I bumped up the kicker light one stop to give more exposure on the back edge of the subject’s black shirt.

Key concepts: I needed to hold detail in the sky. If I had shot this without strobe, I would have exposed for the subject in the shadow, which would have washed out the sky. By adding strobe light, I balanced the ambient light with the strobe, which gave the photo much more dynamic range.

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Overpowering the sun with one light

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I was waiting for a group of cyclists to start their SpokeFest ride on Sunday. The sunlight was  high in the sky and  pretty harsh. I decided to grab my Profoto B1 with Magnum reflector out of my car and set it up on the sidewalk on camera left. I was not sure what the effect would be.

The Profoto Magnum reflector added about two stops of light, which is perfect for over powering the bright sunlight. I dialed down the ambient exposure by a stop and a half and set the B1 on manual and at full power. After a few test shots in high-speed sync (1/1250 of second), I just blasted away as the riders came forward. I tried to pace my shutter clicks to the 2-second recycle time of the strobe.

When I downloaded the files, I was surprised at how great the color was. The light was subtle, with the faces of the riders nicely side lit. The sky, which would have been washed out without the strobe, was blue and saturated. A much better look than if I had just shot it with natural  light.

Takeaways: I like to use strobes in situations other than just portraits. Wireless strobes make it easy to put lights in places where cords would just get in the way.

Settings: Nikon D5 70-200 2.8 (at 125mm) f/14; ISO 80 at 1/1250 a second shutter

Create your own golden hour

The wonderful thing about off-camera flash is that you do not have to be a slave to the ambient light. Photographers that shoot only available light portraits have limited options when it comes to the time of day where the light is perfect. Golden hour, when the sun is low and warm, is fleeting and if there are clouds, well, forget about it.

Open shade is the other go-to for available light photographers. The light is super soft– to the point of being flat and uninteresting. Sometimes I wonder if that is why so many photographers are relying on Lightroom plug-ins to make their portraits more visually interesting.

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In this photo of Elaine, age 10, I wanted to shoot a simple location portrait that captured the spirit of who she is today.  Elaine and her family met me in a local park and after a few group family portraits, I repositioned my main light, a Westcott Rapidbox 3-foot octabox. By moving it in close, just out of frame, camera left, gave me some beautiful soft (but not flat) light to work with.

The early evening ambient light was pretty flat. The air was filled with smoke from local wildfires. To create a golden hour look,  I put a second strobe with a Profoto Magnum reflector and full CTO filter (color temp. orange) behind Elaine on camera right. Actually, I had her dad hold the Profoto B1 strobe on a light stand high and aimed down on the back of her head. The warm light brought out the texture and red in her hair. The background was grass and cattail reeds, which at /f2.8 on my 80-200mm lens (at 200mm) made for some nice creamy bokeh.

Settings: Nikon D5; Nikon70-200 2.8 lens at /4.5; ISO 125 at 1/400 sec. shutter speed in high-speed sync

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Weeping willows with three lights

My assignment for the newspaper was to photograph Whitworth University’s Haley Goranson Jacob, an assistant professor of theology, who has been named “one of 10 female theologians to know” by Christianity Today magazine.

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Whitworth University’s Haley Goranson Jacob, an assistant professor of theology, has been named “one of 10 female theologians to know” by Christianity Today magazine. Jacob earned a doctorate in divinity at the University of St. Andrews and joined the Whitworth faculty in 2015. Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW

As I arrived at her house, I had to make my way through a gauntlet of weeping willow branches that lined Goranson’s walkway. I new right then that this would be my portrait location. I set up three lights. My key light was camera left. I used a Profoto B1 with a 2-foot beauty dish. I could only raise it so high because of the limbs. For the background, I wanted the leaves to sparkle with highlights. I placed a B1 head with a color temperature orange gel about ten feet behind Goranson and aimed it at the back of her head. Just for kicks, I place one more strobe a Profoto B2  behind the foliage camera right. I’m not sure if it did much though. I set my manual ambient exposure so that is was about three stops under by using high-speed sync at 1/640th of a second.

Next, I fired off a tight shot of Goranson’s face in TTL and then locked the exposure in by switching to manual on my Profoto Air Remote installed on the hot shoe of my camera. The key light was set to Group A, and the rear lights were set to Group B. I brought the exposure of the rear light up about a stop, which gave me the highlights in the leaves I was looking for.

Settings: Nikon D850 with a 24-70mm 2.8 lens at f/4; 1/640th Sec. at ISO 80

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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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Four soft lights and a flute

This is a portrait of my musician brother who wanted something he could use on social media. I set up my Profoto B1 and B2 wireless strobes in my neighbor’s backyard because they have a nice red fence I like to use as a background.

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For this portrait, I wanted to try and surround Burke with soft, pleasing light. The rule I have learned is this:  The closer my light is the subject the softer it will be. The same goes for the light modifier. The larger the modifier in relation to the subject, the softer the light will be.

I started with my key light, a Profoto 2 x 3 OCF softbox on a Profoto B1 monolight on camera right. For a fill light, camera left, I used a 1 x3 foot stripbox with grid to soften the shadows. Just for fun, I used my 2-foot beauty dish (gridded) as a kicker light behind camera left and another stripbox camera right, aimed at the fence in the background.

I put my camera on manual and set my ambient exposure to about a stop under exposed. I set my Profoto Air Remote to TTL mode and took a tight shot of Burke’s face to get a correct flash exposure. I then switched to manual mode on the Air Remote (it locks in the TTL settings) and made exposure adjustments to each light.

Here is the great thing about wireless strobes. I can set each strobe on its own group setting. From the Air Remote, I  can then select a group–in this case my key light was group A– and make an exposure adjustment for just that strobe.

Once I got each light (group) dialed in, I shot with my Nikon D850 and 85mm Nikon /1.4 lens set to f/4; ISO 100 at 1/250 of a second shutter. White balance was set to daylight.

The cool thing here is that you don’t need all this expense Profoto gear to make a portrait like this. A cheap set of wireless speedlights, a controller, and some inexpensive umbrellas would have worked just a well.

Background light adds depth, drama to portrait of quarterback

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University of Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan poses for a portrait in the Kibbie Dome, Aug 23, 2017. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

As part of our annual football preview special section, I was assigned to shoot portraits of  local quarterbacks. I brought out my big guns for the shoot, two Profoto wireless B1s and a B2 location kit to light my subjects on their school’s football fields. At the University of Idaho Kibbie Dome, I faced a different lighting challenge in that I was shooting inside a medium-sized domed stadium. The other portraits I had been taking were all shot outside at dusk. Now I had stadium TV lights filling the space with bright tungsten (warm color) ambient.

Arriving a half hour before the shoot, my assistant Liz helped me set up my lights. In the far end zone I noticed a large Vandals team logo on the wall. During my test shoot using Liz as a stand in,  I found the wall went dark and muddy.

One of the great features of Profoto wireless strobes is that you can put them anywhere– up to 800-1000 feet away and trigger them right from your camera.

profoto_100793_ocf_magnum_reflector_1335545I placed a B1 with a magnum reflector at about the 15-yard line and pointed it at the wall logo. After shooting a frame using TTL on my Air Remote trigger, I switched to manual setting and balanced my key and edge lights to be about a stop higher than the background. I found the white wall with black letters needed some color, so I added a 1/2 CTO gel (color temperature orange) to the magnum background light.  This was an important step in that I was able to use this yellow light to make a better picture a few minutes later.

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In next shot, I had Liz bring the background yellow-gelled light just so the reflector peaked into frame from camera left. When fired, it created a warm streak of light that looked like the setting sun. It added something special into the photo that I wasn’t expecting. I kept the other lights the same. A two-foot octabox as my key light and two edge lights (the Profoto B2’s ) to add of kick.

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Things I learned:

Again, give yourself time to set up and test your lighting so when your subject arrives you are ready to go.

Don’t be afraid to experiment as you are setting up. This was the first time I had used the   Magnum reflector and I’m glad I put it to use. Gel are also a great way to give your portraits a fresh look. Think out what colors work best with your subject. I chose a yellow color because it worked with the black and gold of the Vandal’s team colors.

Balancing the background light in TTL didn’t give me the look I needed. It wanted to balance all the strobes the same, making the background too light. By switching to manual on the air remote it allowed me to dial in the exposure to my liking.

 

Location lighting breakdown: Using four lights

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Whitworth quarterback Ian Kolste. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

Sometimes simple lighting with one light source is best, but not in this case. I had just bought a Profoto B2 location strobe kit to go with my Profoto B1s. My assignment for my newspaper was to produce strobe-lit portraits of four different quarterbacks from around the region. I wanted to push my lighting skills and really work at shaping the light using a mix of hard and soft sources. Adding the Profoto B2’s gave me a chance to use four strobes on my subject.

I really like to use edge lighting with my 1 x 3 strip softboxes for sports portraits. When you look at the photo above you will see how the strip lights  help separate Ian from the background, These are the lights I start with first, as they can be tricky to find the best angle to edge the subject. I did a few tests flashes to get them placed, then moved on to my background light, which I placed about five-feet behind with a small reflector and a warming gel. This gave me a nice rim light on his head.

For my key light, I placed my strobe camera right, parallel to Ian’s face. At first, I had a two-foot octabox on the B1 head, but I felt I needed a harder light on his face. Using the bare bulb of the B1 head gave me the hard light I was looking for.

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I started shooting my first shots with my on-camera Profoto Air Remote set to TTL, then switched to manual to lock in the settings. I used three groups of light settings. “A” group was my strip boxes, “B” group was my rear light and “C” was my key light. I adjusted each group’s exposure to dial in the look I wanted and then fired away. My settings were 250th of the sec., f/4 at ISO 100.

I really liked how the Profoto B1s and B2s worked together flawlessly.

Some takeaways and tips:

  • Arrive early, set up and test your lights before the subject shows up. I was lucky in that my boss came with me to help assist. Having her be a stand in made the final shoot go quickly without a lot of trouble shooting.
  • Soft grids on the strip lights are really helpful in focusing the light where you want it, but also they prevent flare from hitting your lens.
  • Be willing to experiment and try something different. I started out with more of a ridged pose, but then had Ian go through the motions of throwing the ball. That motion really helped bring the photo to life.