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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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.

Lighting breakdown: Light the face, shoot the mirror

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Jackie Pederson holds a photo of her son Jason who was shot and killed in a downtown Spokane Alley recently. Jason was 37 when he died. Growing up, he was a pretty clean-cut kid. He was an Eagle Scout, and his dad was his troop leader. When Jason was in his early 20s, his dad died, and Jason was the one who came home and found him. It really affected him, and he struggled with depression and alcoholism off and on throughout his adult life. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

When I arrived a Jackie Pederson’s home, it had only been a few days since she found out her son Jason had been shot and killed in a downtown Spokane Alleyway. My photo assignment just said get a photograph of Pederson. I’ve been to a dozen or more of these types of photo situations in my career. Someone has died and the only (and easiest) way is to have the loved one hold a picture of the deceased.

Before I started to incorporate wireless strobes into my photojournalistic work, I would have just used the window light and called it good. Now with speedlights I have far more visual options.

I walked around Pederson’s kitchen and living room, but struggled to find a clean background in a house filled with knickknacks and wall ornaments gathered over a lifetime.

I glanced in the large living room mirror and solved my lighting dilemma. I positioned Pederson looking into the mirror. A minor problem of her not being tall enough was solved with a kitchen stepladder. Now I have to figure out the best way to light her and the room. I want to shape and focus my key light just on her, so I chose my Westcott Rapid Box  12 X 36” Strip. with a soft grid and a Godox 860II speedlight. I fire off a few test frames and like what I see, but I think the background needs some color.

I place another Godox 860II wireless speedlight in the back corner of the room and attach a Magmod blue gel to the strobe. I aim it up and toward the back wall. I felt the blue light would reflect the sadness of the situation.

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To be clear here, I am staying very connected to my vulnerable subject. I do not want to push to hard, considering what had happened to her son. I work quickly on the set up.  I start to shoot into the mirror and the TTL flash exposure of the main light is right on. The background speedlight is a bit bright though.

One thing I have learned using gels is that if you underexpose them a stop or so, you get more color saturation. On my Godox X1n hot shoe-mounted wireless trigger, I dial down the background flash one stop and shoot away. I played around with my composition , tightening it as I shot.

A few minutes later I was packed up and headed to my next assignment. Total time from arrival to completion was 32 minutes.

Location lighting breakdown: In search of Bigfoot

 

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Cliff Barackman, a Bigfoot field researcher and co-host of Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot” TV series, has been searching for the elusive Sasquatch for 23-years. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

Our directions were a bit fuzzy, just a point on a Google map next to a forest logging road in the Blue Mountains of Washington state. Spokesman-Review Reporter Abby Lynes and I were getting nervous as the sun inched toward the horizon and, well, we were in Bigfoot country. Read her story here.

We had come the the Blue mountains in search of Bigfoot, or rather Cliff Barackman, a Bigfoot researcher and co-host of Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot” TV series. 

Turning a corner, there he was sitting in a lawn chair next of his Jeep Wrangler waiting for us. Our plan was to camp with Barackman and then go out at night to see if we could get a Bigfoot to respond to Barackman’s Sasquatch call.

SRX_BIGFOOT_2_OFCI realized that my golden light moment was fading, and I quickly grabbed my Godox location light kit and went to work. I noticed the sunset peaking through the forest trees. I had Barackman stand on a stump as  I placed my lights. My key light is a Godox AD200 placed camera right. I used a 28-inch Westcott Rapidbox beauty dish with soft grid as my modifier. Next, I quickly placed a second strobe, a Godox 860II, behind him camera left. I put a Magod grid with a CTO (color temperature orange) gel to mimic the evening sunlight and to add a bit of edge light.

Now the pressure was on. We drove a mile down the road to our campsite. It had an open view of the sun setting.

One of the themes I continuously face with location lighting is time constraints. “You only have ten minutes,” is what I usually get from coaches, executives, or in this case the sun.

I positioned Barackman with the sun to his back. I used just one light this time, a Godox AD200 with a beauty dish covered with a soft grid. The lighting challenge here is one where TTL (through the lens metering) and high-speed sync (HHS) of the strobe works great. In order for me to get the rich light of the sun, I had to under expose my ambient light. With the strobes lowkeytut-4HSS I was able to go above my camera’s limited sync speed of 250th and raise it to 1600th of a second. My camera monitor showed me  a properly exposed background, but Cliff was a silhouette.  I now add the strobe light. The great thing about the wireless Godox strobes is that I can adjust the output right from my camera’s hot-shoe mounted trigger. The TTL read the light pretty good, but Cliff was a bit under exposed. I bumped the strobe one stop and got the perfect exposure I was looking for just as the sun went below the horizon.

Time to setup camp

That night, Barackman took us out on a midnight stroll along dark logging roads. When I say dark, I mean only moonlight. You see, flashlights and camera strobes are not one of Bigfoot’s favorite things. We spent a few hours calling Sasquatch, but unfortunately no replies. Also no decent photos. No worries! When we got back to camp, I asked Cliff to pose in the forest with is thermal images viewer.

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This time I used two Godox strobes– front, camera left with a Magmod grid and a warming gel, and a speedlight with a blue gel placed about ten feet behind Cliff. The warm and cool gels created the atmosphere I was looking for. I was hoping to catch the reflection a Bigfoot’s eyes in my photo, but I’m sure the gentle giant was somewhere far, far away.

Speedlights shine with new features

In the past few years, a big shift in the functionality of speedlights and strobes have taken place. Photographers who wanted to use wireless with their portable strobes had to cobble together external transmitters/receivers like Pocket Wizards to trigger their off-camera flashes.

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The big change came when Chinese manufactures like Godox and Yongnuo reverse engineered the TTL metering systems of Nikon and Canon speedlights. They added built-in wireless receivers, making the need for Pocket Wizards moot. Rapid development schedules proceeded to out-spec and undercut the price of the big camera manufacturers strobes by half or more. High-end strobe companies like Profoto jumped in too with their innovative wireless  AirTTL B1 and B2 systems

So why does is this matter?

Lately, the cost of entry into a wireless off-camera systems has fallen through the floor. When I was researching flash systems, I  was shocked at the price of the new Nikon SB5000 wireless speed light. At $600.00, plus the camera trigger for $200.00 more, the price just didn’t seem like a great value to me.

Instead,  I took a chance and ordered two Godox 860IIN speedlights for $200.00 apiece. The quality-built hot shoe trigger cost only $49.00! So for cost of one Nikon SB5000, I got two Godox TTL wireless speedlights and a trigger. Later, I added a slightly larger, but more powerful 200 watt-second Godox AD200 ($299.00) to my kit.

So what am I missing by not going with the Nikon? Not much as far as I can tell. The build quality is of the Godox is excellent. The Godox strobes also come with rechargable lithium ion batteries, which are a huge cost-saving. They last forever, and the recycle time is faster than the alkaline batteries the Nikon SB5000 uses.

Before I bought the Godox speedlights, the best I could do is use a long TTL cord tethered from my camera to the flash. Now I can quickly set up multiple speedlights and dial in the exposure of each right from the display on the hot shoe trigger.

The most powerful feature for me is the inclusion of high-speed sync. HSS allows me to shoot above my camera’s sync speed of 250th of a second. Depending on the lighting situations, I can shoot up to 8000th of sec.–turning ambient daylight into night. This feature also opens up creative possibilities, allowing photographers to use wider apertures with flash in their photos.

I have been using my Godox system trouble free for five-months now and have no regrets at not spending twice the money on a Nikon system.