Balance ambient and strobe for impact lighting

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.


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.


Classroom lighting: From dark to fabulous with two speed lights

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.



Sportrait: A balance of ambient and strobe

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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Using sun, ambient and flash together

At an experimental orchard near Prosser., Wash., WSU researcher Tom Collins and his team are studying “smoke taint” in wine– an unpleasant taste as a result of a grape vine’s exposure to smoke from wildfires. Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW

At an experimental orchard near Prosser, Wash., WSU researcher Tom Collins and I enter a smoke-filled tent. He and his research team are studying the effects that wildfire smoke has on grapes used in making wine. The light was pretty good in the tent where about 80 percent of the direct sunlight was being  filtered out by a black covering. I made some unposed photos as Collins explained how “smoke taint” affects the flavor of wine. The photos were ok, and in my pre-strobe days,  I would have said they were fine. But now, with a SUV full of Profoto gear, I had to make one more photo.

Tom Collins no flashjpgIG

I started by placing a Profoto B-1 strobe with a Magnum reflector about 25-feet behind Collins and  pointed at his back. I wanted  try and backlight the smoke in the tent, which was pretty faint. I set the strobe on group B (so I could independently adjust exposure versus the key light.)

For my key light, I  used a Profoto B2 head with a OCF beauty dish on camera left set to group A. I placed it there because the sunlight was reflecting off of  Collins’ shirt on camera right, which gave it some nice separation from the darker background.

I shot a quick photo in TTL of Collins’ face, then switched to manual on my Profoto Air Remote trigger to lock in the settings. I then bumped up the exposure of the rear light by two stops and the key light by a half of a stop to get to look I wanted.

The strobed photo, compared to the non-strobe photo, was much cleaner and pleasing to look at. This is definitely a magazine-style portrait. Maybe not what readers would expect from a newspaper. I like it, and am glad I took the time to shoot it.

My key take away here is to use the ambient and bright sun to your advantage. Try  to balance all your light sources to get the dramatic look you need.

Settings: Nikon D850 17-35mm Nikon lens; 1/250th of a sec. shutter; f/5 at ISO 125; White balance: 5200 Kelvin


Background light adds depth, drama to portrait of quarterback

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.



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.


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.


Going wireless took some time



My adventure with speedlights–the Nikon variety, was always a mixed bag of hurt. At my newspaper, whenever we received a new updated digital camera model, we would always get a new strobe as part of the package. I had them all: the Nikon SB-24, 26, 28 and 800. The early model SB-24 and SB-26 used with the Nikon D1 and D1h models were inconsistent at best. But we needed them because the low light capability the Nikon’s first mainstream digital pro camera, the D1,  was barely useable over ISO 400.

I would slide my strobe onto the camera hotshoe and leave it there for indoor assignments. I would almost alway try and bounce the light off a ceiling( I hated the look of direct strobe) and call it good.  My on-camera flash photos kind of sucked during this time period. It wasn’t until I received the Nikon SB-800 and with an off-camera TTL cable, that I enjoyed lighting my assignments again.

It was all very basic in that the curly cable was only about 5-feet stretched out. I bought a simple LumaQuest four-inch softbox that was held in place by velcro. It worked like a charm for quick environmental portraits. But being truthful here, I was not too inspired by what I shot. One light off to the side was about what I could do.  After a time, it all started to look the same. I really wasn’t using any fundamentals of lighting. I just let the TTL (through the lens)  metering do the work for me. Still, when I got something good, I’d rejoice that I was at least trying to break out of my natural lighting rut.

Late last year, I was helping put together our yearly photo department captial request. Nikon had just come out with their new SB-5000 strobes that had built-in wireless receivers. A separate transitter would plug into th camera to control the off camera strobes. That intrigued me, I saw the expanded capibility of using more than one speedlight during a shoot. Then I saw the cost and I nearly threw up in my mouth. 600 bucks for the strobe and another $200.00 for the wireless transmitter! Two strobes would set the newspaper back $1600.00. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.

I started to do some reseach and read lots of raves for a Chinese knock-off speedlight from a company called Godox.  The Nikon SB-5000 equivalant was the Godox Ving 860 II. It had all the Nikon features–TTL, high-speed sync and wireless capability, but it cost  only $200.00. The Godox had one notch up on the SB-5000 in that it came with a lithium rechargable battery. The battery makes the flash recycle faster and allows it to shoot for more frames than ordinary alkaline batteries.

I decided to buy a set of Godox 860 II’s with my own money and test them out. Hang with me for my next post and I will delve into what is great and not so great about these speedlights.


Here we go…

If you got here by some miracle of Google search or just stumbled upon this blog, let me introduce myself. My name is Colin Mulvany.  I am a 30-year veteran staff photographer for The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash. It is a job I love and hope to keep until I retire. But I also see the reality facing me as newspaper jobs vanish like Houdini each year. After twelve rounds of buyouts and layoffs in the last 10-years, I know I should be prepared for a Plan B.

One of the great things about working for a newspaper is that there is lots of room for creativity. Each day I go to work, I have a new palette with which to create. Whether it be with documentary still photojournalism, video storytelling or lighting a portrait of a athlete or politician, I draw on a number of tools from my storytelling toolbox. Each day is a learning experience–if I let it be.

Lately, I have been investing my creative energy and money in learning to light with off-camera wireless strobes. I started in March of 2017 with buying  a set of Godox 860 II wireless speedlights and have just now acquired a set of  Profoto B1 strobes with a mix of softboxes, beauty dishes and umbrellas. I love shooting with both, though they work best in different situations.  I will go into more detail into in future posts.

I have been lighting people and places for over thirty-years. I started my career by investing in set of Norman studio strobes and now shoot mostly with my small wireless speedlights. In between, it was a lot of on-camera flash, and at times off-camera with a Nikon strobe connected to the camera with a cable.

Why start this blog? Mostly it is to connect to a community of photographers who are learning lighting, experimenting  with the technology and having some fun along the way. I want this blog to be a conversation, so if you have questions please fire away. I figure if I share what I know, maybe you will too.

My early plans for this blog are to take photos that I have made and break down how I lit them. I will be hard on myself in my self critiques because that is how I learn. I am not claiming to be some expert here. I just want share my experiences, and hope for some of your input along the way.