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.

 

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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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

Sportrait with three strobes

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I shot this portrait of a local high school football quarterback just after a night practice. I used the school stadium lights in my composition to add some drama.

For lighting, I used a Westcott 3-foot Rapidbox Switch with a Profoto B2 as a key light on camera right. For the edge lights, I used two Profoto OFC 1 x 3 stripboxes with B1 heads camera right and left and slightly behind.

The pose was pretty organic. As Connor took off his helmet, it looked  kind of  iconic in my mind. I just had him hold this pose. I only had a few minutes to work, as the coach said he needed to turn off the lights on the field.  My first frames I shot had the key light straight on to the subject. The light was flat and uninteresting. After I  moved it more to the side, it gave me a pleasing short light pattern on his face. The little Rembrandt triangle under the left eye made all the difference in this portrait.

I had shot a different photo before this one where I needed the ambient of the bleachers to show. In my hurry to get this shot, I forgot to lower my ISO back down.  To cut the flare of the lights, I just raised my shutter speed in high-speed sync mode up until is was tamed.

Settings: Nikon D850, 1/800 sec; F/8; ISO 1000.

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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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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.

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.

 

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.