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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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.

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.