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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Mascots in a movie theater

This was a fun lighting setup to do for the cover of a college football special section for The Spokesman-Review newspaper I work for. It was a chore for my photo editor to find the perfect time where all three local colleges mascots’ could be available for the photo shoot. Once they arrived at a local movie theater, all three went into mascot mode–where they didn’t speak. It took some patience on my part the get them all to settle down and into the front row seats. Popcorn was all over the place after one mascot started to throw kernels at the rival mascot.

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The projector room light was too high to use, so I placed a Profoto wireless  B1 head with a blue gel at the top row of the seats.  My key light was placed camera left, with a B1 wireless strobe head and a Westcott Switch 3-foot Rapidbox. One more light, a Profoto B2 head and 1 x 3 foot strip light with a soft grid, was placed about four rows back at camera left. This helped add some needed separation light behind the subjects

MASCOTSAfter the shoot, the scene descended into madness as a bucket of popcorn ended up on the head of the one of the Mascots. I  kept shooting and the moment ended up being used in the table of content page.

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 Settings: Nikon D850; Nikon 24-70mm 2.8 lens at f/3.5; 1/160th of a sec. at ISO 400. White balance set to 5200 Kelvin.

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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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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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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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.

Simple OCF brings big rewards

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I had a last-minute assignment to photograph a solar eclipse wedding as an assignment for the newspaper I work at. The couple, from Hong Kong, decided to get married shortly before the moon covered the sun. My go-to lighting kit is three Godox strobes and a 26- inch Westcott Rapidbox beauty dish. As the sun was nearing the point of partial eclipse, the couple’s wedding photographer had them and the party toast the moment. I quickly set up my Godox AD200 strobe with the Rapidbox camera left–about six feet up on a stand with the diffusion cover off. I then quickly set up two Goxdox 860II speed-lights behind the group camera left and right just out of frame. With these, I placed Magmod grids and warming filters on the strobes to add a bit of warmth to the scene. I shot the all the strobes in TTL (through the lens) metering mode with an Godox X1N trigger on-camera. The TTL worked great for the test exposures. The wedding photographer decided to lay on the ground for his shot. After he was finished, I jumped in and shot at a higher view with my Nikon 24-120mm f/4 for the above photograph. The settings were 160th of a Sec., ISO 100 at f/5.

The photo ran on the Associated Press wire and was used in publications all over the world, including Time magazine, CNN and The Guardian.

I am trying to incorporate more off-camera flash into my everyday newspaper assignments. It is such a great training ground for using OFC. I want push my boundaries of my lighting abilities and see what I can come up with.  If you have any question, hit me up in the comments below.