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.

 

Zombie house lighting

Some days at the newspaper I work for, I get what I call the eye-roller assignment–also known as the building mug drive by. Traditionally it is one of those photo assignments that does not take a bunch of brain power or skill to shoot. Just drive by and snap a few frames of the exterior and move on to the next assignment.

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The city has placed five zombie houses in West Central, including this one at 2130 W. Boone Avenue, into receivership with an eye toward turning them into affordable housing. Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW

The story I needed to illustrate here was about five “zombie” abandoned houses in a neighborhood that were being slated to be rehabbed by the city for low-income housing.

When I pulled up in front of this house, I saw a mix of shadow and highlights on the front. I started to wonder what would happen if I tried to light the exterior of the two-story structure in broad daylight? Hmmm…

I pulled out the strongest lights I had with me—two Godox AD200 wireless strobes. These small but powerful strobes put out 200-watt seconds of power–about three times that of a traditional speedlight.

I placed one strobe with no modifier in the front yard next door, camera right pointed toward the center corner of the house. For the second strobe, I needed to put some light in the shadow of the front door, so I hid it behind the weeds in front of the house, camera left.

I went across the street and did some test exposures with my Nikon Z6 paired with a 24-70mm /f2.8 lens. I found by underexposing the ambient light about a stop and a half, it balanced the nice blue sky with the front of the house, which was lit by the sun behind me. I shot the strobes at full 1/1 power. My camera exposure was set at  to f/14; 200th of a second shutter at ISO 125.

As I was shooting, I noticed a flock of birds circling the house.  I started to shoot the birds when a young girl, who lived next door, ran by. Perfect!

I love how the strobe light added a spooky feel to the photo. I had a lot of compliments from readers about the photo. I love being able to take a boring photo assignment and make something engaging for the reader.

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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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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

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.

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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Three strobes and a magenta gel

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My assignment was to shoot Rich Zack, an entomology professor at Washington State University. Arriving at the lab, where 3.1 million insects are stored, I quickly made the decision to use my Godox wireless strobe kit to light the professor. The ambient light was fluorescent and murky–you know, like every entomology lab ever!

I started with positioning the professor between a row of bug storage cabinets. I placed a speedlight 10-feet behind and used a Magsphere on my key light and handheld it. I was not happy with the photo. It just didn’t work to my liking.

While the professor went off to be interviewed for the story, I explored the lab. In the back, I found a better space to work. I quickly surmised that I needed to add some color as the lab was as drab as they come. I placed a Godox AD200 wireless strobe with a magenta gel far in the background on camera left. I didn’t have any other lightstands, so I enlisted the help of the university media flack to hold my key light, with a Westcott 26-inch octabox (with soft grid) attached positioned on camera right. For my third light, I had the reporter aim a rim light (a Godox 860 II with a Maggrid) at his shoulders. I shot a test frame on TTL, then made adjustments to each speedlight’s exposure.

The great feature of these lights is that I can set each on its own group. Then from my on-camera controller, dial in each strobe to my liking.

Nikon D850 1/250 F/4/ ISO 125

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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.