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Lighting 101: Know the Flash.

At the risk of sounding like I have gone off of the deep end, I want to talk about experimentation and, for lack of a better term, "flash anxiety."

Now that we have gone through a lot of technique and gear, it is time to upgrade the most basic piece of equipment: The space between your ears.

Most young photojournalists are guilty of what a tennis player might call "running around his backhand" when it comes to using flash. But in my own case (and, I suspect, in many others') it had to do more with flash anxiety.

The problem is two-fold.

First, flash happens in an extraordinarily brief amount of time. One ten thousandth of a second is typical for a low-power manual shot, or kissing a little light at the subject in TTL mode.

That is a really difficult thing to comprehend, much less visualize, let alone learn to control.

Second, our journalistic forefathers were of the "Tri-X, f/8 and be there" variety. Available light was the only "pure, ethical" choice.

Gregory Heisler, who has long been one of my very favorite lighting photographers, actually jokes that the only way to shoot truly ethically is to stick yourself out in space, shooting back at Earth with a 50mm lens on a very quiet Leica, using Tri-X.

I mean, if you really do not want to influence the situation at all, why not go all of the way?

Our early forefathers (sadly, there were very few foremothers but I am not taking away from their accomplishments) didn't have to worry about how the sodium vapor lights were going to come across in color in the next day's paper, for example.

Times have changed. And so has journalism. But that available light crutch argument works so well at keeping us from learning to light when we are young.

Does that mean it is cool to throw a hot, magenta 1980's gel look on the hair of every environmental portrait subject this week?

Probably not.

But light is a tool. You have to know how to use it and how to make it when you need to. So do not fall for the "putting-yourself-on-the-available-light-pedestal" excuse. You can always choose to use available light when you know how to use flash.

Heck, it is always available.

So drop the excuse and learn your craft.

I am going to say something here that will likely get me more than a little ridicule from some of my co-workers at The Sun. Especially the sports shooters - and we have some good ones.

Here goes.

I used to sit in on my couch, in front of my TV, during pro football games and "shoot" the game with a motor-driven Nikon F2 and a 180mm lens.


You still here? OK.

The reason I did such a doofus-head thing like that was (a) I liked to pretend I was at the game, shooting it (hey - I was very young) and (b) it was the best way I knew to work on the timing of my sports shooting between Friday night prep football assignments.

Goofy? Sure.

Did it help my timing? I really think so.

What did I do if my college roommate walked in on me? Why, I pretended I was checking my camera's shutter speeds, of course...

I told you that to tell you this. There is no substitute for experience, however you can get it. Whatever you need to learn, you need to practice. And if you cannot practice on assignment (for fear you will screw up) the only other way to do it is to experiment.

I have been using light for the better part of 20 years. But within the very past month, I have spent an evening, in my room, playing with a flash and trying a new lighting technique on an inanimate object. (The cat knows to run and hide by now.)

That particular evening, I was playing with the idea of a daylight-balanced flash, with a snoot, in a tungsten-ambient environment. I made several hundred really stupid-looking dismal failures. And three or four images that I really liked.

Which is three or four more than I would have, had not played around.

Digital is great for this.

Try out a new technique. Make some make huge mistakes.

Look at the TFT screen.

Make a few less-huge mistakes as you fine-tune the idea or technique.

Look at the TFT screen.

Start to understand the technique.

Now try the technique, as you now understand it, in a variety of different environments in your house, outside, whatever.

If your significant other asks why you have two lights set up and you are taking a photo of your tennis shoe, just tell her that one of your flashes is, uh, malfunctioning (which is technically is, due to temporary operator incompetence) and you are checking it out.

Ditto on the process of setting up your lights. Get to where you can do it in about a minute or two while you are carrying on a conversation to build rapport with your subject.

The last thing you want to be doing is fumbling sweatily around while you try to set up lights in your limited time frame with a big-shot CEO for a mag cover.

The Army Rangers have a saying when it comes to practice: "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast."

Only by repetitive practice will you be able to quickly set up the light that will give you a much better photo without blowing your one chance of building the good interaction with your subject you'll also need to get the photo.

You get the idea. Keep practicing.

Next: See The Flash


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