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See the Flash

As we said earlier, the incredibly brief burst of light from a strobe can be very difficult to visualize. Sure, you can see it. But what I mean is that it is hard to understand the way it is going to look when you are first learning to light.

At least it was for me.

I had this instructor in the photojournalism program at the University of Florida, (former Miami Herald photographer John Walther) who would tell me to just pop the flash and look at the effect on the subject/wall/whatever.

I can still hear him.

"Did you see that, Dave?" He would say. "That looks like about 5.6 at 400 to me..."

Uh-huh. Sure it does, Mr. Walther. If you say so.

I was never completely sure when the guy was kidding or serious. He was a legend as far as black and white technical quality was concerned. I swear, the guy could look at a tray of crystal clear fixer and tell you how many more good prints it had left in it.

I'll never really know if he was pulling my leg. But the guy sure could light.

And he got me thinking, which might have been what he was trying to do in the first place.

Rewinding a little, I had a couple of heaters Lowel Tota-Lights (quartz lights) at the time. And I could use those just fine, because I could see the effect right there. But flash? No way.

Then one day, it occurs to me that I could previsualize what the quartz lights were gonna give me before I turned them on. Why? Because I had seen the effect so many times.

This is really nuts, if you think about it. I could previsualize the quartz lights before I had even turned them on, but I could not previsualize my flashes? (C'mon, Dave.)

Anyone knows what effect a flashlight will have when we turn it on. But a flash? Try to previsualize that and we suddenly turn dumb as a sack of nails.

Which is when it hit me. If I just imagined my little Vivitar (at the time) as a very powerful continuous light, I could previsualize what the effect of the light would be.

This was an epiphany for a dumb, green college shooter. And it worked. I could not judge the quantity of the light. That was what meters were for, before TFT sceens. But I could now prejudge the quality of the light. To some extent, I have been doing that ever since.

My mind applies a convenient little automatic dimmer to my mental Nikon Speed Light/Continuous Light. I'll take care of the exposure in a minute anyway. What is important to see is what the light is going to do, not how bright it will be.

Try it. Start out with hard light at first, because it is easier to visualize the effect. Then learn to think how restricted-beam (snooted) light will act. Then soft light.

Bouncing flash against a wall? Imagine a window right there. You'd be surprised how you brain will start to register how the light will look.

And getting back to Mr. Walther, I think he was onto something.

When you choose the zoom/lens coverage setting on your flash, for instance, it will affect the size your light source. (The light source is now the bounce surface.) Pop the flash while looking at the wall. Sure, it only happens in a 10,000th of a sec, but you can see it because it burns a momentary image into the rods and cones in your eye.

Where does the light hit? How big is it?

What would the light from a window that size and location look like on your subject?

Starting to get the idea?


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