Last week I was helping out at DINFOS, (Defense Information School) where they were holding the Worldwide Military Photography Workshop. Joe McNally has been involved in it for quite a while. (I am a fnugy, with this being only my second year.)

I'll defer to his description of the event and it various characters. He also posted several shots from the week and a rogues' gallery of many of the teachers, so I won't dupe that.

What I'll be doing over the next coupla weeks is to throw up a few photos, with OA-style walk-throughs, lighting diagrams and/or setup shots. Mine are all pretty simple setups, using just one or two speedlights.

Joe, of course, did most of his with 472 Nikon SB-800s, running his SU-800 CLS controller through one of the signal amplifiers at the nearby NSA (also known as "No Such Agency") for a little boost. That guy has some serious contacts.

This week's picture and walk-through, after the jump.

The first photo is from a day in which we went out into the woods with some of the folks from Combat Camera , who graciously agreed were ordered to show up in full gear.

Hanging out in the woods near the firing range and obstacle course were the members of this year's Advanced Lighting Team. Being on the ALT means you spend a week learning about small-flash, location lighting from industry leaders like Joe McNally, and posers like me. Week-long class size: Six people.

It's really a fantastic deal, all the more so when you realize there is no tuition involved. On behalf of Ray, Bobby, Matt, Larry, Trav and Luke, I would like to offer a hearty "thank you" to those readers who are also US taxpayers from the 2008 ALT. (That's them lighting themselves at the top of the post, in a hastily produced group shot in the hallway outside of our classroom.)

As everybody was unpacking gear and talking about how to best handle the ugly, splotchy, midday sun-through-woods light we had, I threw a couple of SB-800s onto stands. I set them on 1/4 power and turned on their built-in slaves, which is a pretty standard preset for me when working against bright sunlight.

Within a few minutes, the Combat Camera folks were getting their camo paint applied, and most of us were making photos of that. Basically, think Strobist meetup, with Joe and I joining in, and a bunch of cool subjects in the woods.

Most of the ALT members worked mobile, using a single, hand-held SB-800 in CLS wireless TTL mode. So I just stuck my stands behind them, and eyeballed the subjects from the flash positions. That shows me what the flashes will see -- and light. I wanted profile lighting from front and back, but a little behind the subjects to make interesting shadows. in the foreground.

So, here's a diagram of the setup. In direct mode at ASA 200, my SB's are gonna give me plenty of aperture to work with at a ~6-foot light-to-subject range. You can expect about f/16, depending on the zoom setting of the flash. If you are not familiar with what your flashes will do in a situation like this, you may want to look at the posts on guide number and/or making a cheat sheet.

So, the light coming through the trees is of the ugly, early afternoon variety. But that's good, as it will be at a high enough angle to not screw me up when I am lighting their faces. To help matters more, I shoot from the direction that will keep the sunlight in a high-backlight mode. If it pops out, it's just another rim light to me. If not, that's fine, too.

For sync, I am going straight optical and manual -- using the SB's built-in slaves. I point the receiver windows of the flashes toward each other, and point a show-mount flash (low, manual power) towards whichever flash is closest. The other flash will see it and fire every time, easy.

As far as camera settings, the actual aperture and shutter settings are variable in a situation like this, depending on the ambient and the flash distance. And to be honest, I neither remember them now, nor considered them very important then. More important is the thought process -- it is more repeatable for a wider variety of situations.

Let's say for the sake of argument that the flash is giving me f/16 at that distance. That's a constant at ISO 200. If I need more, I will need to power up the flash, or move it forward towards the subject. And vice versa if I need less. I like being at 1/4 power, as it give me nice, fast recycles and the ability to double-tap. (See? That military stuff is wearing off on me already.)

So, at f/16, I am going to have an easy time with my shutter in open shade. Good thing, because that is the next step. I plug f/16 into my camera and chimp a couple frames until I find a nice, slightly underexposed ambient level. Maybe a stop down, maybe a little more. The shadows are way below that, which gives me good dark areas to light against. For the sake of argument that we are now at 1/160th of a sec.

The shutter speed and aperture are not what is important. The amount that we are underexposing the ambient is what is important, as that is what will determine the depth of the shadows. I used the back, camera right strobe (not visible on my foreground subject) to make sure I could separate any subject from my ambient background on both sides. This allows me to drop those shadows further if I want.

In-Camera Tweaking

Now that we have the settings in the ballpark, start shooting. Take a frame or two and quickly chimp for any final adjustments.

• Flash too bright or dark? Vary the aperture to fix it. Then adjust the shutter in the opposite direction to bring the background back to where you were.

• Background too bright or dark? Adjust that with the shutter speed.

• Entire photo too bright or dark? Adjust it all at once with the aperture.

This might sound a little daunting if you have not tried it. But trust me, it is quick and easy once you have a little experience. And most of you can probably run through you aperture and shutter settings without taking your eye off the viewfinder. Not so, those CLS buttons. For me, at least.

BTW, for those of you who are into TTL/CLS, Joe just posted a new training video at Kelby Training. It is quite good (I actually watched it twice) and more on the advanced side than the first two classes he put up. And make sure you catch his post on the DINFOS stuff, to see what was done in the woods with five Combat Camera subjects, a mess of SB's and only ten minutes to do the photo.

Next up from DINFOS will l be going mobile -- shooting flash blur on the run (okay, fast walk) using a moving VAL.

Related Reading:

:: McNally's Post ::
:: SB-800 - Built-In Slave mode ::
:: 55th Combat Camera Company ::
:: Guide Number, Your Free Flashmeter ::
:: Make a Cheat Sheet for your Flash ::
:: Kelby Training: Joe McNally ::


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Anonymous Elliott - 21st Century Dad said...

For in-camera tweaking, I like to set my camera to ride the ISO within 2-3 stops. That gives me the ability to adjust the exposure a couple stops in either direction without affecting any depth-of-field decisions I have made. Since we are using light and our brains, we don't get as much of a noise penalty when shooting higher ISOs. (you taught me that).

June 09, 2008 2:21 PM  
Blogger Dave Prelosky said...

David, you're pulling our collective leg.
Everyone knows that any assignment on Earth - short of lighting the Hoover Dam - can be gone with no more than 335 SB800's

June 09, 2008 2:26 PM  
Anonymous mike kang said...

I was just curious. Was there a specific reason you went with the optical slaves in this instance over your PWs? Was it just easier to set up this way? (I watched your DVD and understand about the "lazy" thing -- I'm that way too.)

Sorry if this was answered previously, I haven't had a chance to read all your posts yet (although, I do mean to).

June 09, 2008 2:50 PM  
Blogger David said...


Not lazy -- and I have nothing against lazy -- so much as quick and dirty. I also wanted to have it to where the flashes could easily be fired by other people if they wanted.

June 09, 2008 3:00 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

Wow, my wife and I both attended DINFOS some years ago and spent a combined 15 years shooting in the Marines and Navy. I never once heard about this workshop or anything like it! I'm very glad that you and Joe and others took the time to do this...

June 09, 2008 3:17 PM  
Blogger Marshall said...

"...using a single, hand-held BS-800 in CLS wireless TTL mode..."

Now that's an amusing typo. :)

June 09, 2008 4:14 PM  
Blogger David said...

Oops! (Thanks -- fixed)

June 09, 2008 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Richard Cave LBPPA said...

In a combat camera team you have to shoot reportage style due to elements of the job. Some people forget that we are photographers. We enjoy playing with light and courses like this give a new vitality and zest to our jobs.

I have now been given permission to let you guys know that I am a Combat shooter. I really enjoyed reading this post. People like David and Joe give a kudos to our profession, most soldiers assume we are just clerks with cameras.

I am now lobbying my boss to see if I could attend next years as a foreign student.

As for Joe and his collection of SB800s, I think he is in danger of giving the eastern seaboard a permanent tan.

Cheers DH and JMc for a outstanding post


British Army

June 09, 2008 5:47 PM  
Blogger PFC Northcutt said...

Seems like you had fun! I just left DINFOS on June 2nd. It was a great t=site to see in my rear view mirror.

I am in the Army Reserves as a Broadcast Journalist and was there for three months. Prior to that I was a photographer!

Anyways...thanks for the post and the great information.

June 09, 2008 5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a DINFOS graduate from the past, and spent several years as a USAF PAO. I also ran the AF lithograph program for 5 years, working with some of the superstars of DoD photography. One guy was head and shoulders above all... and I'm wondering if Ken Hackman is still around and if he was at this workshop.

L Lancaster

June 09, 2008 6:12 PM  
Blogger David said...

@ Anonymous @6:12 -

Ken Hackman? He's only running the joint...

June 09, 2008 7:11 PM  
Anonymous Cameron Frye said...


After seeing shots of Joe in the desert, I'm not sure if "472 SB-800s" is meant to be sarcastic. I wouldn't put it past him. :)

June 09, 2008 8:32 PM  
Anonymous Bob M said...

new here I am ... and for my sake
not a moment too soon. Great insights all around ...
For my own point of reference ...
I need to know just a little bit more though... I would greatly appreciate knowing what camera and lense selection for some of these key shots ... her eye is so sharp for all of the rushing ...


June 09, 2008 9:52 PM  
Blogger David said...

D300, Tamron 17-50/2.8.

June 09, 2008 9:59 PM  
Anonymous funkifoto said...

cool lighting

June 10, 2008 5:32 AM  
Blogger Lee Hammond Photography said...

Finally something useful [and relatively peaceful] is being done with my tax dollars?

June 10, 2008 7:53 AM  
Blogger Michael Sink Photography said...

a very sincere thank-you, from a long time reader of this site. Your willingness to share your knowledge seems to be infectious as now there are a pretty big handful of folks sharing techniques tips, failures, DIY, videos, etc. Right now I'm more of a big strobe kinda guy, but I'm putting together all of the small parts to got stobist-style (lightweight) soon. Being so open and (seemingly) an all-around good guy is heartwarming to see in this day and age.

Thanks again!

Michael Sink

June 10, 2008 11:53 AM  
Anonymous Paul Harrison said...

Hi David, love the site, thanks to you I now understand flash!! Thanks for that
Thought you might like to see how speedlights are made..Inside footage of the process.
link here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laKnPbR6XgI&feature=related


Paul Harrison

June 10, 2008 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Ryan Merrill said...

This is just the kind of post I've been waiting for. Shooting outside in bright sunlight is one of the things I have the most trouble with due to the 1/250th sync speed... Looking forward to more like this.

June 10, 2008 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always wanted to be in the COMCAM but they say its the hardest job to get. AND since not one recruiter is man enough to put it into writing as a guaranteed job when enlisting, there is no way I will join. Nice to see some great work DH

June 11, 2008 6:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi David,

This is probably going to be a 'doh' moment for me, but i was confused by something you put in this post under the 'in camera tweaking' section:

Flash too bright or dark? Vary the aperture to fix it. Then adjust the shutter in the opposite direction to bring the background back to where you were.

I don't understand how you can single out the flash brightness issue by doing that? If you vary the aperture (i assume making it larger if the flash is too dark) and then you adjust the shutter to bring the background to the same level as before (i assume by having a faster shutter speed to compensate for larger aperture), don't you land up with the exact same exposure, and therefore the exact same amount of flash?

Apart from depth of field, i was wondering what difference it makes please?

Thanks for an (as always) informative website - not often you find this kind of stuff for free!

June 11, 2008 11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great! I wish they did the same when I went through DINFOS. There is a lot a photographer who goes through DINFOS does not learn.

June 13, 2008 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Sasa Pahic Szabo said...

so how would one amplify the ir signal of the su-800 , any ideas ?

i asume with a bit of electronic diy it could be done even without the NSA

June 20, 2008 11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fnugy? FNG?

June 21, 2008 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>If you vary the aperture ... then adjust the shutter to bring the background to the same level as before ... don't you land up with the exact same exposure, and therefore the exact same amount of flash? Apart from depth of field, i was wondering what difference it makes please?

Because the burst of flash is less that 1/10,000th of a second, changing your shutter speed (within reason) will NOT affect the amount of flash-light that falls on your camera's sensor; only the ambient will be affected. The only way to control the amount of flash-light that falls on your sensor is by a) changing flash output or b) changing aperture. (Of course, changing ISO changes the result, but not by changing the amount of light falling on the sensor).

-to affect all light (flash+ambient), change aperture.
-to only affect ambient, change shutter speed.
-to only affect flash, change aperture one way and shutterspeed in the opposite direction. (..ummm.. or walk over to your flash(es) and dial up/down the flash output, especially if you need to keep your depth-of-field fixed)

June 24, 2008 3:54 AM  

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