On Assignment: 50 Years

When I travel with the family, I try to strike a balance between having enough gear with me to make nice photos and not feeling like a pack mule. I frequently guess wrong on the "how much to bring" question, but it usually comes down to a tight SLR bag (with an off-camera light kit) or a Canon G9.

Earlier this summer, I drove down to Florida with Susan and the kids to visit my parents. I brought along a camera, a coupla small flashes and an idea for a photo I wanted to make for the upcoming 50th anniversary of my parents' first date. It was to be a family photo, but I wanted to approach it just as seriously as if I had gotten the job from a national magazine.

Mom and dad have retired to the shores of Lake Billy Boohoo, just north of the sprawling metropolis of Umatilla, Florida. (Population: Not very many.)

No, I am not making that lake name up, either. Some kid, presumably named Billy, drowned there in the 1950's and the name stuck. The sunset above is typical of the beautiful, subtropical displays they get in the evening.

Note to self: If I ever buy lakefront property in Florida, buy on the east side for the view. I only see sunrises when I am up too late from the night before.

Personally, I could probably go twenty years without getting the idea to build a private "tiki hut." But then, I am not my parents, living on this lake, with some serious time to kill. So that's what they did.

When they told me about it last winter, I knew I wanted to photo them in the hut against a sunset. When I learned that they were coming up on the 50th anniversary of their first date (in the 8th grade) I figured this summer's trip would be a perfect time to shoot them.

If you are a long-time reader of this site, I hope the gears are already turning. Pop some nice flash against that sunset (maybe in an umbrella, warming gel, etc.) and Bob's your uncle. Problem is, Westcott double-fold shoot-thru's do not normally live on beaches. And while the light might look nice, it would not really make sense.

Motivated light is one of the keys to getting believability and logic in your lit photos. Where would the light come from? What would the light look like?

Those are questions you should be asking yourself before you design the light in your photos if you want to hold a visual narrative.

So, I decided not to light for soft, flattering and warm but rather to emulate the light that would likely be in the tiki hut had dad run some electricity out there. (Give him enough time and he probably will, along with a computer terminal to check the weather a few hundred times a day...)

So my light was a single SB-800, sporting a CTO gel and a diffusion dome, mounted in the top of the hut with a Super Clamp.

Presto: One bare tungsten light bulb, albeit much more controllable.

The first test, above, shows where the light is mounted. I decided to just flood them from overhead with some "tungsten" light, and balance the flash with the sunset. A quick pop shows that I can get a clean 5.6 at half power, which is pretty good considering the diffuser and the gel both eat a lot of light.

So that gives me my working aperture. But the sky is too bright at my sync speed to look good at this point.

How do you fix that? You wait. Or you cheat.

This shot was taken at a 500th of a second -- a full stop past the normal top sync speed. Sure, I could go with focal plane high speed sync. But that robs power from the flash, and I needed power.

So, how to sync at a 500th? No problem if you do not need the whole frame to be flashed. My SB-800 was just lighting the bottom part of the frame, so no big whup cheating the sync for this shot.

Since the "black stripe" creeps in from the bottom of my photo, I did turn the camera upside down to cheat this one. If the flash would have needed to light the whole frame, you would have seen that it was dark in the upper half, due to incorrect synching.

So now I waited for the ambient level to come to me. But while I waited, I decided to shoot the final photo at 1/320th of a second, to use that small, "no-synch" bar to seal off the flash from the bottom of my photo. (Camera right-side up for that one.)

It feathered the flash nicely, and kept the bright part from leading your eye out of the frame.

Here is the final shot, after the sunset came down to a level where 1/320th looked good against the correct (flashed) aperture. I love this photo, and will be making a nice print of it soon. (Click the pic to see it bigger.)

And given that you can vary the flash by fiddling with the aperture, and the sky by tweaking the shutter speed, I could have placed either tone anywhere I wanted. In this way, you get much more control through the shooting window than if there had been a real, continuous light bulb up in there.

Mom and dad wanted a shot from the side while I was at it, where you could see their faces better. Who am I to argue, except for the fact that I do not have an umbrella with me to diffuse the light. And besides, it is directly over their heads. Yuck.

My solution was to re-aim the light slightly, and take the diffuser off. I moved it to the front rail, aimed it a little forward and (mostly) balanced it off of the sand for a little over/under light.

It was the best I could do on short notice. But I think it looks kinda cool, considering. A little ham-fisted Photoshop session later and I was even able to clone the edges of the clamp out of the shot. (Couldn't really hide it from the side.)

It's amazing what you can do with one little flash if you wait for the ambient to come to you. Even more so the other small-flash job we did down there, which was to shoot a series of real estate photos of the luxury log cabin next door -- with one SB-800.

NEXT: One-Light Real Estate Photography


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger phatphotographer said...

I would have never thought of using a higher sync speed as an adhoc ND Grad filter. Nice.

August 04, 2008 1:32 AM  
Blogger marco said...

You genius!

August 04, 2008 3:28 AM  
Blogger Roger said...

this guy is good, he might make it someday :P

August 04, 2008 4:02 AM  
Blogger i.n.galbraith said...

i really love narrative photographs....this is a good one..

August 04, 2008 5:06 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

Nice work as always!

A big congrats to your parents!!! 50 years....WOW!


August 04, 2008 9:31 AM  
Blogger Sean "Madman" Sullivan said...

Did you say you shot it upside down? Never would have thought of that.

August 04, 2008 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Ken Lopez said...

"Since the "black stripe" creeps in from the bottom of my photo, I did turn the camera upside down to cheat this one. If the flash would have needed to light the whole frame, you would have seen that it was dark in the upper half, due to incorrect syncing."

Dave, this is PURE GENIUS. A perfect solution for such an exposure. Your the flippin' man, Mr. Hobby; Tidbits like this are why I come running every time you post a new one,


August 04, 2008 10:12 AM  
Blogger Ben Zvan said...

I hate to say "me too!", but it was pure brilliance to turn the disadvantage of slow sync-speed into a creative tool.

August 04, 2008 10:51 AM  
Blogger MK said...


Not only a brilliant way of using the sync "problem" to your advantage, but just a beautiful, touching photograph. Bravo.


August 04, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger Ben Roberts said...

Nice. I've composed so that I could crop the black stripe out before, but flipping the camera is genius.

August 04, 2008 12:32 PM  
Anonymous Chattanooga Wedding Photographer said...

One of the reasons why your blog is so appealing to me is that you are constantly picking apart problems and laying out fascinating solutions to your readers. Keep up the great Work.


August 04, 2008 1:37 PM  
Anonymous TommyR said...


Hi, David Hobby.

Ohhh, that was formal. It feels like I know you, after all I know alot about you. :)

I have something that Im wonder about. Now that you leave the Sun and will start digging for gold some where else. The images you have taken on the Suns "clock", do you have the copyright to them, or are they Boltimore Sun's image?
Please answer me if you have time, or blog about it. Thanks..

Best Regards,
Tommy R (mrtrixter@hotmail.com)

Best of luck digging for gold. ;)

August 04, 2008 2:04 PM  
Anonymous Eric Kotara Photography said...

I can just imagine what would happen if I tried to shoot a frame or two with my camera upside down and a serious look on my face. While it most likely wouldn't be the end of my career, perhaps somewhat of a hiccup if I do it in front of anybody but my parents. Still, a very neat technique. I like how you think these things thru, ever solving problems that would send most of us, well, me, packing.

August 04, 2008 5:04 PM  
Anonymous Skunk said...

Hello all,

I am a bit confused, what is this 'black stripe'? (running a D80 w/ High FP) :(


August 04, 2008 5:13 PM  
Blogger Blake said...

Very clever!!

One thing though - I'm always confused why he doesn't include EXIF on flickr.

August 04, 2008 7:38 PM  
Blogger Matamalos said...

Tío estas loco de verdad... jamas se me ocurriria poner una camara al revez para aprovechar la banda negra

August 04, 2008 8:00 PM  
Blogger Matamalos said...

Tio la verdad que estás loco... jamás se me ocurriria poner una camara alrevez para aprovechar la banda negra del sync

August 04, 2008 8:02 PM  
Blogger MK said...

Hey Skunk,

Essentially what's going on is this. Each camera has a top sync speed. That is, the fastest shutterspeed that the shutter curtain actually opens fully before it closes. Beyond this speed (1/250 sec for many cameras) the first curtain of the shutter does not make it all the way over to the other side before the second curtain begins to close. This is the way we get really fast shutter speeds like 1/500th to 1/3000th! The shutter is never fully open. So if you pop a flash at one of these shutterspeeds the flash will only illuminate part of the film plane/sensor.

Hope that wasn't too convoluted!

August 04, 2008 8:26 PM  
Blogger MK said...

Also skunk,

Using hi FP you get pulses throughout the shutter opening, so you don't see any "black stripe." However you lose much flash strength with this method, so you need to be really close to your subject to get the most out of it. In the above example this wouldn't have worked.

August 04, 2008 8:29 PM  
Anonymous Allen Thomsen said...

Are Radio Poppers gonna make this a bit easier?
Either way, you are an outstanding photographer and these are great photo's of your parents and well...You Rock!!

August 05, 2008 1:25 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hi MK,

Thanks for the reply. That makes sense...I think!

I used a Nikon P5100 point and shoot for a little while. I think it goes to 1/4000 sec even with a flash. Am I correct in assuming I can use any point and shoot plus SU4 mode with no black stripe? I've never encountered it.

August 05, 2008 5:11 PM  
Blogger Danny said...

Can we see the architectural photos too? =)

August 05, 2008 5:55 PM  
Anonymous G. Chai said...

A quick pop shows that I can get a clean 5.6 at half power...

A newbie question: What does that mean? How exactly was f5.6 arrived at?

August 05, 2008 10:19 PM  
Anonymous dave wright said...

why not pack an umbrella?

August 06, 2008 4:50 AM  
Blogger Pixyst said...

Hey Dave,
I see you have moved to the D3, well good for you. I can clearly see the resemblance between you and your Dad. Nice article too.

August 06, 2008 2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

What if you sync your flash on the second curtain? Do you still need to turn your camera up side down ?

In full manual mode, I can’t select a speed faster than the top sync speed while the flash is connected on my Canon :-(
Any tricks to achieve that ?



August 07, 2008 10:10 AM  
Anonymous Paul FOLEY said...

Thanks for your blog - for a guy who's getting too old to cart the boxes of lights as I did in the olden days, the tips and inspiration I find here is changing my photographic life.
Can I indulge your experience with the G9? I have been looking for a good little camera with a decent sensor (for up to 400 iso) that I can carry around for personal use instead of a 1Ds.
Having been disappointed with the files from several other P&Ss I am looking very critically this time.
While it will be for personal use I would still like to think that if I got a good stock image with it that it would provide a saleable A4 raw file (or thereabouts). Am I asking too much?
Best wishes from down here

Paul Foley

August 07, 2008 9:35 PM  
Anonymous Crayon said...

Hi, when you said "A quick pop shows that I can get a clean 5.6 at half power", I'm assuming your kind of metering to get the proper exposure for the area in the hut, but how are you doing this? I'm assuming you're using the pop-up flash as the commander, but what mode (A priority? M?) are you in ? Sorry if this is a newbie question, but I'm still trying to learn about using a speedlight :D

September 05, 2008 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have seen the double page advert in National Geographic Traveler magazine (March 2009) on pages 12-13 ?

The image in the bottle looks almost identical to yours here.


February 24, 2009 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Serge said...

Hi David!
What is "no-synch" bar?
Thank you for sharing details!

Toronto Wedding Photographer

April 29, 2009 2:48 PM  
Blogger mjfstudio said...

One question:
If you use your off-camera flash "pocketwizarded", couldn't you override the max speed sync of your camera and shoot faster avoiding black areas?

October 28, 2010 11:21 AM  
Blogger Sumaia said...

I read the post.its so nice and your idea was also super..you are such a creative photographer...
every picture is so beautiful
thank you

November 26, 2010 1:42 PM  
Blogger Rozo said...

"along with a computer terminal to check the weather a few hundred times a day"

ROFL - that will be me in 20 years time!

September 26, 2011 6:16 AM  
Blogger Toronto Wedding Photographer said...

: I truly loved reading this article. It really makes you stop and think about how you are taking pictures and what you want to get out of it. Times we get so wrapped up with wanting that perfect picture, but realizing that you are not the only photographer who struggles is reassuring. For me my true passion is photography and being able to capture a moment in a way that no one else was able to see, makes it all worth while.

May 22, 2014 4:44 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home